The Reconstruction of Masculinity in Rio Bravo

Rio Bravo

A brief abridgment of an essay I wrote for a class. We were supposed to put these on a blog and I thought it would be easier to put this on here, even though it doesn’t quite fit the scope of the rest of the blog.

Theorist Richard Slotkin claims that the western represents an attempt to contextualize “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.” Imagining a clearer example of that than Rio Brovo would prove difficult. Its lens, however, focuses on American masculinity, with frontier myths put on the back burner. The film’s principle characters are either paragons of male virtue or must re-learn how to become such. Through violence the rightful masculine authority is asserted, born, re-born, and otherwise put in its rightful place. However, its emphasis on masculine friendship shows the real need for male vulnerability, even as much of the text fights against it.

First, a brief summary. Rio Bravo is the story of John T. Chance (John Wayne.) A sheriff who arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Atkins), the brother of a powerful rancher. With only Dude (Dean Martin), his deputy and a recovering alcoholic, and Stumpy (Walter Brennen), a lame and old sharpshooter, by his side, he must fight to protect the jail from the dozens of men hired to break through it. The world of Rio Bravo is one where the rightful order is undone by powerful communities and must be set right by a few, good men.Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 2.39.33 PM

John Wayne is the specter of that world, almost like a holy ghostIn this story, he becomes a stoic and static elemental force of masculinity. The movie is about how other characters react to that figure. The clearest example of this is Dude, who at the beginning of the film has been reduced to a beggar and an alcoholic, but by the end becomes a deputy worthy to John Wayne’s sheriff. It is through his eyes that the audience first looks up at John Wayne and that initial shot sets up the dynamic between them. Chance is an aspirational mentor for Dude. There is little explicit showing of how Chance cares, it is all through these grunts and gestures. Nevertheless, Dude feels loved enough to make it out. It is only this manliness that could manage it. Thus, the film embraces this masculine power trip with a wholly uncritical eye and frames the characters who embrace it with remarkable affection.

Despite all the emphasis on how these men must get free and embrace their own power, they all need each other and they are bound to protect a community that needs them too. The most affecting moments of the film are these moments of friendship. The film indulges these moments too. Its runtime is leisurely, letting us dwell with its characters. In one quiet moment, before the last act’s final storm, the sheriff and his crew sing together. The song idealizes the lone ranger, “just my rifle, my pony, and me,” but that idealization contrasts with its context, friends singing a song together. Just like this moment, Rio Bravo unwittingly reenforces the need for male vulnerability and connection.

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John Wayne’s masculine legend is at the heart of Rio Bravo. It clearly sees his figure as representative of an absolute moral good and the other characters are tested in how well they live up to that legend. Dude is a figure who has lost the claim to it. The film’s journey is his attempt to reclaim it. The film asserts a return, in a lawless, fractured world, to a masculine power. Even so, it has a strange tenderness toward these men and exposes a soft, affectionate side through their interactions. Rio Bravo’s emphasis on masculine independence, its reverential treatment of John Wayne, and Dude’s redemption are reenforces a male, natural order, even as its quiet moments expose the need for male vulnerability.

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The Personal Nostalgic Beauty of Mediterranean Voidland

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In this void, you wander around an island, with tiled roofs, bright clay houses, and ocean blue. It’s fragmented like a memory with different parts of the islands floating above you. You can only reach them through drawings, that act as portals. Thus, these spaces are connected by associations with images, again like memories. A drawing of a chess board leads you to a villa. Hopscotch to a lighthouse. Nonsensical links that you can imagine making a kind of sense, if you knew why. The only audio is music by Palconudo, a band from the Genova, which plays when you click on various water fountains. To me, it seemed foreign and familiar. They sang in a language that I didn’t know, but with voices and pains that I did. It is a startling contrast to the silence that drones if you do not play it.

It is, in other words, a purely aesthetic game. There is no win-state. There is no interaction with the environment, except for movement and playing music. It is nostalgic, but not for any element of popular culture, rather for a particular place and time in one person’s life. It is illogical and fragmented in a way that only games can be, but also is stripped of anything “gamey.” It is… a place.

