The rest are ruined
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may have ruined open world games for me.
Why? Because it’s so goddamned good, it reveals the flaws in nearly every other open world game ever made.
Here are a few things Breath of the Wild does that absolutely dunk on other open world games.
Incredible Difficulty Balancing
It’s really, really, really hard to balance an open world game. You seemingly have two options.
Firstly, you could make the entire world totally flat, and have everything level up with the player so that they’re always getting basically the same experience, difficulty-wise. This ensures that the player never gets super frustrated, but also means the player never quite feels a sense of true growth — the game is effectively holding them by the hand, making sure they never get too far ahead or behind in the difficulty curve.
Secondly, you could ignore the player’s power level and just fill the world with a bunch of enemies of varying difficulty. Some are really difficult to kill; some are really easy. This is tricky, because if you make the difficult enemies too difficult, then you’ve essentially created a soft barrier for the player that they cannot progress beyond. In other words, your open world game just got a little less open, because it’s functionally impossible to get past certain areas unless you’ve leveled up.
Breath of the Wild opts for the latter option, and executes it more skillfully than any other game in recent memory. The world is filled with a variety of different creatures to fight, and their attacks and abilities are very clearly telegraphed. Often, stronger enemies are primarily different because of their behavior, not because they take and deal more damage.
A lizalfos is scary not necessarily because it can kill you in a few hits, but because it’s so goddamn fast that it might chase you down if you try to retreat. A horde of bokoblins guarding a skull chest may not seem like a big deal, but if you really want that chest, you’ll be committing yourself to fighting a small army. And since all the enemies in the game are fairly lethal, you may regret that decision very, very quickly.
There’s another reason the difficulty curve feels so amazing, though:
There’s No “Levelling Up”
While you obviously get more powerful and/or hardy as you go through the game (either by turning in spirit orbs, getting Divine Beast abilities, or picking up better gear), there is not a massive difference between how Link behaves at the beginning of the game versus how he behaves at the end.
The difference between beginning-of-the-game-Link and end-of-the-game-Link has far less to do with the number of heart containers he has or the loot he’s got, and far more to do with how you as the player have learned to deal with different enemies types and environmental hazards. You learn how to parry guardian blasts. You learn how to time your dodges to open up the enemy to a flurry. You learn that anything fiery can be instakilled by an ice arrow, and vice versa.
Link doesn’t level up. You level up.
The whole world feels open to you, because once you know how to deal with certain types of enemies — oh shit, it’s a flying guardian, I should wait for it to get close and hit it in the eye with an ancient arrow — your heart containers and loot almost become of secondary importance.
And if you are worried about your loot, the game offers a beautiful balancing mechanic. Since enemies drop their weapons when they’re stunned, and since stronger enemies have stronger weapons, you can engage in a beautiful risk/reward choice: should I go after the moblin with the kickass broadsword?
He could kill me in one hit, sure…but if he doesn’t, if I can just do enough damage to knock that broadsword out of his hand, then suddenly my damage output will quintuple. I’ll be able to hunt down other moblins and get better shields and weaponry, which could help me kill the stone golem, which could help me get a shitload of money, which I could use to buy a house…
You, the player, are the most important thing in Breath of the Wild. Not your gear. Not how many skill points you have and how many abilities you’ve unlocked. Just you, and your knowledge.
Nearly everything in Breath of the Wild is optional.
That, in itself, is revolutionary.
There is an unfortunate philosophy among many game devs that if they worked really hard on something, then the player must see it. That, if the player didn’t experience something, then it is inherently wasted work.
Breath of the Wild proves this philosophy is kinda bullshit.
You don’t have to beat any of the Divine Beasts. You don’t have to solve a single puzzle in the game if you don’t want to. You don’t even need to get the frigging Master Sword.
And as a result, you make the game what you want it to be.
