A peculiar, bittersweet quality clings to even the best video game endings. you pour somewhere between two and two hundred hours into a particular world, then all of a sudden it’s over; the final boss falls, the epilogue rolls on, the credits roll up. With the story experienced and the challenges bested, you feel accomplished and elated, if a little sad to be done with it. This is doubly true of open-world games, which are increasingly designed to hold your attention for a potentially infinite period of time, making a traditional ending sequence something of a risky maneuver.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game, with–believe it or not–an ending, should you focus beyond the sprawling plains, surf-ready mountains and near-endless unsolved puzzle shrines. As with all things, there is disagreement over whether it goes into the Good Ending or Bad Ending category, and even a Forbes article which weighs in on the subject–their analysis falls squarely on the bad side of the fence, by the way, suggesting the final confrontation lacks impact compared to the game it punctuates. Let’s really drill down into this closing sequence, however; look at what it does, what it’s trying to do, and what it says about Breath of the Wild, open-world games and the concept of ‘ending’ a game. For the sake of simplicity, and to make sure we’re talking about ludology over narrative, I’m mainly going to be discussing the playable act which leads up to the final cutscenes and credits, rather than the scripted events.
When this version of Zelda begins, it is with a voice over darkness. You, as Link, awaken inside a tomb, naked and immersed in mysterious healing waters, and you’re quickly shunted out into the world-at-large with quite literally just the clothes on your back. After a quick run to the edge of a nearby cliff and a breathtaking view of the countryside, you’re given the freedom to explore. More than likely, you’ll immediately discover the first of many weapons: a tree branch.
In the distance the player sees Hyrule Castle, dark, broken, and enveloped in the malevolent purple butt that is Calamity Ganon. Without a single word, your goal would still be clear: go to the castle and rid the land of this evil. A grotesque pig spirit circles the high towers of the building, the land bubbles with poisonous leavings, spires of rock peppered with glowing runes tear open the ground in the middle of the castle town ruins. And here on this hill, you stand wearing a tattered shirt while cradling a broken piece of wood, three apples, and a centuries-old tablet computer. Regardless, you set off, ready for the challenge. Some days, weeks, months later, you make your assault on the castle, dressed in the official armour of the Zora, sporting a fireproof helmet, spitting bomb arrows from a triple-shot feathered bow. You possess the Master Sword, of course, as well as an arsenal of various impossibly powerful slashing and bludgeoning weapons. You’re more than ready; you breach the castle walls and, if you’re like me, you practically trip over Calamity Ganon, accidentally stumbling into the central chamber expecting a complex network of dangerous corridors. He bursts forth, and you’re suddenly very aware that this must be it, the last battle. It can’t be, though. So soon? You’re not ready, actually. Not emotionally.
But it is the final battle after all. You fight Ganon once in his freshly-hatched spider warrior form, then once again when he transforms into a large, gelatinous boar monster that spits purple fire across the land of Hyrule. Victory, wrap-up, credits.
This is unsatisfying, at least in the immediate sense. There’s no dungeon full of puzzles to navigate, with levers and keys and minibosses, no mind-warping physics or geometry traps to navigate as with the Divine Beasts. In fact, the chamber where Ganon waits is so accessible and innocuous, a plucky young adventurer could jump straight off the initial plateau (where the only mandatory item–a paraglider–must be acquired) and skip directly to the end boss. The climax is stubborn and borderline smug in its relative simplicity.
It’s not an undeserved confidence. Breath of the Wild‘s endgame has a purpose and a message, and unravelling the nature of the beast requires understanding a couple of elements: that the journey–not the destination–sells the story, and the role Ganon plays in the narrative experience.
Trite as it may seem, it’s easy to forget that even linear, story-driven games are primarily about moment-to-moment and collected experiences, rather than the final few minutes. Recall any fond experience with a Zelda title and it’s likely to be a Katamari of gameplay anecdotes, stories about favourite dungeons, recollections of memorable locations or NPC encounters. This is especially true of Breath of the Wild, which is custom built to create unique stories out of every play session. As I mentioned before, it’s important that the game begins in tattered clothing, with Link confused and weaponless on the crest of a hill. From that first moment, everything you do benefits that singular goal of beating the bad guy; at the same time, the process of improving yourself (through practice, item collection, discovery) is kind of the entire point of the game. It is the adventure, the reason you booted up the game and spent 50+ hours in a mostly-destroyed landscape. Ganon himself is simply a spot of punctuation near the end of your story, and, like the period which closes a novel, it’s important structurally, even if it isn’t particularly exciting. From here we can at least begin to see why the muted nature of that final battle is a deliberate design choice.