As I played, I made my way through various drawings. I found myself at the large villa, that hovers over the little town and its lighthouse. As I stood on the edge of that floating island, I wondered what would happen if I jumped off. So I did. I expected an invisible wall to stop my progress, but instead I slipped off. It didn’t go black and I did not drown, it let me fall. I hit the water and looked up. The empty digital architecture exposed, the bones of a digital space, I floated into the blue. Subjectivity and strangeness were unveiled.

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Why do we limit ourselves by thinking a game cannot just be a beautiful place?

Mediterranean Voidland is available for free here.

Games I Liked in 2017

I didn’t get to as many video games this year, due to a trip to Europe and two massive open-world games devouring my time, but nevertheless, these are some good ones. As usual, this is simply based on what I played, not what came out, but 3/5 did come out this year. Here’s to progress! As usual, the list is in alphabetical order.

Butterfly Soup – Brianna Lei

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A genuinely hilarious and kind hearted game about growing up gay and asian in California. Butterfly Soup deals with some serious shit: the pain of growing up under restrictive, academic pressure, the oppression of gender norms and the abuse it takes to enforce them, as well as the surreality of realizing that the world might never accept your real self. Its lighthearted tone does not betray a frivolousness with these subjects. Rather it has a relentless, gorgeous optimism. It is filled with affection for its own characters. It believes that all will be alright for them, despite everything. Its dialog-heavy and interaction-light nature might indulge conversations about whether this is “actually a game,” but such dialogs bore me. It’s something beautiful, warm, and powerful. That’s what matters.

You can download Butterfly Soup for free here: https://brianna-lei.itch.io/butterfly-soup

Mirror’s Edge – Dice

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It’s a messy game with a brilliant core. This game lets you inhabit a body unlike any other in games. It’s a platformer that is truly about speed, about subverting a hostile and sterile environment. In its purist form, it exhibits a thrill unlike any other. It’s obscured by design that has to accommodate the worst instincts of AAA development. The combat heavy segments are clumsy and difficult. They cut away from what makes the game most effective. It remains a smart and slick creature. One with a lot to teach modern games.

I wrote about Mirror’s Edge here.

Mirror’s Edge is available on PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Xbox One through backwards compatibility.

Night in the Woods

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What struck me most while playing this slice-of-life meets small-town-lovecraftian horror is its approach to faith. The game itself most likely believes in “a universe that doesn’t care and people who do.” But the game treats both its faithful and its unfaithful characters with tact and power. The player, in the form of college-dropout Mae, explores a church and its community. They see the way the faithful and nuanced pastor is trying, and sometimes failing to help, see how religion and its power structures have hurt her friends, even as it helps her mother. The result is a nuanced and smart depiction of faith in a world that has failed it. The game has its problems. Its tone is occasionally lopsided and conflicting. There has been a lot of dialog about whether Mae’s character flaws are properly critiqued or too explicitly rewarded. But it remains a powerful picture of people trying to live in a world that doesn’t care, that is even trying to consume them. Night in the Woods is a beautiful, furious attempt to find a way out of that world.

Night in the Woods is available on PC, Mac, and Linux, as well as Playstation 4 and Xbox One

Prey – Arkane Studios

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I still haven’t finished it, but there is so much that will linger in my brain. A corporate dystopia in the Bioshock tradition, Prey places you in a space station gone to hell through a combination of greed and hubris. What elevates Prey above its counterparts is a strong and vibrant commitment to its world. Its progression systems and moment to moment play are grounded in its world-building. Which results in play that is thrillingly tactical, but also terrifyingly compact and detailed. The way in which you upgrade and evolve as you play seems to resemble what happened on Talos 1 itself. It leaves you to wonder what exactly you are becoming. Furthermore, the game leads this intellectual world a startling humanity. Every corner of the offices, lobbies, and living spaces of Talos 1 is filled with human details. Never have the game works of Shock games felt so grounded in human needs and fears. It’s the boldest and most visionary AAA game I played this year.

