These are all experiences I that I never thought I would have...
A. In a Zelda game
B. While driving in a car to the Grand Canyon
C. Vicariously, through watching my wife play
|Huge tracts of land!|
There has never been a Zelda game as mature and complex as Breath of the Wild, which throws the hand-holding and linear tutorials of the previous games out the window. Breath of the Wild is Skyrim's Zelda. It is a massive world and one full of emergent interactions. But somehow my wife, Katie, who has never been able to enjoy playing these kinds of complex games, played more Breath of the Wild than I did on our trip. There's a temptation to attribute this to the Switch's novelty -- a portable full-performance console in your hands on a long drive is pretty special. But I think there's also a deeper design shift in Breath of the Wild that has somehow made it more approachable for her -- it has paradoxically grown complex enough to be understandable.
Imagine you are trying to create a campfire. The game has told you that in order to create a campfire, you need wood, flint, and something metal to hit the flint with. If you're like me, a veteran of the language of game interfaces and menus, you might think that the logical first step is to go into your inventory and select the flint and choose "Make Campfire". I told Katie that this was probably how we would make a campfire. She looked at me funny. "What if I just drop the wood in the flint and attack the flint with my sword?"
I laughed. "You can try it, but I doubt that will work. Usually these things are coded a certain way…"
My confident smile disappeared as she whacked the flint with a spear, causing it to spark, causing the wood she had dropped to light on fire – in short, causing a campfire.Why did this kind of depth shock me so much? Because this is Nintendo! They don't do obscure complex systems and emergent interactions! Nintendo does simple and satisfying. What's going on here?
Breath of the Wild's motto, as I discovered, is to create a world that behaves intuitively, where objects interact in ways that make sense. This is visible in many aspects of the game, from the simple fact that climbing UP takes more stamina than climbing DOWN, to the sprawling cooking system with hundreds and hundreds of possible combinations. These systems make the game deeper, but also make it easier to understand for someone uninitiated in Zelda logic.
In this case, maybe it makes sense to abandon the traditional linear tutorial. There's simply too much to cram in. Instead, Breath of the Wild teaches concepts in bits and pieces as you explore – mainly from the puzzles contained in short challenge dungeons or "shrines". Shrines generally take between 5-10 minutes to complete, and focus on a single challenge that illustrates some interaction between abilities. They are quick, rewarding, and generally fairly simple. They teach you the game slowly, and they also don't force you to learn anything – in fact, many of the shrines that teach fairly basic gameplay concepts can be overlooked depending on which way you walk at the start of the game.
|I can figure this out... just give me a minute...|
I can remember a time when it would have felt completely antithetical to Nintendo's code to give players the ability to miss critical information, to do their own thing, tutorial be-damned. Things have obviously changed, and I think both a more adult audience of Nintendo fans AND a group of younger players who are used to more complex, Minecraft-esque systems likely drove Nintendo to try a new strategy.
|The time-honored tradition of Cucco carrying.|
Still, even if the pseudo-tutorial segments can be skipped, each shrine provides an essential currency enabling you to power up Link, which drives you to seek them out sooner or later. You're given the chance to learn the game by doing before being fed much information.
For me, Zelda is about exploration and discovery, and this game satisfies that on a level far and above the previous games. It is gorgeous and expansive, and feels at times like a pastel painting. The soundtrack is simple and evocative (I honestly think the simple overworld piano score echos Minecraft's original music in many ways). And the landmarks! Everywhere you look, some strange piece of terrain begs to be investigated. Surprises lurk on every mountaintop and under every rock. Just trying to move in a straight line in one direction is an adventure. All that, and without a doubt my favorite feature is the climbing. I have never seen climbing done this well, and it's amazing to be able to rock up to a cliff -- normally a clear zone-bounding element saying "Game area ends, turn around" -- and be able to climb right up and over and onto some magical little plateau or puzzle or hidden shrine or...
|Avast, ye jackrabbits! I be a pirate!|
For Katie, I think Zelda is really about puzzles, and the game manages to present something unique here as well. Puzzles can be explicit and bounded, such as in shrine challenges, or they can be sitting out in the middle of a field, or they can be fully emergent -- for example, figuring out how to sneak up on and/or explode from afar a group of baddies. Katie has rolled bombs down hills and exploded them hundreds of feet away in the middle of monster camps. She has been able to aim her bow and accurately take down sentries (in part thanks to the intuitive motion controls). And, best of all, she has discovered that she can cook almost every item in the game into something useful. She gets almost as excited about finding a new combination of herbs and fish as I do about finding a new sword.
|If only all cooking worked this way.|
I'm still only just exploring out of the starting area, but already I know that this game is something special in a long line of great games. I was disappointed by Skyward Sword's linear nature and lack of true exploration. Breath of the Wild obliterates that problem. I'm tremendously looking forward to sharing the ride with Katie and watching her develop the confidence to tackle some of the more intimidating puzzles... whether those involve rolling balls through physics mazes, challenging the menacing Stone Talus monster, or participating in the Great Hyrulian Baking Show.