Breath of the Wild Creates Freedom Through Limitation

I recently wrote about coming to D&D late and how as a result I was experiencing for the first time a lot of things other people had already experienced, and how my excitement was novel to me but probably not novel in general. Which brings me to Breath of the Wild, a game I finally got around to playing. Recently a friend departing on a European vacation lent me their Switch, a system I had seriously considered buying with the sole intention of playing BOTW. That’s how good I was told it was. And, folks, it didn’t disappoint.

There are a tremendous number of things to laud in BOTW, and only a few things to critique (why is the horse so useless??). The scenery is lovely but doesn’t skew too photo-realist, so that it still has some style and flair. The gameplay is easy to learn and seamless but still feels inventive and innovative. The puzzles are challenging and goofy and allow you to be creative and practice a lot of trial and error (well, for me, at least). The bosses are, for the most part, challenging because you must carefully plan out a course of attack, not because you need supreme and perfect coordination to snag them (this one is definitely a blessing for me… I am not particularly good at things that require serious hand-eye coordination). But, most importantly, it is the first open world game I’ve ever really loved. It’s what I heard was so fantastic about it, and it delivered.

I’ve never been a serious gamer, as you might surmise from my inability to play games that require serious coordination. I’ve often found games lovely, or interesting, but I’m just not good enough at them to not get frustrated, and I’m frequently so bad at them that there is eventually a point I can honestly not advance. Regardless, my experience with open world gameplay comes primarily from Red Dead Redemption, and from Skyrim. Both maps felt… big. Too big. But the BOTW map is pretty big too. I don’t know the statistics for how they compare (I imagine BOTW and Red Dead must be smaller than Skyrim… and size doesn’t factor in ease of traversing either) but BOTW still feels markedly different than the others. I don’t think that even, necessarily, springs from map size. I think it has to do with the lean towards innovation and puzzle solving, to the logic built into the game.

In that way, BOTW reminds me a little of D&D, in that it is the first video game I’ve played that involves a world that sort of revolves around “what makes sense?” – you can try lots of things, and combos work or don’t work based on if they seem fair. In D&D, we have a DM who is capable of rulings, and most of those rulings revolve around “okay… I intended this puzzle to be solved by this, but I’m seeing that people are taking this swing at it… does that make sense to me? Does that seem fair? Logically, do I think they are making a good point?” BOTW takes what feels like a similar approach. Want to start a fire? Drop some twigs. Drop a piece of flint. Whack the whole shebang with a metal weapon. Done. Or: keep getting struck by lightning? Maybe switch out your metal implements for wooden or leather or cloth. There have been battles I know I was supposed to fight that I simply flew over. Puzzles that I was supposed to solve that I simply fought through. Fights I was supposed to fight that I puzzled my way out of. Etc. The shrines teach you to be innovative, and because the game has asked you to be innovative it does a truly incredible job of not saying: “no, actually you’re meant to do things this way,” when you are innovative. It’s more common response is: okay, sure, that works. In that way it feels more open world than wide-open spaces. The world may be smaller, but it’s more interactive and richer.

As a result of that, the game actually can say no more easily, and it feels more like a game. In the D&D article I wrote about failure, and how well it builds character. BOTW makes admirable use of failure. If I’m trying to climb a cliff and run out of stamina, or swim or fly to a distant island and run out of stamina, or trying to get past a guardian and run out of health, it doesn’t feel like the game is “directing me.” It feels like me, the character, Link, isn’t experienced enough yet. It feels real. It’s not some locked door, or fog that I can’t get past, or a sleeping Snorlax, or an NPC who advises you turn around with some half-assed excuse. The game isn’t even scolding me for trying to access. It’s not saying I need to acquire more experience, in some quantitative way, but instead insisting I need more experience, in a qualitative way. It’s stating, elegantly, that I’ve failed. It’s just a personal failing. Which is great. I either get stronger, or I figure out a way around, and those are both options. You can point anywhere in the game and say “I want to go there,” and the game will say “okay. Can you get there?” You don’t complain when you can’t swim across the Atlantic Ocean, but if you’re pretty close to being able to take on the next hardest rock-climbing wall at the gym you give it a shot, and you see how you do, and you assess future attempts accordingly, and you grow (or so I’ve been told… I do not rock climb…)

That’s why I think BOTW works so well as an open world. It situates you as a character, and reinforces that constantly. You are Link. You/Link can do what you want. There’s a whole world of stuff to do. If you can’t do something, then you/Link just need to improve. You need to find the right potions or clothing or hearts or stamina or strategy. It’s (again) reinforced by the game’s objectives. The story has a single objective, with four smaller objectives that lead to it. It doesn’t rush you towards them, and they can be addressed in any order. Red Dead, for example, had storylines that would play out in in chronological order in each area. Skyrim worked similarly. There were quest trees, for lack of a better term. BOTW disposes of that, and turns more power over to the player. The game feels loose and invites invention, while still giving you a motivation. That’s how story is told: characters (players) are thrown into scenarios and how they act and react, that’s what draws who they are. D&D serves as a good story because the DM can react to characters choices in real time, and say yes, you can do that, but what does that mean? BOTW understands that dispensing of an objective dispenses of story, but also removes the guardrails of how you approach that objective. You are a hero who handle things as you want to.

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