Prey is available on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

The Witcher 3 – CD Projekt Red

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This open world epic has plenty of missteps. It callously depicts violence toward women, has the usual problems of whiteness of western fantasy, and occasionally indulges in the worst instincts of open world games. However, all in all this is a triumphant achievement that boldly reimagines video game protagonists. Monster hunter Geralt is not an empty vessel for the player to inhabit, but a man with a complex past that informs the player’s decisions. He has a distinct role in the world, one that the player helps define, but does not create. The entire game is an exercise in empathy, both with Geralt himself, and the innumerable memorable characters you come across. This is a game that respects the downtrodden, the outcast. Despite its epic scope, its most memorable moments are its smallest. Beautifully, it is not always your story. It is a world in which you have a tangible impact, but that emphasizes the ways in which you lack power, just as much as the ways in which you express it. A stunning, hilarious, touching, and soulful achievement.

The Witcher 3 is available on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

Movies I Liked in 2017

I know I usually do five things, but I wanted to write about all these movies and so I did six. It’s my list! Fight me!

Also John Wick 2 is great, but I don’t have much to say about it.

Also I liked The Last Jedi a lot, but my mind was poisoned by discourse and I don’t know what I think of it anymore.

Anyway, here goes! As usual, the films are in alphabetical order.

Blade Runner 2049

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Like its predecessor, this is complicated film to love. It deconstructs patriarchal notions of power and restrictive notions of what it means to be human, even as it lends few, if any, of its female characters agency. It borrows the iconography of asian cultures, even as people of color are pushed to the margins of its narrative. It is a story of the oppressed, largely without their image. Nevertheless, few films have brought me to as much contemplation as this has. It has produced some of my favorite film writing of the year (including this piece by Priscilla Page  and this one by Carolyn Petit.) The exploration of what it means to choose to be human is fulfilling and enriches the source material. Its gorgeous, monochrome world is an wondrous vision of dehumanizing beauty. Blade Runner 2049 shows the very real cost of denying the humanity of others. Even as it mires in that world, it begins to show us a way out. It’s a film with something beautiful to say, and even as it stumbles, it says it well.

Get Out

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Through tense, enveloping sound design and meditative cinematography, this film creates a tension that chews at the edges of your mind. It builds, growing loud and raging. Until it explodes, in an ending that is equal parts shocking and triumphant. It’s a film that unveils the often hollow nature of white allyship. It gives voice to places that need it. Get Out is a remarkable technical achievement. If this is a horror film that breaks through to awards season, it would more than deserve it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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I toyed with not putting this on the list, but realized I would be lying to myself. It’s a film that relentlessly cares about its characters, enough to give almost every single one of them a complete arc. The film is, both subtextual and textually, about trying to find God. The slow unveiling is that the stories that we told ourselves might hold harm and danger for those around us. God might be lost. The epiphany at the end of the film is that God was always there. They are the people who surrounded us.

Logan

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This could be the only X-Men film. This feels significant because the X-franchise’s focus on Wolverine is largely unfortunate. He works better as a side figure, acting a counterbalance to the diversity and optimism of the rest of the team. Logan, however, is largely about that. The title character has lost all hope in vision of the future that his friends shared, and while he still helps Xavier, he is just looking to survive. The film is about him regaining that hope and passing it on to those who need it. Through with the extraordinary Dafne Keen, as a young girl given Wolverine’s powers, Logan realizes how he is letting the world that abused him define his existence. At the end of the film, he repeats that lesson back to Laura, “Don’t be what they made you.” For a gritty, grounded, r-rated superhero film, Logan has pulsing optimism and it gloriously and triumphantly, lets the old die to bring in the new.

Wonder Woman

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I kept thinking about the first Captain America when I was watching Wonder Woman. They are similar films, both about heroic figures trying to make the world more like them. Both war films, that take place far in the past. The difference is in complexity. Most Marvel films bring up complicated moral issues that they then drop. Iron Man’s solution to military intervention is giving a rich, wealthy person more power. Captain America masks its criticism of American nationalism with fictional nazis. Wonder Woman introduces its moral problems and then stares them down. Diana’s questioning of the source of evil is human and powerful. Its ultimate belief in the goodness of mankind, despite all evidence to the contrary, is astonishing and vivid. It is not exactly a feminist film, but Diana is a female hero that this patriarchal world needs. And she teaches us to do good with no hope of reward.

