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The Boundless Legacy of ‘Breath of the Wild’

After ‘Breath of the Wild,’ open-world games can be split into two camps: those that share its philosophy of total freedom and those that don’t

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​An image likely etched into a million minds: ​​Link atop a horse galloping through a field of​ swaying grass, light glinting a​s​ a delicate piano score chim​es​ in the background.​ The player, their four-legged companion, and the world are synchronized in a rare kind of concert. Then rain starts to fall, moody clouds swelling above Link and lightning cracking in the distance. The cracks draw closer before one bolts down the center of the screen onto the game’s elf-like hero and his steed. Link is immediately toast, the hearts that symbolize his life wiped out. Poetry has been interrupted by a ruthless, hilarious act of God.

This dichotomy sums up so much of what’s special about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. On the one hand, a sense of adventure that has few peers in video games: wanderlust, dread, the sublime, all achieved within a vast, meticulously designed open world. On the other, systems and mechanics that combine in such a way that they both react physically to the player and seem to exist independently of them, alternately inspiring awe and glee and making a virtual setting feel truly alive. In this version of Hyrule, almost anything goes.

Friday marks the arrival of Tears of the Kingdom, the long-anticipated sequel set in (mostly) the same sandbox as Breath of the Wild. Nintendo rarely releases direct sequels to Zelda games, but it feels fitting for Tears to borrow Breath of the Wild’s world, considering how pervasive the 2017 blockbuster’s influence has been. In the six long years since Breath of the Wild’s release (a veritable lifetime in the fast-moving, technology-driven world of video games), it’s become clear that the game was a watershed—not quite the anno Domini of open-world design (Grand Theft Auto III takes that crown) but a reset both critics and players were clamoring for.

Few would have expected such sweeping innovation from a franchise that, more than 30 years into its existence, was widely lauded yet also conservatively structured. As a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild was revolutionary, a refreshingly unfettered take on a series that had previously toyed only with panoramic space (see Hyrule Field in 1998’s Ocarina of Time or the choppy seas of 2002’s The Wind Waker). As an open-world game, it was, if anything, even more mold breaking. By the mid-2010s, Ubisoft’s icon-filled open-world “map games” (a pejorative term expressing players’ frustration with having to scour a map to find things to do rather than looking at the world itself) had reached their logical extremes, with critics cooling on increasingly cluttered and bloated tentpole franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. Elsewhere, Mad Max (2015) and Final Fantasy XV (2016) felt like games whose open-world settings were as much a result of market forces as they were a necessity for gameplay and storytelling. At their most cynical, these ballooning virtual spaces appeared less like living, breathing worlds than sites to consume ever more content.

Breath of the Wild hit differently. “What [Nintendo] did was unlock some of the potential and show just how much could be done within those spaces,” Polygon senior editor Oli Welsh says over Google Meet. “The key point for me is they realized the world is the game. The landscape is the entire game.”

Since 2017, a slew of titles have emerged that are either directly influenced by Breath of the Wild or aligned with its design values. On the phone from his studio in London, Gregorios Kythreotis, creative director of 2021 indie hit Sable, describes Breath of the Wild as a game that shows you where you might like to go rather than telling you explicitly. “It does a great job of giving you the tools to meander,” he says. “I feel like there’s a point in that game where you just kind of let go of feeling hung up on a clear objective.” Sable also inspires this sort of play. Kythreotis categorizes A Short Hike, Outer Wilds, and FromSoftware’s critically acclaimed Elden Ring in this way too. He says these are games in which it “feels like you’re driving the adventure as the player as opposed to trying to discover what the designer has laid out for you.”

Tchia, an indie open-world adventure released in March, embodies a similar ethos. Creative director Phil Crifo cites Nintendo’s open-world epic as a key inspiration, in particular in the way it delivers on what he sees as the potential of the genre’s formative years. “Breath of the Wild went back to a type of design that early open-world games from the PlayStation 2 era, games like Grand Theft Auto III, were promising,” he says. “It went back to the genre’s original dreams. The whole idea when GTA III came out was that, ‘OK, we’re going to give you a set of tools and mechanics that interact with each other, and then we’re going to give you very simple, straightforward objectives, but we won’t guide you towards how to achieve them.’ That, I think, is the beauty of the genre, and Breath of the Wild is very much a realization of that principle.”

