The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece. Despite some minor nitpicks and technical issues, the latest entry in Nintendo’s storied franchise has succeeded in revitalizing a tired formula while simultaneously pushing the open-world genre in a bold new direction. Games of this magnitude inevitably cause ripples through the industry, and developers will take notes in an attempt to learn from Breath of the Wild’s successes. While the game is a revelation on many fronts, the primary lesson it has to share is found in the way it respects its players.
From its opening moments Breath of the Wild values player agency over anything else. Upon waking from the Shrine of Resurrection, players are set loose on the Great Plateau and given the keys to their own adventure. The shrines containing the game’s tools can be completed in any order, and there are multiple ways to tackle the area’s environmental challenges. This agency only multiplies in greater Hyrule, as there is no primary path. Each player chooses their initial direction, the weapons they use, the landmarks they chase and the mountains they climb.
A recent feature by GamesRadar’s David Houghton outlines the effect that the simple mechanic of climbing has on the open-world formula. His thoughts comparing Breath of the Wild’s exploration to fellow sandbox titan Grand Theft Auto V perfectly capture the revolution of player agency.
“Breath of the Wild’s exploration – and thus, the entire essence of the game built around it – is utterly different to not only that in any other Zelda game, but also that in any other open-world game around. While you can go off-road and discover secrets and oddities in Grand Theft Auto, its worlds are defined by the fact that there are roads in the first place, defined, rigid, suggested routes wrapped around an approximation of the real world with all its civilised trappings.”
When viewed through this lens, the deliberate design of the open-world genre is unmasked. Towers populate maps, mountains guide rather than invite and a trail of digital bread crumbs ensures a direct trip free of detours. Nintendo took a radically different approach. Every inch of Hyrule invites exploration, and nothing is off limits. Other than a single, player-chosen quest marker, the map is a canvas waiting to be filled in through personal discovery rather than developer guidance. The hook of orienteering to the top of a mountain, spying a point of interest, placing a marker and gliding toward it into the unknown is invigorating and exciting while being completely unique to Breath of the Wild.
Coupled with liberating exploration, Nintendo’s respect for its players is driven home by the gameplay of the world itself. Hyrule has an intricate chemistry and physics system, but it is completely up to the player to discover the possibilities that it presents. For a series famous for its recent hand-holding, Breath of the Wild is novel in how little it actually tells the player. Everything the player needs to know to survive the wild world is taught through gameplay before Link even leaves the Shrine of Resurrection. Two chests contain clothes that he can wear, and players are forced to scale a wall and enter the larger world.
That is the last time Breath of the Wild forces the player to do anything.
Everything that comes after is subject to player experimentation, and playing the mad scientist usually results in a crucial discovery about Hyrule. The game hides clues into its complexity through simple human logic. For example, wood burns. A Hinox wears wooden shin guards. Therefore? You get the idea, but Breath of the Wild is teeming with these moments. I have rarely found myself stuck in any encounter, shrine or dungeon for long because there is always a solution hidden in the game’s mechanics waiting to be uncovered. And time spent in the world leads to a greater understanding of how the world works. This makes every adventure rewarding in ways few games can match.
Nintendo’s respect for the ability of its players is something lacking in many of today’s games. This lack of total respect manifests differently depending on the game, but has only increased over time. Games such as Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor feel the need to constantly remind players how to play the game, using prompts on the side of the screen to flash control tips almost constantly. For all of its mastery, The Witcher 3’s use of a breadcrumb trailer always kept me hurtling toward my destination rather than feeling compelled to explore the world. Loot games like Destiny or Free-to-Play mobile games fail to respect the player’s time, requiring obsessive dedication to see all that they offer. Older entries in the Zelda series were not immune either, as they constantly urged the player forward in a very specific manner.
Breath of the Wild falls victim to none of these typical traps. It trusts the player to figure out its complex controls. The player is encouraged to forge their own path. Time spent is reciprocated with genuinely interesting and useful rewards. And above all, it never tells the player exactly what they have to do next. Nintendo took a massive leap of faith and completely stuck the landing.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does such a wide variety of things right that it would be easy for developers to farm the game for future inspiration, and they wouldn’t be misguided in doing so. However, there is one lesson that any game – no matter how big or small – can take from its success. The game succeeds because it places implicit trust into the player’s ability and then rewards their experimentation. The intimate control of my own experience has caused me to sink more time into the game than almost any in recent memory, and my enjoyment has come as a fruit of my perpetual curiosity rather than the promise at a chance at something better. Every moment feels essential in Breath of the Wild, which is more than can be said about most games. Nintendo has provided a blueprint, but it is up to the rest of the industry to follow in their groundbreaking footsteps.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who has sunk almost 70 hours into Breath of the Wild. He is one of Hyrule’s Finest. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.