Whenever anyone sings praise for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (which is pretty often) the game’s open-world design is usually among their main reasons. It’s one of those once-in-a-generation games that flouts convention to amazing effect. Five years on, few games have come close to recreating the feeling that BOTW’s Hyrule invoked, and that’s not for lack of trying.
Breath of the Wild vs Other Open Worlds – Does Size Matter?
Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is the first fully open-world title in the Legend of Zelda franchise – at least by modern definitions. Nevertheless, it’s a sizable one for sure. The map comes in at an impressive 22 square miles. That may seem small when compared to Grand Theft Auto V’s 49 sq mi, but GTA V’s vehicles make Los Santos feel more compact. More comparable is the titular nation in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, at 15 sq mi. That puts BOTW around the midrange of modern AAA open worlds.
But it’s not just scale that matters when it comes to open worlds. When size is put before any meaningful design, enormous worlds are nothing but scenery. Anyone who’s played Ghost Recon Wildlands will be familiar with that. It boasts an astounding 105 sq mi and does, frankly, nothing interesting with it. It doesn’t take long travelling around games like that before you run into some of the downsides of this approach. Repeated NPC models, voice lines, assets, even entire interiors. It all lends to a glitch-in-the-matrix type feeling instead of an organic world.
BOTW avoids this in an interesting way. The world is surprisingly empty. Instead, the content of the world speaks for itself. The repeated NPCs are mostly non-human enemies and animals. A group of identical monsters is a lot more acceptable than even a single pair of identical humans. Run-down ruins around Hyrule also repeat themself occasionally. But these add to the landscape in the same way trees do. The fact that they’re sparsely dotted around and quite low profile makes it a lot easier to miss their repetition as part of a greater whole. The actual world, however, feels unique across every inch. Every rock, pond, brick, and boulder feels deliberate. It highlights the difference between worlds that feel artificially ‘lived in’ versus one that feels alive in itself.
Nintendo’s Gameplay-First Approach to Open-World Design
Within its first hours, Breath of the Wild sets the stage for the defining factor of the open world: the quest structure. As the introduction wraps up, the game presents a map of Hyrule that’s near enough bare of marked interest points, with two new main quests. One of them, highlighted at the epicentre of the map – Hyrule Castle, is simply “Destroy Ganon” – the final quest of the game. It’s a quick intro to what makes BOTW’s open world so captivating: freedom.
It’s entirely possible to tackle that final mission right from there (just ask the speedrunning community), but that probably won’t work. More likely, players begin exploring to get new weapons, supplies, and health or stamina upgrades. They can do that just about anywhere in the game, but will learn through experience and exploration which parts of the world they’re not yet equipped to handle.
Instead of hardlocking the player into following a set path like other open worlds, preparing for the four bosses and the finale takes as long or as short as they wish. But still, the game creates a natural urge to explore and upgrade. Some of the most useful ingredients for buffs are only found in certain areas, so it creates an incentive to come back to things like minibosses or combat shrines when better prepared. Link’s famous Master Sword is even hiding away in one of the more mysterious areas, which is still optional.
What Makes Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule Different from Other Open Worlds?
Even the elements of open-world design Breath of the Wild did maintain serve new and more engaging functions. In franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Insomniac’s Spider-Man, towers serve to populate the map with objective markers. The mechanic has become one of the most staple yet jarring features of open-world games for many years. Since they reveal everything of interest immediately, there’s no compelling reason to head back up. Meanwhile, BOTW’s towers play a much more immersive function.
All these towers reveal is the actual map area around them, not the activities. From there, Link can scout the dim orange glow of shrines way off in the distance. He can also pinpoint structures and landmarks that look like they could be hiding something interesting. Players can then glide, run, ride a horse, shield surf, or climb cliffs to reach what they’ve spotted. Each one is the start of numerous winding journeys, all with countless charming detours and secrets.
When other open worlds map objective icons right as they’re available, it can lead to following a straight path between endless copy-pasted tasks, with nothing interesting en route. But this isn’t the case in BOTW.
‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’ is the mantra of BOTW. Everything from miniboss encounters, Korok seeds, environmental story features, and shrines not visible from the tower make the journey between points as interesting as their end. These shrines are the real side-quests of the game. That’s reinforced by the fact that the traditional dungeons of past Zelda titles are absent. What’s more, their appeal doesn’t end at the traversal between them. Just about every shrine is an engaging and unique trial. From combat challenges to puzzles, they nicely break up the vast-yet-gratifying bouts of exploration.
Likewise, the only real collectibles are Korok seeds. Once again, BOTW subverts open-world design conventions. Instead of a simple ‘pick up’ interaction, Korok seeds are found in intriguingly out-of-place landmarks. Each one presents its own little challenge – from pattern puzzles to target shooting – instead of just one button press. The adorable Koroks hiding in these fit the task perfectly, letting out a mischievous laugh with each one completed.
There isn’t really a way to keep track of the shrines and Korok seeds (besides the marker icons they add to the map). But that’s part of their beauty. While that sounds confusing at first, it means players aren’t mindlessly ticking them off with little reward. There’s no nagging sense of incompletion with percentages and check marks staring at the player from the map screen. Instead, exploring and completing them as they pop up is the payoff in itself. It feels like being on an actual adventure instead of completing chores.
Nothing’s Perfect (Even if it’s Pretty Close)
Of course, nothing is without fault. While they’ll take Link on some interesting journeys, smaller side-quests from NPCs are often uncompelling fetch quests. This is still redeemed by the fact that you come across so few of them that they never seem tedious, but some better missions wouldn’t go amiss. Also, Breath of the Wild’s open world comes at the cost of any real story. The open-ended nature and nonlinear design rely on the fact that most of the plot unfolds prior to the events of the game. That might be disappointing for fans of older Zelda titles, but it feels like a fair trade-off. The simplicity is necessary for the unrestricted feeling that makes the world so special.
What’s clear, however, is that BOTW’s open world was a much-needed refresh button on an ever-staling formula. So far, it seems like the next time something will come close might only be in Nintendo’s yet-unnamed Breath of the Wild sequel, as distant as that might still feel.