How Breath of the Wild crafts an adventurer

“How does this game exist?”

This is the question I asked myself after a gameplay sequence within the first few hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It began as I made my way towards a shrine atop a snowy mountain in the game’s starting region. The grassy plains gave way to white bitterness as I traversed the mountainside. Having successfully cleared the previous two shrines I felt nothing could stop me.

Then Link started to shiver. I shrugged it off: “I can dash my way to the shrine and scuffle inside before the cold bites me, it’ll be fine.” I made it about halfway before Link died from hypothermia.

Clearly I would need to make preparations if I intended to survive my trek. I ran off to adventure further in pursuit of a way to conquer the cold, soon coming across the nearby hut of an old man. Inside was a diary entry recounting a recipe, noting that if someone could concoct it for him he’d be willing to part with his warm doublet. I set out to gather ingredients, using my intuition to figure out where to find each, then returned and cooked up his meal. In return he gave me the cold-resistant clothing and I was able to successfully reach the shrine.

At no point did the game’s hand force me down a given path, instead letting me go off and die, learning through my misadventures. I could have missed the hut entirely and needed to find an alternative route to the shrine, and even when I did find the hut I needed to figure out where to collect the ingredients myself, and in order to make the food I had to teach myself how to cook. It’s a design philosophy that harkens back to Zelda’s early days, something Nintendo has largely left by the wayside in the name of accessibility with each consecutive release.

Yes, Breath of the Wild is not entirely accessible to a non-gaming audience from the outset. You’ll end up in situations that can and will kill you but it’s that danger that’s so enticing. In many ways this is the franchise coming full circle, returning to the original’s harsh environment that proved pivotal for so many people at the time.

Beating a game is easy if you hold the player’s hand. It may mean a broader range of people can tackle its challenges, sure, but in turn you risk the game becoming a process of going through predetermined motions. What made the original Zelda and its contemporaries stick out was that they left the player to their own devices to conquer them. It was your experiences, not that of a game designer playing the role of tour guide through a carefully constructed digital world that would crumble like a house of cards if you peeked behind the curtain. This isn’t to say that these classic games aren’t carefully constructed digital worlds as well but they lead the player through visual language rather than by force and give them the freedom to learn from failure.

This tradition is carried over into Breath of the Wild which has the most meticulously crafted world for its expansive size that I’ve seen in a single-player game. Everything is plotted out with such painstaking intention that it comes across as organic despite its handmade nature. It instills a feeling that anything is possible even if every approach you could take was preempted by the designers. Want to set fire to the grass around your enemies? Go for it. How about push a boulder onto them from the cliff above? Yep, totally viable. And if you want to charge in headfirst for some hand-to-hand combat? That works too. And they’re all equally satisfying options because the combat scenarios were designed with them in mind.

This careful construction is lost on many modern open-world games where the crutch of procedural generation has become touted as a feature. Look no further than last year’s No Man’s Sky, a game that promised endless worlds and delivered… the catch being that every one of those worlds was vapid and empty. Algorithms are only as variable as their formula will allow and no algorithm can make up for deliberate game design. What people want isn’t true randomness but a world that has been crafted to feel naturalistic.

Any elements of randomness in Breath of the Wild exist to augment already present game design. Let’s look at the dynamic weather system for example: rain makes cliffs too slippery to climb and lightning forces you to unequip all metal objects from Link or else die by way of electrocution. Meanwhile your own electric-based items will pack an extra punch while fire-based ones lose their utility. Beyond this, NPCs will react to the rain by sheltering themselves.

These NPCs play a critical role in Breath of the Wild. Every single inhabitant has been given a name, personality and (for the most part) unique model down to the guards who do nothing more than stand at the entrance of towns. They each have daily routines and many can recount personal stories stretching back to before the calamity 100 years prior (the races of Hyrule have long lifespans, it seems). Through these people the world is given occupation and history, evidenced through the minor characters in particular. They may not impact the gameplay or main storyline in any capacity but their existence sells the idea that Hyrule is home to individuals . They make the world worth fighting for, turning this mass of land into something more: a home.

The way one traverses the world is also an important element to selling the fantasy of adventure. This is why the paraglider and climbing are the key component that tie all of Breath of the Wild together. With these you can go anywhere you can see, at least once you learn how to best make use of them. Like many other elements of the game your options are opened up to you as you master its systems. Figuring out how to work around your stamina meter that prevents you from climbing or gliding indefinitely makes the ability to reach new places all the more satisfying. You yourself have grown as an adventurer through your own trials and tribulations as one would in real life.

I can’t remember the last time a game so fully delivered on every one of its promises like Breath of the Wild continues to do for me. I’ve likely pushed past 30 hours of playtime and the sense of discovery only becomes heightened further as I continue exploring. It’s fully realized the vision that The Legend of Zelda has always strived for and for that reason it’s the most Zelda game ever made, and likely the best too. Where the franchise can go from here is unclear but for now we’ve reached the pinnacle.

