When Nintendo made the decision to take its long-running Zelda franchise into open-world territory, the risks were clear. By doing so, the Japanese firm faced the possibility that its new game would be compared to some of the finest examples of the sandbox genre: Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption, even Minecraft.
By changing its tried and trusted – and on occasion ground-breaking – Zelda formula, Breath Of The Wild could have wound up looking ordinary; a derivative amalgam of elements previously introduced by western developers like Rockstar and Bethesda, albeit with familiar jingles and natty green hats awkwardly placed on top.
As we now know, this isn’t what happened at all. Breath Of The Wild takes inspiration from other open-world games, certainly, but in a way that is entirely in keeping with the established traditions of a 31-year-old series. Far from riding in the creative slipstream of western adventure games, Breath Of The Wild takes existing ideas and uses them to make something new. The result is one of the best-reviewed games of recent years and, it’s fair to say, the most invigorating and satisfying Zelda game since the series’ previous high watermark, Ocarina Of Time.
Within a few minutes of play, as Link stumbles from his weird Shrine of Resurrection, it’s clear that Breath Of The Wild simply works. After an hour or two, your humble writer began to suspect that Breath Of The Wild didn’t just work, but that it might be one of the best sandbox games ever made. Yet while most would agree that is a great game, exactly why it works is harder to pin down; like the best Nintendo games, Breath‘s design and mechanics feel so cohesive, so effortless, that it’s difficult to pick apart exactly why it all hangs together.
What follows, then, is a personal theory as to why Breath Of The Wild feels so immersive, rewarding, and so refreshing to play. For this writer, the new Legend Of Zelda works not just because of the fine-tuning of its mechanics, or the care which has gone into every element of its artwork, but thanks to the design philosophy which underpins every aspect of the game.
The conventions of the open-world sub-genre
Open-world games are, unsurprisingly, marked out by their scale – the sheer wealth of things there are to see and do.
We aren’t tethered down to a rigid plot, or a narrow set of activities to work through in order to trigger the next cut-scene; the best sandbox games allow us to create our own stories within a carefully-built framework. Open-worlds still have rules and confines – just like our work-a-day reality – but they provide broad enough parameters in which we can make our own decisions and miniature dramas.
Breath Of The World does this: there’s a save-the-kingdom narrative, but otherwise, the fields and mountains of Hyrule are yours to explore. Its physics and AI systems can be exploited in all kinds of odd and surprising ways – you can use your magnetic powers to hurl metal boxes high into the air, wreaking havoc in an enemy camp. You can create ice blocks in a river to catch fish. Throw a nigh-on-useless weapon at a disarmed Bokoblin, and he’ll pick it up and try to fight you with it (fruitlessly) instead of going for a more powerful sword or club lying further afield. But again, these aren’t elements that are unique to Breath Of The Wild; they’re simply examples of the finely-honed, perfectly judged mechanics which interweave almost without a seam.
What is pretty much unique about Breath Of The Wild, however, is that it somehow rewards you with something every time you play it. Whether you sink a generous two or three-hour session (or more, if you have that much spare time) into the game, or whether you can only spare five minutes, there’s always something to do, or discover, or achieve. Don’t have time to wade through the puzzles and fighting required to capture one of those Divine Beasts? Not a problem – you can simply warp out of that area to another part of the map and do something else.
By the same token, spending a short tea break on Breath Of The Wild means your time will be rewarded, even in some small way. You can cook up some elixirs and energy-boosting meals for your next big venture into the unknown. You could indulge in a spot of hunting, since prime meat, once cooked, is great for selling to shopkeepers in exchange for rupees. You can head off into the mountains to look for precious stones and other minerals.
Even an aimless wander around a part of the map will reveal something engaging, or unexpected, or beautiful; whether it’s stumbling over a group of Moblins in the woods, who’ve hoarded some handy arrows and other loot, or stumbling on the Korok seeds which are hidden all over the place, Breath Of The Wild’s seemingly desolate landscape is positively teeming with things to see and do.
Part of this pick-up-and-play appeal is thanks in no small part to the design of the Nintendo Switch, since its flexibility means you can enjoy Breath Of The Wild on the go or in front of you unfeasibly huge television. That you can save the game at any time, and that Breath can be booted up and resumed within seconds of turning the Switch on, also helps. But the game’s immediacy runs much deeper that – arguably, it’s woven into its very fabric.
Side-missions and filler
In many open-world games, their scale, their sheer big-ness, is not only their unique selling point, but also their drawback. Sure, the map’s huge, but after wandering around for a few hours, a gnawing sense of familiarity can set in; the side-quests start to feel repetitive. The amount of time spent travelling between locations becomes a chore. The hunt for every last trinket at the behest of a non-player character begins to feel like a full-time job. It’s as though some developers are so set on giving their customers a ‘big’ experience that they either make a colossal map with little of interest to do in it, or stuff the thing with so many loot items and other filler that the whole thing feels numbing.
