High Scores: Hateno Village (Day)

When I got laid off from my job of almost eight years, I celebrated with a second playthrough of Breath of the Wild. I’d gotten the teeny cartridge along with my Nintendo Switch for Christmas a year earlier and promptly logged 200 hours into the game. I had to confine my play sessions to weekends; otherwise, I’d have stayed up past my bedtime, slept through my alarm, and lost my job sooner than I did.

To be clear, the game had nothing to do with the layoff. My company’s new CEO had announced his plan to relocate headquarters from Denver to his expensive, conservative suburb in Orange County. I had no intention to let the company determine my time zone on top of a third of my waking hours, so I chose severance over relocation.

What came as calamity to so many of my coworkers came to me as relief. I’d been meaning to quit for years but was too scared to give up the salary, the benefits, the structure of a work schedule, the built-in socialization of a “team.” It felt almost like divine will that my hand was forced.

The off-boarding process was long and generous. I had six, sweet months of writing poems at my desk, collecting paychecks and eventually a fat chunk of rupees in my severance package. I felt loaded, liberated, and full of potential when I left the office for the last time, desktop tchotchkes in my backpack, and boarded the train back home to Hyrule.

What little regret I felt about my joblessness disappeared when I heard the Hateno Village (Day) theme again. Something about the song’s combination of wind, strings, and percussion melted my anxiety. It’s an odd song, with its plodding bass and nasally bagpipes, but its gentle music worked away knots in my chest. Though wordless, the song seemed to say life goes on.

In the world of BotW, Hateno Village is a refuge for normal, doofy Hylians, the kind of simple folks who the game implies were mostly killed in the Great Calamity. En route to Hateno Village, Link may pass Fort Hateno, where a wrecked armada of Guardians testifies to a successful defense of the settlement 100 years ago by a Hateno militia. Because of this narrative clue, it’s easy to sense the precarity underneath the lively xylophone and warm violin that score the village’s daylight hours. The relative peace enjoyed by the Hateno villagers is both hard-won and tenuous. The bagpipes are a fittingly funereal instrument. They keen for the lost and comfort the living.

What I find most compelling about “Hateno Village” is how it nods to the Legend of Zelda series’ past without totally bowing to it. Take, for instance, the way the song incorporates the first four notes from the beginning of the “House” music from Ocarina of Time; “Hateno” sprinkles the familiar notes in at around 1:13 like a light seasoning, subtly cuing the longtime Zelda fan to feel at home in the new environment. Essentially, the game creates nostalgia for a place the player’s never been before.

Zelda fans are used to Kakariko Village being the seat of quaint, NPC life in the series, not Hateno, a name that’s new in BotW. And the same song has accompanied Kakariko Village from Link to the Past to OoT to Wind Waker (via Windfall Island) to Twilight Princess. While there is a Kakariko Village in BotW, its music is nothing like the theme from previous games. And the music is just one of the ways in which the BotW Kakariko deviates from the series norm. Previous Kakarikos were populated by Hylians: this Kakariko is exclusively populated by Sheikah. The architecture of previous Kakarikos tended toward the European; this Kakariko takes its aesthetic cues from feudal Japan. Since Kakariko Village is such a staple of the series and an important checkpoint in the nonlinear narrative of BotW, the developers really subvert the players’ expectations with this version of the village, just as BotW subverts Zelda aficionados’ expectations of the series generally.

Hateno Village is a sort of sister village to Kakariko. The latter has a familiar name but an unfamiliar aesthetic; the former, an unfamiliar name and a familiar aesthetic. The “Hateno Village” theme is written in a nice, familiar 4/4 time, though it certainly does interesting things with syncopation. The Kakariko Village music, on the other hand, is in the much rarer 6/4 time signature. “Kakariko” was composed by Hajime Wakai, who has been writing music for Nintendo since the days of the N64, while “Hateno” was composed by Yasuaki Iwata, a relative newcomer to the company who has mostly worked on games for the Switch. I love that Nintendo chose the old-timer to write new music for the old-school Zelda village and allowed the newcomer to write familiar-feeling music for the new-school BotW-specific village. And I love that Iwata hit it out of the park with “Hateno Village.” The song captures the spirit of classic Zelda village music but adds a whole lot of invention and heart.

For a while there, I was worried about the Zelda franchise. I played new title after new title, buying new consoles and controllers just so I could play, and felt each game trying to live up to Ocarina of Time but falling short. I was worried the series had peaked. Playing BotW was like seeing a favorite musical artist from the ’90s reach the top of the charts in the late Twenty-Teens. I felt proud of the series, proud to be a Zelda fan, and inspired to achieve great things myself.

For me, “Hateno Village (Day)” is a song about reinvention. But more specifically, it is a song about how reinvention can feel like a return. When I was jobless for the first time in at least a decade, I knew I should have felt anxious. I live in a culture where people are defined by their jobs, where the words “job” and “security” go hand in hand. And yet, like the humble Hateno villagers who wake to the same song every day and go about their business dyeing clothes or selling milk, I knew that life goes on despite calamity. I was able to appreciate all the comforts life had afforded me: friends, family, health, creativity, enough money to pay rent and enjoy life while I decided what my next move would be. And, along with Link, I was able to build a home for myself inside Hateno Village. It isn’t required to advance the game’s plot, but every rupee I spent on the house felt like a rupee well spent, even if it was just an excuse to listen the song a few more times.