Every game has a secret. We can, if we are so inclined, play a game, tell our friends whether it’s good or bad, and move on with our lives. For some of us, that won’t do. Haven’t you ever wondered why a particular game hits you just so? Since I first picked up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild this summer, I’ve been wondering why it works because, at a first glance, it seems like the latest Zelda game shouldn’t work at all.
It’s inarguable that Breath of the Wild works. This is a game that sold more copies for the Nintendo Switch than there were Nintendo Switches to play it. This is a game with an endless supply of positive, amazing reviews. Even in 2017, a year where it seems like every month had at least one incredible video game, Breath of the Wild stood out.
If we want to find the latest Zelda’s secret, the first thing we want to do is look at its structure: what happens from the time you start the game to the time you end it? How does it keep your attention as you move from point A to point B? As an example, one of the reasons I enjoy Bethesda games so much is the way that they put their mission objectives at distant points on the map, then pepper your route with distractions; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim wants you to ignore the main story and do your own thing.
Breath of the Wild's Lack of Concrete Variety
Breath of the Wild actually works a lot like Skyrim, with the same kind of far-flung missions that entice you with distractions along the way. Unlike Skyrim, however, Breath of the Wild’s primary distractions are limited to just four activities: climbing towers, finding 900 Korok seeds, finding 120 shrines and solving their puzzles, and visiting towns and stables for simplistic fetch quests. The most involved quest in the game requires you to deliver something like 110 bundles of wood over four quest steps. There are no quality quests like The Witcher 3's "Bloody Baron" or Fable 3’s "The Game" to be found in Breath of the Wild.
When I said that Breath of the Wild shouldn’t work at all, this is what I meant: it’s just like every other big open-world game out there, but with even less variety. Skyrim, a game released in 2011 and re-released six years later on the Switch, has significantly more variety within its first hour. Plenty of other open world games, from Mad Max to Metal Gear Solid V to The Witcher 3 have better gameplay variety, story, quest design, and anything else you could possibly ask for. If we take Breath of the Wild purely on its structure, it’s pretty dull.
Consider this: the 900 Korok seeds are split up into a small handful of unique puzzles. You’ve got the “put the apple in the hole” puzzle, the “run or glide through a timed race” puzzle, the “put the ball in the socket” puzzle, and the “put the iron cube in the right spot” puzzle. There are a few others, but you’re going to have to put hundreds of apples and balls and iron cubes in the right spot to get all the upgrades you want.
The shrines are the same way; they all look the exact same, and nearly all of them are built around one unique puzzle, fighting one specific enemy type (the Guardian), or solving a simple puzzle outside the shrine. As a reward, you’ll watch the same animation every time, then get one upgrade token that will let you upgrade your health or stamina. That’s it. That’s the whole game.
There are only four truly unique dungeons in the game, and each one is basically the same thing: follow a champion to a giant animal, make your way inside, solve some puzzles, and defeat the final boss. The puzzles can be fun, but the bosses are all pretty samey, and every single dungeon follows the same story beats.
Systems on Systems
Breath of the Wild, quite simply, should not work. Its structure is like every other open world action-adventure game in existence. The tricks it has about drawing players through its maps have been done better and more creatively in other games. So why does it work? How can a game be as excessively bland in its structure as Breath of the Wild and capture the hearts and minds of gamers like few games before it?
Well, as it turns out, there are an awful lot of reasons.
First, there’s the charming attention to detail. Put a helmet on someone’s head in Skyrim, and you’ll be able to take all their things. Try something similar in Zelda, and they’ll express annoyance, demanding you cut it out. No one will notice when you strip down to your underwear in The Witcher 3 or put on a chicken hat in Metal Gear Solid V, but dress strangely enough in Breath of the Wild, and everyone will notice.
This attention to detail extends to the game’s element system: wear a sword during a thunderstorm, and you’ll attract lightning. Wear wooden gear into the hottest zones of Hyrule, and you’ll find your gear catching fire. Certain objects catch fire. Others create electricity. Heat generates wind. Kinetic energy builds up over time, and so on. We’ve seen this kind of elemental interaction in games before, but not on this scale.
While Breath of the Wild’s elements and charming attention to detail make it stand out, everyone knows about them. They’re part of what makes the game special, and they’re right out there in the open, for everyone to see. But there’s more to it than that.
