One Year Ago, Zelda: Breath of the Wild Changed Game Design

One of my experiments in games is to think of something I could do in the real world, and attempt to pull it off in the game I'm playing. The more absorbed I am by a game's world and systems, the more naturally I feel inclined to try this experiment.

In other words, I have to be so immersed by a game, effortlessly pulled in by intuitive controls and systems that gel together naturally, that I forget I'm playing a game.

When I heard sounds echoing up from a well in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I looked down, picked up a stone, walked over to the well, and dropped it. I stood still, listening, waiting for the clack of stone against stone, or a splash. I counted silently to myself: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand. I had no designs on hopping into the well. Amnesia's terrifying and tenebrous world felt so real that the experiment came naturally. It's what I would have done in the real world, and the game's systems made it possible.

If Amnesia let me pull off the odd experiment or three, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild cast me in the role of mad scientist. For the first 15 to 20 hours of the adventure, all I did was solve shrines. I don't gravitate toward puzzle games, but I do like puzzles within the context of exploration and adventuring. In other words, Zelda puzzles are kind of my thing.

Breath of the Wild's puzzles were different. The goal of each shrine is to decode the shrine's name, a hint at what you need to do to receive an orb you can put toward more heart containers or stamina vessels. That hint is just a suggestion. According to Breath of the Wild's directors, they designed each shrine so that it would have a solution, thereby preventing players from getting stuck. But their solution was envisioned as one of many. A suggestion, if you will.

In every shrine, I'd suss out what needed to be done. Then I'd do it my way. Oh, that crate is metal. I can pick it up and put it on that switch. Hey, since these two switches need an electrical charge, I bet I can place a line of metallic weapons between them to ad hoc a connection.

I didn't think about those experiments in the context of the game's controls. Breath of the Wild's physics and chemistry systems were deep yet accessible. Anything I wanted to do made sense within the context of Breath of the Wild's world.

That brand of experimentation formed the beating heart of Breath of the Wild's chemistry and physics systems, resulting in innumerable ways to make the world your own. You could paddle across that stream, or you could chop down a tree and walk across it like a bridge. You can go one-on-one with mobs of Bakoblins, or use Magnesis to drop metal crates on their heads. Or glide in from above and whip out your bow to rain arrows on them in slow motion. Or lure them away from their camp and steal the slab of boar meat roasting over an open flame. Or just hang back and watch them hunt wild game and chase it in circles.

Or, you know, just walk up and stab them with your sword, Master or otherwise. That's an option too. But it's one of many. It may be yours, but it's not mine. Others may be mine and not yours. And therein lies the fun.

When I tired of shrines, I turned my attention to towers. Climbing towers is fun… in Breath of the Wild. Nintendo took an open-world dead horse that Ubisoft beat to a fine paste and made it fun by making it an option. There's no indicator on my world map telling me to climb this or that tower to advance to the next area. If I want to climb a tower, I'll climb it. When I'm good and ready to battle another Divine Beast, taking me one step closer to Princess Zelda and the final battle against Ganon, I'll take it. Not a minute before.

Breath of the Wild runs just fine on Wii U, but for me, the game is inexorably tied—linked, one might say—to Switch. Like the game, Nintendo's console-portable hybrid can be played on my terms. It spends most of its time docked to my TV. When I head out for a weekend with family, I remove it from the dock, place it and the power cord into my carrying case, and off we go, to be played while waiting for a table or in the living room while my nieces and nephew chase each other in circles.

One year removed from its launch, Breath of the Wild still represents Nintendo at its most ambitious and creative. I'm one of those oddballs who wasn't enamored with Super Mario Odyssey. It's a good game, a refinement of Nintendo's best-selling 3D Mario formula, but it's still ultimately a refinement. Breath of the Wild is everything video games are and everything they can be. Bold. Experimental. Engaging. Imaginative. Open. Freeing. Colorful. Humorous.

Portable, and stationary, too.

Breath of the Wild isn't perfect. At its worst, it's the best menu sim I've ever played. I'd like a way to jump between categories in those menus rather than have to scroll through each page of each menu, especially as my ingredients tab spills over three, four, five pages. And it sure would be nice to drop or throw shields and bows to quickly and neatly jettison ones I don't want.

For me, though, those are quibbles, tantamount to a few grains of sand on the "cons" side of the pros/cons scale. On the "pros" side, Breath of the Wild's freeform design and the way it tacitly encourages me to seize control and play on my terms amount to a boulder the size of Death Mountain.

Shacknews CEO and editor-in-chief Asif Khan likes to poke fun at me for having yet to cross Breath of the Wild's finish line. It's true: I haven't seen the game's ending. I don't even know if it's got more than one. To me, Breath of the Wild isn't a game that needs to be beaten. Conventional video games are beaten. Breath of the Wild is a laboratory full of experiments I still want to conduct.

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