On top of that, the relative ease and speed with which you can find, fight and defeat Calamity Ganon is as much a reward as it is a conflict. That first emergence from the Shrine of Resurrection plants the idea in your head, dangles the exciting conclusion in front of you like a tasty treat. As you explore Hyrule’s vast open spaces, the castle and its orbiting evil spirit sneak into your peripheral vision and refuse to let you forget your purpose, no matter how caught up you get collecting bananas and stealing bits of wood from enemy campsites. Getting into the castle and surviving long enough to dispatch Ganon is the major puzzle in Breath of the Wild, and the open world is the place where you workshop solutions; Ganon himself is, quite rightly, just the confirmation and pat on the back for finding the key that opens the final lock. It’s a reward for all your hard work. This is most obvious in the extreme divide between the first and second phases of the fight. In phase one, Ganon is a terrifying, malformed beast; he’s fast, strong and its likely most players will need at least two cracks at that particular nut. Beat him, however, bringing all those skills from all those other locations to bear, and the second phases is a doddle; now manifesting as a giant, rampaging boar, Ganon can now be bested with a ridiculously overpowered magical bow and arrow set. Surrounded by the grassy hills you have, by now, spent so much time traversing, taking down the Calamity Bringer once and for all, the moment feels congratulatory, reflective.
Amid all the celebrations, you also feel a little bad for this big, dumb pig. It’s barely a threat at this point, despite insistent shouting from Princess Zelda about the destruction of everything, and putting it down seems like a mercy. In fact, there’s a strange air of sadness and inevitability about the character of Ganon in general, at least as it appears in this game.
Throughout the game, Breath of the Wild makes it very clear that Calamity Ganon is evil. It also makes sure we’re aware that this incarnation of the eternal Zelda antagonist is more of a malevolent force than a complex persona with goals, thoughts and feelings. Even the name Calamity has a detached quality to it, as if the events of the past were attributable to some enormous natural disaster. Ganon has no plan in this game, no devious plot involving the kidnapping of a princess or the fall of a kingdom; it has no choices to make or moral quandaries to mull over as it swims through the corrupted air above the castle. When the creature cries out, it’s through the pained and angry screams of avatar forms spread across Hyrule: the dull hum of mindless guardians and the tortured aggression of the Calamity’s blight forms. Its final metamorphosis, Dark Beast Ganon, is a personification of directionless negative feelings, even bearing the subtitle “Hatred and Malice Incarnate” as it lashes out pointlessly at you and the environment.
The weakened form of Ganon, sequestered inside its cocoon, also reflects the world surrounding it. Hyrule has already been ruined by the time you arrive, the major population centers and much of the population crushed by the Calamity. Pockets of civilisation–most of which are barely eking out a nervous existence amid the monsters and harsh conditions–exist to punctuate the grim reality of all that was lost, ruins scattered across the landscape make it impossible to forget the consequences of the disaster. As Link, you’re not saving the world so much as giving it a chance to survive. Rather than working to maintain the status quo, as in many fantasy stories, you’re helping people to rebuild, move on. Killing Ganon is part of that healing process, not only so the world can avoid total destruction, but so Ganon himself can escape a cycle of torment that has, by the end of the game, reduced the eternal nemesis to a heaving ball of volatile emotions. He is corruption personified, and–through the control he passively exerts over the guardians, divine beasts and other machines–represents, perhaps, a little hubris shown by the people of Hyrule in their haste to control advanced technology–it’s hardly a coincidence that the final blows are dealt by a faith-powered magic bow rather than any mechanical contraption.
Ganon’s four blight forms could be interpreted as the fractured pieces of his complete being, given how closely they resemble the Calamity form. Link has to pick up the pieces of his broken enemy like all the other discarded history in Breath of the Wild, and each one he defeats makes the final battle a little easier. Skip them earlier, and they turn up before the ultimate confrontation, although defeating them here offers no benefit, as if the game is punishing Link for disrespecting his foe. Put these parts of the whole to rest and it makes sense for Calamity Ganon to be a diminished threat. Ganon is a pathetic figure, reduced to naked aggression and powered down by a small boy with an inventory full of sticks; anything less than a melancholy disappointment would be a disservice to the character, world and story.
Some people will always disagree with those ideas, of course; that a game should become less challenging going forward, and that a story should end on a low point, both go somewhat against the grain of well-worn video game tropes. Go bigger and bigger, end with an explosion and a party. Make it Star Wars. In those terms, Calamity Ganon could absolutely be seen as a down in a game full of ups. But an end boss isn’t just a chance to make the player work hard or to show off the most bombastic designs you can think of, it’s the end of a story that the player had a direct hand in telling. If the final battle doesn’t reflect what was done to get this far, what was the point of coming here in the first place?