What Makes an Open World Game Breath of the Wild?

If you want to make a gamer’s head spin, compare a video game to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Since the game’s launch in 2017, the Nintendo Switch game has become a popular benchmark for describing other open-world games. It’s almost a meme at this point, approaching “This is the Dark souls of… ”cliché levels.

Sometimes the comparison can be a bit superficial. Breath of the wild reinvented the open world genre, but not all games released after building on their ideas. Developers still largely create games cut from the mold of Ubisoft’s “card game”. Just to say that any new open world game looks like Breath of the wild it’s like saying any 2D platformer is like Super Mario Bros. Even though this is technically true, it is not really useful.

That said, Breath of the wild has a specific design philosophy that sets it apart from other open world games. When his name is invoked when talking about games like Genshin Impact Where Sonic borders, this is for good reason. There are three key ideas present in Breath of the wild that have had a clear impact on the industry over the past four years.

Mobility

Before Breath of the wild, going through an open world can be painful. Players could walk around or get into a vehicle, but mobility tended to be limited. If you wanted to climb a mountain in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you would often need to force your way on the back of a horse, mainly by exploiting game.

Player flying over cliffs in Immortals.

Breath of the wildThe biggest innovation of has been to give players true freedom of movement. This meant allowing Link to climb any surface (as long as he had stamina) or use his sailcloth to glide across the map. Ideas like this opened up the genre, prompting developers to rethink the way players interact with the world. Since then we have seen the climbing mechanic become a key part of games like Immortals Fenyx Rising, thinking more about the vertical design

However, not all games have taken this cue. Ghost of Tsushima largely sticks to the traditional horizontal movement. Jin walks and explores primarily on horseback, tethering him largely to the ground. Horizon Zero Dawn is also anchored, Aloy being able to climb cliffs only if there is a series of ledges à la Uncharted. On the other hand, his next sequel, Horizon forbidden to the west, features a sailcloth, indicating that Sony may have taken notes from Nintendo this time around.

Exploration

Exploration is a key part of any open world game, but Breath of the wild handles it very differently from, say, Assassin’s Creed. In a traditional game “à la Ubisoft” like Far cry 6, players get a giant map full of icons. These act as points of interest, guiding players from one activity to another. It creates a hook where players constantly have a waypoint to follow. It’s not so much free-form exploration as it is about following a treasure map to the X.

Breath of the wild takes the opposite approach. His map is largely empty at the start of the adventure. Rather than looking for icons on a map, players must investigate the world itself and manually mark or follow the places they wish to explore. As they discover shrines or Koroks, the map fills up with icons that represent their findings. This is not a roadmap, but a review of what the players have accomplished. This is a key difference that encourages players to think outside the box to find secrets.

The Breath of the Wild map is full of routes.

This philosophy is present in the next Ancient ring. Areas like caves or outposts only become visible on the map after players find them. After finding a special place, they can get there quickly anytime, almost as a useful reward for their curiosity. When i played Ancient ringIn the closed network test, I spent more time looking at the scenery than browsing the menus. Zelda may not have been the first game to embrace this philosophy, but it has certainly caused a sea change in the way developers approach exploration.

Experimentation

Freedom is a slippery word in some open world games. While players can “go anywhere” what they can actually do in the world is somewhat limited. Marvel’s Spider-Man includes a limited amount of moves and gadgets, giving the webslinger a strict set of tools. Players can create heroic combos, but you don’t exactly see viral clips of people interacting with digital New York in new ways.

Breath of the wild, on the other hand, is a true sandbox experience. Link doesn’t have a skill tree or even a persistent loadout outside of his basic abilities. Instead, he can pick up and use any number of tools during his adventure – or even turn the environment itself into a weapon. Over four years later, I still regularly find videos of players performing tricks I never thought possible in the game. The first time I saw someone use Polaris for build a flying machine who could carry Link across the map, I knew that Breath of the wild was doing something that no open world game had really accomplished.

A character from Genshin Impact watches a giant explosion.

The level of experimentation makes it almost closer to something like Minecraft, with an emphasis on creativity. Most of my friends haven’t even completed the main questline yet. They are more invested in finding out how many ways they can skin a Moblin than thwart Calamity Gannon. It’s no different from spending hours in Genshin Impact try out different characters and combine abilities.

A game does not need to nail these three points to win a comparison with Breath of the wild. There is also a “you know it when you see it” element. Sonic borders Literally looks like someone who modified Sonic in Hyrule, with his trailer even mimicking Zelda’s ambient piano sheet music. The influence is clear, but the more you crack Breath of the wildThe basic design philosophy of, the more it is clear that the wave of comparisons is not just a matter of aesthetics.

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