An Exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Part II: “Open World”

In modern game design, “open-world” has become something of a buzzword; after series like GTA and Elder Scrolls popularized the genre, developers (especially Ubisoft) embraced it and began to churn out game after game after game in that mold. Open-world games, in short, discard the notion of linear progression and instead throw the player into what is effectively a sandbox world—they can go anywhere, do anything, play out the events of the game in whatever order they please. It is, at its core, an attempt to mimic life in a way that no other medium can quite manage.

Breath of the Wild is not, though I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere, Nintendo’s first attempt at an open-world game. The Legend of Zelda—the original, from 1986—was (it even helped to codify the genre). And echoes of that first attempt ring throughout Breath of the Wild, in a way that both underscores the strengths of Zelda 1’s design and shows just how far games have come in the thirty years since.

When I say that, I mean every word; in my opinion, Breath of the Wild is the culmination of modern game design, and easily the best game I’ve ever played. I say this after nearly 100 hours logged, after completing nearly every challenge the game threw at me, slipping into Hyrule Castle to find a final lost memory, and getting so enthralled by that final level that I couldn’t resist following it through. It’s going to take me multiple posts to really distill everything this game does right, but in this one I’m going to talk about its core mechanic, and the foundation for its excellence: exploration.

While I started this post with a comparison to GTA and Elder ScrollsBreath of the Wild is a very different species of open world than much of what has come before. Up until now, “open world” often meant exactly that—a world with entirely free movement—with missions and quests that, once begun, would trigger a linear storyline and then spit you back out into the same, unchanged world.

Breath is different. Yes, there are missions and cutscenes, but they never feel like those of a traditional open world game—instead of injecting linearity into a sandbox world, they open up new options, and you don’t progress sequentially from one to the other. The divine beasts (more on that in the “story” post) can be played in any order, and not in the hollow sense that some sandboxes present supposedly non-linear (but difficulty curved) story objectives.

No, by building each “beast” (Breath’s version of the series’ traditional dungeons) out of similar mechanics, but by making the paths to them all evocative of their respective areas, the game managed to make each feel challenging and new no matter the order in which they’re played.

But even beyond that, Breath truly succeeds because it presents so much more than just those main missions—instead of using the open world as a housing for its missions, it makes that world itself the attraction. This version of Hyrule is the most immersive game world I’ve ever entered; it’s indescribably colossal, impeccably detailed, and—most importantly—fully explorable.

Or, in other worlds, there is no place in Hyrule you cannot go.

One of the most irritating mechanics in any game world (including but not limited to open worlds), is the invisible barrier: the chest-high fence that cannot be jumped, the rubble pile that cannot be climbed, the passageway that can never be explored. Breath of the Wild does away with that, giving Link all the tools he needs to go anywhere within Hyrule. He can climb, swim, and glide—all limited only by a slowly-depleting stamina meter that can be refilled and extended with elixirs and Spirit Orbs. And later in the game, different armor sets and special powers augment those basic abilities. Altogether, they make Hyrule feel irresistibly real; any structure (mountain, ocean, island, trench) you see in the distance can be reached, and there are nearly infinite ways to get there. My personal favorite was always finding high ground and gliding down towards my destination, but you could just as easily trek through the forests or Cryonis-walk across the rivers. In truth, Breath of the Wild feels like the first game where the path is truly up to the player, and the landscape is so detailed and varied that any method feels rewarding.

Of course, for a world this huge, you’d need a map, and Breath of the Wild partakes in the tradition of making you unlock one. And while I’ve seen certain aspects of the game’s map-unlocking criticized, it actually ended up being one of my favorite parts.

In short, once you clear a few obstacles in the Great Plateau, you find a massive tower shooting up into the sky. This is the Great Plateau Tower—one of the fifteen “Sheikah Towers” scattered around Hyrule, and your task is to climb it. Then, at the top, you plug your Shiekah Slate (a tablet-like device that stores your map and several of your abilities) into an apparatus and, effectively, “download” the  map for that region.

Now, each region is strewn with villages, stables, and shrines—mini-dungeons that, in return for the completion of a short challenge, grant you orbs that can eventually increase your maximum health and stamina. If Breath of the Wild were a lesser game, some of those would immediately appear on the map, and you’d be able to mark your way towards them. But instead, the maps you receive from each tower are entirely topographical—you can use them to locate different landmarks (and will probably become adept at that by the end of the game), but it makes you work. Moreover, you can use the towers (or, as you start to explore more of Hyrule, any high ground like trees, hills, or mountains) to scout out the area around you—to look for any shrines the old fashioned way and, using your Slate’s scope, mark them on your map for reference. In other words, Breath makes you not just an explorer but an amateur cartographer, and it does it in a way that feels active and engaging.

But of course, before you have the map as reference, you have to climb each tower. Some reviews listed this as tedious, but—because the developers made the surroundings of each tower extremely different—each became some of my favorite moments in the game. In short, each tower is surrounded by some obstacle—enemies, environmental hazards or obstacles, etc.—or placed in a difficult-to-reach location (or both), and each becomes, in its own way, a puzzle to solve. Figuring out how to climb each tower was something I began to look forward to as I cleared the more difficult ones—finding the hidden updrafts around one, searching among snow-capped mesas for another, and (my personal favorite) climbing up crumbling ruins and avoiding pools of health-draining goo until I found a place where I could leap safely onto a climbable side. When I finally found the last one, in a region (the Gerudo Highlands) I’d spent hours searching for its orange glow, I was almost sad that the map was complete, that that part of the experience was over.

Of course, there’s so much more to this game than mapping, but exploration is the foundation upon which everything else sits. And every design choice hints towards that core; for instance, while Hyrule is populated with villages, towns and stables, you can never teleport directly to them—only to nearby shrines. This generates a further illusion: that this world wasn’t designed for the player, that its secrets are accessible yet still believable as parts of a foreign landscape. Moreover, as each shrine stands a ways outside the locations you’re traveling to, it allows the developers to define how you’ll see each recurring place—like Kakariko Village from a nearby mountaintop, or Goron City from a cliff at its peak.

In truth, one of Breath of the Wild’s most incredible accomplishments is how it can hide choices like that—how it can make you forget just how well-designed it is, and instead just enjoy the game. The story, challenges, art design—everything I still have to write about—rests on the same backbone: the full, complete actualization of the kind of open world most games in the genre fail to produce. Breath of the Wild pours joy into the simple act of exploration, and provides hours upon hours worth of regions to explore.

And while that’s its first huge success, it is most definitely not its last.

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