Choice

After breezing through Super Mario Odyssey and slogging through Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I found myself without another new Switch title to really grab my interest. Looking at what I have in my collection, I decided to fire up Breath of the Wild again, to see if it still holds up on a second playthrough.

Short answer – yes. Even a year later, after the initial hype has worn off and we’re all getting excited about the next mainstream Pokemon title (…eventually…), Breath of the Wild is not only an amazing game but one that I suspect will come to be seen as a major milestone in game design and history.

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It takes my breath away, every time

As with any true masterpiece, Breath of the Wild has a lot to teach us about good game design, specifically what makes a good adventure game. That’s what Zelda games are, at their core – the original in-development nickname for what would become the Zelda series was “adventure Mario.”

What makes a good adventure game? Or, even more concisely, what makes a good adventure? It’s a simple yet extremely difficult question. Each society has been working on it for millennia in the form of stories and legends passed down through the years. Clearly, this is a topic of great study, but a short laundry list of items an adventure should have could be:

  • Some number of protagonists, who are working towards some “good” goal.
  • Opposing them, adversity in some form. Either an “evil”, consciously working against them, or simply the natural adversity of life.
  • A trajectory of growth for the protagonists. Rewards for passing each trial along the way, both in tools needed to oppose their adversity and in skills learned in doing so.

From only these three aspects, we already have a rough outline of an adventure. There exists a goal that needs to be accomplished. An evil defeated, an object found, or perhaps just a world explored. A protagonist is chosen, by fate or chance, to accomplish this goal. However, at the start of the tale, they are not nearly ready to simply accomplish the final goal. They lack the strength, or the knowledge, or the resources. These things they lack become sub-goals that must be accomplished before the original top-level task can be attempted. Thus, the protagonist sets off to attack these subgoals. When they are finally ready, they can attempt to complete the original task, achieving their good end and completing the story. Everything that happens in the middle – the friends they make, the places they travel, the skills and knowledge they acquire – is the adventure. A good adventure game, then, is one that allows the player to do all of these things.

That’s what makes a good adventure game. What makes a great adventure game, however, requires allowing the player to feel like they are the adventurer. That’s a good deal harder.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an adventurer, and you need to slay a dragon that’s been torching the kingdom on the regular. So far, sounds like an adventure, right? Now suppose that in the center of the town square is a large red button labeled “SLAY DRAGON.” Your adventure consists of walking to the button and pushing it.

Doesn’t feel very adventurous, does it?

Unfortunately, plenty of adventure games are more like this than what you were probably imagining before the big red button part. In an attempt to make accomplishing the final goal feel awesome while keeping the game accessible, the adversity is removed. As we’ve noted, though, the adversity was the very source of the adventure: removing the adversity removes the adventure. Cosmetic changes involving the protagonist (“only the fated hero can push the button!”) or the nature of the button (“It’s actually a magical orb from the dragon-slaying dimension”) don’t help, no matter how much lazy game studios wish they did. No adversity, no adventure.

Back to the hypothetical scenario. Let’s remove the button since that’s an obvious dead-end. There’s still a dragon to slay, but no obvious, easily accessible Deux-ex device to utilize. However, this time, after asking you to slay the dragon, the king hands you a long parchment, detailing the exact steps you’ll take to do so. First, you’ll travel to the northern marshes to find the lost breastplate of fire-proofness. Then you’ll head east to the dark forest where the elves craft the strongest bows in the land. Along the way, you’ll meet a new acquaintance who will initially be skeptical of your abilities but will become a true friend in time. From there you will turn south to the great ports, where any good can be had for the right price. You will eavesdrop (completely by chance, of course) on a conversation between two merchants, letting you know the location of the illegal midnight market where the most contraband items are sold. Upon arriving, you will learn it was all a setup. You’ll barely escape with your life and, crucially, the very item you came to buy: the famed cowl of invisibility. (In the process your love interest will die. Just a heads-up.) Your checkbox-style inventory completed, you will track down the dragon in the steppes of the south-west, and after a long confrontation slay it with a cinematic shot through the eye.