In other words, lesser open-world games are sold on the abstract idea of freedom and absence of barriers, without stopping to think what that freedom actually means to an end user. An example that springs to mind is Fuel, a half-forgotten sandbox driving game from 2009. Developed by Asoba Studios, Fuel was sold on its post-apocalyptic world, laid out over 5,000 or so miles of scorched earth. At the helm of your Mad Max-like vehicle, you could drive anywhere, take part in challenges, find hidden tracks, and unlock additional stuff like clothes and new cars.
Conceptually, this all sounds perfectly fine; in practice, the game just felt empty. You could spend endless hours driving around with no real sense of purpose; there were hidden barrels of fuel and other bits and pieces hidden around if you fancied hunting for them, but the overall air of dry desolation hardly encouraged exploration. The developer seemed to realise this, since exploring Fuel‘s open world was an optional extra; if you just wanted to jump straight to the races, you could simply select them from a menu.
Fuel’s an extreme example of a common problem in open-world games: the developers’ focus seems to be more on stuffing a game with ‘content’ rather than things that are actually engaging; unsurprising, given that so many games are marketed how many dozens of hours they take to complete. What better way to give the appearance of value for money than to pack a game with filler, or place all the missions really, really far apart?
Even some superior sandbox games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, say, can feel somewhat desolate if you don’t keep attacking the main missions. Sure, you can go and steal cars, buy some clothes or maybe go bowling – but then what? Without the main missions to carry you along, life and activities in these open worlds can feel rather meaningless.
An underlying philosophy
Breath Of The Wild has side-quests, non-player characters and copious loot, of course. But again, these open-world mechanics are tied together by what we described at the top of this article: an underlying design philosophy. So what is it?
Simple: everything in the game has a purpose, and nothing you do in Breath Of The Wild is a pointless time-sink.
Take those Korok seeds, for example. When a non-player character named Hestu shows up early in the game, asking you to locate the missing contents of his maracas, you might be forgiven for thinking, “Oh for feck’s sake” or something similar. Yet persevering with Hestu’s request brings all kinds of material and incidental benefits: actually tracking down the Korok seeds requires observation and puzzle-solving. Some you’ll even discover completely by accident. And once you have enough of them, you can exchange the seeds for pouch expansions – which means you can carry more stuff around with you at any one time.
Every element in Breath Of The Wild is balanced with this same level of care. Whether it’s hunting animals, foraging for fruit or mushrooms, or simply climbing up the side of a hill to see what’s on the other side, Nintendo’s natural-looking world is actually a complex and intoxicating web of mysteries and rewards.
Here’s an example to illustrate this. One evening, I had a spare few minutes between jobs, so I quickly fired up Breath Of The Wild. Knowing I didn’t have time to do anything particularly intense, I simply went for a wander in the hills near Zora’s Domain. Within a minute or two of climbing and running, I found a lake which, because of the loose way I’d gone about the main missions, I’d never heard word of before. The ruined church jutting from the water suggested that I’d be rewarded for investigating further, and – sure enough – I found a submerged treasure chest containing a profoundly useful piece of headwear.
It’s but one instance of a game that constantly rewards your effort, and Breath Of The Wild is full of them. Sure, there are bits here and there that don’t really work – those motion-controlled Shrine challenges are flat-out horrible – but they’re more than outweighed by the sensation of a world that is always in motion. By ensuring that every action has a tangible reaction, Breath Of The Wild creates a palpable sense of connection between player and world.
Here’s a telling difference between Breath and Fuel, mentioned earlier: after playing Breath for a few hours, and unlocking Shrines and Towers, you can insta-travel from place to place in a few seconds. Yet time and again, I’ve found myself ignoring this option and simply galloping off on my horse, Appleby (named for his tendency to steal apples) – a stark contrast to Fuel, where exploration was something I strove to avoid at all costs.
In this regard, the game’s philosophy could be distilled even further: the player’s time is precious, and every minute should be rewarded.
Sometimes, that reward comes with a new piece of loot, or a dredged-up piece of armour, the discovery of a Korok seed. But at others, it can be even more basic: the funny aside from a passing stranger; a wolf randomly struck by lightning, running in circles, on fire. The beauty of a sunset; the warm, cosy music that plays as you approach the safety of a ranch – the kind of soothing melody that makes you wish you could climb inside the game and lie down by a campfire.
As a technical achievement, Breath Of The Wild sets a new yardstick for Nintendo – one that will likely be studied by rival developers for years to come. Artistically, it’s as stunning to look at as any game that has emerged from Japan since the start of the new millennium. But it’s as a thoughtful reinvention of the open-world formula that Breath Of The Wild really excels.
Put it all together, and you have a game with scale and intimacy; technical ingenuity, but also real heart and soul. It’s a sandbox adventure which provides a link to the past, but also points the way ahead to the genre’s future.