Breath of the Wild’s vast open world is full of discoveries. The most important discoveries we make come when the game’s systems interact to help us imbue the world with our own interpretations and meaning. We take a closer look in this video essay.
This piece originally appeared 3/9/17.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feels like a watershed moment for the series and maybe even for games as a whole. It forgoes the heavy authorship found in other games and allows players an immense amount of freedom right from the start of the game. After a tutorial section, you are free to go anywhere you wish. You can even go to the final boss if you want.
Much will be said about how structure recalls the original NES game, where undirected exploration was a key component to making the game world feel so large and wondrous. This is a good comparison to make. It is readily apparent that Breath of the Wild’s success does not come from a lack of structure. The success comes from a lack of guidance.
The game does offer a critical path with four main dungeons but it hardly encourages you to head down that path. Instead, you are dropped in a world full of landmarks or locations that call out to you. A shrine in the distance will promise a new reward. A tall mountain teases the challenge of climbing it. The ever present (and almost always visible) Hyrule Castle serves as a reminder that if you ever want to, you can stop what you are doing to change your course and set out to fight Ganon.
The existence of these things is one half of Breath of the Wild’s success. These focal points can capture our attention and give us something to strive towards, a destination to push at through rain and monsters and sweat. But these destinations come secondary to the journey.
Game designer Clint Hocking, known for Far Cry 2 and the Splinter Cell series, coined the term “dynamics” during a GDC talk in 2011. It refers to a meeting of mechanics and systems that creates meaningful play. It is not just emergent gameplay, where intersecting systems can surprise the player with unexpected stories. Dynamics are the puzzle pieces that give us meaning. That allow us to imbue the game world with a sense of order and intentionality.
We might come across a broken down cabin, covered in arrows and crumbling from years of neglect and stumble further to find a large skeleton. A narrative begins to form about an epic struggle until, as if out of nowhere, a merchant arrives who turns out to be an assassin in disguise. We might ask, after we defeat them: “what drew them here?” and come to any conclusion we want. Perhaps this is where they come to sharpen their weapons against the bones of a fell skeleton. Maybe that run down cabin was their home. It is up to us to decide.
We might spot a magical creature in the jungle and dash after it only to find a deposit of rare minerals. Were they mischievously guiding us there or were they being drawn to another source of magic? We might come across a circle of stones and have the shadow of a cloud pass overhead. Did we disturb some long quieted spirits by entering the circle? It is up to us to decide.
Of course, the boring answer is that none of these things are truly happening. Not insofar as the designers of the game intentionally placed these assets where they were found in order to make us draw these specific conclusions. Instead, the dynamics of interplaying systems and a lush world allowed us to give meaning to these otherwise meaningless and random moments.
Breath of the Wild’s scale demands an excess of travel, which means that there is an excess of opportunity for meaningful and dynamic interactions to occur. Additionally, the large time committed to traversal also established a clear tone by allowing the player to reflect on what they saw. It is somber and pensive.
I’ve spoken in another video how some of the more important moments in video game combat at the moments when we pause to reset while taking no real action. Breath of the Wild’s world structure functions in a similar fashion, providing suitable punctuation marks to our journey while offering extended periods where the world can reset before the next surprise.
Breath of the Wild is full of surprises but the powerful thing is that they can vary in intensity while still having equally profound effects. My first encounter with a rock monster was a desperate and terrible thing where I fled instantly. My second encounter was very different.
Maybe ten hours of travel after my first encounter, I came upon a still pond where horses had gathered. I had no intention of taking a horse of my own but I did want to get closer to see if I could drop some apples near them and observe what might happen. Slowly and quietly, I made my way closer to the steeds, slinking by a rock which suddenly leapt to life and scared them off. Different scale and intensity, equally magical effect.
Here’s another example that highlights the importance of discovery: I wanted to head to Death Mountain to visit the Gorons. On my way there, I came across a canyon and at the bottom there were stone slabs. I decided to paraglide down to investigate only to find the entrance to a large and ancient temple. Inside, dozens of mechanical guardians blocked my path towards a shrine. I expected a devious puzzle or grand boss fight inside. Instead, a voice called out and told me that I’d already proven myself worthy by reaching the shrine at all.
With a looser structure that encourages exploration and forces players to turn inwards, Breath of the Wild doesn’t hedge bets on video game-y moments of humorous emergence or drag player along a highly curated narrative. Instead, long and extended travel gives rise to moments that dynamically cultivate meaning and generate a sense of wonder.
And because of this, the joy of Breath of the Wild is not found in slaying dragons. It is being reminded, through a strange, ribbon-like figure sailing around the sky, that dragons exist to begin with.