UW News

May 31, 2023

UW researcher discusses the buzz behind ‘Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’

UW News

A screenshot of the Zelda protagonist flying on a ship shaped like a bird. You can see mountaintops and clouds below.

UW News sat down with Michele Newman, a University of Washington doctoral student in the Information School, to learn more about fans’ dedication to “Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.” Shown here is a screenshot from the game, courtesy of Newman.

Fans of the “Legend of Zelda” video game series were so excited for the release of the most recent game, “Tears of the Kingdom,” on May 12 that many used sick leave or vacation time to schedule uninterrupted time for exploring.

“Tears of the Kingdom” players control Zelda’s protagonist Link as he navigates the world of Hyrule a few years after the previous Zelda game, “Breath of the Wild.”

UW News sat down with Michele Newman, a University of Washington doctoral student in the Information School, to learn more about fans’ dedication to this new game. Newman studies video game communities to try to understand how video games shape our society.

Michele Newman headshot

Michele Newman

How does “Tears of the Kingdom” compare with other Zelda games?

Michele Newman: The original Zelda game started with giving you a sword and saying, “Go for it. Go figure out what to do next.” But then the next Zelda games started developing a narrative approach: “Go find specific dungeons. Follow this storyline.” Over time, the general perception around these games has been that they are either too strong on the story side or too strong on the open world side. “Tears of the Kingdom” really balances these two things. You’re exploring, but what you do has an impact on the world.

It’s a really big development challenge to balance the open world where you allow players agency but you also give them a story to follow.

Another interesting thing about “Tears of the Kingdom” is that it is set in the same “world” as “Breath of the Wild,” but time seems to have passed between the two. Can you talk about that?

MN: It’s not very common for the Zelda developers to make a direct sequel. For “Tears of the Kingdom,” it’s the same iteration of Link. But it’s a different story from “Breath of the Wild.” We think it’s been like three to five years between the two games. And there are some big differences. You kind of have to suspend your disbelief a little bit, because otherwise it’s like, “Wait, what? Where are all the shrines from ‘Breath of the Wild’?”

Here the developers have really chosen to think about how the world has changed between the two games. How has Link’s environment changed? How does he interact now with non-player characters? Many of them don’t recognize him. Which kind of makes sense because if you met one random guy who did something weird once like three to five years ago, would you really remember them either? Probably not.

I think this is something that a lot of games have historically not been very good at. In many games, you do a quest and then you’re done, right? No one is talking to you about how that’s affected their lives.

Here, there is a big change between the two games. There are people here now. They’re rebuilding. There are new settlements. It’s a really unique way to think about what it means for the world and how you interact with it in the game.

About three to five years have passed between “Tears of the Kingdom” and the previous game, “Breath of the Wild.” Move the cursor from left to right to see Zelda protagonist Link standing outside the Shrine of Resurrection in both games. The screenshot on the left is from “Tears of the Kingdom,” and the screenshot on the right is from “Breath of the Wild.” Screenshots are courtesy of Newman.

You call yourself a “Zelda Boomer.” Can you talk about how these games have affected you personally?

MN: I have been playing Zelda games since I was a child. I call myself a “Zelda Boomer” because there are things I really like about the early games. I really like the old-style dungeons, with dungeon items and locked rooms. “Breath of the Wild” kind of moved away from that. “Tears of the Kingdom” seems like an attempt to balance it a bit more, though not a full return to that traditional format.

These games are what made me call myself a gamer. They have had a really personal, profound impact on who I am. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

What makes the Zelda series so unique?

MN: For any game, it’s a balance of developers wanting to create something and how much the fans are willing to engage in that. But then there’s an interesting intersection of that with how much developers are willing to take the fans’ ideas and run with them. When this happens, it’s an example of a healthy reciprocal relationship between developers and fans, and that’s one reason why this game is so successful.

“Tears of the Kingdom” is a game that was made for fans. The developers and the fans are collectively wanting to experience something and working collaboratively to do that. And that’s been the most exciting thing here — seeing how developers support Zelda fans.

Sometimes, it seems like the developers like to throw a wrench in fans’ plans, like, “Oh you think you’ve got this timeline figured out? Ha!” That’s one really fun thing that these games do really well, because that’s not always the case. There are definitely games where the developers are like, “This is how it happens.” But the spirit of Zelda has always been that the player is the driving force. It started with that original idea: I hand you a sword. You figure it out.

For more information, contact Newman at mmn13@uw.edu.