Today I beat Breath of the Wild. My save file has 20 hours in it, I beat all of the Divine Beasts and slew Ganon with the Master Sword. It was pretty special, and I think there's a few things that contributed to making it a fantastic experience.
And while these things aren't necessarily easy to do, I think certain games can learn from some of the positive design elements of Breath of the Wild to create better games.
When you first step into Hyrule, the world seems unsuspecting. You see mountains, trees and a few ruins. Among them is the Temple of Time, caved in and falling apart since its Ocarina of Time days.
And then you learn the truth that sets the tone for the whole game: you lost.
You failed and Ganon won. He destroyed the kingdom, killed the heroes and took over the world. While he's still trying to get free, he essentially still won and what's left is the remnants of his victory.
Throughout your adventure you walk through garrisons littered with rusty swords and shields and husks of defeated guardians, knowing that fierce battles took place... and that the Hylian soldiers lost. Every ancient ruin is a reminder of how beautiful and prosperous the world once was and how it was all destroyed.
And from pretty much every corner of the kingdom you see the castle, dominated by Calamity Ganon. He's flaunting his victory at you and he's deserved it.
It sets a daunting tone that hovers over you throughout the game. As a result everything feels mellow. While the world is beautiful, it's struck with the undertones that its a world that was made from your own failures.
When you finally find the Master Sword its just sitting in some woods. You get some story about how it came to be there, and you find out you're probably not strong enough to pull it out. In fact, if you pull it out now it will kill you.
So in order to remove your treasured weapon you need to become stronger. There's no quick montage and it doesn't happen in a cutscene. Your character doesn't go "I can do this!" and finds the strength to pull out the sword on their own.
It's up to you to build up to that point. You need to forage through the kindgom, solve the ancient puzzles and trials and earn your hearts. You're not gifted them in fixed sections of the story (except in a few points, but only a handful of times), but instead you need to work to become worthy of the Master Sword, and you do it by playing the game.
Too many games would give you the ancient weapon 'because you deserve it' only because you got to a certain point of the plot. Most other Zelda games are like that too. But Breath of the Wild makes you work for your achievements, and when you do obtain it there's a high sense of satisfaction.
While defeating the Divine Beasts and turning them to your side so you can beat Ganon is arguably the main objective of the game, it's completely optional.
Defeating each Beast helps in the final battle, but they're not mandatory. Because of this, you can theoretically run straight to Hyrule Castle from the beginning of the game and fight the big bad. You'll likely die, but you can do it. I like that the game gives you that option.
Games that provide a greater variations for the player are fantastic. In some games there's one pathway to the endpoint. You follow the path until the credits roll.
In Breath of the Wild you can take on the challenge of beating Ganon without ever defeating a Divine Beast. Or maybe you can only find one because you turned the objective marker off, forgot about the others and decided to fight Ganon anyway. While only a few players will do that, it makes for great stories when people go:
"Man, that flying Divine Beast was cool!"
"There was a flying one? Oh yeah, I guess there is four beasts. I must've missed one before I fought Ganon."
"You beat Ganon without all four Beasts? How badass!"
It's like the story of the person beating the first few bosses in Bloodborne because they forgot to grab the weapons in the Hunter's Dream and only used their fists. They become defacto badasses because they missed content, and when games let you do that it can create some wonderful stories that feel different between players.
It also helps that the Master Sword is optional, so players can theoretically miss one of the key items in the series and beat Ganon with a stick.