A conversation with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s creative leads
Tears of the Kingdom is not the first Legend of Zelda game to serve as a direct sequel to another, but in a franchise that’s so consistently defined by reinvention and reimagination from game to game, Nintendo’s latest stands out. As the follow-up to Breath of the Wild — the game that began the Nintendo Switch’s launch into the stratosphere six years ago — Tears of the Kingdom hasn’t just been highly anticipated. It’s been feverishly theorized about, debated over, and mythologized by a fandom still recovering from being dropped into a Hyrule that so thoroughly and successfully reinvented the Zelda formula that it sometimes felt as if Nintendo couldn’t improve upon it all that much.
Tears of the Kingdom’s development began almost immediately after Breath of the Wild’s initial release, and at launch back in 2017, series producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi already had confidence in their most recent game. But it wasn’t until players began uploading videos of themselves experimenting with Breath of the Wild’s physics and chemistry engines to pull off impossibly cool, ridiculous tricks that Aonuma, Fujibayashi, and the rest of their team knew they had a hit on their hands.
That knowledge, Aonuma and Fujibayashi told me during a recent conversation, was what gave them both the confidence to trust in some of their wilder creative instincts as they began working on Tears of the Kingdom. And that trust, the pair explained, is what guided them on their path to “the next wild thing.”
This interview was conducted through interpreters. The transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity. As a spoiler warning, this interview also includes some details from Tears of the Kingdom’s story that you might want to avoid if you haven’t dug into the game yet.
What were the strongest feelings that you really wanted Tears of the Kingdom to evoke in players — both newcomers and people returning who’re familiar with Breath of the Wild?
Eiji Aonuma: We knew we were creating a world that was going to be filled with many different objects, tools, and items for people to interact with, and we knew we wanted to have this function in the game where you could combine things — put things together. Through interacting with all of the things we were filling the world with, we wanted people to have this feeling along the lines of, “Oh, I was able to do this! But wait, what would happen if I tried this?” We wanted to kind of put players’ imaginations to work — to get you thinking proactively from your own end about what might be possible.
We’re hoping that people will have that creative thinking process over and over again as they play through the game, and maybe even that they will carry that kind of thinking — that creativity and expanded imagination — into their real lives.
“We’ve heard from fans saying, ‘I wish I could erase all my memories of Breath of the Wild and relive it again.’”
Hidemaro Fujibayashi: In developing this game, one of our main goals — especially for fans who have played and put a lot of time into Breath of the Wild — was for them to feel the same kind of excitement and to be just as moved by Tears of the Kingdom as they were by Breath of the Wild — the same amount this time or even more so. We’ve heard from fans saying, “I wish I could erase all my memories of Breath of the Wild and relive it again,” and within the development team, we thought, “How can we kind of provide that? How can we provide that experience?”
We really wanted to provide an experience that’s really new so that people who have spent a lot of time in Breath of the Wild, when they come back, they can say, “You know, I really felt as if I had lost my memories of Breath of the Wild.”
And for newcomers, we just wanted them to be able to have that sense of awe and excitement as if they were playing Breath of the Wild, but obviously this time, it would be with Tears of the Kingdom.
Breath of the Wild isn’t just popular — it’s become a lot of people’s gold standard for open-world gaming and games that lend themselves to experimentation. How did the public’s response to Breath of the Wild influence your thinking about Tears of the Kingdom when you were first starting development on the game?
HF: One of the core ideas of Tears of the Kingdom is this idea of being able to build things. It’s one of the first core ideas that we came up with right after the development and completion of Breath of the Wild. During those early days of Tears of the Kingdom’s development, we started to see people uploading wild movies of people doing crazy things within Breath of the Wild, and when I saw that, I realized, “Oh, we’re probably going in the right direction. This isn’t the wrong direction.” And that really, I felt, provided me with the confidence to move forward with what we wanted to do with Tears of the Kingdom.
With Breath of the Wild winning so many players over with its reinvention of the classic Zelda formula, and now that your development team’s so much more familiar with building this kind of Zelda game, what sorts of risks did you feel more comfortable taking with Tears of the Kingdom?
HF: So, the Zelda team, how can I put it… is a group of unconventional people in that they try to do a lot of things that are unconventional, that are unique. It’s a group of people that always really wants to pursue the fun and the surprise, and once we’d gotten the positive feedback for Breath of the Wild, the next step was “How can we go beyond? What can we do more?”
That idea of looking for the next wild thing, the next joyful thing, the next surprise is something that the team really gets a lot of joy and happiness out of. With Breath of the Wild, they were able to get the confidence that it’s okay to take these kinds of risks. So, it really wasn’t about worrying about whether this risk is okay or not, but instead, “What’s the next surprise we can provide?” which made development a really joyful experience.
“With Breath of the Wild, our team was able to get the confidence that it’s okay to take these kinds of risks.”