I beat two Divine Beasts and got sick of their associated puzzles, so I went straight to Hyrule Castle. I didn’t feel like fighting all of the guardians protecting it, so I put on my Zora armor and swum up a series of waterfalls, skipping literally all of the combat leading to the final boss fight. Then I challenged Ganon and, because I was underequipped, nearly died a half-dozen times.
But I didn’t. I killed Ganon. I beat the game. And despite having “missed” half of the major scripted content, I felt incredible — like I’d taken my destiny into my own hands and decided, no; for me, it was more fun, more interesting, to fight Ganon with only half of the divine abilities the game offered. It made me feel smart to put on a swimsuit and skip the gauntlet of deadly guardians rather than plow through them like Aragorn.
Most games would have forced me to fight through those guardians. Most games wouldn’t even unlock the final boss until I’d defeated all of the divine beasts. But because Breath of the Wild didn’t, my experience with the final boss was tense, and funny, and heroic.
And, shit — if you need more proof that Breath of the Wild‘s nonlinearity is beautiful design, just look at the speedruns.
More Does Not Equal Better
Your average AAA open world game is so stuffed with Things To Do that they can get seriously overwhelming. Upon opening your map, you’ll be shotgun blasted with dozens of little icons just begging to be cleaned from the map. So, you do. You patiently move from icon to icon, doing whatever little mini-mission is required to complete that mission and remove the icon from the map. If the missions are short and well-designed, maybe you’ll do a bunch of them in a row. And after a few hours, maybe you’ve managed to clear a half-dozen icons from the map…which still leaves, like, three hundred more icons. At this point, you either decide one of two things:
1. Fuck it — I’m just ignoring these goddamn things and playing the main story.
2. Well, I’m a completionist. I guess this is my life now.
Though this kind of design can keep you engaged and tickle some lizard part of your brain, is it really fun? Or is it just addicting? Does it just appeal to the OCD part of our brains that wants the map to be clean and tidy and organized?
Breath of the Wild does everything it can to dissuade this type of play. The ingame map works the exact opposite of every other open world map: rather than being filled with icons that you need to clear, the map is completely blank and you fill in the icons. Did you find a grove of hearty durians that you want to remember? Place a stamp. Did you see a shrine in the distance and you don’t want to forget about it? Place a marker. Do you want to find all the Korok seeds out of some unfortunate sense of completionism? You can do that, but all you’re going to get for a reward is a literal piece of shit.
Typical open world games are about cleaning icons off the map and, in so doing, conquering the map itself — exerting your control over it, so that even the very environment must kneel to your power and wisdom. In a sense, the map itself becomes another enemy to defeat.
Breath of the Wild, conversely, is about learning the environment and growing to understand and respect it. When playing, I didn’t get that feeling where I looked at a map and sighed at all the stuff I’d have to do. Instead, I felt excitement rise up in my chest — look at all of this unexplored territory I get to discover! Who knows what I’ll find?
Holy Shit, You Can Climb Everything
I’m sure are good reasons most other open world games don’t allow this, but holy shit. If I ever play another open world game that doesn’t let me climb up stuff, I’m going to be really disappointed.
It Makes Weapon Breakage Fun
By making your weapons break, and by making their moment of breakage so utterly satisfying (that arcane shatter sound effect never gets old), weapon breakage — a mechanic almost universally shrugged at by everyone who isn’t a hardcore Far Cry 2 fan — becomes a satisfying part of the core combat loop.
You’re not bummed when your weapon explodes. You’re psyched, because you just stunned your enemy and did critical damage. You’re excited because your weapon inventory now has a free slot. And if you ARE pissed off, then you’ve got even more reason to care about getting the optional Master Sword.
More dunkworthy than any of these other features and design decisions, though, is one single, undeniable, absolutely ludicrous fact:
Somehow, This Is Nintendo’s First Open World Game
What the fuck? How did they hit a grand slam right out of the goddamned gate?
Anyway, I’m sure I forgot a ton of miraculous things about this game. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.