How Breath of the Wild Challenged Conventions in Zelda Games

Three senior developers share experiments and design goals that went into rethinking Zelda.


The Legend of Zelda celebrated its 30th anniversary anniversary in February 2016. Hidemaro Fujibayashi, game director on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, has been aiding Link and Zelda in their cyclical battle against Ganon for two of those three decades. Being steeped in the franchise's history kept him energized during his years-long quest to breathe new life into Nintendo's legendary system.

He found his way not by looking into the future, but by peering back into Zelda's past. "When planning for this title, I first thought to myself, what do I want to do with a new Zelda? And then I thought, what is it that I need to make that happen?" Mr. Fujibayashi explained.

"What I wanted to accomplish with this new Zelda was to create a game where the user can truly experience freedom through an expansive play field," he continued. "And through exploring this field, I wanted the user to experience a new sense of adventure again and again, and be able to freely navigate through it as they see fit."

The more Fujibayashi thought about it, the more he realized his dreams for The Legend of Zelda aligned with the seminal adventure released in February 1986. Daunting enemies littered throughout an expansive environment full of mountains, lakes, forests, and fields, where every step in any direction brought new discoveries, challenges, and adventures.

"I thought to myself, maybe what I need to do to create such a game is to go back to the essence [of the series]," he said.

Nintendo developed a 2D prototype in the vein of the original Legend of Zelda as a test bed for Breath of the Wild. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Times Tables

Since 1991's A Link to the Past, Zelda lore has drilled into fans' minds that Link, Zelda, and Ganon hold the three golden triangles. Zelda is guided by wisdom, Link musters courage to face his fears, and Ganon wields immense power in his tireless pursuit of domination over the kingdom of Hyrule.

That's the in-game story. The reality is different. Breath of the Wild's three principal directors crowned themselves the holders of the mythical artifacts. Each served a special purpose over the course of the game's long development. Hidemaro Fujibayashi leverages the Triforce of Courage, but not to slay demons. "Together with the game designers, I wield the courage to tell the staff any idea, regardless of how ludicrous it is, and how agitated they may become," he said when he took the stage with technical director Takuhiro Dohta and art director Satoru Takizawa at this year's Game Developers Conference to explain the origins of Breath of the Wild.

Dohta assumed Zelda's role as a sage. "Along with the rest of the programmers, he wields the wisdom to realize all of the aforementioned ludicrous ideas," Fujibayashi continued, laughing. Takizawa, who, with his team of artists, "wields the power to take all of the different elements in the game to create the cohesive world of Zelda," Fujibayashi said, rounded out the trio of senior developers.

From left to right: Game director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, art diretor Satoru Takizawa, and technical director Takuhiro Dohta. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Shortly after mustering his courage to determine that the best way to move Zelda forward was to go back to its roots, Fujibayashi came across a map of Hyrule that one of Nintendo's artists had illustrated. Rather than corresponding to any particular game's topography, the map was more general. There was a tiny cave entrance, volcanoes dotted here and there, an immense castle drawn in the style of medieval Europe, dense forests, and dungeons--a Zelda staple for over 30 years.

Finding that map reinforced Fujibayashi's belief in his direction. "The land of Hyrule has all the necessary ingredients of a great adventure, but I realized that to create a game in which the user can think and decide on their own where they want to go and what they want to do, there were quite a few hurdles to overcome."

He quickly realized that not all Zelda staples had a place in his vision for Breath of the Wild. Since 1998's Ocarina of Time, Zelda titles had all adhered to more or less the same structure. Players go through dungeons in a linear order, collecting items such as bombs and hookshots and fairy bows that they need to open access to areas gated by destructible walls, pits, and, bordering the world, soaring mountain ranges.

Although iconic areas like Hyrule Field and Lake Hylia held oodles of mysteries and secrets, there was only so much players could do if they lacked certain tools or information found later in a game.

