Beating Breath of the Wild like it’s Snake took careful planning and ‘infinite patience’

ZeldaFastTravelVideo

How one player charted a path through Hyrule, without ever hitting their ‘tail’

Link is patiently standing still. He is waiting, steadfast in a single spot, as the rain continues to pour on top of him. Surely he could move, get out of the rain, and dry off. But returning to the main path, or some shelter, or even teleporting might break the path of his journey through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And that would break the rules of Snake.

Everest Pipkin is a drawing, games, and software artist who “produces small work with large data sets,” and who also happens to like Breath of the Wild. And back when the Master Trials DLC launched and added the Hero’s Path mode, allowing the player to see the route they took through the game as one long trail behind them, Pipkin had an idea: what if you played it like a game of Snake?

In an interview with Destructoid, Pipkin says they were inspired by other runs, what you might call non-standard methods, of playing through a video game with some meta-textual goals or constraints in mind. They reference the San Andreas Deer Cam, and playthroughs of Minecraft where a player sought to find the edge of the procedurally generated world, seeing the landscape turn surreal and crumble around them as they went.

After wanting to do the run for years, Pipkin set out for adventure on November 11, 2020, with the goal to solve what they called “The Traveling Swordsman Problem.” They sought to journey across Hyrule, without ever crossing their own trail.

As it turns out, that’s a bit of a challenge.

“Once I started, I ran into some problems right away, because I think I was originally like, ‘Oh, I’ll just save scum,'” Pipkin told me. “And like, it’ll all be about finding a path through the world that lets me do the Divine Beasts, and I can try over and over again until I get it right.”

It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be so easy, however. Breath of the Wild is fairly open in how it lets the player glide, clamber, and journey across the open world of Hyrule, but that also means more aspects to account for. That means planning for possible vertical overlaps, for example. Knowing where certain scenes had to happen, and what was critical to progression and how it triggered, was all important in laying out a 2D path through this 3D world.

There were also unforeseen obstacles. Breath of the Wild‘s save management system, as well as its cutscenes and other actions outside of Pipkin’s control, could sometimes teleport Link to other areas, dropping him in a new spot, and inconveniently drawing a line from A to B, causing potential unintended intersections.

Pipkin described a situation with Hestu, the cheerful Korok musician who can expand Link’s inventory. His quest—to steal back his maracas—requires speaking to him twice. A normal task for any other player, but through Pipkin’s ruleset, required some careful negotiation of cliffs and approach vectors. And, as it turns out, the dialogue can warp Link back over the path they took in. That, along with issues like resting, or loading from an autosave, can cause all kinds of straight-line paths that would directly conflict with Pipkin’s goal. The Travelling Swordsman Problem wasn’t just about navigating Hyrule, but also navigating Breath of the Wild‘s unwritten rules about what it does and doesn’t write to the Hero’s Path trail.

So when I asked Pipkin why they kept at it, and what kept them going, I chuckled a bit when their initial reply was to call it a “sunk-cost fallacy situation.” Though really, it does take someone determined to pull this off; and even though it got tough at times, it never took a turn into being clearly impossible.

“It felt like I had made this bet that I could see it done,” said Pipkin. “And if there was ever a point where there was a hard exit, right, where it was like, okay, you know, this cutscene is essential. And there is no way to do it without drawing a loop in the map. Like, it’s just impossible. Then maybe that would have been a failed state, maybe I would have been like, ‘Okay, I guess this is impossible, goodbye.’ But because I never hit that, it was really just a matter of doing it right next time.”

So Pipkin carried on. And what’s more, they were chronicling their journey the whole way. Their whole playthrough is available on YouTube: every new step forward, every annoying restart, and plenty of time just hanging out, waiting for some NPC cycles to finish or rain to stop pouring.

This also means the process of slowly solving what can even be done using this type of run. Pipkin said they didn’t want to just run to Hyrule Castle right after leaving the Great Plateau; if you’re going to do this Snake-style run, then you “kind of have to move through the whole world.”

Clearly, some areas were more doable than others. Shrines, thankfully, don’t record movement inside them to the Hero’s Path, and so Pipkin found some freedom inside those challenges. But segments like teaming up with Prince Sidon to board the Divine Beast, for example, involved both cutscenes (potential teleports) and a gameplay segment where the pair would be constantly moving in loops. 

