Redefining Open Worlds || Breath of the Wild
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Released in 2017 for the Nintendo Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is unique in its ability to instill players from all walks of life with a sense of childlike wonder. It is lighthearted and accessible enough to be enjoyed by young children and inexperienced gamers, it provides enough content and challenge for hardcore “completionist” gamers, and it revives the core concepts of an age-old series while remaining refreshing, opening the game up to old fans as well as newcomers to the Legend of Zelda franchise. How does Breath of the Wild stand out against the legion of immersive, open world games on the market? What makes the player’s experience so unique and refreshing in comparison to other games of its genre, like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, or Fallout 4?
A Truly Open World
One of the most notable things about Breath of the Wild is it’s rich open world. Unlike many open world games that boast a big space but feel monotonous and fall short in terms of content, Breath of the Wild offers enough variety to feel alive. From the second you complete the tutorial, absolutely nothing is off limits. With enough determination, you could explore even the hardest to reach corners of the world bare-handed. This makes the game stand out from other open world games where entire regions are commonly “soft-blocked” by high-level encounters or hidden in impassible fog until certain milestones are met.
This true open world provides the player with limitless exploration, letting them marvel in the beauty of the environment, and creating plenty of opportunity to discover new content. It allows for more agency, letting players dictate which area of the world they want to see when, regardless of what quest items or stats they have. While this lack of guidance has potential to be intimidating, when paired with a loosely structured main quest that allows for meandering exploration and regional side quests that encourage players to interact with an environment more intimately when happened upon, the game elegantly leads the player to water without forcing them to drink.
Environment & Culture
So you’re thinking, “Plenty of games offer an open world without overbearing quests. What’s the big deal?”
It’s one thing for a world to be large, but it’s another for a game world to truly feel alive. Breath of the Wild achieves this through dynamic environments and systems that make the world believable and immersive. A variety of ecosystems make up the world of Breath of the Wild, providing frequent changes of scenery so the player’s surroundings never feel stale. Ever-changing systems like weather combine and interact with these ecosystems to keep the player on their toes. For example, it becomes significantly harder to climb sheer cliffs in the rain, forcing players to reroute, but small dips in the terrain might pool with water, revealing secret chests or another way around.
There are also various “cultures” in place in the game, made up of NPCs, enemies, and animals that interact with both the player and with each other. When the player comes across NPCs fighting with enemies or running to find shelter from the rain, it gives the player a sense that this is a dynamic world that exists independent of them. The player has the power to influence the world without being led to believe they are the undisputed god of it.
It should be a given that an open world game is interactive and immersive, but what truly sets Breath of the Wild apart is its bold focus on isolation. Similar open world games, even ones set in wild-lands or post-apocalyptic wastelands, make a point of giving the game life by littering even its most remote landscapes with small settlements, wandering bands of NPCs, or gratuitous hordes of enemies. However, while NPCs and enemies populate the world of Breath of the Wild, they are truly few and far between. More often than not, the player will find themselves wandering through an empty and eerily silent field or climbing a snow-covered mountain with no sound except the wind howling past them. The few remnants of civilization that still stand are scattered to the four winds, hidden deep in mountain ranges or far off canyons.
At its core, Breath of the Wild is a game about being utterly alone and left to your own devices to brave a strange land. The lack of constant NPC or enemy interaction allows for moments of quiet introspection, and creates opportunities for the player to interact with the world itself in a meaningful way that isn’t just getting from point A to point B.
Through the complexity of its world, the depth of its interactions, and its subtle manipulation of player emotion, Breath of the Wild delivers an experience that is simultaneously brimming with life yet harrowingly empty, and will fill any player with awe and childlike wonder.