EA: One thing we definitely observed with Breath of the Wild was people taking pride in the things they accomplished and finding their own playstyle, creating videos, and uploading them to social media. In that, I think you could see that people had this strong feeling of like, “This is the way I play, and I found this. This is my own unique kind of accomplishment within the game.” We were happy to see that because we had intentionally made a game with a lot of elements and tools for people to have that kind of experience. Seeing those things charged us up with the energy to put even more of those types of elements into Tears of the Kingdom and to fill the game with more and more tools that would surprise people and allow them to find their own playstyle and feel that uniqueness in playing the game their way.
Once we set upon that, there wasn’t really a problematic issue of like “is this going to be the right way forward or not,” but instead, I think we really had the confidence that we were making a game around a solid idea, and that gave us the confidence to go forward.
Your points about people finding their own paths through Breath of the Wild are interesting because that and the game’s take on crafting were really what helped players pick up on the significance of Breath of the Wild’s physics and chemistry engines. In Breath of the Wild, the engines were present, but not as transparently so — you had to sort of discover them on your own. With the public now being so familiar with just what all the chemistry and physics engines could do in Breath of the Wild, what more did you want to do with them in Tears of the Kingdom?
HF: You mentioned the physics engine, and it’s exactly as you described. In the development team, we always talked about this idea of a kind of “fake physics.” For example, if something is big, then it must have more power. Or if something is big, then it must move more. It may not be actual physics, things might not actually work that way, but we try to make it so that it feels right intuitively when you look at it or when you experience it, and that’s something that we put a lot of time and focus into.
With the experience of Breath of the Wild, people have come to understand what physics are in this world. There were a lot of ideas we felt we could have added to Breath of the Wild but might not have been as fun. But with the sequel, because we’re going back to the same world, we thought this might be the great opportunity to add these things in. It’s the concept of going to some place that you’re super familiar with; you know, where you’ve been, and yet being able to experience new gameplay because of these new uses of the physics engine. That’s something that was present in the very early stages of planning for this project.
You’ve spoken about how important monitor testing was to Breath of the Wild’s development process and how it helped you pinpoint aspects of towers’ difficulty that were either tripping players up a little too much or exactly the right kind of difficulty that you wanted. What sort of unexpected insight did monitor testing reveal as you were building Tears of the Kingdom?
HF: With the Zonai gear, we had a group of people that have very, very rich imaginations, and so they would create a lot of devices that were kind of infinitely powered and infinitely looping. Someone would come up and say, “I can fly forever? Is this… okay?” To an extent, we had expected that this would happen, but we didn’t expect it to be able to get done so easily.
That said, we didn’t want to then squash it all together because this was part of the game experience — really being able to express your creativity and finding a solution in your own way. But at the same time, if we were to let everything fly, then it might have kind of broken the game. So, there was an unexpected difficulty in really trying to figure out where the limit was and how to adjust that limit, such that it really provides people with the room to expand and push their creative envelope but at the same time keep the game balance so that it actually functions as a game as well.
“The natural next step we thought people would wonder about is, ‘What’s Princess Zelda going to do next?’”
EA: We’re speaking about observing difficulty and adjusting difficulty based on monitor testing, and I kind of serve the function of being the lower end of that spectrum. [laughing] I test to make sure that someone like myself can get through something at all, and if I can clear it, then we know it’s not too hard for the lower end of the spectrum of players. But we also know there are many players who really like to go deep, experiment, and really kind of test the limits on what’s possible. When we discovered through monitor testing that this game could support that full breadth of players and that people across that entire spectrum can play and safely get through the game, that was the moment we knew Tears of the Kingdom was really coming together.
Let’s shift gears and talk about the story for a little bit. Even though this is a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom feels like it exists in its own distinct narrative space compared to its predecessor. What were the larger or most important thematic elements you wanted to explore in Tears of the Kingdom’s story that might not have been as viable with Breath of the Wild?
HF: I think the kind of major theme from Breath of the Wild was the struggles of Princess Zelda and the growth she goes through and what accomplishments she achieves and what kind of a person she becomes. At the time with Breath of the Wild, we were just focused on having this as a standalone single title, so that’s kind of where it ended. But as we started to think about a sequel, the natural next step we thought people would wonder about is, “What’s Zelda going to do next?” So that was kind of a core theme that we were wanting to tackle with this new entry.
We wanted to explore what that means more specifically and more practically through the idea of hands and hands being hand-in-hand, whether it’s characters holding hands or Link using his hands to activate some of its abilities. This hand concept really evolves into this idea of connecting or making connections with others. In this title, Zelda travels to the past, she meets a king, she meets a queen, and meets the demon king, and it all leaves her really thinking about what lies in her path ahead. She’s going through growth, experiencing things, and ultimately figuring out what kind of a person she’s going to be and what she is going to say. That’s a key factor in this narrative.