If you were this protagonist and the king actually handed you this list, your eyes would probably glaze over halfway through the list. (If you actually read the whole paragraph above, your eyes probably actually glazed over halfway through the list.) If you were playing a game where you then had to actually go and do all of the listed things, the feeling of adventure would be dead on arrival. It would feel more like grocery shopping than adventuring. What’s the problem then? The above story has all of the things we need for an adventure. There’s a protagonist who wants to adventure, an evil that needs defeating, and a well-thought-out trajectory of growth and challenge to get the protagonist from A to B. What’s missing?

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Aww, he wants a hug!

Choice. Choice is missing. The single biggest implicit prerequisite for any adventure is the ability to make choices in how to go about it. Without choice, everything else falls flat. Adversity loses its teeth, as you will only ever encounter adversity that you have the tools to beat. Protagonist growth goes out the window, as you have no need to learn and grow. As long as you remain locked on a railroad traveling towards the final goal, everything you’ll need at any point along the way will be effectively spoon-fed to you at just the right moment.

Boring, right?

The presence of real choice is where Breath of the Wild sets itself apart. For years, adventure games have tried to lay out series of events to create ever stronger senses of adventure. Bosses got badder, twists got twistier, and terrain more extreme. In doing so, though, they became more and more scripted, which has a way of killing the very adventure the script was supposed to create.

There are many ways Breath of the Wild breaks this mold. The extremely well disguised “tutorial” section of the game essentially hands you all of the mechanics in the game, restricted to a small part of the map. After completing that, you’re able to travel to literally any part of the map, completely ignoring the plot if you so desire. You can even travel to places you are woefully underprepared for and promptly have the shit kicked out of you. The main part of the plot of the game is broken up into discrete chunks, which can be tackled in any order (or, as noted above, simply ignored). The sub-goals, designed to increase your power and knowledge and prepare you for the final confrontation, can be completely ignored. If you want to, you can run straight to the final confrontation without so much as putting on pants. Not like a real adventurer would, but like a real adventurer could in a real adventure. You have complete freedom of choice in how to progress, in a way unlike any game I’ve ever played before.

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Breath of the Wild – a game about climbing cliffs.

If I had to credit the abundant choice found in Breath of the Wild to a single game feature, it would be the ability to climb. Most games use cliffs as walls: If you’re walking down a road between two vertical cliff-faces, you’d have no choice but to take the road one way or the other, as those would be the only options available to you. Not so in Breath of the Wild. Just as in real life, you can decide you’re done with the road and try to climb one of the walls. Many landmarks you want to travel to in the game present no easy path, so climbing becomes a necessity. This creates a subtle but massively important shift in how the player thinks about exploration. Instead of seeing a far-off fortress and thinking “How can I get there”, or even worse, “How can I get there that the game will allow”, or even worse yet, “Will the game allow me to get there”, the player is faced with the choices involved in planning a route. Is there a road that makes sense? If not, what path is the shortest and the least steep? (In a symbiosis of realism and good game design, the stamina system allows the player to climb further when the ascent is less steep, incentivizing planning a route over blind climbing.)  Will taking a less standard path allow you to stumble upon something noteworthy? The presence of climbing alone in the game changes travel from logic and possibility-elimination into, for lack of a better word, adventuring. You feel like you are truly exploring Hyrule, limited only by your strength (health and stamina), the tools you’ve found so far, and your wits. You feel like an adventurer.

I don’t know how long it will take for another game to come along that captures the spirit of adventuring as well as Breath of the Wild does. I can only hope that game developers are paying attention to Breath of the Wild’s massive success and will try to emulate it in all of the right ways. That they will realize that engaging world design goes further than elaborate, scripted cutscenes in making us care about what’s going on. That they will give us a few multi-use tools instead of many single-use ones, as only multi-use tools allow for creativity. That rather than boxing us in, they will allow us to venture wherever we want, even when the plot turns right and we turn left. I hope that when the time comes to create the next great adventure game, these developers trust us, the players. Because they’ll have to trust us, in order to give us the ability to choose how we play.

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