Photo from Zelda.com
It’s not rare for many AAA titles in the past several years to take place in sprawling open worlds. From some of the first open world titles like GTA III to modern gems such as Skyrim, open world games have proven to be massively popular and, more often than not, are financially successful as well.
A new open world game was recently released (possibly you’ve heard of it), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s come out to nearly universal praise, attaining an unheard of Meta-critic score of 97 and with some reviewers calling it “the perfect game.”
So with this massive feedback, the natural question becomes, “What makes Breath of the Wild different from the plethora of other open world titles to be released in recent years?”
There are several things that separate the latest Zelda game from it’s other sandbox competitors, but it mostly comes down to two things: pacing and reward.
Open world games are a tricky design template to pull off, despite how common it is. There’s a fine line between giving the player a vast, exciting world to explore, and providing them with a barren landscape and nothing to do, a sandbox with no toys if you will. It’s the difference between peaking a player’s curiosity and losing their attention. Scale can only do so much in games.
The most extreme example of this is No Man’s Sky, possibly the most disappointing title of 2016, and a perfect example of hype gone horribly wrong. No Man’s Sky is a game that succeeds in scale, and is in some ways a technical achievement, but fails tremendously from a game design perspective. Essentially it was designed to be a near infinite sandbox universe with 18 quintillion planets, —that’s 18 0’s ladies and gentlemen— and while that’s true, the game gives you next to nothing to do on those planets. It’s barren in every sense of the word, and you get next to no reward for your exploring efforts.
These types of design problems are the bane of player experience.
Games like the Elder Scrolls and Fallout seem to ride along this line of engagement and emptiness. These games are designed to feel vast and somewhat empty, but there’s still plenty of content there if you’re willing to look for it, though it can get repetitive and arduous as you sink dozens of hours into these games. There’s plenty of tasks and side quests, but they can feel far between and many require laborious tasks that drudge the player along.
Breath of the Wild fixes all of this and adds the charm and gameplay we’ve come to expect and admire from Nintendo.
Breath of the Wild provides one of the most exhilarating open world experiences in any game, and while the land of Hyrule is larger than it’s ever been, it is filled to the absolute brim with content. Similar to how the Zelda series approached design in A Link to the Past, there is a marker for your main quest, but you’re free to approach it at any pace you like or explore as much as you want or entirely blow it off.
Here is where the magic of Breath of the Wild comes about.
When you’re making your way from place to place, it’s hard to travel for more than a minute or so without finding something worth trailing off to. What’s more important is just how rewarding those meandering moments are. Every time you trail off it’ll lead to a new weapon, or a new bow, or a new shield, sometimes even a mini boss or some rare crafting elements. There’s constant substantial reward to your exploration. As someone who was very hesitant about the weapon durability mechanics when the game was first announced, I’m relieved to see just how much those mechanics are incorporated into the level design.
This is what modern open world games need so much more of. A true blending of mechanics and world design that leads to consistent rewards on behalf of the player. The player’s sense of exploration doesn’t last forever, and is a precious resource in retaining an audience. When taking the time to wander off the path to see commonly overlooked portions of the game, the experience becomes immensely more satisfying when you’re rewarded for doing so, and those commonly overlooked portions feel intentional and well thought out on the part of the designers.
I hope more AAA developers take notes on Breath of the Wild for future open world titles, as Nintendo has once again shown that their reputation as a game developer is very well deserved.