Your Name

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Seeing this miracle film in a theatre with a bunch of rambunctious college students was one of my favorite film experiences ever. A supernatural romance, Your Name grounds itself in the human choice to love. It is awash in both benevolent and destructive cosmic forces, and despite the implied and explicit reincarnations, and the ways in which those forces bring the two characters together: It is shown that they must choose to believe they are connected. Love is a wondrous choice; not the decree of fate or destiny. Wrapped in a gorgeous and funny package, Your Name is a profound story of persevering.

Music I Liked in 2017 You Might Not Have Heard Of

This lis spreads itself a bit strangely, across local acts, musicians from far away, and people with something of a substantial following. Whatever the case, it’s music you should listen to. Much of it, especially the smaller scale stuff, needs and deserves your support. As usual, the list is presented in alphabetical order by title.

Faded Dream – Goldmyth

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Ethereal pop with a deep synthy kick, Goldmyth crafts love songs about being in-between the end and the beginning, failure and success. It reflects the music itself, caught as it is between opposites. A harp is an unusual center for pop music, so the music gains a sober quality that grounds its melodies, while lending them an etherial lightness. A smart, beautiful, and diverse record.

You can buy Faded Dream here.

God of Death – Officer Jenny

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Officer Jenny’s songs have a mythical nature that is both dark and glorious. With warm acoustics and strings, produced with an eery spaciness, they grapple with the disturbing divine. “A Virgin Did Come,” their excellent winter/Christmas EP, asks not so much why evil exists, but more “if God is real and has an influence on my life, why am I such a piece of shit?” Despite my crude phrasing, it’s a compelling question and one that gets to the heart of the problem of the divine. God of Death cuts similarly deep, but is differently focused. It centers itself on the uneasy balance between life and death, and the contradiction of longing for peace, but fearing the end. Its complex beauty gives us few answers, but lends us a contemplative power.

You can buy God of Death here.

LP Zero – Ella Guro

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Many of the songs on this album, a collection of tracks written from 2013 to 2016, have video game inspired titles: lost woods, village theme, and night city all conjure pixelated or polygonal images. But this album is not interested in mere homage or emulation. It creates worlds that feel at once disturbing and familiar. Despite its clear inspirations, it actively pushes against them, even as it embraces them. Out of the swamp, into the night almost sounds like a heroic theme, but it still runs through a dark, hostile world. Even village theme pulses with a ominous foreboding. It is all restless music, pushing forward trying to find a place for itself in a world that often doesn’t accept it.

You can buy LP Zero here.

Liz Ryerson’s (Ella Guro) Patreon is found here.

The Way Is Read – The Staves and yMusic

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After refining their sound on If I Was, The Staves could have easily pumped out another dreamy folk record. Lucky for us, they didn’t. The Way is Read uses a lot of the same elements as their previous work: strong, folkish storytelling, transcendent harmonies, but the instrumentation is all strings and it frequently focused on dissonance and intense rhythm. The result is a record that is equal parts comforting and disturbing. Nevertheless it is remarkably cohesive. Diverse tracks flow into each other, peaceful harmonies clashing and combining with overpowering rhythms and instrumental grandeur. An ambitious, forward looking continuation of The Staves’s work.

You can buy The Way is Read here.

What Now – Sylvan Esso

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What Now exists in a world, where people deprived of meaning must make their way through. Songs like Radio and Just Dancing point to people seeking new starts and meanings in systems that cannot give them. The question of the album is implied in its title. How do we make our way through a cruel world? When we know the world’s problems, what now? The album’s answer is just to make. Signal and The Glow are about discovering meaning in creation. Despite the systems that dominate, those songs find a way. Another whimsical track, Slackjaw, gently suggests, “there are so many rhythms and harmonies.” What Now is a beautiful way of finding them. Also, anything that spawned this music video (https://youtu.be/8JMnidcDZLQ) has to be good.

You can buy What Now here.

Music I Liked in 2017 that You Definitely Have Heard Of

I’m doing a second list of equally great, but more obscure music. However, I wanted to write about some of the year’s popular music that I enjoyed and that spoke to me. So here are those albums, presented in alphabetical order.

