Ever since the game was first revealed at E3 2014, where Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma discussed breaking from the conventions of the Zelda franchise, I’ve been interested in seeing how Nintendo would approach an open-world Zelda title. I had a lot of questions. Will the world feel empty? How would they handle story and skill progression? (Something that past titles have leaned heavily on more linearity for.) I even had questions about feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect of exploring a vast Zelda world where I could even head straight for the final boss, immediately.
In finally playing the game, Nintendo not only soothed my fears, but exceeded even my wildest expectations. And it all started from the moment Link awakens.
*Spoilers ahead for a large portion of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s main story*
Breath of the Wild’s Tutorial
The Great Plateau where the game begins is one of the most interesting areas to think about in terms of game design because it’s really the only segment of the game that restricts you from going elsewhere until you complete a specific objective.
Design-wise, the progression towards that objective is very simple. The final goal is getting the paraglider which allows the player access to the rest of the map. To get that paraglider, you must talk to the old man at the Temple of Time, who won’t appear until you gain the spirit orbs from all 4 shrines on the Plateau, and to access those shrines, you must first activate the plateau’s tower.
None of this is explained at first, with the only explicit direction you’re given once you leave the Shrine of Resurrection being a voice that comes in at a brief period of time, telling you to go to a location marked on the map on the Sheikah slate. But in the span of time between, the only direction the game gives the player is implicit, given only by the design of the Great Plateau and how it is presented to the player.
When you first exit the shrine, the game shows off the world you’ll soon get to explore before turning the player’s attention to an old man down the path to the right sitting in a small indented cave. If you head over to him and speak, he’ll further direct your attention to the Temple of Time across the pond behind him. Not coincidentally, the explicit instruction telling you to go to the point marked on the Sheikah slate inevitably puts the Temple of Time as a possible stop on the way there.
The key to all this, of course, is that the player can take any route and any amount of time to finally reach that objective, and there’s so much scattered around the Plateau that allows the player to learn and explore that they could easily get lost for hours before continuing on with what the game requires they need do before moving forward. But this is something that the game understands, and many of the lessons that the plateau can teach can be learned if the player follows the explicit instructions the game gives.
Going to the location marked on the map will lead the player to the first tower in the game, which teaches the player that towers can fill in their map with an area’s geography, as well as the first moment where Hyrule Castle is explicitly pointed out as a likely future target.
To not die from fall damage getting off the tower, there is a single route down, which puts you into a conversation with the old man, who suggests that he’ll trade his paraglider for a treasure, and asks you to follow him. If you head in the direction he begins walking, you will see the shrine that appeared once the tower was activated. While you can wait for him to catch up and listen to his further explanation, you can also just bypass the conversation and head straight there.
Upon exiting the shrine, the old man shows up once again and tells you to go to the other 3 shrines, suggesting that you could use a high place to scout out their locations, specifically the top of the tower. This ends up being arguably the most important lesson of the game, one that is taught both explicitly and implicitly, and one that Eiji Aonuma has stated in interviews as a central concept of the game: go to high points to get an understanding of the layout of the land. From the top of the tower, all 3 shrines are visible, and throughout the rest of the game, you’ll find that there is always a location of interest visible from the top of a tower, whether it be a shrine, a stable, a town, other towers, or anything else that just happens to look curious.
And this is also where the game sets up the Plateau as a learning experience that will run the player through virtually everything they’ll need to know to complete the game. From the tower, the closest shrine is Ja Baij, to the southeast, and therefore the most likely shrine of the three for the player to visit first. If approached normally, you’ll be introduced to the guardians for the first time. These ones are implanted in the ground, and therefore easier to avoid than the mobile ones you’ll run into later, but they are still extremely dangerous, and the player will learn quickly that their early tools are no match for them– forcing the player to learn
In my situation, this early encounter led to me avoiding the guardians for most of the game. When I finally took one on in the endgame, I ended up easily defeating it easily and efficiently, which offered a very fulfilling sense of accomplishment.
From there, the next closest shrine to the south is visible on top of a high cliff, which can be approached in two ways. In the first, the player climbs the face of the cliff. To do that, you first need to chop a tree down over a ravine to make a bridge. The old man will be nearby in this instance swinging an axe at a nearby tree, and if spoken to, will further implant the idea in the player’s head, giving both an implicit and explicit instruction on how to accomplish the task. Once you’ve passed the ravine, you’ll quickly learn the limitations of climbing, as you won’t have the stamina necessary to climb the entire cliff, and will be forced to make brief stops on the outcroppings along the way.
Additionally, there is also a shack nearby that houses both a woodcutter’s axe that you can use to chop down the tree as well as some mushrooms and other cooking ingredients that you can use to learn how to cook with the pot sitting over a campfire right outside.
