By measure of fan art volume and ironic ring-tones, Link’s lovable fairy “Navi” from The Legend of Zelda series is maybe the most sarcastically quoted video game character of all time.
Navi, and other characters like her, have always been a navigation staple of modern Zelda games, for better or worse.
If you’re wondering what all this has to do with music, in particular this musical arrangement curtly titled “Field Music (Day)”, the answer is basically, “Everything.”
Breath of the Wild is a video game completely and utterly obsessed with exploration.
This is not unlike Zelda games in general, but with BotW, Nintendo has taken what was once a relatively and mostly narrative-driven formula and transformed it into nothing but concentrated wanderlust.
The game’s entire musical score is slickly interwoven in ways that dramatically help this shift in gameplay philosophy.
“Field Music” is a musical engine that is pushing you forward, even when you don’t realize it.
In Zelda games previous, their music was the predominant method used to promote the overall theme of each game. Obviously, this is how most video games work. But it’s worth stressing that Zelda titles are particularly famous for underscoring your actions by “overscoring” the mood.
Take “Hyrule Field” from Ocarina of Time, for instance. Even if you had never played it, listening to its respective theme for its overworld would easily work as a crystal-clear synopsis of the entire game: “Get up, we’re going on an adventure!”
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: "Hyrule Field”
Other games in the franchise do this expertly, to varying effects. (Here’s a great synopsis video on this topic for a deeper dive, written by Mark Brown.) But crucially, the music for 3D Zelda games are typically overlaid atop the action in a fairly static fashion, with the exception of when your character runs into enemies - this typically begins tense battle music that instantly reverts back to the overworld music upon completion.
Cue “Field Music”. This composition is interesting because it works as the overworld theme for the entire first major area of BotW and beyond, yet it’s as sparse of a composition as anyone could ever imagine. It consists exclusively of piano notes, each couple notes bunched together before trailing off into silence, that silence soon subtly interrupted by more of these A Chords. And onward it continues, just like that.
Then the masterstroke for how Nintendo uses this musical foundation as a guide: when you see something interesting or discover a new area or stumble upon a new gameplay mechanic, the empty space and silence of the track allows for the game to seamlessly introduce new musical elements. This, as opposed to simply playing a different track. Also as opposed to displaying much on screen text.
For a video game soundtrack, this displays a level of restraint not typically seen in most blockbuster video games, let alone The Legend of Zelda universe.
This musical interplay is how Nintendo has rethought how it can guide players without the use of any such Navi character.
Chiefly important to BotW is that the player not just know proper button inputs or know where to go, but that they feel compelled to continue exploring above all. Really, only the visuals and the music are their main guide. It’s the reason why that same Field Music also has a “Night” variation that invokes a more somber feeling for night exploring, and why all tone shifts use the same or similar instruments as what was just playing. Often, it’s only a piano leading the way.
One example: after finding and then taming a wild horse, the game will gradually and subtly shift over to this riding theme - music that is similarly sparse in composition but appropriate to the mood of riding through a field. This arrangement pairs a rainfall of piano keys with a soothing string arrangement that appears halfway through. Get off the horse? Slowly back to the quiet sounds of nature the game goes.
That this soundtrack purposefully omits grand gestures is a sublime trick, and one that Nintendo expertly weaves throughout the entire adventure. It’s the perfect tour guide to Hyrule.
The main composer for BotW is Manaka Kataoka, whose previous work at Nintendo was most notably two high profile Animal Crossing games. (To the uninitiated, Animal Crossing is a “slice-of-life” living simulator where you live peacefully among neighborhood animals, accomplishing such tasks as fishing, gardening, etc.) It’s a melancholic experience matched by few other games, and unsurprisingly, much of this can be directly traced to its music.
Her compositions finally gave players the answers to questions like, “What does 7 p.m. sound like?”
Kataoka’s personal mark on this latest Zelda adventure is unmistakable, and shifts the influence of composers away from previous Zelda influencers like Hans Zimmer, and more towards that of Philip Glass and Joe Hisaishi. Many have remarked how bold of a title BotW is for breaking away from Zelda gameplay traditions, but no move may have been bolder than the appointment of Kataoka as the game’s main composer.
For fans or future game makers who want to study less traditional means for how sound can interact with single player gameplay, study BotW and any games like it. It’s true: if the Zelda franchise can finally break away from its heralded musical formula, any game can.
Alan is a feature writer who has contributed to Kotaku, Polygon, Nintendo Life and other gaming sites. He has a background in the psychology of creativity, professional Smash Bros. and over 20 years of gaming behind him. He gets yelled at daily for picking Hanzo in Overwatch.