When I first popped my Breath of the Wild cartridge into my Switch on Christmas morning, well, I got an error saying that the game card couldn’t be read, and that I should take it out and reinsert it. But after blowing on it and actually starting the game, I was greeted by pitch black void; no initial menu, no title card, nothing. Just a blank screen with a vague shimmering light staring me in the eyes. After a voice called out to me, I woke up in a cave, and with still the same amount of information I had when I first opened the game, I made my way out. And that was just one of the many magical moments I experienced with Breath of the Wild. As a cutscene started and Link, the protagonist, made his way to the edge of a cliff, the camera panned up and to the vast world that awaited both me, as the player, and Link too. Not even ten minutes into the game, and I already only had one goal in mind; explore.
Breath of the Wild’s approach to discovery
Even though I do not usually go out of my way to avoid spoilers, I tried my hardest to go into Breath of the Wild with as little information as I could, and it definitely paid off. A large part of my enjoyment came from not knowing what was awaiting me, and of all the games I’ve played, Breath of the Wild was the only one that I feel like would’ve lost it’s magic if I hadn’t gone in blind; and that’s mainly because of just the magnitude of delightful things there are to discover in this game.
I had always wanted a game with a world that was magical and interesting, where you could find and discover new things to do, and Breath of the Wild is the only game that has met that quota so far. Other games such as Shadow of the Colossus did feature a giant world filled with beautiful landscapes, but outside of the 16 colossi for you to hunt down, there isn’t anything else for you to do, it’s just a beautiful yet disappointingly empty world. However, Breath of the Wild somehow managed to break the boundary that all other open-world games succumbed to.
Unlike nearly all other open-world games which have you control a protagonist that is already accustomed to their world, Breath of the Wild has the protagonist, Link, have no memories or prior knowledge of the world he inhabits, already creating a connection between the player and Link. And this connection makes the act of discovering in Breath of the Wild much more significant than in other games; it doesn’t feel like you’re being filled in on something that has been common knowledge for years, it feels like you truly are an adventurer, discovering never-heard of monsters and landscapes.
Breath of the Wild’s Shrines
If you have ever played a Zelda game before, you probably know the general series of events that take place; Dark Lord Ganon tries to take over the world, then Link has to go defeat him and rescue Princess Zelda. But where Breath of the Wild tries to break these conventions is by changing the game from a passive one, where the player simply advances the story by solving puzzles or making progress, to an active one, where it is the player themselves who chooses the series of events that take place. The best way to show this in my opinion are shrines; which each contain a series of traps and obstacles to be overcome as part of a trial, and offer some linear objectives for the player to complete.
I think that discovery in games should be fun but also rewarding, and Breath of the Wild’s shrines (and Koroks too, which are small leaf-like children that are scattered around the game world and reward you simply for exploring) are the perfect balance between the two. If a game were to have useful items that you can just pick up everywhere, then there would be no fun to it; but if there were things you had to think about and actually try to look for, but they held little to no use, then what’s the point in even looking?
Shrines are one of the most fun and engaging thing to discover in Breath of the Wild; beside the ones that you might run into randomly, there are shrines that you need to complete special quests to uncover, like killing an entire family of cyclops like creatures called Hinoxes, or lighting torches in the middle of the desert, or placing colored orbs in their correct locations. Another way that shrines and koroks help boost the sense of discovery in Breath of the Wild is that they are scattered all over the map; with there being 120 shrines and 900 koroks throughout the entire game, there is not a single place where you aren’t on the hunt.
But even with the abundance of them, anytime I run into a shrine I still get incredibly excited, and that is mainly because of both the fun challenge that they offer to the player, and the reward that is gifted upon completing the shrine. Shrines are perfect for enticing players because firstly they are an engaging puzzle that require critical thinking and knowledge on how to use the four runes provided to Link, and secondly their small size is perfect for players to get sidetracked for a few moments, complete an interesting puzzle, get a spirit orb, and get back to what they were doing before.
Breath of the Wild’s Multiplicative Gameplay
To learn more about Nintendo’s own thinking process when making Breath of the Wild, we can turn to their presentation at GDC 2017 where they discussed the game’s development and some of the goals they wanted to achieve with the game. Their main focus was for the world to have rules that were simple enough to be easily understandable, but also consistent enough to create complex scenarios and connect everything in the world, or what they call “Multiplicative Gameplay”. To achieve this both a complex Havok based physics engine was used, and what Nintendo dubbed the “Chemistry Engine”. The Chemistry engine is how Nintendo makes different elements of the world connected to one another; it’s what lets you burn grass to create an updraft, or cut a log into the water to make it flow downstream. And the decision to create their own engine for this benefits the open-world feel of Breath of the Wild greatly; because the world no longer has to have scripted events made for every tree and every patch of grass, and the developers no longer need to program how every object interacts with every other object, the engine handles all of it.
And the reason this engine was built is not the laziness of the developers, it’s also so the player can notice their own patterns, and create their own solutions to problems the game throws at them. An example of how a player might’ve been involved in multiplicative gameplay is noticing that their sword gets struck by lightning during a thunderstorm, realising it happens to all metallic objects, and then experimenting and discovering that enemies also get hurt from the lightning. Now, they have identified that shocking enemies with something metallic is a viable opinion for fighting during a thunderstorm.
Breath of the Wild’s Freedom
If you yourself aren’t much of a gamer, or even if you consider yourself to be one, looking back on when you first started playing video games, you might remember constantly wondering why you can’t solve a problem in the way you thought of, or go the places you want to, or any of the other limitations that video games have that separate them from the real world.
An in-game barrier I came across that has stuck around with me for a long time is when I first played Uncharted 2. I was in the middle of a cinematic sequence where you have to scale up a train dangling off a cliff to reach safety. Midway through holding the analog stick and occasionally pressing X to jump up, I noticed a broken window, and wanting to investigate, I tried to break the window by swinging into it. Naturally, it was impossible to do so, because the developers never intended for somebody trying to do something like that, but it still took away from my overall experience for me and made it much less dramatic by reminding me that this was just a scripted sequence.
However, Breath of the Wild gives the player freedom to solve it’s puzzles in any way they see fit. Going back to the GDC presentation, Takuhiro Dohta, the technical director for Breath of the Wild, also touched on this.
“We’ve filled every corner of the game world with sets of situations and goals, and of course we’ve envisioned correct ways to solve each of them, but that’s not to say we want the player to search for and find those correct answers. Instead, we want them to have fun thinking up and trying solutions on their own.”
I’ve always seen these options as a way for the player to choose the best solution to the situation they’re faced with, but instead, it also makes sure for new players that no matter what solution they think of, it will probably work.
I first realized this when I watched my at the time 6 year old brother try Breath of the Wild for the first time, and I was amazed at how differently he approached situations as opposed to me. In the situation that is depicted above in the picture, the intended solution is to talk to an old man, learn how to cut down trees, and use the tree as a bridge to get across. However, my brother didn’t bother even interacting with the man. Instead, his plan of action was to get to another cliff that was beside where he was supposed to be, kill the enemies that were residing there, then climb horizontally over to his destination. It was a completely different way of how the developers intended it to be done, and how I had done it, but he created his own way of overcoming the situation he was faced with, and that empowered him greatly as an explorer, especially since he wasn’t that used to Zelda at the time.
Breath of the Wild’s simple yet diverse mechanics, combined with it’s creative and detailed game world create an experience that is challenging, yet approachable by anyone. That’s why I would recommend anybody, even if you haven’t played that many video games, to check out The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This fantastic game and the newest addition to the Zelda series will bestow you with a breath of fresh air on what open world games can truly become.