February 2, 2018
Nearly a year ago, the latest Zelda game released and has since been met with high universal acclaim. Since that time I have read many reviews, and while each author cites their favorite of its many strengths, there is one thing that almost everybody comes back to; the feeling of playing it. Somehow Breath of the Wild evokes a feeling we have not experienced from a game in quite some time. Many say it is akin to the feeling they found in Skyrim, Ocarina of Time, and even earlier games like Secret of Mana or all the way back to Adventure. I believe that behind this feeling is not just the feeling itself, but nostalgia driven by memories of the same feeling in days past. I’d like to take a minute and share why I believe Breath of the Wild just feels so right.
What feels good about it in the first place? We all know it summons a sense of wonder that we just haven’t seen as much in recent games, but what is that feeling and why is it so strong with this game particularly? Its combat is fun, but not any more than most of its peers, it can’t be that. I (among many others) love the exploration, but the open-world formula is now increasingly popular, and the Zelda series is actually somewhat late to adopt this way of world building. I’ve played my share of Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, but none in the last decade have recaptured this feeling until now.
After pondering this over the last year, I have considered whether or not you can pin this feeling to any one aspect of the game. Perhaps it’s just the game as a whole. Every element in Breath of the Wild was present in another game before it, and in fact I cannot think of a single element that was not found within the Zelda series itself. Cooking is a more intricate form of the crafting presented in Skyward Sword, climbing has been around since Link’s Awakening, and the combat mechanics of timing your button press to get a better attack as well as taking up the weapons dropped by your foes are the culmination of a system that has been evolving since Wind Waker.
Does expanding on the old and combining a bunch of sweet elements make for a game that feels downright epic to play? Well yeah, but I still don’t think this is it. After much deliberation, I believe that there is after all one defining factor which makes us feel like kids again, and it’s actually something that they took out. Breath of the Wild refuses to hold your hand.
In Breath of the Wild, pretty much all of us died the first time we tried to fight a large group of foes because we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. The game gave us a stick and told us to go nuts. After some trial and error, we figured out how the foes move, how they react tactically, and we were able to overcome these challenges going forward.
This applies to nearly every aspect of gameplay. When you explore, you find a treasure that nobody led you to, and it is up to you to claim it through whatever means necessary, whether that means solving a puzzle, climbing a mountain, or pummeling a Wizzrobe to death, it’s your accomplishment. Even when there is a quest, it usually tells you a vague description of where to go and what to do and you have to wing it to actually find what you are looking for. When you solve a shrine puzzle, it’s the same thing. I have seen several shrines solved in totally different ways than I used for the same results, which adds yet another level to the sense of accomplishment.
In the beginning, games gave you vague clues of where to go in the instruction manual and let you discover everything else all on your own. As technology improved, it became easier to tell a story through dialogue and cinematics, and that is fine in its own right. Many developers over the years, however, took to pigeon-holing your path through the game directly to where you need to go in order to see what happens next in the story. Systems were put in place to make sure you could not get lost. Way points on your HUD or map allow you to easily navigate to where your character needs to be to progress, and in some cases even teleport there without bothering to even walk.
The earliest case of this which I can think of is in Ocarina of Time’s Lost Woods area. While such a forest had appeared before, this was the first time where a character (Kaepora Gaebora) told you exactly how to navigate from one side to the next. In the original Legend of Zelda, the only clue you were given was from an old woman who said “North, West, South, West, to the Forest of Maze.” Not only was this woman nowhere near the Forest of Maze (now usually referred to as the Lost Woods as well), but you had to pay her off to gain this info at all. Perhaps Ocarina did not ruin this feeling, but it certainly felt less fulfilling to be told exactly what to do rather than piece together what you knew from random info gained by exploring, trial and error.
These things all have their uses, and some of them are even used in Breath of the Wild, however they are treated differently. One example, very similarly, is how to get through the Lost Woods in yet a third iteration. As far as I know, no character in the world tells you how to get through. “As far as you know?” you might ask. Of course, I do not believe I have spoken with every NPC in the game, so perhaps there is one somewhere, or maybe the answer lies in one of Traysi’s articles. Point of the story is, if there is an in-game clue, it’s nowhere near the woods, and many (like me) will just end up wandering through until they accidentally discover the proper path.
The map in Breath of the Wild adds much to this as well. It is very richly detailed, but it only gets better as you explore, to the point where the original feels empty. When you first unlock a map segment from a Sheikah Tower, it has naught but the major landmarks labeled. Walk around and discover ruins, rivers, bridges, monster hideouts, and other secrets, and you can obtain what is possibly the most detailed in-game map I have ever seen. You discover these things, you make the map better. It goes with the whole theme; rather than handing itself to you on a silver platter, it grants you the tools to place it there yourself.
In Skyrim, for contrast, your map of the realm is mostly complete from the get-go, and the only notable addition is fast-travel points. While convenient for quick story progression, this really detracted from the exploration as it encouraged you to forego discovery entirely because it was more efficient. Yes, yes, Breath of the Wild did that too, however I felt more could be gained by walking than by teleporting, as along the way you could farm ingredients, discover shrines, tame horses, get treasure, and so on. In Skyrim you could find some of these same things, but it felt like it was inhibiting your progress in the game to do so rather than going straight to where you need to be.
To be fair, very few series are innocent on this matter. Among my least favorite hand-holding titles in the last decade were actually two Zelda titles. Spirit Tracks made you “navigate” a literal railroad to get from point A to point B, while Skyward Sword gave you a magic stone you could enter that would give you a video of where to go and what to do to complete the next story objective. I’ll go more in-depth on how these affected gameplay in the upcoming months through my Lens of Truth series, but these are two of the worst examples of hand-holding in any game, and finally Breath of the Wild came and fixed what we didn’t know was wrong. Well, I did, but I digress.
Most gamers picking up Breath of the Wild probably all have a memory of an older game from their childhood which sparked the same feeling because nobody gave you instructions. For me, a great memory is Morrowind. This was the first truly huge open-world experience I ever had, and I cannot say that Oblivion or Skyrim live up to its majesty. They added an easy to navigate quest log that puts a marker on your map of exactly where to go, whereas Morrowind had you following directions from the quest giver along the lines of, “Go West on the road and make a right at the tree that looks like a dinosaur.” Using these clues to accomplish something grand is always more satisfying than following your GPS. The best example of this in Breath of the Wild is the series of quests given by Kass. During my travels, I found Kass’s journal, which gave the same kind of clues older games might have to find him, and nothing felt better than trekking through a swamp, unsure of whether or not it’s the right one, only to finally hear that accordion drifting through the air.
Even the story takes this approach. In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you are given an icon at the top of the screen, which if you follow correctly, will always lead you to the next place to go to find the story. Great game, but it can’t possibly match the ability to go wherever you want and still find the story just the same. In fact, to experience the story to the fullest, you have to travel out of your way to the furthest reaches of Hyrule to find a place Link saw one hundred years previously. People often put this game down as having a lack of structure in the story, but I believe it is just that many are unwilling to accept that a story structure does not have to be linear.
So that’s my theory. I think that by removing the things that make modern games easier to play, Nintendo created an experience that feels more worthwhile to play. Nothing about this game is overly difficult, but everything is presented so you can do it your own way, making every experience unique. This reminds us of a time when this was the norm, and how improving the ease of gameplay can inhibit the experience.
What do you think? Was Breath of the Wild’s new approach too radical of a shift? Am I totally off base and did the game just feel so good because of Princess Zelda’s voice? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter and we can keep the conversation sliding!