Like the first Zelda game from 1986, which was inspired by designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood memories of exploring forests and caves surrounding postwar Kyoto, Breath of the Wild was born from a crystalline picture: Link climbing a cliff before paragliding to the ground below, moving seamlessly from rock to air, and then, finally, landing comfortably on terra firma. There was more, though: survival and what director Hidemaro Fujibayashi called the “creativity of combination”—for example, lighting wood with fire to create a larger bonfire. The Zelda series, whose game mechanics were usually so precise and predictable, would open itself up to the natural elements. In the process, it would have to embrace a degree of chaos and chance.

Fujibayashi recently recounted his thinking to Chris Schilling, deputy editor of Edge magazine, acknowledging that he toyed with many ideas before settling on the one that would become the “very roots of Breath of the Wild’s gameplay.” Schilling left this untold in the article but explains to me that Fujibayashi’s extensive brainstorming stood in firm contrast to his conception of Breath of the Wild’s 2011 predecessor, Skyward Sword. “After he’d finished developing Phantom Hourglass, Fujibayashi immediately submitted the planning document for Skyward Sword,” Schilling recalls via video. “I asked if he did that for Breath of the Wild, and he hadn’t. It’s not like he had the idea straightaway. He spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of game it should be.”

By the time Skyward Sword was released, Zelda had become hidebound. That game garnered strong, if not effervescent, reviews, but in recent years, its reputation has diminished. (The original sits at 93 percent on Metacritic, while the HD remake, released 10 years later, dropped to 81 percent.) The team that developed Skyward Sword, led by Fujibayashi, had the unenviable task of making the first mainline Zelda game tethered to the Wii’s motion controllers (the cross-generational Twilight Princess, which came out in 2006, was released for both the GameCube and Wii). Rather than leaning into the series’ trademark sense of adventure, it dropped players from the sky into enclosed dungeons. Lena Raine, a former level designer at Ubisoft and now a successful video game composer on titles such as Minecraft, Celeste, and the upcoming Earthblade, describes it as a “very directed experience … to a fault.” Schilling pulls even fewer punches: “With hindsight, it felt like an evolutionary dead end for the series.”

However, Welsh argues that the series had started to “calcify” long before Skyward Sword. “The games would mostly develop in the same way. There’d be a unique gimmick to each one,” he says. “In Skyward Sword, it’s the world above and the world below. In Ocarina of Time, it’s time travel. In A Link to the Past, it’s the light and dark worlds. They’d reliably come up with something, but the patterns were beginning to feel very familiar.” Welsh believes Nintendo could have carried on making those games forever (and still can, with HD remasters and remakes), but Zelda had ceased to operate at the cutting edge: “It had become too self-reverential and too self-referential.”

How, then, to shake up the long-standing formula? For Breath of the Wild, the team shifted the action to an open-world setting, enlisting some 45 developers who had helped turn Xenoblade Chronicles X (2015) into a modern, vista-filled JRPG classic. Miyamoto once described Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.” The new version of Hyrule was more like a national park rendered in an exquisite, painterly style, almost like a Hokusai print you could step into. But Nintendo didn’t just spend years designing a vast digital playground, one whose mountains, lakes, valleys, and forests drew the eye and, subsequently, the player. Central to the game’s production was figuring out how such a world should behave. After all, a space that lacks consequence, friction, or discord is arguably one without life. These are the kinds of criticisms often leveled at open-world games, but from the very first moment the latest Link stepped onto the Great Plateau, the game’s introductory area, it was clear they wouldn’t hold water in Breath of Wild.

In a fascinating and singular moment of design disclosure from the generally guarded Nintendo (which declined interview requests for a piece on Tears of the Kingdom), Breath of the Wild’s technical director, Takuhiro Dohta, spoke at the 2017 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and broke down what gives the game its essential sense of tangibility. There is a physics engine that Dohta describes as the interplay between collision and movement. Then there is the chemistry engine, which dictates the states of objects themselves. These might change because of the player’s actions or other events in the world—water turning to ice, or perhaps a patch of grass catching fire. “The model is an extremely simple one but allows for the expression of all sorts of events,” Dohta said, before displaying a short montage demonstrating its capabilities. Even the most ephemeral elements, air and electricity, were folded into the chemistry system.

In the same interview with Schilling for Edge, Fujibayashi explicitly referenced the sandbox behemoth Minecraft as well as Terraria (a 2D riff on similar ideas) as inspirations for Breath of the Wild. Tears of the Kingdom uses the physics and chemistry engines to further channel these games (and perhaps even Fortnite) with full-blown construction mechanics, but in Breath of the Wild they exist in service of less ostentatious ends—binding Hyrule together and imbuing it with a sense of consistency. Sony’s 2022 open-world darling, Horizon Forbidden West, offers an interesting point of comparison. It also features chemical elements (acid, fire, ice, etc.), but these can be used only during the game’s (admittedly excellent) combat. The difference is indicative of a subtle but fundamental distinction in design philosophy. Each part of Horizon Forbidden West—combat, exploration, story—seems to exist in its own silo rather than as one cohesive whole. Nintendo’s game might look cartoonish, at least compared to the Horizon series’ photorealism, but, crucially, Welsh says, it feels like a “physically real space.”