9 thoughts on “How Breath of the Wild crafts an adventurer

  1. neat. i honestly can’t think of another open world rpg that actually makes the world itself an obstacle by using mechanics like stamina and temperature that you normally see in more sandboxy survival-exploration games.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As someone who has had no experience with the Zelda series, reading this has certainly sparked an urge in me to play them (particularly BotW). Right off the bat, the aesthetic is something I greatly appreciate, extending from the character designs to the world and its environments.

    The way you described the various ways of doing things and things occurring sort of made it come across as a shandified story (a made up term by MrBtongue): “a shandified story is one where the narrative is free to move in its own direction and at its own pace, in a setting well-realized enough to allow for this freedom of movement.” (e.g. Fallout: New Vegas). Games that go against the cinematic form many have donned in recent history, and instead not only allow for going against the story and wandering off elsewhere, “doing things out of order, surrendering to every distraction” met. And the best shandified games are the ones that dissolve the story into the setting, and the setting becomes the story.

    Apologies for the long explanation of something you probably already know. It’s just something that I really appreciate about the medium of video games. So, if that’s the case for the new Zelda game, then I’ll have more reasons to enjoy it.

    Anyway, great post. Would love to see more stuff on gaming, but I understand that it doesn’t get you a load of traffic, so hopefully you’ll be able to talk about it more when you move platforms and start making videos. 🙂

    ~ Ace

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, BotW’s visual design is second to none. I’ve seen it characterized as a playable painting which perfectly suits it. The Wii U/Switch may lack the graphical prowess of the competition but they make up for it in breathtaking visual design.

      “Shandified” (a new term to me because I’m not familiar with its originator, although a sentiment I already understand) sounds like the perfect term to sum up BotW. Bethesda’s games do this too although I think to a less effective sense. First, I tend to find Bethesda open worlds to be fairly empty, very much due to the randomness of them. Sure, there are things you can do in them that you can’t in BotW (kill NPCs for example) but the way BotW is designed gives the impression of being able to do anything more even if its systems are fewer. Basically, I feel Bethesda’s open worlds to be lacking in intentional design although I still enjoy them. They do fit the mold of that description well though.

      As far as 3D Zelda games and most Zelda games in general go there’s usually a very linear sense of progression with some smaller opportunities to branch off for a side quest. BotW changes this of course, as did A Link Between Worlds for 3DS did for top-down Zelda games. I’d recommend looking towards those two for “shandified” design. I don’t want to discount older Zelda games though, they are acclaimed for good reason (for the most part).

      Yeah, gaming content is a low traffic generator as is anything that isn’t anime. Given the amount of time I spent playing Zelda it was pretty much a requirement but for now it’ll be sparing until I find an audience for game-based content. I have a professional history writing about games (although it was when I was a younger, less seasoned writer) and have followed gaming for most of my life so I definitely feel qualified/confident talking about it. Would love to do more stuff but again it’s going to be irregular.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I completely agree with everything you’ve said here.

    As you already know, my experience with the game has been very positive thus far.

    It’s not perfect, no game is, but it’s the closest thing I’ve had a perfect gaming experience in the last decade. It’s a true milestone for Nintendo and gaming as a whole and it deserves the overwhelming praise it’s been showered with since its release.

    I’ve already lost hours of my life to the game just messing around and exploring and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the game has to offer, having only just reached Kakariko Village after about 15 hours of playing.

    It’s been years since a game has managed to enthrall me as much as BotW and I can say with full confidence that it’ll wind up with a spot in my Top 10 games by the time I finish it.

    Fantastic write up. I really enjoyed reading your experiences with the game and how your methods of tackling certain parts largely differed from my own.

    What a game. Honestly. I can’t believe this exists.

    Now time to go play some more… 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh man, you’ve got some cool stuff to come, especially some cool villages. The one you’ll probably reach next is my favorite, it feels so diverse and alive. I can imagine it being a real place.

      It’ll probably be among my favorites of all time too, I mean I’d already say it is. I think the game is as perfect an experience as it can be, although I judge perfect more on the big picture than individual systems that could be polished (inventory being the big one and a cook book to record recipes would have been nice).

      Like

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  5. Nice write up. It’s tough to find a title that beats back that problem that open world games often encounter: the idea that players want quantity, regardless of quality.

    While procedural generation has it’s place, I still often wonder if people wouldn’t be happier with a smaller world, but with handcrafted experiences like the one you described. A 200 hour game is all well and good, but if only 10 hours of that is something new and fun, what was the point?

    People want to feel like they got their money’s worth!

    Liked by 1 person

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