"And let's not forget that all the solutions to all the puzzles that we painstakingly prepared for a dungeon are all made available on the Internet," Fujibayashi added, referring to the franchise's labyrinthine dungeons. "These were all conventions of Zelda, so our first step in designing the game was to re-examine these conventions, and put our sights on changing the structure of the game from a passive one, where you play within the confines of a pre-prepared [experience], to one where the user can actively engage with the game."

Fujibayashi contemplated what an active design might look like. Instead of mountain ranges acting as impassable gates, Link should be able to scale them. "By transforming walls, which were used to represent boundaries, into another optional path, it's as if the entire landscape that lies before the user opens up, asking them: so, which path are you going to take?" he explained.

Seeing walls as a path rather than an obstacle was a watershed moment in Fujibayashi's early brainstorms. Once players climbed to the summit of a mountain, they could soak in the view and then make their way back down--by climbing, or by leaping into open air and unfurling a kite to sail across terrain. That, too, was an active element. Gliding down was the player's choice, rather than something the game required them to do in order to progress.

Moreover, players could fly anywhere. All they would have to do was make their way to a vantage point, aim Link where they want him to go, and leap.

"After witnessing a simple multiplication of players' action and feel create an infinite possibility of gameplay, through one movement, I came to the conclusion that this concept of multiplicative gameplay is the answer I was looking for," Fujibayashi said.

Fujibayashi did not start applying mathematical terms out of thin air. Previous Zeldas were additive. First players start with three hearts, a sword, a shield. Every time they complete a dungeon, they add one item to their arsenal, thereby adding one extra action they can take. Breath of the Wild would let players climb, swim, sprint, fight, cook, sneak, and perform other maneuvers right away--no dungeon crucible necessary.

Expanding Link's agency effectively swapped the roles of the player-character and Hyrule. Instead of Link reacting to the land, the land would react to him. That meant that Breath of the Wild's development team could create dozens of reusable assets such as trees, boulders, lakes, wild grass, and caves.

In game development, every asset takes time and resources to create. Developers look for ways to recycle assets in order to produce their game more efficiently. Past Zeldas had a habit of generating specific assets, such as the blocks that make up a jigsaw puzzle in Ocarina of Time's Forest Temple. Fujibayashi saw the potential to apply multiplicative gameplay to puzzles. Instead of painstakingly creating art, sound, and code for a puzzle players would only use while solving a single puzzle, objects like slabs and blocks could be reused over and over again.

Before Fujibayashi could tell the development team to ramp up production on a multiplicative game, he needed a proof of concept. "I had to find out if applying this process to Zelda and implementing this multiplicative gameplay will actually result in an active game. I decided to experiment with this in the simplest way possible," he said.

Link takes flight. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Fujibayashi's prototype took the form of a 2D Zelda game. Borrowing 8-bit characters and environs from the original game, the prototype mixed in unique elements such as logs and a large leaf reminiscent of Wind Waker's Deku-themed parachute. The prototype looked primitive on the surface. In terms of gameplay, it was robust. Players could guide Link's decades-old sprite to a try, swing his sword to chop it down and create a log, and then hop on the log and ride it down a river.

"When the player's diverse actions, items, landscape, and objects that react in various ways are multiplied together using this simple rule, an active game was created where countless different events occur for which the user can freely create solutions," said Fujibayashi. "Through this kind of simple, primitive experimentation, we made the call of what to change and what not to change to complete the basic game design."

Liar, Liar, Physics on Fire

Although Fujibayashi had the courage to speak his will to create an active Zelda game, his wild imaginings would have only existed on paper if not for Takuhiro Dohta's wisdom.

"I considered the Legend of Zelda games to be action games," Dohta explained. "To go about our business of breaking conventions, we decided to take a step back and think about the most primitive elements of action games."

Dohta's back-to-basics approach not only fell in line with Fujibayashi's desire to recapture the magic of the first Zelda, it was necessary. His game director's proposal was so radical that every pixel and polygon of Zelda's DNA--the terrain system that Nintendo built to generate worlds, the engine that pushed out graphics and sounds and music, the finely tuned methodology for designing dungeons, artificial intelligence, animation, even the pipeline through which assets were made--would have to be taken back to the drawing board.