According to Ishaan Sahdev, a journalist who has written an entire ebook on the development of the Zelda series, the sandbox qualities of Breath of the Wild represent less a break with the series than a “culmination of every idea” Nintendo has ever had for it. To illustrate this point, he refers to the switch mechanic used in 1991’s A Link to the Past. Rather than walk up to a switch and simply press a button, the player was required to either push or pull the switch. There was both a right and a wrong solution to this simple action, which made the game world feel that much more tangible. For Sahdev, this small choice is representative of the franchise as a whole; Breath of the Wild merely expressed its long-standing sense of interaction to the fullest degree. “Zelda was never just about fighting enemies and finding items,” he says. “It’s a series about being put in a world and then actually being able to interact with that. It’s about the small pleasures of interacting with things, and then seeing how realistically those things react.”

When Breath of the Wild was released in March 2017, Kythreotis had what he can only describe as an “oh shit” moment. A few months earlier, he and Daniel Fineberg had created a prototype for a game that used only a hoverbike and a few kilometers’ worth of sand dunes downloaded from the Unity Asset Store. They took the prototype to a developer meetup at the Crown, a pub in north London. The reaction felt different, a genuinely effusive response in a setting where most early works are greeted with courteous nods of approval. Then Breath of the Wild came out, and Kythreotis felt deflated. Nintendo had beaten him to the punch.

The young designer had conceived of a “heads-up” open-world experience, a response to the Ubification of the genre that had intensified in recent years. He and Fineberg wanted to deepen immersion by wresting the player’s attention away from screen-cluttering HUDs, UIs, and maps and back onto the virtual world itself. However, rather than abstaining from playing Breath of the Wild for fear of ripping it off, Kythreotis and Fineberg made the smart decision to learn from the game, which was hailed as an instant classic by both specialist and mainstream press.

The DNA of Breath of the Wild is self-evident in Sable, from its wandering, exploratory spirit to its carefully crafted horizons and, perhaps most conspicuously, limber climbing system. Walk up to any surface, and Sable’s nameless protagonist will begin to climb it just like Link, accompanied by a slowly diminishing stamina wheel. Kythreotis admits that without Breath of the Wild, the system “probably wouldn’t have been so free-form … it probably would have been more structured.” What Nintendo’s game gave Kythreotis, beyond direction about how this mechanic should function, was a sense of belief—not just in himself and Fineberg, but in the player, who with expanded input would become more of a “collaborator in the experience.”

“I wouldn’t have had the confidence to give players the sort of freedom that we ended up giving them,” Kythreotis explains. “It’s all well and good to feel like you can do that in theory. But when you put the controller in a player’s hand after you’ve made a level in a game like Sable, an open-world game, and they go and completely break the sequencing in a way you could never have expected, I think the natural inclination of the designer is to be like, ‘OK, how do we fix that?’ Breath of the Wild gave us confidence to actually say, ‘OK, we can trust the player here,’ and actually, it adds value to the experience because even if they experience something out of sequence, when they realize that, it creates excitement in itself.”

Crifo, creative director of Tchia, is similarly up-front about the influence of Breath of the Wild on his game’s “go-anywhere” climbing system, and the challenges posed in granting the player such latitude. “The more freedom you give the player, the more stuff they’re able to break, and so the more bulletproof your systems must be,” he says. “The fact that you’re able to climb any surface at any angle, which the character has to adapt to—all the cavities, nooks, and crannies of your level design, your rock models and trees—that’s tenfold more complicated to program and design than a simple climbing system where you’re hand placing the climbable walls.”

What separates Tchia from Breath of the Wild, beyond the former’s smaller scale and bucolic Pacific Island setting, is what Crifo calls the “soul-jumping” ability. Early on, the game’s adolescent protagonist learns how to focus her thoughts on almost any object or creature—a shark, a chicken, or even a garden rake—in order to take control of it. This creates a thrilling, decidedly surreal means of movement that, like Link’s in Breath of the Wild, flits seamlessly across land, air, and water. Crifo explains that the mechanic took a great deal of iteration, and until the team cracked it, traversal just felt off. “It all depends on the systems working in concord. If one thing crumbles, then the whole thing crumbles,” Crifo says. “You can’t really test locomotion until all the little aspects work together. It’s a trust-the-process thing from a design standpoint. You’re kind of holding your breath, thinking, ‘It’s going to be fun when it all comes together.’”

