Though The Legend of Zelda franchise often dips into the eerie and the occult, its dominant mode is considered one of high adventure. Slightly than associating the Japanese series with horror, we imagine a blonde boy swinging his sword in service of rescuing the princess against a backdrop of soaring music. Its world is populated by oddball NPCs with exaggerated designs, emphasizing bulbous facial expression or big hair; the denizens of Zelda are cartoons, no matter what the actual art style is. And it’s those expectations, or the overall lack of them, that permits fear to so effectively worm its way into the Zelda games time and time again, continually catching the player off guard. Tears of the Kingdom particularly blindsides us with probably the most threatening and unsettling imagery the series has seen for greater than a decade. Its source: the Depths.
The sport’s very marketing took care to preserve a way of surprise by largely specializing in Hyrule’s recent aerial realm. As misdirection goes, it’s brilliantly subtle; with quite a lot of floating islands extending the world upward, we hardly expect the sport to expand downward, too. Even now, word-of-mouth tends to deal with the flowery contraptions formed by the brand new game mechanics fairly than tense survival at midnight.
And yet, while playing, it’s difficult to miss the chasm planted at the middle of the map, a geyser of malignant fumes and glowing red Gloom. Even the NPCs warn us to keep away from it, though it’s not long before you jump down and snake deeper and deeper away from the sunshine.
Into Tears of the Kingdom’s Depths
Upon entering the Depths proper, the music blares a discordant bass note to suggest that we’ve arrived somewhere entirely recent. It’s an alien realm, where sickly particles float through the air and vegetation comes exclusively in skeletal and fungal varieties. And crucially, it feels as alien because it looks, inverting the mechanics we’ve grown accustomed to within the preceding hours of Tears of the Kingdom, if not everything of its predecessor. The unique Breath of the Wild template roots itself within the open-world marketing boast of “for those who see it, you may go there.” Probably the most distant mountains are climbable, often with some prize or challenge at the highest for the difficulty of getting there. To navigate Hyrule above is to be continually and pleasantly sidetracked, driven to explore of our own volition upon spotting a plume of smoke, a Nazca Line-esque imprint on the terrain, a shrine, a cave, a Korok who needs help (assuming assistance is what you’re inclined to supply).
Within the Depths, we will still go anywhere but we will not see much of anything. Beyond the occasional ring of merciful torches, the darkness is thick and impenetrable without clothing adorned by glowing orbs, a brewed potion, or a brightbloom seed tossed into the space to supply one other small lit area. Within the absence of visibility, terrain and the navigation of it change into as much of an enemy because the creatures at midnight. The Depths are laden with unseen chasms and the faint red radiation of Gloom that afflicts environment and enemy alike, providing faint warning for the areas that permanently sap our HP until we return to the sunshine. The one thing we will see obviously is an orange lightroot that may be activated to permanently illuminate a big area, yet even these may be obscured by the terrain in between.
Read More: The Best and Worst Parts of Every Zelda Game
By way of sheer suffocating awe, the Depths most overtly recall the Subnautica games, which strand us in an enormous, alien ocean and task us with crafting our way home. The water extends in every direction through multiple biomes, overwhelming due to the sense of space and the prospect of what else might occupy it: leviathan-class predators again and again the scale of the player roam the world, and since that world is entirely product of water they could come at us from any direction as we delve further below.
As within the Depths, Subnautica’s waters require players to define their very own landmarks inside an area where it’s easy to get turned around. And like in Zelda, the acute terror does subside with repeated exposure. The principles of survival change into apparent, often by learning the hard way: the best way to proceed fastidiously, the best way to avoid a swift and careless death. The Depths are best explored after some preparation, either once we’ve acquired more health to lose or once we’ve stocked up on restorative foods and brightbloom seeds. The monsters are likely to congregate in outposts whose lights are visible from far enough away to be given a large berth.
The exceptions to those rules provide a number of fleeting moments of surprise: some particularly large creatures tread beyond the bounds of the outposts and declare their presence with a large health bar at the highest of the screen; the brightbloom seeds are usually not all the time everlasting, because small frog-like critters waddle through the dark to gobble them up. Even these, nonetheless, may be acclimated to: throw a brightbloom seed at a wall or a tree, for instance, and the little froggy bastards won’t have the opportunity to feed on it.
Zelda and Horror
That Zelda doesn’t sustain the fear of the Depths through all the game isn’t necessarily a failing. It’s simply how horror works over time. We learn, and we adapt; we discover out the best way to circumvent the issue before us or we change into accustomed to it. Perhaps we construct a motorcycle in hopes of avoiding the horror altogether, skating over Gloom deposits or blowing past torchlit enemy camps. The intensity, nonetheless, stays through the acute memory of the initial encounter. Horror on this vein works precisely since it isn’t all-encompassing, since it isn’t meant to be permanently sustained and remain as effective in the ultimate hours because it was in the primary. (Not for nothing are so many traditional horror games fairly short, to avoid the dilution of fear that comes with acquiring more powers and tools over time.)
Horror is especially memorable when it pops up in media that isn’t straightforwardly scary in any respect, where it comes out of nowhere and goes to work on an audience that has not put up its guard. This type of horror runs not only on the element of surprise but on being enhanced by the unscary material that surrounds it. A number of the most enduring horror images are so effective due to how much they stand out—think, for instance, of all the youngsters’s media that bury some image or idea we still remember years after the very fact because its intensity so exceeds its wrapper. The boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the surgery massacre within the midst of Spider-Man 2. It extends to more adult movies, too—the thing behind the diner in Mulholland Drive, the jittering demons in Jacob’s Ladder. These images profit from their presence inside tense, disorienting material, but they’re so far more impactful because they’re not given much of a spooky preamble.
And although horror will not be the very first thing we may associate with Zelda, it stays a relentless fixture. Even in Tears of the Kingdom, these moments are usually not confined to the Depths—the Gloom Hands and the Evermean trees leverage our lowered expectations from the picturesque overworld and offer what amount to leap scares. But perhaps probably the most outstanding use of horror in Zelda dates back to the Nintendo 64 games. Ocarina of Time introduces not only the large Skulltullas but humans horribly half-transformed into them, their faces and limbs protruding from an arachnid shell. Its Shadow Temple takes place within the remnants of a torture chamber, and its Dead Hand enemy is the type of gray, blood-stained abomination that you just’d find in a far more pervasive horror context.
Majora’s Mask, meanwhile, is famously dark and strange, lending additional power to Ocarina’s muddy images for the bizarre ways it remixes them. For creating a fair more prevalent atmosphere of dread, where the apocalypse has its face etched right into a slowly plummeting moon. The masks that all the game revolves around are preceded by close-ups of painful transformation and an accompanying screech of agony. The unsettling qualities of those games persist today, repurposed for the wave of internet-based horror just like the creepypasta Ben Drowned and the present movement of indie horror games made to evoke PS1/N64 graphics. The Depths in Tears of the Kingdom offer a number of the simplest video game horror in years, they usually do it while constructing on a legacy that’s been hiding in plain sight. Like those rattling trees.
Steven is a contract author and editor based within the Midwest. He has written for Slant Magazine, Fanbyte, Unwinnable, Polygon, and Buzzfeed News.