The most basic elements of action games, the genre's protons and neutrons, are movement and collision. The results of their interactions comprise what developers think of as game physics.

"When it comes to game development," said Dohta, "you don't want the sort of physics you find in a textbook, but a kind that fits the needs of the game you're making. This is what we call game physics. Game physics could also be called 'false physics' or 'liar physics,' but why would you need to tell lies? This is something we do to increase [control] and responsiveness--in other words, to fulfill the demands of game design. We also end up telling these lies to optimize processing power and sometimes even to increase the sense of realism."

Reading, writing, and videogame arithmetic. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

The best lies contain grains of truth. Even in the zaniest of games, developers must establish a set of rules and stick to them in order to build trust between players and the virtual world. "One of the joys of being a programmer is deciding just how to go about telling our clever lies, and how to best express the things that happen in an imaginary world," Dohta said, grinning.

In setting up Breath of the Wild's physics, Dohta decided that a Hyrule as vast as the one Fujibayashi imagined deserved a correspondingly deep set of game physics. "Creating a high degree of freedom had been an important theme for us since the earliest stages of development. For example, the freedom to carry any object you like to any location in the game. If you try hard enough, you can roll this rock from the beginning of the game to the place you fight the final boss."

Dohta knew that building such a physics system would be a herculean task for him and his programmers. Pushing a rock from one end of the world to the other might sound simple, but everything it interacts with along the way must be able to respond to it. Rather than developing the system themselves, Dohta and other senior developers licensed the Havok physics engine, a powerful set of tools engineered explicitly for video games.

Licensing an engine rather than building one from the ground up enabled Breath of the Wild's developers to concentrate on creating objects powered by game physics. Early on, players can find the Stasis Rune, a new item that freezes objects in place for a short time. Players can, say, freeze a boulder tumbling down a ridge, whack it with their weapon a dozen times, and then watch it fly forward--as if their flurry of strikes had pushed energy into the object that exploded once stasis wore off.

"It may look as though it simply stops, but internally the object is working hard to maintain its stasis," explained Dohta. "It's the law of conservation of energy... except really, that's a lie. It feels right in the moment it happens, but makes less sense the more you stop and think about it. Game physics are at their best when they let you create things like this that can't exist in reality."

Magnesis, another rune, operates according to a similar principle. A giant magnet, Magnesis lets Link pick up any metal object with ease… except Magnesis doesn't really abide by the laws of magnetism. "The point here is to prevent instability from a programming perspective without sacrificing control for the player," said Dohta.

That same careful balance of truth and lies informed Link's rock-climbing skills and his ability to cut down trees. Beneath the proverbial hood, Havok bonds Link to the rock wall he's climbing, allowing him to clamber up almost as dexterously as Spider-Man. Trees are seen by Zelda's code as trees until Link hacks them down, at which point the game views them as logs. Once toppled, trees can be chopped again into a bundle of sticks, or pushed into water, where their new float property--not present in its previous tree state--makes it bob along the surface.

A boulder found near the opening of Breath of the Wild can be rolled all the way to Ganon. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Breath of the Wild's game physics stand on a foundation of lies, but those lies apply to all objects--making them true in a way. By unifying disparate objects under an umbrella of rules that players can understand and come to trust, they will feel encouraged to experiment and devise their own solutions to problems like navigation.

"For example, this metal slab is placed here to allow you to cross this river," Dohta said, indicating video playing during his presentation. "But once you pick it up [with Magnesis], you might find yourself suddenly wanting to drop it on top of an enemy. Once you see that log floating down the river, it's natural to want to try jumping on it. Just riding a log down a river seems like it would be fun."

Dohta knew he was on the right track when he began looking at Breath of the Wild's nascent game engine as a player instead of a programmer. What would happen, he wondered, if Link was scaling a pile of rocks, only for the rocks to shift into a giant monster that could still be climbed? And what if Link froze a rock with his Stasis Rune, smacked it a time or nine with his sword, and then climbed atop it before it unfroze? He would be able to ride it like a rocket!