Sable and Tchia don’t give the player total freedom; these are still games shaped by physics, rules, and objectives. Instead, they offer greater flexibility than the genre seemed willing to allow in the years before Breath of the Wild’s arrival. Crucially, their tools of traversal aren’t just fun but also force players to look differently at, and imagine a new relationship with, the spaces in front of them (in Sable’s case, a vast desert of towering rock formations; in Tchia’s, a rugged archipelago). As Kythreotis stresses, these games engender a change in thinking that the design of the world must live up to. “You have to embrace the freedom,” he says. “You can’t betray the player at any point.”

There is no better example of a post–Breath of the Wild game pushing mobility to its limit than Hideo Kojima’s 2019 postapocalyptic hiking simulator, Death Stranding. Every undulation of the game’s mossy turf and the inclines of slippery rock almost make you feel the terrain beneath your feet. “It gives you an enormous level of freedom in how to explore it, either placing realistic or interesting limits on your ability to do so,” Welsh says. “You have to work hard to overcome these limits and the environment, and not just by leveling up your character or unlocking more powerful means of transport.” Beyond the need to set a waypoint on the map at the start of each delivery, Death Stranding keeps your eyes locked on its pristine topography, each index finger forced to make minor adjustments to the shoulder buttons to keep the grizzled protagonist balanced. Kojima turned the act of walking into tense, essential gameplay.

(Kojima has never publicly discussed the influence of Breath of the Wild on Death Stranding, which was in development before the landmark Zelda game’s release. However, one tantalizing in-game detail may suggest an admiration for the game: A heart-shaped lake found in the western portion of Death Stranding’s map bears a remarkable resemblance to one found in Nintendo’s.)

Earthblade is another game that evinces the influence of Breath of the Wild, albeit in a 2D framework. As Raine explains over the phone, she has learned from Nintendo how to use her score to help players navigate Earthblade’s seamless, unbroken world. She likens Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack, composed by Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, and Hajime Wakai, to a “compass” that orients the player and their actions in the game world: When, for instance, they clamber onto their horse and gradually pick up speed, “the riding music com[es] in, scattered little raindrops of notes.” She also refers to the idea of a “musical bubble,” the way data is sent to the music playback system upon entering an area. “It starts really sparse on the edges, develops towards the center, and then drifts out again as you leave,” she says. “It gives you such a sense of space.”

A Short Hike, developed by Adam Robinson-Yu, boiled Breath of the Wild’s free-form structure down to a wholesome, personal experience about finding phone reception. At the opposite end of the commercial spectrum, Chinese studio miHoYo cribbed Breath of the Wild’s aesthetic in service of the free-to-play gacha adventure Genshin Impact, making more than $4 billion in the process. Even Ubisoft, the company whose house style Breath of the Wild ultimately showed the limitations of, attempted its own cover version with Immortals Fenyx Rising, an open-world game with a climb-anywhere mechanic and a lighter, broader tone than Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs. However, as Cam Shea opined in his 7 out of 10 review for IGN, Ubisoft only went so far in internalizing Nintendo’s lessons. “Exploration, though, is where Immortals stumbles a bit relative to its obvious inspiration,” he wrote. “Fenyx’s Far Sight ability diminishes the joy of discovery somewhat, reducing it to a mechanical process of climbing to a vista, scanning the world, and marking out collectables and challenges—whether they’re visible or not. This takes a lot of mystery out of the world.”

What may be most surprising when considering Breath of the Wild’s influence—this week, it took the top spot in a GQ survey of developers, journalists, and streamers about the best games of all time—is that its reach does not extend even further. “It still feels like some of the triple-A open worlds are holding back, as if they want to try and adopt elements of [Breath of the Wild’s] design without fully committing to it,” Schilling says. “There is still a kind of reticence to give players that degree of control.” Schilling references Sony’s open-world hack and slash Ghosts of Tsushima (2020), a game that hits some of the same emotional notes as Breath of the Wild thanks to its pastoral Japanese setting yet never quite lets players off the leash. The contrast is summed up by each game’s approach to gating sections that may be too challenging for a player at a given stage of their playthrough. If you venture into a dangerous area in Ghosts of Tsushima, you’re met by a hail of deadly arrows. In Breath of the Wild, there is nothing—not even an invisible wall—stopping you from trying your luck against advanced enemies or even the final boss.

