Post Script

Un­earthing the magic of a very Nin­tendo open world


Let’s hear it for the Koroks. Early on in Breath Of The Wild, as you head up the hill to a vil­lage, you hap­pen across a sob­bing spirit, up­set be­cause its mara­cas have fallen silent. Ban­dits, it tran­spires, have stolen the Korok seeds from in­side them; seek one out, the spirit pledges, and it will ex­pand your in­ven­tory by way of thanks. Stor­age space is at a pre­mium early on, so while you’re amass­ing sid­e­quests from passers-by at a lick, this one feels worth pri­ori­tis­ing.

When you reach the vil­lage, you spot some­thing cu­ri­ous at the en­trance of the elder’s house: a row of stat­ues, each with a cer­e­mo­nial dish at their base. All but one have an ap­ple in­side. You for­get about your quest for a mo­ment – a re­cur­ring theme, this – and drop in an ap­ple from your in­ven­tory. Out pops a tiny sprite, in­tro­duc­ing him­self as a Korok; he gives you a seed, you re­turn it to the quest giver, and choose which cat­e­gory of in­ven­tory you’d like to ex­pand. Five slots, per­haps? Ten? No. One. Bring more, the spirit urges you. Sud­denly you re­alise there must be dozens of these seeds out there, and that you’re now hunt­ing for a set of the world’s small­est nee­dles in a haystack the size of a small coun­try. It feels im­pos­si­ble.

Then they just sort of… ar­rive. Af­ter a botched at­tempt to glide be­tween moun­tain­tops sees us clam­ber des­per­ately to a nearby ledge, we round the moun­tain’s cor­ner and find our­selves on a path. Nearby, some­thing seems a lit­tle off, and we head over to in­ves­ti­gate. Mo­ments later, out pops a Korok, and we have an­other seed. Who put this here, and why? Was it a re­ward for the sort of painstak­ing com­ple­tion­ist who combs ev­ery square inch of the map, leav­ing no stone un­turned? A re­ward for those who buy the strat­egy guide? Or did a mem­ber of the de­sign team look at the two moun­tains and pre­dict play­ers would try to paraglide be­tween them only to mess it up, and thus need a ledge to scurry for, a path to get them back on their feet, and per­haps a lit­tle re­ward to sweeten the pill of fail­ure?

This is Breath Of The Wild’s magic in mi­cro­cosm. The Korok seeds are, in theory, the worst sort of col­lectible: tiny things strewn seem­ingly at ran­dom across an enor­mous world. The so­lu­tion in many open­world games would be to have a mer­chant sell a pricey map (per­haps, if we’re feel­ing cheeky, for real-world money) that re­veals their lo­ca­tions. Yet that’s a de­ci­sion born of a very dif­fer­ent kind of open-world de­sign. Ubisoft builds places – the Florence or Lon­don of an As­sas­sin’s Creed, the San Fran­cisco or Chicago of a Watch Dogs – then de­signs a game within them. This is Nin­tendo’s first open world, and it has come at this over­sub­scribed genre with a very dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude. Open worlds are sand­boxes for play­ers, cer­tainly. Yet to Nin­tendo, they’re sand­boxes for de­vel­op­ers, too, a chance to break free of the over­world-and-dun­geons struc­ture that has de­fined Zelda for decades. The re­sult is a land that, for all its non­lin­ear free­dom, feels not just built but also un­com­monly tightly de­signed.

Genre staples are mined for novel de­sign op­por­tu­ni­ties, giv­ing fresh spins on es­tab­lished con­ven­tions. Cook­ing is fun, play­ful, and re­wards log­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Vari­able weather is par for the course these days, but Nin­tendo works to en­sure that even the cli­mate is a me­chanic. Ex­treme tem­per­a­tures will drain health with­out the cor­rect cloth­ing or a mit­i­gat­ing elixir. Dur­ing our fi­nal as­sault on Hyrule Cas­tle, we had to hun­ker down in cover for five min­utes while we waited for a rain shower to pass, since wa­ter makes climb­ing im­pos­si­ble. On the ap­proach to Goron City, the vol­canic cli­mate will cause any wooden weapons on your back to catch on fire. And if a thun­der­storm strikes up, you have a few sec­onds to un­equip any­thing metal­lic be­fore you’re faced with the Game Over screen. A guid­ing prin­ci­ple for Breath Of The Wild’s de­vel­op­ment was that puz­zles should be able to be com­pleted in mul­ti­ple ways, a nec­es­sary tac­tic when ev­ery­thing can be ap­proached from any an­gle. The tow­ers – an­other genre sta­ple, loom­ing high in the sky and re­veal­ing the lo­cal map once scaled – are a case in point. The climb it­self is sim­ple enough, with gen­er­ously placed ledges en­sur­ing that even those with­out an up­graded stamina wheel can safely make their way up. But the real chal­lenge is get­ting there. First you must find them – they’re not marked on the map – and then you must work out how to pass the ob­struc­tion at the base. One is walled in by frozen rocks; an­other is sur­rounded by float­ing en­e­mies that will fol­low you up the tower if you try to by­pass them. An­other is pa­trolled by Guardians, the tough­est en­emy type in the game, blessed with 1,500 health points and a laser that’s a one-shot kill. Reach the top and the map fills in, but there are no icons, be­yond the shrines and towns you’ve al­ready dis­cov­ered. There are road mark­ings and area names. But the rest is up to you.

We’ve tried, over the years, to get Nin­tendo ex­ec­u­tives to talk about other com­pa­nies’ work. The house of Mario has long cul­ti­vated the im­pres­sion that it’s pro­foundly un­in­ter­ested in what goes on out­side its own walls. Breath Of The Wild pro­ducer Eiji Aon­uma ad­mits that younger mem­bers of the team play lots of games, and stud­ied other open worlds in prepa­ra­tion. Yet this is no copy­cat work. Rather, the de­sign teams have stud­ied the com­pe­ti­tion, iden­ti­fied the genre’s staples, its pec­ca­dil­loes and its prob­lems, and ad­dressed them with the same flair that goes into a Mario or lin­ear Zelda game. The re­sults are breath­tak­ing.

Dur­ing our fi­nal as­sault, we had to hun­ker down in cover for five min­utes wait­ing for a rain shower to pass

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