"This would be a world where combining simple elements could produce complex results," he said. "Where you feel the thrill of imagining the things you wanted to try as you play. I realized that was the kind of game we should try to make."

Breath of the Wild's surfeit of gameplay possibilities owe their existence to more than game physics. "I mentioned this before, but action games are made up of collision, plus movement, plus changing state. It's our chemistry engine that calculates changes in the state of things," Dohta said.

Like its physics, Breath of the Wild's chemistry engine is predicated on a set of rules that emphasize intuitive play and fun. The engine defines elements as anything that doesn't hold a constant, solid form, such as water and fire. Solids such as rocks, trees, and Link himself are referred to as materials. The chemistry engine crunches numbers by combining materials and elements.

Calculations are performed according to three rules. First, elements can change the state of materials. Link can set a branch on fire, then creep up behind a Bokoblin and hold the torch against his backside until it fire takes hold and the goblin begins dancing and clutching himself in pain. Second, elements can change the state of other elements. Dip that same torch in water and it will extinguish. Third, materials can interact with other materials, but they cannot change their state.

To achieve simplicity, the chemistry engine even considers wind and electricity to be elements. "We consider all phenomena that occurs in nature to be chemistry," Dohta explained. "And so for our purposes, things like wind and electricity are all considered to be elements. Treating them this way gives us a simplified method with which to model the world. It's not that we wanted to create an engine that replicates chemistry. Instead, we wanted to create a state calculator for all these objects that are connected to one another."

With the advent of the chemistry engine came another term: chemical reactions, going hand-in-hand with multiplicative gameplay. "Given the right situation, the elements can also generate energy and impact the physical world. In this way, all the constituent parts of the world we created are governed by physics and chemistry," Dohta continued.

Up until a certain point, all notions of multiplicative gameplay and chemical reactions were theoretical. That was when Dohta conferred with Fujibayashi to assemble a 2D game prototype that could be mistaken for the original NES game. In reality, however, the prototype only appeared to be 2D. It actually existed as a 3D game space, the extra dimension used to hold data related to chemistry and physics and other computations.

When it proved successful, the core concepts of the prototype were transplanted into the full-fledged 3D adventure that became The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

"We've filled every corner of the game world with these sets of situations and goals," Dohta explained. "And of course, we've envisioned correct ways to solve each of them. But that's not to say we want the players to search for and find those correct answers. Instead, we want them to have fun thinking of and trying solutions on their own. If thinking up, trying out, and eventually finding roundabout solutions and shortcuts is fun, then I think that in itself is the correct way to play this game."

Breath of the Wild started as a Wii U game. During development, long-time Zelda producer and director Eiji Aonuma announced that the game would need to be ported to Nintendo Switch in order to give the company's portable console a must-have title at launch. "That's a producer for you," said Dohta, probably only half joking. "He has even more of that 'courage to say' than Mr. Fujibayashi."

To the relief of Dohta and the rest of the team, Breath of the Wild transitioned smoothly to the Switch. There was virtually no loss of frame rate or audio quality. Late in development, the team went in and added graphical and aural functions to make the Switch version stand out even further.

Dohta did find one aspect of the Switch peculiar: the fact that it wasn't peculiar. "While looking back on our previous hardware, we always had launch titles that carried the additional duty of making the appeal of the hardware easy to see," he explained, referring to games like Super Mario 64, designed around the Nintendo 64's analog stick.

What's cooking? That's up to players to decide. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Relative to Nintendo hardware of yore such as the Wii and DS, the Switch is rather ordinary--the company's most conventional console since 2001's GameCube. The tablet supports touch, the Joy-Con can be split so users can hold its two pieces separately, a la the Wii's remote and nunchuk. Its main selling point is its portability.

