Breath of the Wild : Hyrule the world
Adventure as a path to freedom
When one thinks about freedom in video games, the first thing that might come to mind is open world. By this, we mean that there is no linear progression, as the world is fully — or almost fully — explorable without any pre-established order. Same goes for the story, that you’re free as a player to unravel as the whim takes you. Far Cry 3, The Witcher 3 : Wild Hunt, GTA V, or more recently Horizon Zero Dawn are all great examples of this very concept.
Even though open-world games create a great sense of freedom, the formula has been increasingly criticized over the course of the last few years. And this, precisely because often times, it has become just a formula, a gimmick, rather than something thoroughly crafted and deeply thought into great details. Some might even call this — though certainly wrongfully — the « Ubisoft Formula », which describes mechanisms made famous by the French publisher. That’s to say, exploring areas in search of towers [or any variation of the same concept] that unravel the surroundings on your map, and consequently let you see the various points of interests you can interact with. And this, on repeat throughout the game. The criticism goes further than this, and also targets the recurrence of “fetch quests” (i.e quests that just ask you to go and get something, and/or to kill something to get particular object), as well as the relative lack of depth in the storyline compared to some of the more linear titles.
Therefore, Freedom — in the shape of an open world — comes at a price. When the story can be tackled in any given order, it gets very difficult to make it as deep, as compelling, and as intricate as it would be in a game where the player is guided through the story with little or no choice on how to progress through it.
The Legend of Zelda : Breath of the Wild is not exempt from the very aspects that I mentioned previously. One could argue that the story is quite standard and classic, i.e very similar to any classic Zelda games. You basically just want to defeat Ganon, an evil figure that jeopardizes the world and its equilibrium. There is no real intrigue, no real plot twist, no big mystery to solve. You also wander around the map, searching for the exact same towers, that have the exact same function as in the Assassin’s Creed series, that is often seen as the archetype of the so-called « Ubisoft Formula » we mentioned earlier.
Nonetheless, with their first truly open-world Zelda game, Nintendo has managed to bring back a real sense of adventure to the genre [though I don’t like to call it a genre, as it encompasses various realities and types of games], and therefore to stick with what The Legend of Zelda is at core : a real quest. And this, in the most medieval interpretation possible, meaning “an adventurous expedition undertaken by a knight […] to secure or achieve something”. Therefore, you can see that the notion of quest, and the very idea of adventure are intricately connected.
Indeed, by definition, an adventure is : « a bold, usually risky undertaking ; hazardous action of uncertain outcome ». This is exactly what lies in every corner of gigantic map of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild. You never know what lies beyond the mountain you climb, what fauna and flora is to be found, whether the elements are going to unleash their wrath at you at any moment. Although the reward is uncertain, the journey is worth it. From various encounters to magnificent vistas, going from point A to point B is never dull nor unchallenging. There goes the poetic nature of the adventure, as found in Myths and Folklore such as in Homer’s Odyssey, or in more recent tales such as Tolkien’s Lord of the rings. Indeed, the series has always been very influenced by myths and legends, especially by the Legend of King Arthur that inspired Link’s Master Sword.
The perfect example of this ubiquitous sense of adventure is probably the Korok seeds. In Breath of the Wild, Koroks are forest spirits that hide in the nature of the vast open-world. To find them, one has to solve various kinds of puzzles. For instance, throwing a boulder through specific landmarks in the landscape. By doing so, the Koroks will give you a Korok Seed that you can exchange for upgrades. With the existence of Koroks, the whole world takes another dimension, and somehow comes alive in a very unique way. Each tree, each rock, each unusual shape in the terrain is suddenly imbued by the potentiality of a magical interaction. Far from being a simple gimmick, Koroks manage to make Breath of the Wild a “living and breathing world” (which every Open World game aims at), even in the most remote and empty recesses of the map.
Freedom through intuition
There’s something more about Breath of the Wild. Something very satisfying, yet quite hard to grasp. And this, I would say, lies in the fact that the game — without holding your hand at any time — manages to make you understand the tremendous possibilities offered in terms of gameplay. In other words, the game rewards you for letting your intuition speak and for actually putting it into effect. This, sends us back to another conception of what freedom can be in a video game : The ability to replicate what works in real life, and/or to go even beyond, and this inside the game. Somehow, it boils down to being free to interact with objects/characters in a great variety of ways. I would connect this to the notion of intuition, as its a way of thinking “This should work, because it works in real life”.
On this regard, and thanks to its fantastic gameplay mechanics, Breath of the Wild grants a complete sense of freedom rarely experienced in video games. Trying something and seeing it having no effect on a game whatsoever can be a very frustrating feeling to me. Just think about those doors you cannot open, and that suddenly deprive you of a whole world of possibilities. In a second, it feels like you’re in cage, although a whole world is de facto open to you. I almost never felt such a thing in Breath of the Wild, quite the opposite !
Can I use this bonfire and set this arrow ablaze ? Can I use my wooden weapons as a torch ? Can I use my weapon as a baseball bat, when an enemy casts a rock at me ? Will thunder stike my enemies if I throw a metal weapon at them ? Absolutely ! These various use of the gameplay mechanics — among many others — are exactly what offers an extra layer of freedom to the player in the way it interacts with the world.
Even something as simple as cooking — surprisingly a very important part of the game — rewards you for using your intuition and creativity. No need to buy recipes to be able to cook potent potions and dishes in Breath of the Wild. On the contrary, the player is encouraged to try and mix different ingredients (fruits, vegetables, meat, …) and/or war trophies (monster parts, …) found all around the map. By doing so, you might end up creating some «Dubious Food » if you mixed incompatible elements, or hopefully some dishes or elixirs giving you an extra edge (cold resistance, extra stamina, …). The “Dubious Food” is actually only a semi-failure as it still restores a tiny bit of health to Link. As simple as it may sound, the cooking system really participates in this great sense of freedom provided by Breath of the Wild, as it doesn’t feel limited or particularly painful.
Finally, the Shrines which are essentially mini-dungeons are the perfect examples of the combination of the two aspects I developed in this article : Adventure and Intuition. Firstly, you need to find the shrines, which is most of the time easier said than done in such a gigantic and wild world. Once you found a shrine, it allows you (same goes for towers) to teleport from a part of the world to another. Therefore, exploring the world and going on a real adventure remains a choice, and not something you have to suffer from if you don’t feel like it. Also, the fact that you don’t have to solve the puzzle lying inside the shrine to be allowed to teleport to it is another element of this great freedom given to the player. You don’t like puzzles ? You don’t want to do it right now ? Fine. Do as you please.
Secondly, Intuition is a significant part of the puzzle solving. Many tools are at your disposal (weapons, runes, …), now you have to find the actual way to solve the mystery. This element is definitely the most direct legacy from the previous Zelda games, though probably in a more condensed and diversified way than before.
All in all, without being perfect, Breath of the Wild is a fantastic game, that definitely sets new standards in terms of Open World games. It shows that, far from being obsolete, or a total gimmick, an open-world can offer a deep and compelling experience when it’s polished enough and when it focuses on innovations at the service of actual freedom. In other words, when it’s open enough, while remaining a dense experience.
Breath of the Wild is also a great example of the fantastic start of the year for japanese developers with critically acclaimed games such as Nioh, Persona 5 or NieR : Automata.
Let’s hope that 2017 still holds many surprises in store, and that Breath of the Wild will serve as the benchmark for many future games, as for now it definitely rules the world of open-world games.
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