“I wonder what’s over there” has been an aspect of game design that creators of open world games have been grappling with for some time now.
Ideally, when playing an open world game, the player should be able to find a definitive answer to “I wonder what’s over there” simply by… well, going there. “You see those mountains in the distance? You can actually go there” and all that.
Not every open world game gets this quite right, but Breath of the Wild presents an excellent example of how to do it very well indeed.
Before we jump in to why Breath of the Wild’s open world is so effective at what it does, let’s contemplate a few examples from popular games that, to my eye anyway, don’t do things quite as effectively.
You may well be expecting me to bring up Skyrim at this point, but for all the things I personally dislike about Skyrim, overall world design is not one of them. Skyrim’s world, much like that of its immediate predecessors Oblivion and Morrowind, makes internal sense, is intuitive to navigate in a very natural and immersive way, and pretty much the whole thing is open to you from the outset. You can follow the main quest if you desire, or you can just wander off in a direction and see what happens. Along the way, the much-maligned level scaling of later Elder Scrolls games ensures that you generally won’t accidentally run into anything you can’t handle, so you can simply explore at your leisure for the most part.
Where Skyrim falls down, as I’ve mentioned on a few previous occasions, is making that world interesting to explore. The lack of personality for the vast majority of NPCs makes discovering a new town something of a ho-hum experience when it should be an exciting opportunity to meet new virtual people, and the various dungeons scattered around the landscape start to feel a bit cookie-cutter after a while. If you’re just after a game that allows you to wander around some beautifully crafted, imaginatively designed environments, though, The Elder Scrolls has always been hard to beat.
The matter of the world not being interesting to explore is also present in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, though that has been getting marginally better over time. Although there are a lot of really interesting, well-modelled things to see around Grand Theft Auto’s various 3D settings over the years, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t engage with. See an interesting building? Cool, but more often than not it’s just a building; you can’t go in there or anything. Find something out in the wilderness? Neat, but you probably can’t really “do” anything with it.
Some of this issue with Grand Theft Auto is mitigated if you decide to jump online and play with friends in those later installments that support it, since you can make your own fun in that situation. I have numerous fond memories of improvised bicycle chases across rugged terrain, my friends chasing me in a large vehicle eminently unsuitable for the environment, and everything ending up in abject (usually explosive) chaos.
When you’re playing alone, though, most people want a certain amount of structure — at the very least, some things to do to give them incentive to explore the map. But there are games that go too far in the other direction in this regard, littering the map with objective markers until the whole thing feels less like a world to explore and more like a theme park with designated attractions to engage with. Ubisoft’s games are, notoriously, the prime offender in this regard, but even well-regarded titles like The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn fall foul of this on occasion.
In other instances, you have the problem of MMO-style open world structure, in which regions of the world are stratified by experience level, making them impractical or even impossible to explore before you’ve reached a particular point in your overall story and/or character progression. In situations like this, you may start feeling like you might as well be playing a more linearly structured game rather than one that purports to have an “open world” — although once you do reach the higher levels, the world truly does become “open” in most cases like this.
Your mileage may vary in all of these areas, of course, as everyone has different tastes. Of all these issues, the MMO-style structure tends to bother me the least, perhaps because I’ve played and loved numerous games that adopt this format, both online and offline. I do feel great fatigue for games that either cover the map in little icons or provide a world that is singularly uninteresting to explore, though.
So where do you find the balance? Well, Breath of the Wild is a great example. After the deliberately constrained opening hours on the Great Plateau, you’re free to explore in any direction, and no particular area is “too dangerous” for Link to take on — so long as you’re careful. As you progress through the game, you might find yourself confronted with enemies that demand better equipment than you have at that juncture, but rather than this being a roadblock, you can simply find a creative way around them by using the abilities and items you do have to hand. So that takes care of the MMO-style issue — and often results in some truly memorable moments of emergent narrative along the way, too!
While exploring the world, you’ll often encounter wandering NPCs who are making their own journeys, all of whom have their own personality and something to say. It’s a genuine pleasure to run into the same character on more than one occasion, because typically they have different things to say each time you meet them — responding to things like the weather, time of day, the location in which you encounter them and all manner of other things. They feel like real characters, which is a key part of making the world interesting to explore.
Another aspect of the game that makes exploring a real joy is the fact that Link has a lot more in the way of traversal abilities than many open-world game protagonists. Most notably, he has the ability to scale the vast majority of vertical surfaces for as long as his stamina holds out (and as long as it isn’t raining, since this makes surfaces slippery), often allowing you to find a creative route to a destination or bypass dangerous enemies. It’s also a crucial way that Breath of the Wild allows you to indulge your sense of “I wonder what’s over there”, because it means that no mountains or cliff faces in the game are truly impassable walls; if you’re determined enough, you can find your way onto the top of almost anything in the game.
And there’s a reason to indulge your curiosity and explore like this. Much like Super Mario Odyssey rewards this style of creative, inquisitive exploration on a much smaller scale with its many scattered collectible Moons, Breath of the Wild pretty much always provides you with something significant and worthwhile for successfully making it to an awkward-seeming location.
Sometimes this is a tangible thing, such as a treasure chest containing a useful item. Sometimes it’s the opportunity to find a secret, such as the many hidden Koroks around the world, who can ultimately help you to expand your inventory space. Sometimes it’s a shrine for Link to make progress towards powering himself up — more on these another day.
Sometimes, though, it’s an intangible reward — but these are no less useful and significant. Successfully getting on top of a tall structure means you can jump off it and use the paraglider to gracefully descend to somewhere that would have otherwise been difficult to reach. A high mountain might be an excellent vantage point from which you can spot shrines, stables, towers and villages to plan your onward route. Or it might just be a good place to set up camp, cook some food and decide what your next move is.
Breath of the Wild doesn’t prescribe what you should be doing at any given moment — but nor does it overwhelm you with possibilities like those titles that litter the map with little icons. Instead, right from the very beginning, you’re invited and encouraged to try things out for yourself, see what happens when you do things a little unconventionally, and indulge your curiosity at every opportunity.
That’s exactly what an open-world game should be doing, and probably one of the best reasons Breath of the Wild should be held up as an excellent example of game design for many years to come.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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