EA: With the previous game, or I should actually say with the opening events of this game, I’m sure you’re aware there’s a pretty important event that takes place, and this kind of sets the stage for the story. That event also kicks off a number of great mysteries that you experience as you’re playing through the game. But the key to unlocking those mysteries here is the player taking an active role. If we think back to the story of Breath of the Wild, where there were also many mysteries, but that was a story that was happening somewhat separately that you observed.
Like the previous game, Tears of the Kingdom’s story takes place over a long period of your experience within the game, but this time around, you are taking a more active role and solving more of its complicated narrative mysteries. I’m hoping that, with the story we’ve delivered this time, players are able to come away with a deeper sense of satisfaction because of their being more active participants in solving those mysteries.
Between Breath of the Wild and Age of Calamity, we’ve seen so many sides of this Zelda already. We even got a taste of what playing as her could feel like in Age of Calamity. What more did you want to explore about this specific Zelda? And did you ever consider making playing as Zelda a significant part of this game?
EA: Throughout the Legend of Zelda series, I think the relationship between the three pillar characters of Zelda, Link, and Ganon is a really important point for the stories of these games. In Breath of the Wild, we saw Link and Zelda battling against Ganon in his calamity form, and that was one way the larger story was expressed in that game.
With Tears of the Kingdom, we’re hoping to kind of deepen the relationships between those three characters, and Zelda, of course, plays a very important role in that. I don’t want to go into too many details of, you know, the role she plays because I don’t want to spoil those surprises for players. But this was something we gave a lot of thought to, and I’m really looking forward to people seeing Zelda and what her role is in Tears of the Kingdom.
As Mr. Fujibayashi mentioned previously, in Breath of the Wild, we saw the struggle of Zelda, and in Tears of the Kingdom, we see, in a way, a Zelda that’s grown up or really come into her own. So, I’m very excited for players to see and experience this grown-up, experienced Zelda and the role she has to play.
Link’s been so many things over the years — a boy, a farmer, a wolf, etc. Tears of the Kingdom sees him sort of becoming a journalist of all things, or at least someone interested in the media. What made you want to make newspapers and the consumption of news part of the game?
HF: [laughing] This came up as an idea from one of the staffers that was in charge of this section. What we really wanted to do was to make sure that we weren’t cramming information down the player’s throat. We needed to find a way of somehow sharing all of this interesting detail in a natural and comfortable way. We tried to come up with many different ideas in Breath of the Wild, but we discovered that it’s really difficult to do that in a way that really feels natural and yet provides enough.
With Tears of the Kingdom, the kind of main objective from the beginning is really searching for Zelda, and with that in mind, we wanted Link to be able to talk to people and kind of gather information from them. We wanted for players to then take those hints, think about it, and kind of work their imagination to figure out where Zelda is. We ended up seeing this medium of newspapers as a unique idea in that newspapers are crammed with information, and it’s something that most people are familiar with. They know what a newspaper is.
“What if Link was able to become a journalist and do some of his own research, and then, you know, perhaps make a salary from that?”
So then this idea grew into there being a newspaper publishing company and a newspaper, and then there’s journalists and reporters. As an extension of that, the idea came up, “Well, what if Link was able to become a journalist and do some of his own research, and then, you know, perhaps make a salary from that?” He’s kind of like Clark Kent. So, of course, we thought that this would provide an even greater opportunity for the player to be deeply involved and immersed in the world of Hyrule — this Hyrule.
Compared to Link and Zelda, Ganon has always been prone to the most creative reimagining across from game to game. Who did you want this Ganon to be? And the second half of this question — I’ve heard you guys talking about people’s reactions to Sidon, so I have to ask: what sorts of discussions did you have internally about this Ganon’s aesthetics? Why is he so attractive?
HF: With Ganon, this design really started with Twilight Princess. There’s a staffer [Satoru Takizawa] who’s been in charge of Ganon’s design since Twilight Princess, and Ganon holds a really special place in this staffer’s heart. [laughing]
From my perspective, of course there’s the understanding that Ganondorf is, of course, the evil antagonist, but he also plays almost as important a role as the main hero who stand in contrast to each other as part of this legend. So my only request I made was that because he’s such an important character at the same level as the protagonist, was to really make him a very cool, very awesome demon king.
Because this staff’s a veteran to the franchise, he’s able to really think about the needs and the ones of the entire team. There’s a part of this person that really kind of sealed away the love they have for Ganondorf in the designs that they’ve done in the past. But when I made this request to really make Ganon the way he is — because the spotlight is on him this time around, and he really is a crucial, integral character — I vividly remember the sparkle in this person’s eyes as they heard this. Seeing that love, I was really confident that I could just leave it up to them, knowing something great would come out of it.
Correction May 12th, 3:20PM ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Satoru Takizawa as the staffer behind Tears of the Kingdom’s newspaper quests rather than as the staffer responsible for Ganon’s design. We regret the error.