Would you still play without the combat?
“I want to explore this beautiful world and discover its secrets, without having to fight or kill anything.” By the time I reached Kakariko Village during my first journey through Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this was my desire made plain.
Never before had I encountered a game world so ripe with possibilities for exploration. Never before had there been a Hyrule so vast and expansive, and so breathtaking. Never before could Link scale the tallest mountains, jump from their apex, and glide into the unseen valleys waiting far below.
There is so much to explore and discover in the re-imagined world of Hyrule. And yet, I felt like there were big obstacles in my way, keeping me from enjoying doing just that. Namely: The weapons. The enemies. The combat.
A Different Way To Play
Breath of the Wild is a Zelda game unlike any that has come before it. There is far more freedom given to players than what has been possible in previous entries in the franchise. So much so in fact, that the topic of playing the game without fighting is not only feasible to imagine, but is easily put into practice in many areas of the game.
This isn’t a new idea though. Like with “Speed Runs” where the goal is to complete a game in the fastest time possible, or “No Damage Runs” where you try to complete a game flawlessly, this concept of playing games in a non-violent way is called a “Pacifist Run.” Pacifist runs have gained popularity in recent years, no doubt in large part thanks to the huge success of the 2015 indie favorite Undertale, which revolutionized the RPG genre by giving players the option to play the entire game non-violently, and rewarding them for doing so with a completely different story experience.
Reddit user vonZzyzx made a post in 2018 extensively detailing their plans for a pacifist run in Breath of the Wild. There are also attempts and theories about the feasibility of these kinds of approaches that people have put to video on YouTube and discussed on popular gaming forums like GameFAQs.
Some people may attempt a pacifist run when they want additional challenge beyond the standard game experience. Others do so for more ideological reasons. And others still choose to do it because it seems fun, with the goal simply being to try something different from how they usually play.
Regardless of one’s motivations, like with most games, Breath of the Wild presents obstacles to this sort of approach to playing. It is the most free and open game in the series to date, where a pacifist run is the most viable it has ever been. Yet there remain barriers to be found in the core experience, as the game was not designed with this kind of play in mind.
In my case there were three motivating factors to experience this game without any combat. Two of them were frustrations originating from gameplay elements. They were: weapon durability, and limited inventory space. The third, and most significant to me, is my changing personal preferences away from having violence in video games at all.
Give Durability The Axe (Or The Other Way Around)
To put my thoughts on this particular subject in a simple way: In my 3 or so decades of passionately playing video games, I have never encountered one that has managed to make equipment durability into a fun and enjoyable game mechanic. Maybe that’s just my opinion, or I haven’t played the right game that manages it, but for me Breath of the Wild is no exception.
The high frequency that weapons break in Breath of the Wild was very surprising to me. The game starts you out with wooden sticks, crudely made clubs, and the like. It made sense for these to be less durable. But the forged weapons, ones you would expect to hold up for a good while longer in combat, surprisingly didn’t. Commonly two, three, or even more weapons can break during the course of a single encounter with a small group of enemies or even a single opponent as the game progresses. Often, when a battle is concluded, especially early on in the game, the weapons you have to replace whatever you used up are of a lesser quality, or have some of their durability already spent.
Trying to imagine the sheer number of broken discarded weapons on Link’s journey is equal parts amusing and insane. But putting silly mental pictures like that aside, from a gameplay standpoint this quickly became an exercise in frustration for me. The feeling that I needed to save the best weapons I had discovered for “more important encounters than this one” was almost constant.
This created an issue of never knowing when was the best time to actually be using a particular weapon, especially if it was one you don’t find very often. This is not an ideal situation to have, because it tends to make the player hesitate to use their special weapons or items at all, never quite knowing when the “best time” to do so has arrived.
Sometimes when that wasn’t actively a concern, then the opposite would happen. I’d get into a situation where I used up all my other weapons in the middle of an unexpected or difficult battle, and I’d be left with no choice but to use my best weapons out of desperation, rather than being able to save them for a more ideal situation. This did not feel very rewarding either.
For me at least, these two different flavors of frustration were constantly surrounding the game’s combat experience as a whole. The issues they represented were only compounded by the limited inventory space.
Sowing The (Korok) Seeds Of Frustration
You start off with 8 inventory slots for weapons, 5 inventory slots for bows, and 4 inventory slots for shields. That may sound like a lot, though in practice it really isn’t.
While it is nice that they decided to separate bows and shields into their own inventory pages, they neglected to do so for things that you might consider tools rather than weapons. So that woodcutter’s axe that you’d use to chop down trees, the torch that lights your way in the dark, or the sledgehammer you’d normally reserve for smashing rocks to find ore, all count as weapons too. Even the Korok Leaf that lets you create gusts of wind takes up a slot in your limited weapon inventory.
So that precious allotment of eight weapon slots fills up really quickly. And that’s one of the frustrations early on in the game. When you arguably need more room to work with the most, at the early outset when you’re just trying to figure out how the game really works, scrambling to take everything with you that you can find as your weapons break left and right after every encounter, you get the harshest limitations on space of the entire experience.
The solution to this limited inventory space issue? Upgrades to add new slots. How do you get them? Find as many of the 900 Koroks hidden throughout the world as you can (you need 441 to unlock all the inventory space upgrades.)
But there are a number of catches that make even the solution less than ideal.
- One is that you have to find a particular NPC in order to upgrade inventory slots, and that NPC moves its location after the first couple upgrades. This means you have a hard limit until you find them again later on in the game, even if you’ve already collected enough seeds for more upgrades in the meanwhile.
