My favorite horse in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild died weeks ago, and I’m still upset.
I fully admit, I was late to the BotW bandwagon. I didn’t get a Switch until late January; I’ve only been playing Zelda on weekends because I like playing my RPGs in massive, hours-long chunks. I still haven’t beaten it, partially because of the afore-mentioned time constraints but mostly because I’m horrifically bad at video games.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve died in BotW. I’ve been frozen, burned, smashed, drowned, electrocuted, and in one memorable instance, bitch-slapped off a mountain, to name a few deaths. Have I utterly failed to master the art of dodging? Yes. Did I not realize you could use the Great Fairies to upgrade your armor until after I’d beaten two Divine Beasts? Also yes. Was that partially because I took the wrong path in Kakariko village at the beginning of the game, said “oh well” and gave up looking for fairy fountains for the next thirty or so hours of play? Absolutely. If anything, BotW quickly became an argument for me never venturing into the actual wild under any circumstances, because if life imitates art I’d perish in two days tops.
But through all that mediocrity, I had Risotto.
Risotto was the first solid-colored horse I captured, because I quickly determined the best strategy to dealing with moblins was running away at top speed and I needed a horse with plenty of stamina to do so. I named her Risotto as a joke, imagining my Link informing her that she could either be transportation or lunch because he was lonely and angry and clearly bad at dealing with people. The name lived in my head, mostly, as it was over twenty hours in-game before I realized you could register your horse with the stables by talking to the guy at the front of the building instead of the inside counter (yes, I know, there is a reason I stick to visual novels most of the time). Weirdly though, finally registering Risotto felt less like a basic accomplishment in understanding gameplay, and more like I’d lost something.
Failing to register Risotto meant that I spent a good portion of the game travelling on her sans saddle and bridle; just a wild, amnesiac hero with a pocketful of dreams and swords riding on a horse with no (registered) name. I’d climb mountains or trek across beaches and then have to physically hike back to her, because to me she was worth returning to (unlike her spotted predecessor. Godspeed Macaroni, wherever in Hyrule I left you). Part of it was necessity, because I needed decent transport in the hours before I’d unlocked enough shrines to easily fast travel all over the map. But part of it was loneliness, and fear of going alone; she was just a dumb horse A.I., but her company was better than nothing. For all the cursing I did when she got stuck on a slightly raised rock, Risotto was my only companion in a decidedly-hostile environment. When I raced across uncharted swaths of the map, Risotto kept us steady on the road. When I kept dying in the same location again and again, I could always hop on Risotto and flee to another area to regroup and try again later. Other characters came and went, but Risotto was always there to see my successes or witness my many, many horrible deaths.
And then a Guardian shot her out from under me.
I made two fatal mistakes that day. The first was assuming horses in BotW were, shall we say, unkillable. Every time I’d been attacked on Risotto by an enemy, whether monster or Guardian, I was always the one who got hurt while Risotto whinnied and fled to safer parts (usually with me screaming “Traitor!” after her). This wrongly led me to believe that the game’s programming would allow me to be injured but trigger my horse to retreat, as incentive for me to either fight or flee. The second mistake was deciding to try saving time by racing straight past the Guardians outside the ruins of Castle Town, because Mipha’s Grace was fully charged so what was the worst that could happen?
We almost made it. But I couldn’t turn us quick enough to take shelter or get out of the path of the blast. We went flying in separate directions; me, tumbling forward and hearing Mipha’s catchphrase trigger before I even hit the ground, and Risotto screaming as she collapsed downwards and to my right.
It didn’t register at first. I thought maybe it was a texture bug with the fire, honestly. Risotto was on the ground, silent, motionless, and burning. I could still see the green streaks of her mane through the flames; all of five minutes before I’d found a stable that let you change your horse’s mane style, and gave her pretty green highlights because I thought they looked nice with her brown coat. She burned for a short while, then disappeared. I tried to draw my bow and avenge her (it seemed the decent thing to do), but I was out of ancient arrows. I had to teleport away to a shrine in disgrace, while the wind carried her ashes away. I went to the closest stable to see if maybe there was some mercy left in this cruel world, maybe the programmers made it so a horse would teleport back to a stable if it was felled in combat. No luck. Risotto was gone.
