When I first got to play through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, exploring its rich open world was something of an obsession. Picked up alongside a Nintendo Switch on launch day, I was (and largely remain) a proponent of the belief that it was a brave and much needed step forward for a series which has spent the last few decades relying on what it already knew how to excel at.
For a very long time, a Zelda game was largely expected to follow a very specific formula, with only a few rare exceptions. Largely the gameplay loop of the series involved exploring a large open world, but one gated by narrative progression. Sure there were large open fields, and you could get to new towns before they were important, but that exploration was largely the player getting ahead of themselves. There was a set order to visit towns, which gave you a set route to collecting progression critical items, defeating a set list of enemies, which took you down the single path to see the game’s ending. You might have different areas to visit in each game, different items to collect, and different threats to defeat, but the game’s sandbox was largely about forks from a set correct path through the world.
Sure there were exceptions to this rule, for example A Link between Worlds allowed for dungeons to be tackled in any order via item rental, but these exceptions were not common, and certainly were not taken to the open world extremes of Breath of the Wild.
Breath of the Wild, to me at least, is a game defined by open ended discovery. After the game hands you a very limited set of necessary tools, some world manipulation powers and a glider, players are largely left to discover, explore, and progress through the world exactly as they see fit. When faced by an impossibly high mountain, you could spend an hour finding a longer route up, you could work on completing shrines to increase your climbing stamina, or you could go complete a dungeon to gain the ability to leap huge distances into the air before starting the climb. If you need to complete an electricity gated puzzle you could complete all the challenges needed to get the pieces to open the door, or just use a bunch of spare swords to cheat your way past the puzzle, knowing they conduct electricity. Tilt maze puzzles could be subverted by flipping the board upside down for a less cluttered tilting service, octorocks could be used to fix rusty weapons or make an airship, flaming weapons could warm you in the snow, and you could choose to run directly to the final boss if you so chose.
Even more controversial aspects of Breath of the Wild’s design, such as weapon durability and the game’s weather system, contribute to this focus on exploration and discovery. If you find all of your favourite weapons have broken, you might have to pick up something new dropped by an enemy and learn how best to wield it. If it’s raining too much to climb a rock wall, look for other route to your destination which may take you places you’ve not previously been. It’s all in service of making a player’s first playthrough of breath of the Wild feel as exciting, perilous, and open ended as possible.
Largely, I think Breath of the Wild is an amazing video game, and well worth the praise it received at release. I might even go as far as to say it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on my first playthrough of a Zelda game.
Still, and I think this is important to understand, Breath of the Wild is also the Zelda game that I have the least desire to ever go back and play. While its focus on discovery as reward made for an incredibly fulfilling first experience, when revisited a lot of its magic is diluted, and many of the areas it’s lacking compared to other Zelda titles become more apparent.
Going back and trying to replay Breath of the Wild today, I’m not scared when I first turn a corner and stumble into a mobile Guardian chasing me down. I’m not flumoxed by layout of the twin shrines on a pair of mountains which are oddly similar to each other. Cooking isn’t an experiment any more. The large open expanses between areas of importance are no longer filled with mystique.
On revisiting Breath of the Wild, it is still a well made game, with a polished and fun gameplay loop, and cool things to see. It’s still a minor miracle a game so huge, with so few notable loading screens, can run so well on such a small portable device. It’s still a world with memorable locations, but it’s just not the same experience a second time around. Breath of the Wild, perhaps more than any other game, only really deserves its amazing levels of praise when experienced blind for the first time. A first playthrough totally excels at its aims, a more than one hundred hour adventure across a beautifully open world, where physics rules are consistent enough to offer open ended puzzle solutions, but on repeat play some of that magic just isn’t there any more.
Without a real time narrative, one with a sense of urgency, and one that isn’t told through flashbacks to the past, the game loses the main driving force that existed to get players traveling around the world, discovery.
Breath of the wild’s focus on discovery as reward is likely the reason I wish, more than for any other game, I could go back and revisit this world through fresh eyes for the first time again.
With this in mind, I am both optimistic, and a little concerned, waiting to see more about Breath of the Wild’s upcoming sequel. I want to hope that they can offer a fresh lens on an open world I already know, but I am cautiously concerned that we might once again see a Zelda game fall into the same trap of offering at best one amazing playthrough that cannot be recaptured in repeated playthroughs.
