Tears of the Kingdom Is an Ugly Masterpiece

In an industry too often obsessed with looks, Tears of the Kingdom shows that ugly art can still be a masterpiece.

Tears of the Kingdom
Photo: Nintendo

Gaming has long existed at the intersection of art and technology. The same could be said of movies, television, and music, but gaming is uniquely susceptible to the collision of concepts that often occurs at that crossroads. Art is timeless, and nothing ages worse than technology.

Most modern entertainment is subject to some degree of technological analysis/critique, but gaming has historically been a bit different. Some of the first games were created as more of a showcase of technology rather than as an example of technology supporting a clear creative vision. As gaming evolved, the perception that video games were still extensions of technology didn’t fade as quickly as you might think. Even the NES had to be marketed as a toy following the great gaming crash of the early ’80s.

Besides, how many times (even to this day) have you heard someone try to argue that games are not art? What should be a ludicrous assertion is sometimes afforded a strange amount of cultural credibility. Some of those feelings can be attributed to simple ignorance, but some of that ignorance has been fuelled by the influence of the tech sector. As revolutions in 3D gaming and cinematic presentation brought video games closer to the mainstream in the ’90s, developers and manufacturers began leaning harder into the idea that new tech was the easiest (and maybe best) way to get eyes on their products.

Along the way, we ended up roughly where we are today. Cutting-edge visuals remain not just a selling point but a talking point as well. As more and more developers rely on more and more “in-engine” footage to showcase their new projects, tech is often all we have to talk about when it comes to so many new games.

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Yet, even though more and more gamers know phrases like “60 FPS,” “4K textures,” and “Ray Tracing,” they don’t always know what those phrases mean. As such, conversations about those terms are sometimes focused more on “Do they exist?” and less on “How do they enhance the art of this game’s design?” All the while, the costs of both game development and actually buying games continue to grow. As they do, the idea that a major new game must represent at least the perceived apex of modern technology grows with them.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom has come crashing into that atmosphere like the moon from Majora’s Mask. While there were some discussions about the game’s visuals vs. its $70 price tag in the time leading up to its release, that debate has certainly heated up since Tears of the Kingdom‘s launch last week. Interest in emulators that allowed fans to play the game at 60 FPS with 4K textures (or play it at all) soon spiked. When we recently learned that Tears of the Kingdom was breaking sales records, some gamers clearly had a hard time processing the situation. They wondered how a game that looked so ugly by 2023 standards could achieve so much success and rack up so much critical acclaim from sources that barely mentioned the game’s technical shortcomings.

Well, they’re not entirely wrong, and they’re certainly not crazy. Actually, if you haven’t played Tears of the Kingdom yet, you may be surprised to learn that the game’s ugliness goes beyond its visuals.

For instance, maybe you’ve seen footage of people building incredible contraptions with the help of the game’s expansive Ultrahand mechanic. What you may have not seen is all the footage of the time those players had to spend in menus assembling many of those contraptions via often superfluous input requests. For that matter, you haven’t seen the time they had to spend crawling through the game’s world in search of resources while waiting for stamina bars to refill or replacing broken weapons. Tears of the Kingdom is a much smoother game than Breath of the Wild, but there are still many times when the game turns even simple tasks into hard labor.

Tears of the Kingdom sometimes feels more worthy of the “Eurojank” label on Steam than the “greatest game ever” label some are already affixing to it. Some may argue that the game’s jankiness is part of its charm, but I’m not a member of that camp. Parts of the core Tears of the Kingdom experience could have been so much smoother than they are. Meanwhile, early mods prove that the game certainly could have looked better if Nintendo had been able to release upgraded Switch hardware.

But we too often talk about tech in gaming as if that technology’s first purpose should be anything but enhancing the art of game design. Looks are only a small part of that. For all its visual shortcomings and baffling accessibility issues, Tears of the Kingdom is often a uniquely exciting demonstration of how far the interactive elements of the medium have advanced. Yes, some of the things you can do with this game’s physics are impressive, but what’s really impressive are the completely different ways this game allows you to approach the same problem. You haven’t really experienced Tears of the Kingdom until you’ve seen a video of someone solving a puzzle via a much simpler conclusion that the one that occurred to you.

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Yet, you shouldn’t feel bad when you realize there was another way to do something. You should just be amazed that both (and so many other) options work in the first place. Failure is a part of the process, but it’s not like how Dark Souls uses failure to bonk you on the head and show you the way forward. In Tears of the Kingdom, failure and mistakes are part of the bargain. The only way for so much to be possible is for so much to be possible. Those possibilities must also include things that don’t work or things that don’t work as well. It’s all part of a rich tapestry of what could happen being allowed to happen. It’s not always pretty, but it’s often beautiful.

At a time of mile-wide, inch-deep games, it’s so refreshing to see an open-world title that reminds us that genuine depth goes so far beyond what we see in carefully orchestrated screenshots or the vague promises of potential that have earned Star Citizen over $500 million dollars so far and contributed to countless other examples of “soon-to-be regretted” pre-orders. This is an open-world game that taps into the dreams of creative freedom that the genre was founded upon.

Unlike so many other games that are built around open-ended creative possibilities, though, Tears of the Kingdom offers a worthwhile adventure that everyone will experience regardless of how they decide to cross a chasm or build a ship. You may not see everything the game has to offer, but you are guaranteed to experience certain moments that you will never forget. I recently praised Hogwarts Legacy for the ways it hides so many memorable elements just off the beaten path, but Tears of the Kingdom is on a rare level so far as that idea goes. The fact that you often arrive at, solve, and leave those moments through means of your own design only makes them feel like truly organic discoveries even when that is not always the case.

All the while, Tears of the Kingdom offers a pleasantly smooth and largely bug-free experience. Great games can still have some technical problems, but even otherwise playable games can feel like they are exploiting your tolerance. By comparison, Tears of the Kingdom feels technically complete in ways that match the completeness of its artistic vision.

That’s why the conversation about Tears of the Kingdom‘s ugliness feels so reductive. Yes, its visuals deserve to be part of the discussions about the game, even among those who would otherwise praise it. Recognizing that Nintendo could make a better-looking or smoother version of this experience sets a realistic (if still challenging) goalpost for both Nintendo and the rest of the industry.

But Tears of the Kingdom is a technologically impressive experience that just doesn’t look like one based on our modern standards of video game beauty. It uses advances in gaming technology to further the art of how games are played and made rather than how they are sold via screenshots and trailers. Besides, at a time when so many companies want to treat gaming like another piece of tech, it’s kind of hard not to root for the ugly art that outperforms so much of the competition.

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