I know it’s weird to mourn a virtual creature who, in all honesty, was little more than a glorified bicycle. But Risotto was the only constant in my world when I was first starting out. She was dumb and innocent and not capable/compentent in any capacity, yet she was still doing her very best. But I think a bigger part of my grief stems from the fact that she wasn’t supposed to die. Not just in the cosmic sense of it not yet being her time, why god why, but because hardly anything in this version of Zelda really perishes.
Breath of the Wild is a game where the heroes have already lost, and disaster has shredded the landscape and bled out the population of Hyrule. You can’t walk twenty feet in some parts of the world without tripping over a ruined Guardian or hearing someone talk about how things were before the Calamity happened. Your journey is destined to lead you through the remains of gutted towns, half-collapsed buildings, great stone monuments that were in ruins even before Ganon had his way with Hyrule. Death has already come and noticeably cast its shadow on so very much of this world, again and again and again. And yet in the present, as you fight off monsters and reclaim Divine Beasts and try to find that last damn Korok on the West Hebra Summit, what impact does dying really have?
The travelers don’t die; I once watched a group of Bokoblins take out two girls looking for truffles, just to see what would happen. They just get knocked out, and pop right back up after you defeat the monsters. Ganon’s minions and Guardians don’t stay dead; every time a blood moon rises they respawn, ready to wreak havoc on the land and giving me a serious guilt complex for turning in those sidequests where I killed a Hinox or Talus. Even the heroes who were savagely murdered a century ago suddenly pop back up and come along for the ride, their voices ringing in your ears every time their gifts recharge after use. And you, of course, being the hero of Hyrule, are utterly unable to stay dead.
We’re meant to go through BotW seeing a world that has already been destroyed and ravaged by countless monsters who engaged in immeasurable bloodshed. But death itself is situated so firmly in the past that it becomes shockingly easy to dismiss the act of killing or dying as insignificant to the present story and the player’s actions. I can slaughter a whole forest of wolves and level all the trees afterwards, and yet there will still be lush groves and frolicking animals when I return days later. I can easily kill the same lynel over and over and over, until the slaughter becomes a mechanical routine from whence no joy or fear (or any emotion, really) is derived. No matter how many times Link perishes, the appearance of the continue screen means his journey will go on. Death refuses to cling to just about anything in this world; only four deaths in my playthrough seem to have any meaning or impact to the overall story, and they’re all the blighted Ganons within the Divine Beasts.
But Risotto’s death weighs heavier on me. I grew too used to a world where beings either refuse to die or stay dead. I became overconfident and lost a faithful travelling companion because of that. And even if I were to restart the game, find an identical horse in that field behind Dueling Peaks Stable and name it Risotto, it won’t be the same. I’ll never again be the blind traveler careening down a road at top speed and hoping a Tower will pop up over the horizon so I can figure out where the hell I am. I’ll never again stumble into an area I’m unknowingly quite under-equipped for, and subsequently flee on the back of my appropriately terrified horse with only half a heart left. Never again will I moan and groan while trying to hunt down the Rito village and say to Risotto that maybe Hyrule only fell because reinforcements couldn’t find the bloody castle, seeing as the road system here is in dire need of better signage. Both my innocence as a first-time player and my constant companion in confusion and ignorance perished on a field on a clear sunny day, their deaths not an unchangeable part of a fixed narrative, but a tragedy borne of my own foolish assumptions and apathy towards the concept of death and dying in this world. But even so, life goes on. The adventure goes on. It has to; how else could my Link avenge these losses except by murdering Ganon?
And that day will come. Calamity Ganon will die, the castle will be freed, and theoretically all will be made well. New life will come to the kingdom, Hyrule will rebuild, and everyone should live happily ever after (at least until the sequel drops, but who knows what that will bring). But that is a victory that I’m treading towards alone now, my Link haunted by one more ghost. Farewell Risotto; I’m sorry you couldn’t see this journey through to the end.
One week (and multiple hours of gameplay later), it occurred to me that I could have entirely avoided these musings and introspection by simply reloading the last save file from before Risotto was shot. Again, I am very bad at video games.