Coincidentally, another cooking pot is located along the second route to the shrine, which involves completely bypassing the ravine and cliff by heading back where you came and heading up the mountain through a route that you can also use to get to the third shrine. Going this route, however, more quickly forces the player to deal with cold temperatures. They will affect the player briefly if they climb the cliff, but as an obstacle, it won’t be noticeable as the player will almost immediately enter the shrine upon reaching the top.
To avoid losing health to the cold, the player is required to either learn how to cook spicy meals or have enough healing items on board to be able to counteract the damage you take from being cold. By no coincidence, then, the designers kindly placed hot peppers near both the main entrance to the cold area, and the nearby cooking pot. The game doesn’t explicitly tell you that this is what you have to use– at least not directly. When you first pick hot peppers, a description of the item will pop up, and in that description is mentioned how they can be used for cold resistance.
The next main obstacle on the way to the third shrine is a chilling river that will quickly drain your health if you’re unfortunate enough to fall into it. Halfway across the river is a docked raft with no way to reach it. To make it accessible, the player will need to chop down another tree and have it flow down the river to be used as a bridge in a different context. If you followed the cliff-route, then you would already know how to do this, but just to drive the point home in case you didn’t, a wood-cutters’s axe can be found implanted in the specific tree you’ll need to use.
Once the final shrine is defeated, the player is directed back to the Temple of Time, which likely takes the player through the south-western side of the plateau on the way, giving the player a full tour of all the area has to offer.
Of course, literally all of these obstacles can be circumvented through other means– most of which involve finding another route. There is, what I’d argue, a fairly obvious route the game is designed to take the player on in order to teach them all the lessons it can, but it offers the player the freedom to tackle all if the challenges as they see fit.
In other words: the game tells you where to go, but not how to go there, or what to do when you get there.
The Remnants of Zelda’s Past Restrictive Designs
Aonuma has said previously that he had always been afraid of making a game like the original The Legend of Zelda because he was afraid of the player getting lost, a philosophy that came to a head in Skyward Sword, where the player is handheld by the assistant character Fi throughout the entire game. The criticisms of the restrictive nature of that game eventually led Aonuma to the vast departures from common Zelda conventions in Breath of the Wild.
But if the plateau suggests anything, it is that he has not abandoned that idea entirely.
When I first started playing Breath of the Wild, I admit I was a little daunted by the scale of the world I was entering into and the prospects of having to explore it all. It’s this kind of fear I feel was at the basis of Aonuma’s statement. I’m sure I would have been fine simply exploring on my own– after all, at some point while playing this game, most if not all players are going to go off the beaten trail– but I’m not sure I’d know where to start.
The plateau demonstrates Aonuma’s response to this. It acts as the game’s tutorial. Instead of offering up a long string of explicit instructions to heavily explain the different mechanics in the game like had been done in Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild lets you toy with its physics and “chemistry” engines at your leisure. All the while, it also asks the players to simply prove that they know how to use the most necessary mechanics to advance– activating towers, finding and visiting shrines, how to use the various runes that the Plateau’s shrines give you to solve puzzles, and later, that you can trade 4 spirit orbs to increase your health or stamina.
Those are the lessons you will be taught it you only follow the explicit instructions. Yet the open nature of the plateau draws your attention to other areas. It invites the player to explore more than what it simply asks of you.
In doing so, the player can learn virtually every other lesson about the world that they’ll want to know simply by interacting with whatever it is they come across. That towers and high places are great for seeing things. That some enemies, like guardians, may be too powerful to defeat but can also be avoided or circumvented, but that you can find treasures and weapons where other enemies gather– some only accessible once those enemies are defeated, that there are large enemies strewn across the world that you might come across, such as the stone tallus. The limitations of climbing, the benefits of cooking. How to cut down trees and make different uses of them. How to survive cold climates (which, inversely, teach you how to survive hot ones at the same time). Virtually everything you need to know about combat.
Some of these are things you learn by doing what comes natural. Others, like the use of hot peppers, by examining and reading descriptions. And even others, like shield surfing, don’t even come naturally. You need to hold your shield out, jump, then hit A. It’s a skill that you’d imagine most people wouldn’t figure out by themselves except accidentally.
It’s one of a few actions that are only really explained once you’ve already accomplished them just to provide the information necessary to repeat it later. A bubble pops up in the corner of the screen the first time you dodge an attack and go into bullet time, or when you first surf on your shield, or start cooking. This method lets the player figure things out on their own by experimenting, then lets them know what it is they did right.
So at the same time the game is teaching the player how to play it, it also demonstrates the variety of ways it will pass the player information, and tells the player that if they think that something might work, then try it!
Exploring with purpose. It’s the idea that no matter what you’re doing or how lost you get, it’s all dancing around the end goal of a specific destination or objective. On the plateau, it is the tower, then the shrines, then the Temple of Time. When I had first begun playing the game, I wasn’t thinking about this idea, but I had assumed there was only one: Defeat Calamity Ganon. And while yes, that is the main goal of the game, and the second you get off the plateau, you CAN make a mad dash towards the final boss, the game does not make that the only goal.
