'Breath of the Wild' Makes Me Actually Want To Explore
How the new Zelda adventure provides a safe harbor for true exploration amidst a sea of open-world games.
That mark on your map means you can go there. That mark on your map means you should go there. That mark on your map means that there is #content waiting. That mark on your map deliberately defines a Something, and whether it means to or not it simultaneously defines the space between itself and the next mark as a Nothing. Here are the points, the five dozen points, that you need to pay attention to. Ignore the rest. It's fly-over flavor.
That's the kind of design that open-world games are saturated with anyway, and it's why exploring in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feels like nothing else.
It's also what made the entirely optional Hissing Wastes area in Dragon Age: Inquisition feel almost revelatory to me when I played it. Here was a place that I was warned (in-fiction) would be nearly desolate, and while there were still points of interest, objectives to complete and map markers to unlock, compared to every other zone in Inquisition the Wastes were as advertised. The Wastes are vast, and crossing them involves the passing of minutes plodding across endless sands interrupted only occasionally by points of interest defined only by my own interest in them. The area was divisive, but I adored it.
I still adore it. But no game since had really tapped into those same feelings until Breath of the Wild.
Breath of the Wild gives me a tower to climb, but when I get to the top what do I receive? No smattering of icons, no list of destinations and collectables coded by category, but instead a single fast travel point and a clear view of the land that stretches out around me. It gives me the tools to literally and directly define what's of interest to me, and what's relevant to my own journey.
As I progress through an area, I tend to leave a breadcrumb trail of cooking pots and the odd treasure chest across my map. Mostly cooking pots, though.
The happy side-effect of this system is that it's not the icons scattered on my map that call out for my attention, but the voids. The hollows and the spaces left between them. The places I haven't been, and the places where I know there must be something to uncover.
I can understand why this isn't more common. What's the use of spending hours, days, even weeks creating something in one darkened corner of a game only to risk a player sailing straight past it? The desire to shine the spotlight on just how much there is to see and to do in these increasingly large worlds if perfectly relatable, even if it risks perpetuating the problem by training players to just focus on connecting the dots.
But this is crucial: I don't think that Breath of the Wild's creators care if you see every sight, or find every single cache and korok. The rewards aren't exactly phenomenal if you do. Instead they've prioritized the experience of feeling your way out through an unfamiliar world. And it works.
It works because this is how discovery should feel. Don't start with the checklist; start with the blank column. Turns out that makes all the difference in the world.