So, clearly, Divine Beasts were off the table. At several points, Pipkin attempted to route in Eventide Island, the infamous challenge area. And though they never found a solution, Pipkin still highlights it as a great microcosm of what the Travelling Swordsman Problem is all about: analyzing, carefully traversing, and figuring out how to deal with the chaos of Breath of the Wild‘s many, many overlapping systems. At any point, something you’ve never seen before could knock you off your intended route, so learning to mitigate disaster is a helpful skill.

Eventually, Pipkin decided their win condition was to get every tower in Breath of the Wild, then head for Hyrule Castle. It was an important distinction to make, that this wasn’t just about a test of their ability to play the game, but to also understand the game.

“I felt like it was important to have something else that wasn’t just like, the pure capacity of my skill to not get hit by enemies,” said Pipkin. “But rather, the capacity of infinite patience. To like, be in the world, and go on the worst walk ever.”

That walk would require a fundamentally different approach than you might expect, too. It meant fighting in a different way, since doing the side-step dance with an enemy and flurry-rushing them would be too unpredictable, movement-wise. They described doing a lot of moving forward and hitting, or standing still and waiting for enemies to approach. And if anything died behind you, none of those resources could be obtained.

Surprisingly, resources weren’t too much of an issue. Shrines could offer some bounties, and as it turns out, Breath of the Wild is fairly generous in providing the player with resources. “There were periods where it’s like, I don’t have any arrows, or I don’t have a single shield,” Pipkin recounts. “But for the most part, you know, I had enough to keep my very few weapon slots stocked.”

Fairies were an especially precious resource, as they could act as a preventative against death, and deaths weren’t just trouble for moving forward, but also for keeping the path going as Pipkin wanted it to go. So a planned excursion to a Fairy Fountain resulted in some patient waiting for fairies to flit by, eventually coming close enough for Link to grab some and stock up.

Rain, of course, was a big factor. Travelling off the beaten path means cliffs, mountains, and possibly unintended routes through different regions, and that means climbing. Traversing those slopes in the rain, as any Breath of the Wild player will tell you, is precarious at best. So then, it’s a short bout of waiting on a cliffside for the rain to stop, hanging out in chat as the in-game hours pass by.

Chat, at least, was helpful. Pipkin started their run with pre-recorded videos, but soon flipped to live-streaming the run and uploading VODs later. Passing the time gets a lot easier when you have a small group of viewers to chat with about the weather, pets, or whatever else has been going on as Link stands patiently resolute, holding out for the clouds to break.

After eight months, and six restarts, Pipkin accomplished their goal. Culminating in a Hyrule Castle run that, due to it having its own map that logged to the main map, meant having to navigate the final dungeon from memory, they toppled Calamity Ganon and finished their goal. The Snake run had been achieved.

But as Pipkin had gone on such a journey through Hyrule, altering how they thought about the game and its landscape, it was all doable. Though they say they had a couple versions of a map that looked like a “conspiracy theorist-like pinboard,” Pipkin used those tools less and less over time. They were becoming familiar with the world and its systems in the context of this Snake run, and anticipating how to deal with chaos had become a little second-nature by the run’s end.

They tell me they enjoy speedruns, but their own approach is a little different; they like the process of seeing those runs come together. “I am always interested in watching people who play games that way, playing them freely,” said Pipkin. “Where they’re like, fucking around in the world, trying to find a better route, trying to like perform some sort of weird save system [trick], trying to duplicate a wall clip that somebody else did, and getting it wrong 100 times before they get it exactly right.”

And after eight months, Pipkin did get it exactly right. They have solved the Traveling Swordsman’s Problem. To answer the most obvious follow-up: no, they have not done it again.

“I took it out,” said Pipkin. “I took the game out of my Switch. I put it away. I’m tempted to play Skyward Sword but I don’t even know if I want to do that.”

While they still truly love Breath of the Wild, and how satisfying it is to mess around in its world with so many ways to play, they say they’ve seen enough of Hyrule for a while. Some mention of other games came up, like a shipless run of Outer Wilds, but it would need to have that same mix of interesting meta-textual, house-rules approach and existing attachment to the game. But while it may be a while, Pipkin isn’t done with Hyrule forever.

“By the time Breath of the Wild 2 comes out,” jokes Pipkin. “I’ll be there.”

Eric Van Allen