"Breath of the Wild is a game about freedom," said Dohta. "By bringing it to Nintendo Switch, we've extended that freedom to being able to choose your preferred play style," he continued, referring to one developer who liked to play with his arms crossed, a Joy-Con held in each hand. "This play style isn't necessarily the 'correct one' that we envisioned, but if this makes the game fun to play for you, then that becomes your correct way to play on Nintendo Switch."

Stirring the Soul

Like Eiji Aonuma, Breath of the Wild art director Satoru Takizawa got his Zelda legs under him working on Ocarina of Time. He has since touched every mainline console title in the series, from Majora's Mask and Wind Waker to Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and the infamous tech demo built for Nintendo's Spaceworld 2000 expo that featured a photorealistic Link crossing blades with Ganondorf.

"I've only been involved in a small portion of Zelda titles, but even so, something that struck me about this long-running series is how aggressively the game systems have been changed each time. I think that's a fairly rare thing," he said.

Every change in Zelda's underpinnings--Wind Waker's scattered isles, Skyward Sword's disjointed overworld, Majora's Mask's three-day cycle and doomed world--necessitated changes in its visual direction. "In order to meet this challenge, the artists have had to continually search for art styles that make it easy to lie," Takizawa explained, following the fun-first guideline set by Triforce of Courage and Wisdom holders Fujibayashi and Dohta. "A reality players can sink into."

I am Trial and Error. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Unlike the Gerudo thief Ganondorf, Takizawa did not tap into his Triforce of Power haphazardly. He worked through concepts for Link and Breath of the Wild touchstones like the ancient ruins slowly and carefully, looking for his own balance between truth and fiction.

"As you move further away from realism, both tempo and visibility improve, and the level of pleasantness increases, but the reality of the world is apt to be lost," he explained. "That being said, if you place too much importance on the realism of behavior and presentation, you could damage a pleasant game cycle and responsiveness."

Some of his conceptual illustrations were outlandish. One showed Link dressed in a biker's outfit. Another portrayed him in loose clothes and strumming musical instruments. In a third, a UFO hovered over Hyrule. "This is where things got a bit dodgy," Takizawa admitted.

One of his biggest challenges was determining how to display Zelda's world and characters in an HD era. Through 2011's Skyward Sword for Wii, Zelda games had been rendered for standard-definition TVs. He and the team put together the Zelda HD Experience, a non-playable demo that showed off jaw-droppingly realistic renditions of Link, a fairy companion, the franchise's iconic spider boss Gohma, and a temple. The HD Experience was put on view at E3 2011 to show off the Wii U--Nintendo's first HD console, still a year and a half out from release--rather than to advertise the visual direction of the next Zelda game.

HD Experience represented the Zelda art team's most straightforward approach to asset creation. They were working with HD screens for the first time, so they loaded the test with detail. Moving on, they crafted an intricate city that showed fine details like cracks and pebbles embedded in stone. The Zelda HD Experience whet their appetite for characters, so the team recreated Link and friends from Skyward Sword in brand-new models, followed by their incarnations from 2006's Twilight Princess and 2003's Wind Waker.

Almost from the start, returning to Wind Waker's palette and style became more than an experiment to find their footing for Breath of the Wild. "This new Wind Waker art stood out from the other HD mockups and really captured the imaginations of the lead artists on Breath of the Wild, myself included," Takizawa said. "This art guarantees playability for all aspects, including visibility and action that still allows for the construction of a unique reality, an art style with which it's super easy to lie. It has great originality and has remained fresh even after 10 years, and it feels good to play."

One of the first screens released from Wind Waker HD. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Nintendo's Zelda developers enjoyed working with Wind Waker so much that they spun off their experiments into The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD for Wii U in 2013. A few months before it was released, Eiji Aonuma and Breath of the Wild game director Fujibayashi asked Takizawa to join them for a private conversation. Fujibayashi pointed to a Wind Waker HD image and announced his strong feelings that the game's vibrant, cel-shaded artwork power visuals for Breath of the Wild.

"The other artists and I were in complete agreement, so I did not hesitate to speak up. Mr. Aonuma said, 'I agree.' And with that, it was decided. The whole thing took less than a minute," Takizawa said.