- Two is that you have to upgrade each inventory separately, so if you want one slot in each of the 3 inventories, that counts as 3 upgrades.
- Three is that there are limits to how much you can upgrade a single inventory (16 slots each, meaning if you found the total 441 Korok Seeds required, you’d have a maximum of 24 slots for weapons, 21 for bows, and 20 for shields.)
- Four is that the Koroks are often well-hidden, and you have to explore very remote parts of the map (not a bad thing in my opinion) solving their puzzles or doing time limited actions in order to get a seed from them. These are not always easy to find or to accomplish.
- Five is that there are diminishing returns on how many seeds it takes to get an upgrade, with more slots requiring increasingly more seeds. 208, close to half of the total 441, are required to unlock all the weapon inventory upgrades.
You find the first location of the upgrade NPC rather early into the game, but you’re only offered 2 upgrades before they head off elsewhere. Even if you focused on just expanding your weapon storage, that still only effectively puts you at 10 slots for weapons, which is better than the 8 you started with, but still feels very cramped and limited in practice.
My opinion here though? With how frequently weapons tend to break, the game should have started us out with somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 slots for weapon inventory, not topped off at that many after dozens of hours into the experience. You could even skip the inventory slot upgrades concept altogether, and find some other meaningful way to reward the player for searching the land of Hyrule high and low.
Stocking up on weapons in the game feels essential in order to make progress in the more difficult areas. With few starting inventory slots, and all the restrictions around increasing the capacity, the player’s ability to do so is effectively stifled. It just makes things feel far more frustrating overall than they needed to be.
On the one hand, I recognize that they were going for an arguably more realistic, survival-like game approach with all of this. But on the other hand, for myself and probably others out there, the weapon durability and limited inventory space took a lot of the fun out of it.
Looking Beyond The Game: What Kind Of Experience Do You Want?
My personal frustrations with the game’s mechanics around weapons, inventory, and combat have been discussed enough. They are simply one person’s observations and opinions. There are others out there who would argue the opposite, and see the appeal in the design choices more strongly than the downsides.
We could continue focusing on a few pain points holding back an otherwise revolutionary and fantastic gaming experience. But there’s a more important discussion to be had. I’d rather focus on my desire to play the game in a non-violent way regardless of what its combat or inventory systems are like.
Now that I’ve gotten a taste of the possibilities, I want a Hyrule-sized world to explore, a Zelda-caliber story to discover, with characters, lore, and emotional storytelling all intact. I want the puzzle shrines to unearth, and the myriad secrets spread around the game’s world to unlock. But I want all that without having to fight anything along the way.
Not because of the inventory issues, or my complaints about breaking weapons. No, mainly because I am reaching a point in my life where I no longer feel a strong desire for violence in my experience, even of the fictional entertainment variety. In fact, my tastes in games has changed so strongly that even my old favorites that I grew up playing and loved for decades are no longer as appealing to go back to. I remember them fondly, but when I try to revisit them, I just want to skip the fights and get to the meat of the stories.
To put it simply, my choices in entertainment have shifted away from violent things. There’s just very little draw there for me anymore. But I love games that let you explore imaginative worlds, and get to know different characters, and generally just tell interesting stories packed with creativity.
That’s why I really would love to see more games as huge and expansive as Breath of the Wild, and if folks could manage to come up with some other way to design them that wouldn’t require even cartoon violence, or at least make it optional, all the better.
The closest game I have found to this sort of ideal experience so far is one called Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, and while it’s not quite at the same level of magnitude as a huge game like Breath of the Wild, it has its own world to explore, and I had a wonderful time playing Yonder. I hope to see more games like it in the future.
I can imagine Breath of the Wild without combat pretty easily. The emphasis could perhaps be on stealth gameplay, which already exists in the game and is used in a number of ways. For example, say your goal when you encounter enemy groups wasn’t to fight them but to try and sneak by them undetected. We’ve even seen segments like this in past Zelda games, such as The Wind Waker for example, and they worked quite well.
Another approach besides stealth might just be something even more interesting to explore: diplomacy and mediation. Maybe Link could be charged with trying to reconcile differences between monster clans and the villagers throughout Hyrule, with some kind of progression to reward the player for helping more groups get along with one another. Instead of rushing in to just beat the tar out of “the evil monsters” at the first sign of trouble, there could be far more interesting tales to tell, like why exactly that Moblin decided to harass the lady trying to cross the bridge so she could make it to market to peddle her goods.
The story in the game wouldn’t even have to change all that much. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a history that was steeped in battle, or even a threat of violence now and then as plot devices to move things along. I won’t go into details here of the story in Breath of the Wild, but I imagine a lot of it could have remained fairly intact without much consequence.
I believe violence and conflict are simply design choices that we repeatedly make out of habit more than anything. There could have been other ways to handle quests and game progression that didn’t require acts of violence. In fact there are already many instances of this in the game as it stands now. Just look at many of the requests from villagers and travelers that you meet for some examples.
I’d love to see more games be brave enough to try making giant worlds and narratives that can be enjoyed without resorting to violence. With a bit more creativity and focused intent to that end, I think Breath of the Wild could have been designed with non-violent resolution in mind.
What other ideas can you think of for interesting non-violent gameplay in a big open world adventure? Do you think a story needs violence in order to be interesting? Would Breath of the Wild have been more fun for you without enemies getting in the way, or less interesting? How different would it feel if you were penalized for fighting enemies, or couldn’t fight back at all, and had to keep your distance or avoid them? What about if you could talk to them like friendly NPCs, without having to fight at all? What stories might they have to tell?