On the surface, Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn’t have much in common with the new sci-fi thriller Prey. While the games are different in a lot of ways, both are well-made simulations that reward experimentation and exploration. And both give you fun ways to climb around.
Navigation and traversal are fundamental aspects of any open-ended exploration game. Sure, you can fight monsters or solve puzzles or hack computers, but how do you get from point A to point B? What if you want to go from point B back to point A? Is that process interesting? Is it challenging, or boring? Do you drive around in a car, or walk? Do you fly, glide, ride a horse, or use a jetpack? The best nonlinear games usually have an interesting answer to the traversal question, and those answers usually mix freedom with some degree of restriction. No barrier is insurmountable, but you’ll have to use your head.
Of Breath of the Wild’s many interlocking gameplay systems, none is perhaps more crucial than the combination of climbing and paragliding. Provided he has enough stamina, Link can climb any object in the game’s overworld, from the steepest castle wall to the highest mountain. All that climbing would be less useful if it weren’t easy to get back down, so the designers at Nintendo also gave Link a paraglider. Once you’ve made it to the top of the mountain, you can simply leap off the edge and safely glide back to land in a few seconds’ time.
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Link’s climbing and gliding abilities are crucial components of Breath of the Wild. So much of the game is about a feeling of openness and possibility. You can go anywhere, explore anything. While that feeling of possibility is important, neither the climbing nor the gliding would work as well without some limitation. Because of Zelda’s stamina system, you can’t climb forever, nor can you paraglide forever. You have to carefully manage your stamina lest you plunge back to earth. Each act of traversal is a quick, interesting challenge.
Early on in Prey, you get a couple of crucial items: The GLOO cannon and the ARTX suit propulsion system. The GLOO cannon fires big balls of foam that you can use to put out fires and plug up leaks, as well as to freeze enemies in place. It also lets you build makeshift staircases, which let you access out-of-reach places aboard the Talos-1 space station. Early in the game, one doomed NPC even demonstrates this technique for you, building a stairway and climbing it before getting killed by a monster.
Your suit propulsion system is ostensibly for pushing yourself around in zero-g, but it also works indoors in regular-g. Once you have the jetpack, you can jump off any high point and cruise back to land, provided you don’t run out of fuel first. That technique is most useful when, say, you need to get downstairs but there’s a dangerous enemy near the stairwell. Rather than creep your way down, you can jump over the guardrail and float to a safe spot below. Jump at the proper angle and you can even angle yourself through holes in the monsters’ patrols. In Prey, you’re never too high up.
Once I got used to using the GLOO cannon to climb around, Prey opened up considerably. I’m constantly going off the beaten path, returning to areas I’d cleared and re-exploring them to access locked areas. Between that and playing with mission objectives turned off, I’ve been getting to know Talos-1 like the back of my hand. There’s an upstairs section of the starting area that I had left unexplored, but careful wall-climbing got me where I wanted to go, no problem. I made it into the locked Fabrication room before I think I was “supposed” to, and ran into a few enemies I didn’t even know existed. Now every time I hit a wall or a locked door, I look up to see if I can get over. Every time I need to quickly get back to the ground level, I know I can just jump.
It’s important that both Zelda and Prey don’t make climbing or descending easy or instantaneous. Exploration in these games is always an interesting low-level challenge. In Zelda, you have to manage your stamina and plan your routes accordingly. In Prey, you have to find the right wall and place your GLOO rounds properly. Similarly, in both you have to manage a limited amount of fuel to get back to the ground safely. Sometimes that means free-falling for a bit, then catching yourself closer to earth. Neither technique is difficult, but both keep you engaged. With a little creativity and patience, you can almost always get where you’re going.
Contrast that with a game like Batman: Arkham Knight, which makes climbing and descending almost effortless. With the press of a button, Batman can grapple his way up to any vantage point in sight. With a second press, he can glide in any direction for any amount of time. You can simply let him fall and he’ll still land safely. He’ll even do a dramatic three-point superhero landing. None of that is to say Arkham Knight is “worse” or anything like that. Obviously the Arkham games have a different goal from Zelda and Prey. They’re meant to be empowering superhero simulators, so it makes sense that traversal would be thrilling and frictionless. The developers have placed friction elsewhere.
Some games make it easy to ascend but difficult to descend, or vice versa. Nier: Automata makes it simple for 2B to safely drop down from a high vantage, but it can take ages to figure out how to get to the top of a building. I loved Horizon Zero Dawn, but was often frustrated by how limited Aloy’s traversal options were compared with Link’s in Zelda, which I was playing at the same time. Exploration in Horizon felt hemmed in. It placed my focus more squarely on the story and the combat, but it diminished the number of options available to me at any given time. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one to leap from a cliff, only to forget that Aloy didn’t have Link’s paraglider.
One of the most engaging challenges an open-ended game can offer players is also one of the most fundamental: how do you get around? By giving players a well considered mix of tools and restraints, both Zelda and Prey transform the simple acts of climbing and falling into interesting problems to solve. Both games are better for it.