Video games, of course, aren’t cheap or easy to develop. Of all the genres, open-world games are perhaps the hardest and most expensive to design, so you can perhaps forgive the companies that make them for wanting to mitigate the risk and investment involved. This is one reason why experimentation, in a design sense, at least, is generally lacking and why so many open-world games continue to revolve around killing scores of enemies. In this context, Breath of the Wild’s innovation is all the more remarkable. Sahdev poses a rhetorical question to make this point: “When you’re pitching a $150 million game to upper management, how are you going to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to spend six months prototyping this thing’? Nobody’s green-lighting that.”

Welsh sees Breath of the Wild’s slow-burn impact on the wider gaming landscape as indicative of the challenge involved in creating such a free-form open world. “I’m genuinely surprised that it hasn’t been more influential,” he says. “And I can only guess that’s because what it actually does on a design level is extremely hard to do. That’s evidenced by the fact that it’s taken Nintendo themselves six years to come up with something which meaningfully iterates on it.”

Max Blumenthal, a video producer at GameSpot who goes by RinHara5aki on YouTube, has played Breath of the Wild for more than 4,300 hours. Along with others, like ambi (the subject of a recent Kotaku interview), he is an elite-level player whose Zelda content, to put it colloquially, has “done numbers” for the past six years. For Blumenthal, it started with a video outlining the so-called bow spin, the viral success of which helped him land his GameSpot gig. He went on to produce the hugely successful Things You Didn’t Know in Zelda Breath of the Wild series for the site, bringing a seemingly inexhaustible bounty of secrets to light. The last episode aired on April 30, just 13 days before Tears of the Kingdom’s debut. You get the impression Blumenthal could have kept going forever.

Influence is not quite the right word to describe the game’s long tail on the internet; legacy is closer. Breath of the Wild has sustained an entire ecosystem of players dedicated to extracting every last ounce of interactive fun from the game. These people tend to congregate on Discord to discuss each new revelation from the likes of DrillCaramary and Swiffy22, sharing hallowed documents like Blumenthal’s own combat glossary and a mammoth community-made resource that details how every character in the game reacts to certain conditions. It’s for this reason that Kleric, another high-level player and YouTuber, describes themself as merely sitting “at the top of the accumulated knowledge of all the speed-running and glitch-hunting communities.”

Kleric believes these communities have flourished partly because of one of Breath of the Wild’s most contentious design features: breakable weapons. “If there was no durability on weapons, you’d pick up the five strongest weapons, spam Y, and then you’re done. There’s no incentive to delve into the vast possibilities of the physics engine,” they explain over a video call. “That’s why people have the most fun in the game when it takes away all your weapons, for example Eventide Island or the Trial of the Sword. You have to come up with creative solutions to solve the puzzles around you, which aren’t necessary if you have powerful weapons.”

Weapon breakability, the improvisation it forces, and the way the game accommodates such interactive ad-libbing can sometimes lead to Breath of the Wild feeling a little out of control. It’s certainly a far cry from the structured, cinematic gameplay found in Sony’s takes on the open-world formula. But this chaotic quality is central to its appeal, Crifo says: “Too much control is hurtful for open-world games. I think you need to let it be a little bit messy.”

For all the postapocalyptic sadness imbued in its land, there is a vibrancy to Breath of the Wild that arguably stems from its messiness. The game evokes an acute sense of joy in simply being or doing, and it caters to those who gravitate toward either state. Those of us who prefer the former can soak up each breathtaking, meditative sunset and the stillness and space of its meadows. The doers, meanwhile—glitchers, trick shooters, and elite players—can enjoy a virtual sandbox whose depth and complexity remain unmatched six years on (except, possibly, by its sequel). In an era of virtual busywork, when joyless gamification has encroached on the workplace and even playing video games recreationally can feel exhausting, Breath of the Wild offers a timely reminder of the medium’s fundamental pleasures.

Maybe Breath of the Wild is the Platonic ideal of a type of action game that almost everyone who has ever picked up a controller has envisioned: one in which a lone warrior explores a mythic landscape that responds to their actions in a meaningful way. The games it has inspired, from Death Stranding to Elden Ring, from Tchia to Sable, understand and fulfill the emotional potential of this premise. Crucially, their stories could be told only interactively. Perhaps because Nintendo operates according to its own set of rules, forgoing the graphical arms race to focus on design, it was able to burrow deeper than anyone else into the systems that bring such a game to life. As Kythreotis stresses, “Zelda is never trying to be a film. It wants to tell its story through systems and mechanics. It embraces video games as a form.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.

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