And this is how Breath of the Wild stops the world from being overbearing. The game explicitly tells you that you should go visit Impa in Kakariko village, and marks the location on your map to show you where to go. Once there, you’re sent further, to Hateno Village to the Ancient Research Lab, then back to Impa. The entire way, the game offers you smaller objectives from side quests, to things like recovering lost memories and completing a compendium of weapons, animals and monsters. These all work in the same way: to give you something to focus on in your exploration so you’re not simply wandering around aimlessly.
The directions progress from one to another until finally ending on the overarching quest of trying to recover the 4 sacred beasts to aid you in your goal of the main quest objective of defeating Calamity Ganon.
But just as these explicit instructions lead players, the layout of the world will also guide them. For many players, their first action off the plateau might be to head for the closest tower, which lies just north of the plateau in Central Hyrule. However, the tower is surrounded on all sides by a ring of guardians. You can face them, or slip past them, but for many, myself included, they act as a deterrent for those who may have dealt with them on the plateau, or an introduction to those who haven’t.
Reaching the top of the tower will offer sightlines to easily see a nearby shrine and a stable a little further off, but it also reminds you that while you can go anywhere, even somewhere right next to the tutorial plateau may have enemies that you are not ready to fight.
So even off the plateau, the game still offers directions explicitly through worded direction and implicitly, by drawing the player’s attention, and is the base design for the world layout in Breath of the Wild.
Telling you where to go either explicitly or implicitly, but not how to get there, how long to get there, or what to do once you’ve arrived.
And in doing so, the game assumes the player is smart enough to figure out how the world works, while still offering a safety net in case they aren’t.
The Plateau’s Lessons in the Larger World
The best example of this safety net is the route to Zora’s Domain. Of the four towns that you’re tasked to go to in order to recover the sacred beasts, it is the closest to where you’re given the task, making it the most likely you’ll head to first.
Zora’s Domain is surrounded on almost all sides by mountains, and because the sacred beast is constantly drenching the area in rain, it’s almost impossible to climb them, forcing the player to approach from the southwest, where the river from Zora’s domain drains into a lake.
Further directing the player in this direction is merely the location of this lake. Even if you’re heading towards the next closest town, being Goron Village to the north, heading there from Kakariko Village will send you right past that same lake, which is exactly where Nintendo laid a guide– a Zora swimming in the lake will call out to Link, and ask them to head up the river to meet with Sidon, the Zora prince, who is looking for a Hylian warrior to join him in calming the sacred beast.
This setup acts in three different ways. First, of course, it is the explicit safety net that gives players an idea of where to go if they are unsure and just wandering about. Secondly, it offers characterization for Prince Sidon, who is a charismatic, go-getter that has come off as more-than-a-little charming to a lot of players, apparently. More importantly, though, it implicitly teaches the player the simplest and easiest way to approach every single Sacred Beast mission.
For each one, you start out by simply reaching the town, which can involve a variety of different approaches. The most specific of which is heading there down a direct path on foot that has been designed to be obvious and accessible to any player– being the only path you can even use to reach Zora’s Domain. Once there, you talk to the elder– who you are directed to very emphatically by Sidon. Then you complete a side quest involved in getting access to the Sacred Beast. Finally, you use what you’ve gained from that side quest to disable the defense mechanisms of that beast in order to enter.
The lesson of how to approach the town is a great one, as exemplified by my first attempt to scale Death Mountain. Not aware that my heat resistant clothing I’d gained for the desert wouldn’t be enough for the fires of the volcano, I attempted to float down onto the mountain and scale it like all the others. Before I knew it, I had ended up in an area where all my wood items caught fire, and soon me with them. I ended up putting that Sacred Beast off until the end, only gaining the elixirs and equipment I needed when I attempted to approach the volcano from the normal path up the mountain.
And while the other two towns don’t require a specific approach, they it does help to do so- especially for the Gerudo Town in the desert, where you’ll likely be turned back if it is your first stop in the region.
This is all at least suggested to the player in how the approach to Zora’s Domain is designed, and through both the implicit direction to the area by the way of the world’s layout and the explicit direction from the Zora’s in the waterways nearby, the game gives a clear structure for the player to understand how to approach the main missions going forward.
The mixture of these two methods of direction makes it very easy to lead the player through the game’s world organically, and still give them focus on specific targets so that even if they get lost and lose track of time, there is always something to come back to so nothing feels overbearing, or without purpose. And by not offering up an absurd number of targets on the map for the player to worry about, they’re forced to come across them on their own, and figure out for themselves whether or not things are worth detouring for.
It’s that balance that makes Breath of the Wild’s exploration so magical. In the end, the game is about going somewhere, and getting lost along the way.