Right now, we know incredibly little about Breath of the Wild’s sequel, so little that I’m having to refer to it as BOTW’s sequel rather than by any actual name. I’m going to start by talking about what seems clear about the next entry in the series, before later discussing more uncertain discussion points about the new title.
One thing we do know about this upcoming Zelda game is that it will take place in the same open world map explored in Breath of the Wild. Sure, we might see some changes to topography as shown by the rumbling and movement of Hyrule Castle in the trailer, but fundamentally this new title is being build off the back of the groundwork laid by BOTW. This does come with some potential advantages, because of the fact that a huge amount of initial creative work has already been done. Theoretically, not having to craft a huge detailed overworld could free up developers to create a sequel more quickly, and spend more time filling the world with new content rather than having to craft it from the ground up.
However, my big concern is that because this appears to be set in a world we have already visited, will that hurt the game’s sense of discovery as reward? This largely depends on how much of the game is filled with new content, remixed, or changed this time around. Depending on when this game is set, has there been time for drastic changes to the world? Could towns have sprung up in new locations or grown in size due to prosperity in a post Calamity Ganon era with a proper ruler? I guess my question is, will this sequel do enough to make this world feel fresh again, or at least fresh enough to justify reusing the setting of the original game which many players feel they now know inside and out.
While there is no actual evidence to this effect, many viewers of the trailer for this upcoming Zelda game have theorised that we might get to play as Princess Zelda in this sequel, based largely from interpreting very fast cuts in the trailer. It would make sense, she has cut her hair short in the new trailer, she’s leading the charge up front exploring whatever huge cavern her and Link are traversing through, and it would fit nicely with her desire to be an active part of the war in the flashbacks in BOTW.
While I can’t tell how much validity this theory has, it could theoretically be an interesting way to refresh content we already know. If she has slightly different powers, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities compared to Link, you could make the same content feel new by giving players a new toolset to explore with.
One lingering question I have however, is whether or not a new chance at first time discoverability is enough to get the same level of praise that the original BOTW did upon its release.
One major complaint many players had of Breath of the Wild was that it threw away perhaps a little too much of what made previous Zelda games enjoyable, in pursuit or the new things it wanted to do. This is pure speculation on my part, but the Breath of the Wild sequel trailer we saw at E3 2019 did at least to me appear to be set after the events of Breath of the Wild, featuring the same versions of Link and Zelda who saved the world, exploring a large underground structure together. While this could all just be flashbacks for a game which will be set further in the future, my interpretation and hope is that we might see a return to two of the aspects of BOTW that felt most lacking, dungeons, and a story occurring in real time.
There’s this idea in narrative called “show, don’t tell”, focused on the idea that it’s always better to demonstrate something rather than just state that it was so. In games, this sentiment can be applied as “play, don’t show”. Breath of the Wild showed us a story about the destruction of a land, about heroes fighting side by side, facing down Guardians in the burning ruins of a city, and a showdown against an enemy that had the world totally caught off guard. It showed us five heroes all bonding, laughing, and dying by each other’s sides in order to save those around them not strong enough to fight. It was a really cool story, but one that felt disconnected from the player. It happened in the past, the Link we get to play as runs around fields largely unopposed until he’s ready to save the day.
I think that a return to a narrative that is happening to Link and Zelda in real time, where we get to live through the pivotal moments rather than just learn that they happened in a past we can’t impact, would go a long way to keeping the game engaging on repeat visits once the discovery reward has worn off. The same can be said for more traditional length dungeons, which feel more substantial to traverse than Breath of the Wild’s divine beasts and shrines.
I don’t want a Breath of the Wild Sequel to give up on the idea of discovery as reward, it was part of what made the original game great, but I hope that they not only find ways to bring that discovery reward feeling back to an open world we have already visited, but I hope they let us play a narrative rather than see it, and give us lengthier dungeons, so that we have something worth revisiting once the novelty of exploring has eventually worn off. Learn from the hooks that made your older games great to revisit, while recapturing what made Breath of the Wild so impressive on that first playthrough.