Science

The physics of ‘The Legend of Zelda,’ explained

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Video games are back in a big way. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is one of the most anticipated games this year, sure to draw in hardcore players and casual fans alike. From the trailers and teasers, you can see how Tears of the Kingdom will feature ways to make flying machines and manipulate time. It’s a natural question, then, to wonder how Zelda’s laws of nature line up with real-world physics.

In one of the trailers, Link takes flight on a paraglider, dropping from any height and exploring ravines and chasms at speeds that could kill a human in real-life. Like its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom offers an immersive, somewhat realistic world that still incorporates plenty of magical and superhuman abilities. Game developers say that this bending of the rules that we know adds to the game’s overall level of fun and to the player’s enjoyment.

Charles Pratt, assistant arts professor at NYU Game Center, who has used physics when developing games, says that the reason why the fantastical elements of Zelda still work is because they “follow people’s intuitions about physics” and use their understanding of real-life rules as a jumping off point.

“Gravity isn’t exactly gravity, right?” Pratt says. “Gravity gets applied in certain cases, and not in others to make it feel like you’re bounding through the air. Because jumping is really fun.”

Breath of Wild, which came out in 2017, was a smash hit. It sold 29.81 million copies, and it shaped a whole generation of video games, pushing developers to make more open-world titles—and arguably influencing Pokémon to open up its borders and feature a wild area for players to ride around and explore.

Aspects of Link’s world line up with the Earth that we inhabit and recognize, and, like our reality, it follows the basic rules of physics. The first Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game follows the same natural laws as Tears. The general rules of gravity still exist. Projectile objects fly on a curved trajectory and need to be aimed with skill to hit their targets. Items lose durability and break over time.

[Related: Marvel’s Spider-Man PS4 game twists physics to make web-swinging super fun]

Breath of the Wild also played around with the elements. Metal objects conduct electricity and attract lightning during a storm. Link took damage when entering a cold environment without wearing the right clothes. And setting enemies on fire deals them damage over time, and opens up the possibility of setting the nearby area on fire.

“If you drop a stone, it falls, and if you drop a piece of wood in water, it floats, but unlike the real world, it looks like you will have access to jetpacks and magical objects that our world doesn’t,” says Lasse Astrup, lead designer on the new Apple Arcade game What the Car?, which features its own unusual physics, in which players can drive cars that have multiple human legs or propel into the sky as rockets. Astrup, who is no stranger to exploring physics in video games, says he plans to buy the new Zelda game and spend days playing it—and then seeing what kinds of creations other gamers come up with.

Using weird physics games—whether it’s in Zelda games or one of Astrup’s creations—adds more fun to the titles, Astrup says. “You never have full control over what happens in the scene or which way a thing flies when it explodes,” he says. “This allows for emergent gameplay where players can explore and find their own solutions.”

Other ways that Tears of the Kingdom defies our laws of physics include how Link can stand on a fast-accelerating platform without falling over, when a regular human in our world would have been knocked over by the accelerating force.

Lindley Winslow, an experimental nuclear and particle physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that, based on the trailer, “It continues to be a beautifully coded game. The details are what make it compelling, the movement of the grass, the air moving off the paraglider.”

[Related: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla avoids Dark Age cliches thanks to intense research (and Google Earth)]

Winslow adds, “The power comes from the fact that the physics are correct until it is fantastical. This allows us to immerse ourselves in the world and believe in the fantastical. My favorite is the floating islands.” Magic also exists in Tears. Link can use magical powers to stop time, use magnets or lift extremely heavy objects.

Alex Rose, an indie game developer who is also a physics programmer and lecturer at the University of Applied Science Vienna, pointed out that there’s plenty of accurate physics in Tears of the Kingdom, too. Link’s terminal velocity drops after he spreads out his body slows even further when he releases his parachute. 

Tears of the Kingdom introduces a system to concoct fanciful machines: Platforms lifted into the air by balloons, or jetpack-like rockets affixed to Link’s shield. In our world, a person riding a platform would get sent flying by inertia when the vehicle they were riding turned the corner quickly. But Link, being a video game character, is able to stay on the platform, even during quick turns, Rose pointed out. And in the real world, Link would not be able to sling around an arm rocket without being at risk of losing a limb.

“In the real world, even the best gymnast would be sent flying to the ground,” Rose says, “like an old firecracker stunt from a certain MTV show.”

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