All too soon, Wind Waker's heavily stylized world and characters worked against it. "One of our goals was to have the art intuitively suggest possible physics and chemistry gameplay based on the player's own experiences in the real world," he said. "The problem with the Wind Waker art style is the lies it told were too big."

On top of that, returning to Wind Waker reawakened the old criticism from older players that Wind Waker appeared too childish to appeal to their tastes. Breath of the Wild's painterly style, like oil colors given life, landed somewhere between Twilight Princess's more realistic visuals and Wind Waker's cartoonish veneer.

"We needed to suggest things anyone could do in the real world, so we needed a certain level of realism, and we needed an information-dense, mature art style," explained Takizawa. "Our goal of supporting these elements led to 'refreshing and full-flavored.' So we made this our slogan, and it led to the establishment of the final art style. Shaders, lighting, models, terrain, effects, UI, environments--our slogan is the foundation on which all these sections constructed their designs and behaviors."

Even Link's actions find a comfortable middle ground before real and really absurd. Chop down a tree and it topples slowly, trunk snapping and splintering before crashing to the ground. Hack and slash it again and--POOF!--it transforms into a bundle of sticks. Jump from a cliff and whip out Link's kite and the character jerks to a halt before falling into a gentle descent. From there, players can plummet to the ground and ride their shield down snowy mountain paths like a snowboard.

Breath of the Wild anytime, anywhere.

Cooking food, Breath of the Wild's substitution for cutting grass and finding hearts, has a personality all its own. Players can assemble any combination of ingredients plucked from Breath of the Wild's wild, start a cookfire, and toss their ingredients in a pot, where they bounce and dance around.

"If you imagine these actions in the real world, what we presented might be considered comedic," Takizawa said. "When all the poofs and dancing foodstuffs were implemented, I didn't feel the absurdity of the idea, but rather the fun of it. I knew we had come up with the answer of what this game needed in its art style. This title's art style is a reconciliation of the conflict between playability and reality. It's the result of our quest for art that makes it easy to lie, to match this game known as Breath of the Wild."

When the Japanese recall a fond memory or take in a work of art, they use the term gutto kuru, or "to stir the soul." The phrase is meant to capture a feeling, like a fairy in a bottle. Creating gutto kuru art isn't as simple as creating artwork that lies, Takizawa continued. He and his artists wracked their brains for imaginative takes on Zelda conventions--like, say, sauteing a stone pot full of apples and meat instead of mowing grass for hearts.

"While art directors don't get to simply decide on functions or guidelines, when the chance arrives to choose between multiple art styles and designs, we do have the authority to let loose the Triforce of the Power to show to choose what we believe gutto kuru, or stirs the soul," he said. "I think it's possible that at this pre-launch point in time, I'm the man who's had his soul stirred the most by the art of Breath of the Wild. I hope from the bottom of my heart that the entire world will explore the vastness of Hyrule, and have their souls stirred again and again, just as I did."

Unconventional Conventions

Breath of the Wild did not completely upend the proverbial tea table. Some conventions such as Link, Zelda, Ganon, and the Master Sword return, albeit sporting new abilities and characteristics. Others, such as traveling Hyrule Field on horseback, are present, but changed. Epona has been retired to Nintendo's own Lon Lon Ranch; in her place, wild horses roam the land, waiting for careful heroes to tiptoe up and tame them.

How, or if players choose to do that, will be only one of the many choices they make when The Legend of the Zelda: Breath of the Wild emerges for Wii U and Nintendo Switch on March 3.

"I hope you are able to see that breaking conventions means to change, but it can also mean to not change," explained Fujibayashi. "To keep things as they are. In 2016, Zelda celebrated its 30th anniversary with the support of all its fans. Breath of the Wild is a culmination of this long history of development. It is a new game, but at the same time, re-examines the fun that lies at the essence of the franchise."

Breath of the Wild's official box art. (Image courtesy of Nintendo of America.)

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at and @davidlcraddock.

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