Player Empowerment in Breath of the Wild

The most refreshing thing about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is that it trusts the player.

As games grew into the mainstream, they began to make more concessions for accessibility. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. More people playing games is almost always a good thing. However, games shouldn’t make concessions that compromise what they’re about. Anyone can pick up Devil May Cry. Anyone can beat it if they put the effort in. But Devil May Cry doesn’t compromise. When it did, it didn’t go over well.

More than anything else, Breath of the Wild is a game about exploration, so it’s refreshing that Breath of the Wild doesn’t make unnecessary compromises to sacrifice that focus. In fact, the entire game is structured from the ground up in order to better facilitate exploration in the truest sense.

Exploration in many contemporary roleplaying and adventure games is a misnomer. Minimaps are flooded with icons and GPS-esque paths to follow. More egregious games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have a compass attached to the screen that points the player in the direction of their targeted quest. The result is that the player no longer explores the world and instead follow pre-selected markers.

Compare the vanilla World of Warcraft leveling experience to post-Cataclysm. A quest helper system was not integrated into the basic experience. Quests were written to mention landmarks and other aspects of the terrain to help guide the player to their location. There were exceptions among the thousands of quests, like Mankrik’s wife, but even that gave the player a clue to follow – close to the Gold Road in the Barrens.

Quests in World of Warcraft now don’t have to be well written. The text no longer has to carry the weight of the quest. Instead, waypoint markers and quest areas guide the player from objective to objective. This same same development is apparent in the transition from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind to the current state of the franchise in Skyrim. Morrowind communicated clues and a written journal so players could investigate and piece together their quests.

The advantage of this system is that it allows players a sense of satisfaction as they explore and discover, while the contemporary system directly tells the player what to do with no opportunity for misinterpretation. The former makes players feel good because they feel smart. They’re in charge of their own adventure. Every quest contains at least a marginal sense of mystery. It also widens the opportunity for emergent adventures. Without a blinking GPS signal urging them along, the player is much more likely explore off their original path.

A slower pace is integral to exploration in games. A checklist of waypoints is equivalent to a grocery list: you know that the items exist and where to find them. The goal becomes the focus. Breath of the Wild reminds players that adventuring is about the journey.
From the ground up, Breath of the Wild focuses on empowering the player. All the tools are available for the player to adventure on their own. While waypoints are available, the game still plays properly even when turned off in favor of the Pro HUD.

Proper world building is key. The post-calamity Hyrule is beyond vast, but difficult to get lost in. Several landmarks are visible at almost any point in the world. Global landmarks, like Hyrule Castle, Death Mountain, the Dueling Peaks, help orient the player within the larger world map. At least one of those landmarks are visible from almost any vantage point in the world.

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At the bottom of cliffs at the end of Hyrule, Death Mountain is still visible.

Each region has distinct details for the same reason. The spires of Rito Village are a great centerpiece between the Hebra Mountains and Hyrule Ridge. The Akkala Highlands have several coastal landmarks to mark the player’s latitude in one of the game’s most vertically stretched zones.

Stables and towers help with this too. Both are as noticeable within their own regions as other landmarks but towers are usually also visible from other areas of the map. Players can use them as a guide in their adventures or scale them for a better vantage point. Unlike Ubisoft-inspired adventure games, the towers in Breath of the Wild don’t clutter the minimap with icons. Instead, the player can use the high ground to examine areas of interest and mark their own interests to explore later.

Quests are equally refreshing. Even when tracked in the journal, the quest’s target isn’t specifically marked on the map. At best, the general area is marked. Text and dialogue are necessary to understand and complete the tasks. Quests are made up of riddles, puzzles and rumors that must be pieced together. More importantly, the game trusts them to do so.

Some of the best sidequests in the game are related to Kass, a wandering Rito bard with possibly the best music in the game. Kass appears all across Hyrule, his location betrayed by the telltale tones of his accordion. Once found, he gives the player a riddle in song. The solutions involve the location surrounding Kass, some answer to unearth in order to reveal a shrine. Some of these get clever, but they always guide the player to pay better attention to the environment they’re exploring.

Concessions for less skilled players still exist, in case they prefer a minimap and more displayed information or are unable to complete the game without them. The Sheikah Sensor is almost blatant. It vibrates whenever the player is near a shrine or an item they chose to track. Luckily, these systems can be turned off, although they are on by default.

The fact that the game still functions without those stacked systems demonstrates Breath of the Wild’s mastery. The game begs to be played with the Pro HUD, almost like it was created with the Pro HUD in mind before the minimap, Sheikah Sensor and noise display were added on later.

Not only does Breath of the Wild trust the player to take charge of their own adventure, it is designed to let them. It makes the player want to. Contemporary tools that players might be accustomed to from other games are still present for those that wish to use them but they aren’t necessary. It demonstrates that the best of both worlds is possible. Players can be trusted and games can take advantage of that. Games can be vast and open, their eventual borders so far beyond the imagination that their existence isn’t even considered when the world first presents itself, ready to be explored. It takes confidence. It takes courage. Breath of the Wild brims with both.