3rd Voice Gaming: "Breath of the Open World"

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a fantastic game and the most interesting addition to Nintendo's classic action adventure series in a long, long time. I could spend hours wandering around the vast expanse of Hyrule, and have in fact done exactly that on both the Wii U and, more recently, Switch versions of the game. Now, I have played a lot of open world games in my time and generally enjoy them, but Breath of the Wild is one of the few where I can really get sucked into the game world. Why is this the case, and what are other open world games doing wrong?

Before we get to Zelda, let's take a look at the archetypal open world game - Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, and its stablemate Far Cry. Now, what happens when you first start one of these games? You go through a tutorial section and a bunch of cutscenes, and when you're finally unleashed into the open world, you have a completely blank map. You find a tower and climb it to uncover that section of the map, and suddenly the game throws a million quest icons at you. You've got several types of collectibles and a bunch of sidequests including racing, fighting, hunting, and that sort of thing.

So, you start to complete these side missions to clear these icons off your map, and once you're done in one area it's time to find another tower and do the same song and dance all over again. Repeat for 20-50 hours or so. Are these activities fun? Maybe. Do they start to feel like tedious busywork after you do the exact same thing for the sixth time? Most likely. The modern Ubisoft formula was introduced in 2009's Assassin's Creed II, but that game kept things relatively basic and didn't simply vomit icons onto the map. Yes, it had a hundred feathers to collect, but even that feels almost charming these days and the game even gives you an actual storyline reason to perform the task..

"But you don't have to do the side missions, that's why they're called side missions!" you scream at me as you ride by on a tamed bear. You're right, of course, and I rarely bother clearing the entire map in an open world game unless it's one I'm really enjoying, such as Horizon: Zero DawnHorizon does fall victim to many of the Ubisoft open world tropes, including towers and a pile of collectibles, but it doesn't have a metric ton of them. More importantly, unlike Assassin's Creed and its ilk, Horizon doesn't constantly bombard you with activities while you're exploring. Guerrilla Games were smart enough to allow their open world, and by extension the player engaging with that world, to breathe. By leaving the player alone for a while to properly allow them to take in the world and not having them run into "exciting content" every ten seconds while exploring (the worst recent offender is Mass Effect: Andromeda, which constantly forces you into repetitive fights in the open world and even respawns enemies in certain areas), the game is far less likely to cause what is often called open world fatigue. 

Assassin's Creed Origins, the latest game in the series, has fortunately taken this lesson to heart, but it still has too much Ubisoft in it for me to really enjoy playing it. That being said, the best moments of Origins for me have not involved stabbing men in the neck or fighting crocodiles, but rather riding a camel through the Egyptian desert at night. taking in the surroundings and simply existing in the exquisitely crafted world. Ubisoft is actually adding an explorer mode into Origins at some point, which allows you to wander around the world at your leisure and learn more about ancient Egypt, which may sound boring to some but I'll be happy to try that out since the virtual historical tourism has always been the main draw of the AC series.

Or how about one of my favorite games ever, Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption? (above) I don't remember that game so fondly for the old west gunfights and horse chases. That stuff's great, don't get me wrong, but what actually comes to mind first when RDR is mentioned is John Marston's arrival in Mexico. You get off your raft following an intense combat section and mount a horse, and as you start riding the opening chords of "Far Away" by Jose González begin to play. As you ride on towards your destination, the entire song plays all the way to the end, and nothing "exciting" happens during those three minutes. You don't get shot at by bandits or anything like that. You simply ride on, listening to the song and taking in your new surroundings. A stranger in a strange land. Even discounting the "Far Away" sequence, simply riding towards the sunset or watching the stars in RDR is highly enjoyable. It's just you, your horse, and the world around you. Red Dead Redemption nails that feeling of isolation, and that is what I like the most about this beautifully designed game.

And so we get back to Breath of the Wild. Exploring the century-old ruins of Hyrule feels a lot like Red Dead Redemption (and a few other games, such as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind) in many ways - most of the time it's just you, maybe your horse if you decided to ride one (sadly, horses in BotW aren't particularly useful, so I usually just end up running all over the place), sparse ambient music or just the sounds of the wilderness around you, and the occasional wild animal getting spooked by your approach. There's that familiar feeling of isolation, the solitude as you make your way across Hyrule Field or climb one of the many mountains in Hyrule.

John Marston did not have a paraglider.
Obviously, you will run into enemies and sidequests here along the way, just like you would in Red Dead Redemption, but in these games such events always feel like a natural part of the world and not simply something that shows up because you haven't fought anything for five minutes and the game thinks you're bored. The world - and the player - is allowed to breathe. BotW does have towers to climb, and doing so will uncover the map piece by piece, but it only shows the topography of the area. The only icons are you, your active quest marker (which can be turned off), any towns, towers and shrines you've come across, and whatever stamps or pins you might use to mark places of interest.

Avoiding most of the common pitfalls of open world games as well as the 3D Zelda tropes is probably the main reason why so many players really love Breath of the Wild - this game lets you play your way, and nobody is there to tell you what to do or say you can't come up with creative puzzle solutions. No irritating companion characters, no handholding or extensive tutorials, minimal cutscenes, no game designer in your ear telling you what to do next. Who would've thought? Respecting the player's intelligence instead of assuming them to be a drooling idiot is actually a valid design choice even for a modern video game!

Well, that was certainly a whole bunch of rambling about open world games. I hope I at least managed to bring my point across - if you're making an open world game, don't forget the quiet moments because not only do those help prevent fatigue on the player's part, but they can also be some of the most memorable parts of the experience.

Marko's picture
Marko

I have plenty of common sense. I just choose to ignore it.