The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: An Open World

At the beginning of Link’s newest adventure in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, he is guided by a psychic voice to a shabby structure on the Great Plateau. Holding his Sheikah Slate, a kind of medieval-technological tablet computer, over a console, the structure bursts with a bright blue light and Link finds himself hurtling into the air as it sprouts into a massive tower. With a ruined Hyrule stretching as far as can be seen in every direction, I feel a sense of dread as a portion of a blank map on the Sheikah Slate is filled in.

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Link and the Sheikah Slate

I’ve played this videogame before; too many times, in fact. Whether it’s an Assassin clambering to a perch circled by a hawk, Talion and Celebrimbor leaping to an anvil in the sky, or Batman dismantling Nygma’s network hacks, I’ve spent far too much time in far too many sandboxes capturing towers to reveal waypoint nodes on a map. But my dread was ill-conceived; though Breath of the Wild does indeed task me with climbing towers and being rewarded with a portion of the map revealed, what happens after that is what makes it such a triumphant entry in the well-worn open-world genre.

When I enter a new area in Assassin’s Creed, I am able to view an empty map screen marked by “Viewpoints,” typically placed on top of a tower or cliff and marked by a circling hawk. When I guide an Assassin to a Viewpoint, I am treated to a glorious 360° view of the immediate area, and a quadrant of the map is filled in along with voluminous smaller waypoints marking activities which can be performed in the area. A veritable cottage industry have followed in the wake of the first Assassin’s Creed, adopting its style with minimal alteration, each following a basic formula: Follow waypoint to Viewpoint, unlock that point to reveal its sub-waypoints, complete those waypoints to progress towards 100% completion.

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It is difficult to pick out objects of interest in Assassin’s Creed II without a map waypoint.

It’s easy to ignore the map and wander, but these videogames are structured around the Viewpoints. Aside from the map waypoints, there is often no visual indicator that something is worth visiting until you’re right next to it. Progressing through exploration alone is a chore because the worlds are not designed to be traversed without a map, but the map itself robs the videogame of the joy of discovery.

Enter Breath of the Wild.

I experienced dread climbing that tower and unveiling that map because it’s similar to Assassin’s Creed and its ilk. Though it’s true that I unveil a portion of the world map by climbing to a vantage point and interacting with an event trigger, the similarities end there. There are no waypoints to reach to on this map; it exists to provide the comfort and familiarity of topography, not to show you what and where everything is. That task is left to me, and it is here that Breath of the Wild shines.

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Breath of the Wild makes it easy to recognize landmarks without a map waypoint.

For anything else it does to work, Breath of the Wild must make its significant landmarks easy to recognize. Its world is detailed, but clean of clutter. Buildings are easy to pick out against the landscape; inhabited ones are alive with lights at night, while abandoned or monster-filled ruins are appropriately dilapidated. A camp of Hylians can be seen from a distance by the smoke of their fire. The surviving weapons of the Calamity shine with alien neon lights. Even the illusive Koroks, which are “hiding” in a nation-wide game of Hide and Seek, are still conspicuous as they blend in with the environment: A suspiciously isolated rock, a not-quited-completed pattern, or an unnatural shape all mark sure signs of a hidden Korok. And then there are the Sheikah Towers and Shrines which drive Link’s journey, illuminated in fiery red or brilliant blue, emblazoned against the horizon. A map is a nicety in Hyrule, but not a necessity.

I am provided with a bevy of pins and stamps to mark these curiosities as I discover them. I can put them wherever I want, but to make any kind of sense I must do my own exploration and stamp them in a logical way. I might mark a significant landmark with a star; the location of a miniboss with a skull; a valuable stash of loot with a chest. The most important landmarks—the Sheikah Shrines, various towns and checkpoints, and the voluminous hidden Koroks—are filled in automatically with unique stamps as I discover them, so even were I uninterested in filling the map I would nevertheless find it filled with all of the things I have done.

The contrast between the Assassin’s Creed style and Breath of the Wild style could not be more pronounced. The former begins with a map full of waypoints and ends with an empty one; the latter begins with a map devoid of waypoints and ends with a full one. They’re two equally-effective ways of communicating progress, but the former enables a focused, rote, automated process that robs me of any chance to discover. The latter encourages a free-wheeling approach, alleviating pressure to eliminate every waypoint because there are no waypoints to eliminate. This turns a destination not into an endpoint but a new beginning.

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A mostly-completed map in Assassin’s Creed II

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A  mostly-completed map in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

And so I must ask: Why have I enjoyed the latter so much more than the former? It comes down to the nature of the sandbox. Sandboxes should not only be playgrounds where I can “do whatever I want” (as meaningless a phrase as that is in a videogame, which are built around limitations), they should also foster a desire to explore its innermost and outermost reaches.

This happens constantly in Breath of the Wild. On more than one occasion, I have guided Link to the top of a mountain or the depths of a canyon, and as he has clambered over some rocks, they have rumbled to life and assaulted him: The riotous Talus. Or else I have uncovered the den of a slumbering Hinox, or the hunting ground of a mighty Lynel. It’s not just a crescendo of boss music which makes these moments exciting; they feel novel because they are unexpected. Nothing unexpected ever happens in an Assassin’s Creed, and adventure and discovery relies on that thrill.

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The call to adventure in Hyrule.

In sandbox videogames of the Assassin’s Creed style, there is nothing to explore and no adventure to be had because all of that work has already been done for me. There is no mystery around the next corner. There is only a waypoint. In sandbox videogames of the Breath of the Wild style, there is still a world to explore and an adventure to be had in spite of a map showing the way, and if a waypoint exists around the next corner, it’s because I chose to put it there. This is what Breath of the Wild brings to the sandbox “genre,” and why it has been such a smash critical success: It bucks a traditional formula and injects a much-needed sense of adventure which has been diluted by iteration and time.

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