Damn – Kendrick Lamar

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It isn’t as cohesive as good kid, m.A.A.d. city or To Pimp a Butterfly, but Damn still solidifies Kendrick as one of the most vital voices in popular hip hop. It’s at its best when it pulses with a righteous rage. DNA, XXX, and HUMBLE are furious anthems for this political moment. Even quieter moments like ELEMENT. have an anger that fills and inspires. That anger leads to the album’s numerous thrilling tracks, but Damn’s most powerful moment comes at the end, when Kendrick acknowledges that his fame is partially dumb luck and that he must help undo the systems that could have killed him.

Melodrama – Lorde

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An exhilarating, tragic, and masterful work of pop, Lorde builds on the foundation set by Pure Heroine and creates a complex portrait of modern love. It’s melodramatic, sure, but Lorde also has a lot to say about the way we harm others and ourselves in the pursuit of a romantic high. The result is an album that is at once gratifying and glorious, as well as tragic and self-deprecating. Lorde is confident and loud, as well as melancholic and reserved. She comes off as a person, conflicted and raging like we all are. That is a fiction, as all music and pop is, but it’s a beautiful and truthful one.

Planetarium – Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister

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A work equal parts universal and personal, Stevens shows his usual pendent for making obscure sorrow and cosmic problems feel human and palpable. Saturn confronts the ugliness of the divine among gorgeous, pulsing synths. Jupiter is a frighting image of failed fatherhood and masculinity and is a fascinating rhythmic poem. Mercury and Neptune are strange prayers that haunt and illuminate. It’s maybe a bit too broad for its own good, but it has a strange and universal power because of that breadth.

Rainbow – Kesha

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Someone on Twitter, I wish I could remember who, pointed out that critics are often uncomfortable with the idea of pop being great, so pop that seems to transcend or even just fulfill its genre is often labeled as “subversive.” Rainbow is not subversive. It is filled with songs of empowerment, partying, love. All common ground for pop. It paints pictures that are bold, broad, and obvious, with lyrics like “shake that ass.” and “dance like a motherf*****.” What makes Rainbow a miracle, and that is not a word I use lightly, is its complete sense of defiance. This is a album written after staring into the abyss of human meaningless. Rainbow has seen human cruelty and evil. But it comes out of all that with furious strength and relentless optimism. Rainbow gives a f***, but it won’t let the world hurt it anymore. An absolute roaring triumph.

Sleep Well Beast – The National

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The National have been functionally putting out the same album for a few years now, but luckily it’s a pretty good one. It captures the complex sorrow and joy of a failing relationship, with songs that are triumphant and tragic. Carin at the Liquor Store is a standout, a soulful and tragic ballad, that hovers with power. Day I Die contains all the weird rage and strange magic of a break-up. These are soundscapes that seem to contain the whole of two people and the innumerable moments between them.

The Growing Hollowness of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

There are plenty of grand vistas and wild shenanigans that define my time with Breath of the Wild, but there is a moment that disturbs and unsettles me. Once I was traveling through the seaside town of Lurelin. A woman stood near the edge of town, looking out to an island in the distance. I talked to her and she told me this: “You see that island over there? That’s Eventide Island. I came all the way here so that I could go there.” But I had already been to the island. I had discovered a trial designed for me, one that took all my weapons and armor away. It challenged me with defeating the various elements of the island with only my wits and what I can find. It was this game at its scrambling, improvising best. Her ambition was just a marker for me; a way that I could fulfill my destiny. Though her dream is dead, she still looks out onto that island, never to reach it.

This story is a microcosm of Breath of the Wild’s. Several characters dream of traveling or opening one of the game’s hidden shrines or finding some legendary treasure. But because you are chosen, only you get to live out their dreams. Often, the game shines with a brilliance that relies on your own sense of spatial reasoning, your own way of seeing the world. However, underneath this shine is a hollow heart. Breath of the Wild is never truly wild; its world can never free itself from your specter. A world that starts out bold, expansive, and uncaring gradually shrinks to your very own playground.

