I have a complex relationship with open-world games. On the one hand, it’s real neat to get to go explore a big world and do stuff. On the other, I really like the more catered, narrative experience offered by more linear games. On the other other hand, open-worlds are kinda the genre du jour for single-player video games, so I’m gonna end up playing them no matter what.
But first, a definition of open-world games. The idea here is that rather than having a series of levels or stages to play through, open-world games offer players a big map to run rampant around, with various missions/quests scattered about. In between missions, players have the opportunity to explore the world, usually leading to power-ups or fun narrative diversions.
My feelings probably stem from the fact that most open-world games tend to fall into one of two problems. Either the worlds, for all their massive play space, end up being kinda brining and repetitive, without too much variation in quests or landscape; or they end up with too darn much to do. I approached Metal Gear Solid V with some trepidation, given that this was a series known for excelling in linear games. I was pleasantly surprised to find a gorgeous world to explore, and missions that put the sandbox of the world to great use. There’s a multitude of different ways to achieve your goal (Sneak in? Gallop in on horseback, grab the target, and escape? Roar in, guns blazing, in a massive tank?), and so much to be found in the world that it’s overwhelming. I finished the story, and eventually had to make the decision that I was ‘done’ with the game and to stop trying to check every darn box. There was just so much.
I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild for a few weeks now, and I have no idea how far I am into the game. I think I’m still relatively early narrative-wise, but that’s probably because I’m having so much fun exploring Hyrule.
Breath of The Wild’s Hyrule is gorgeous, evoking memories of Horizon Zero Dawn’s post-post-apocalyptic Colorado. Which makes sense, Wild is set a century after a massive cataclysm; ruins dot the world alongside the husks of ancient war machines. It’s a desolate world, rendered in a wondrous stylized palette. It’s a beautiful world to explore, devoid of the heavy bleakness that’s made some others laborious.
It helps that Hyrule is brimming with things to explore. Shrines all over the map hold puzzles and challenges that yield power ups (and are also just plain fun in and of themselves). Creatures called Koroks can be found under rocks, up trees, and, amongst others, by throwing rocks in ponds. These guys offer you seeds which in turn can be used for — you guessed it — power-ups. There’s always something new to be found, maybe just over that ridge. It could be a Korok or a shrine; maybe that group of monsters down there have a new weapon you can use.
Once, while exploring, I saw a huge dragon flying in the distance. Some time later, I was exploring a region to the north and, lo and behold, there was that dragon again. I eventually got close enough to see it barreling towards me in all its fire-enshrouded majesty. And then it was gone, flying up away. The game told me very little about this dragon; the in-game encyclopedia just telling me Dinraal, the dragon, was thought to be a myth and bore no ill-will. Later, I used a scale from it for a side-quest, but there was still that awe of the sublime that finding the dragon gave me.
It’s neat because that experience is almost entirely my own. It wasn’t scripted by the game, it just happened because of how and where I was exploring. Breath of The Wild is a game that invites exploration. Not just because it benefits your in-game character, but because there’s so much wonder to be found.