So Long, Obtuse Game Logic
A long time ago, someone told me a story about their mother watching them play an older Zelda game. Apparently, this person was trying to travel somewhere, but had to locate some item to get there. Until Breath of the Wild, most Zelda games relied on this kind of “gain access to a special gadget that helps you proceed” sense of progression. This person’s mother asked him why he didn’t simply chop down a tree, use it as a bridge, and continue on his way. He explained to her that such a thing wasn’t possible. Their point was that game logic didn’t work like real-world logic. Sometimes, players have to follow byzantine game design rules to progress, rather than doing things that seem intuitive to most people.
Breath of the Wild captures that intuition; things happen because it makes sense that they would happen. Of course carrying a spear is almost certain to attract lighting! Yes, if there’s a cliff and you’ve got a nearby tree that’s long enough, you can chop it down and use it as a makeshift bridge. Rather than rely on dull, predictable game logic of “find the key to get through the lock,” a series staple that can be unfathomable to non-gamers, Breath of the Wild teaches you a new way to think. Yet this wouldn’t work without simplicity.
The big problem with open world games is how they drown you in information. Remember the complaints about Assassin’s Creed Unity’s map? The game itself was surprisingly fun after the performance patches, but the map was a nightmarish stew of icons. Unity had hundreds of icons dotting its map, all demanding your attention, but it was far from alone. Comparatively Sunset Overdrive, one of my favorite games, has a huge number of collectibles that all look different but are obtained in more or less the same exact way.
Breath of the Wild’s map is refreshingly empty. Much like Skyrim, you discover items in the world through proximity. Most open worlds give players a gigantic checklist to complete, but Breath of the Wild lets players discover its 900 korok seeds. Spot an interesting rock formation? Get curious. Try to figure out what makes it so special. You’ll almost certainly be rewarded.
Instead of a busy map, Zelda relies on a much simpler “find things as you go and mark them as you find them” approach. There’s no time for analysis paralysis after looking at a map with a thousand icons on it. Plenty of open world games have towers that unlock parts of the map, revealing more tasks to do; Breath of the Wild uses the towers with that same naturalistic approach to problem solving: climb up, look around, spot something interesting, walk over to it to check it out.
Another common issue with open world games is complexity. I’m playing Horizon Zero Dawn right now and I’m drowning in icons for metal flowers and special mugs and all sorts of other crap, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t that important. It’s more noise, a way of making the game feel varied, despite lacking variety. Zelda strips that all down.
The game only has two consistent stats: health and stamina. Health is depicted in a simple, easy-to-understand system of hearts, as it has been pretty much forever in the Zelda series. I’m not really sure what each health potion in Horizon does, but Zelda’s healing items always make health clear. At a glance, a player can look at their health bar, see they need three hearts, and find something in their inventory to give them three hearts.
We can see this same simplicity in the game’s inventory system. Armor and weapons usually only have one stat visible to the player. Better gear has a higher number, worse gear has a lower number. Sometimes, you’ll have descriptions that say things like “throws fireballs,” but it’s always kept simple and easy to understand.
This simplicity pervades Breath of the Wild’s design. It lets you focus on traveling and exploration instead of what gear goes where. It has no time for analysis paralysis, where you’re wondering if the sword with +2 damage but -1 speed is better than the sword with +2 speed and -1 damage. Just pick up whatever’s most powerful, throw out the weakest gear, use it until it breaks, and pick up something else.
Over time, you come to understand the game’s intricacies. While the cooking and crafting system in Skyrim is complex—I can’t always remember what this butterfly or that dragonfly does—every description in Breath of the Wild is clear, and every name is linked to the stat it impacts. Stamella mushrooms increase stamina, while rushrooms obviously impact speed, and so on.
Simplicity allows for readability and quick decision making, which keeps the game’s pace nice and brisk. There are no awkward slowdowns while you spend your time with inventory management. You don’t need to waste your time combing through countless map icons to find the objective you want; instead, you find them as you explore. There’s a clarity to the decision making process that can only happen because Breath of the Wild is such a simple game.
This simplicity cuts through a lot of the time-wasting elements of traditional open world games, so it’s a huge bummer that Breath of the Wild mucks it all up with its repetitive quest and shrine design. It’s a cliche, but in this case, it’s true: Breath of the Wild’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.
Could Breath of the Wild be better? Nintendo’s fond of reinventing the wheel every time they make a game, so they may never improve on Breath of the Wild’s formula, but I’m sure someone will try. Cutting down on the Korok seeds and shrines while increasing the number of dungeons and depth of quests would be a good place to start. I’ve played games with better stealth, quests, world design, art, combat, story, and so on, but I’ve never played a game that balanced the richness of its variety with the simplicity of its systems. That’s its secret: Breath of the Wild keeps you focused on the journey, rather than letting you drown in an endless ocean of meaningless decisions.