The game is at its best when it relies on a world external to you. In the early portions of the game, when you just a few hits can kill you and when tools and resources are unfamiliar, the world becomes a breathtaking vision of play and discovery. You experiment because you have to. This mirrors the games’s most astonishing segments: the aforementioned item-eating island, a forest covered in a thick darkness, inconvenient encounters with assassins, spectacular bosses hidden in obscure corners of the world, dragons that float above you. When the world and its mysteries feel truly beyond you, Hyrule becomes a wild and beautiful place.

This extends to the game’s narrative. One of the game’s brilliant moves is to model many of the game’s locations after ones from previous Zelda titles. Places echo that past lives of Zelda games, ones that many of Breath of the Wild’s players have lived through. It feels like revisiting an old home, now changed, and you must come to terms with what happened in your absence. It reflects Link’s own experience, as someone who has awoken after a giant disaster, hundreds of years later, and must attempt to find meaning in that loss. This gives Breath of the Wild’s spaces a ponderous melancholy. It is a world that long existed without you, and although you can now begin to set things right, you cannot reverse all that was lost.

But this melancholy is rarely found in the game’s text. More often than not it reenforces that you – Link! Hero! Adventurer! – are back. Things will be made right. Some may have suffered, yes, but they will get their chance at revenge. They’ll help along the way. On your epic journey. Communities that long managed without you, are suddenly in grave peril and must be rescued. Only you can do it, though with the help of some amusing and vibrant, if shallow, characters. You are the important key that opens the door of every problem in Hyrule.

Nothing quite personifies this like Zelda herself. She wishes to be Link, to be a fighter, but is trapped in Hyrule Castle by fate, unable to leave until you return. She is trapped by a narrative that is not her own and that she could never choose. In some ways, Link is too, but for him it is empowering. He gets to go on a freeing adventure around the world, but Zelda remains alone. As Tevis Thompson pointed out on Twitter, the game sympathizes with her plight, but ultimately considers it necessary. There is no way out for her, but to push through, confined by the role fate placed her in.

This cloying fate extends to the outside world, dotted with ancient buildings that serve only to help Link. These shines act as tests, with the reward of living longer or running farther at the end. As with so many of the worlds secrets, both those hinted at by its inhabitants and found throughout the world, they are only meant for you. As you play, your map dots up with shrines, that you can teleport to. As your map fills in, a once wild, untamed world because your plaything. You gradually find more powerful weapons, and upgrade your clothes to take any hit or weather condition. It reveals that Hyrule was designed for you, both in its fiction and in the real world.

Underneath Breath of the Wild’s radical exterior is a fundamentally conservative game. It bows to player power. It lets the world become easily traversable, puts every character in your debt, gives you a multitude of weapons to use, and clothes that negate the effects of an initially hostile world. You never really conquer Hyrule, but you do grow to control it. Furthermore, its narrative is the stripped down broad strokes of nearly every Zelda game before it. The central characters must take their places and can never break free from fate. It is too invested in itself, in its legacy, to truly be wild.

Often, while playing, I found myself thinking of the Witcher 3. Its open world is far less effortless to explore and far less playful, but it exists beyond. While your actions have consequences for almost every community you encounter, there are forces that are far beyond your reach. No matter how much you level up, they will remain outside of your ability to control. Geralt, the game’s protagonist, helps save the world in the end. However, poverty, racism, monarchy, and tyranny remain. Witches and wizards are unjustly hunted. There is no place where men and elves can live peacefully together. Geralt can do a lot of good, but so much remains outside of him. The game makes this explicit, when in the climax of the game, Geralt is told that this is not his story. The only way he can protect those he loves is to let go.

I long for moment in Breath of the Wild like this. A moment where the player must trust. Where they are not the center of everything, but rather where they must let go. Some might say that Zelda herself serves this purpose. However, the very structure of the game, the multitude of shrines, the emphasis on combat, and the lite min maxing and stat building, lead to a world that exists for you.

In moments and flickers, another game, one truly wild and beautiful and outside of you appears. The vision of Hyrule that presents itself in the first hour will stick to my brain for a long time. But the way that world shrinks will also stick. Breath of the Wild is guaranteed to inspire countless imitators, but I hope they remember what gradually turns its beautiful, strange, and free world in a hollow vision of power.