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The Bird That’s Everywhere — and Nowhere — in the New ‘Zelda’

As I’ve been playing through Tears of the Kingdom, the whip-poor-will call has been a ubiquitous, surprisingly pleasant reminder of the world — and of our responsibility to it.

The Zelda triforce logo and animals.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The land of Hyrule is brimming with life. By the time I finished playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the 2017 masterpiece that 300 experts recently voted the best game of all time, I’d filled my Hyrule Compendium — the in-game encyclopedia — with hundreds of photos of the world’s inhabitants, from the bokoblins that romped through grasslands to the lynels that lay in wait atop mountains and the dragons that undulated in the skies.

But the creature that captivates me the most, both in Breath of the Wild and its sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, which reportedly had people so hyped they took days off when it released last Friday, doesn’t appear in any of my in-game photos. There’s no compendium entry for it, but its call is unmistakable, standing out from all the other ambient birdsong. Within minutes of landing on the surface of Tears of the Kingdom’s Hyrule, I heard it: the three-tone song of the Eastern Whip-poor-will.

The Whip-poor-will gets its name from its call; walk into the woods in many parts of the eastern United States in the summer, and you’ll likely hear one somewhere nearby, trilling its name. Whip-poor-will. Whip-poor-will.

I’ve never seen one myself; their camouflage makes them hard to spot. Perhaps this is why, even though Hyrule is home to many familiar creatures plucked from our world — my Link tames horses, pets dogs, feeds foxes, scares off herons, and gets knocked off cliffs by short-tempered goats — the game’s whip-poor-wills are so enchanting to me. I experience them, in both the real and game worlds, through their call alone, and so the whip-poor-will in the game feels more real than the animated horses or dogs.

Video games are escapism at their best, and no games do that better than the recent Zeldas with their expansive worlds. But as I’ve been playing through Tears of the Kingdom, the whip-poor-will call has been a ubiquitous, surprisingly pleasant reminder of the world — and of our responsibility to it.

(A quick note about spoilers: there is a vague reference to one main mission from Tears of the Kingdom in this piece, but otherwise I won’t stray beyond what Nintendo has already highlighted in its marketing materials.)

The basic conceit of a Zelda game is this: the world is broken, and you must fix it. In Breath of the Wild, the world had been broken for a hundred years, and you — or, more accurately, Link — wake from a deep slumber to go about your task. In Tears of the Kingdom, the world quite literally falls apart in front of your eyes. Islands appear in the sky; chasms yawn deep underground; a monstrous storm settles in over a village you know from the first game, cutting off food supplies.

To say that Nintendo planned to make a climate allegory would be a bit of a stretch; the game’s directors have never indicated as much. But the game also bestows Link with the gifts of a mysterious, long-lost civilization that, among other things, powered their intricate machines with surprisingly efficient batteries that can power whatever madcap contraption I decide to invent in service of fixing Hyrule. The lines, at least for a climate writer, aren’t hard to draw.

I am, I have to admit, a little bit envious of the simplicity of Link’s mission. Every person in Hyrule experiences their changed world in a different way, yet they are all aligned: the world, they agree, is in need of fixing. All Link has to do is fight off a great, ancient evil, and while the path may be treacherous — I’ve died many a clumsy death in this game — he has the benefit of being able to fix his problems with magic and weapons.

Our world, of course, is not quite so easy; what I wouldn’t give for one of the game’s batteries. But I find much beauty in the margins where our world intersects with Hyrule. Apples, fat and tempting, dangle off trees. Glowing mushrooms tempt foragers from within caves. Wild horses travel in groups and gallop away together when frightened.

The birds draw the margins closer. As the music settles after a fight with a group of bokoblins, I’ll hear it: whip-poor-will. I’ll help someone gather ingredients for a meal: whip-poor-will. I’ll finish a main quest, bringing the world closer to balance: whip-poor-will. There is a world outside this one.

Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.


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