Monday, March 6, 2017

Zelda: Breath of the Wild - first game to deliver on the open world promise (for me)

I wasn't at all hyped for Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as I don't actually care for open world games generally. I've played plenty of very highly-rated open world games in the past that everyone else seemed to love, but just didn't do it for me, often with me giving up fairly early in the experience and moving on to something more compelling. Even Dragon's Dogma, I love for the amazing combat system more than the actual open world nature of it (I feel it would work better as a dungeon crawler, which is why BBI was a good fit for it).

I decided to give Zelda a try anyway because I liked the art style and of course the rave reviews just wouldn't stop. After a while of playing it though, I realized I was playing it just like everyone says you should be playing an open world game, and enjoying it for the reasons you are supposed to: the "hey, what's over there!" and "I wonder how I reach that?" and "Wow that's too scary, I'm going to come back and face that when I'm better prepared", and "I bet I could reach that place if I'm careful enough, let's try!" and so on.

The experience invoked feelings I haven't felt since, and this might sound weird, the original EverQuest when it first came out, where I spent a lot of time trying to reach dangerous places and explore, often coming across fascinating things in my travels and avoiding frightening enemies I looked forward to coming back to later once I was powerful enough. I've played many MMO's since EQ, and many single-player open-world games, and for some reason none of them caused the same feeling of wonder in exploration that EQ did - until now.

So I've been thinking about why that is, what it is about this Zelda game I didn't even think I wanted that makes it different from all the other open-world games I've played and invokes the feeling of wonder and excitement just from exploring - even though I do have beefs with the game (the weapon durability/frequency of weapon drops annoys me) and even though the combat system is not terribly compelling.

Reason #1: Lack of punishing permanent decisions

Most every other open world game hits you with a lot of permanent decisions (often without giving you at all adequate information about the consequences), particularly related to your character and their "build", but also things like how to resolve quests, which party members to use, and so on. Often these decisions have far-reaching implications - heck, in Mass Effect you can make decisions that not only affect the rest of the game but the sequels as well! There is an opportunity cost for every decision like this you make - you miss out on things you might have experienced if you had chosen the other path. You could "gimp" your character, or make them overpowered, or even just make them not ideally set up for the play-style you eventually settle on, and often there's no way to fix your build but to start the whole game over.

Every time a decision like this comes up, and I admit this is a personal character flaw, I feel compelled to stop the game and go do research on it. I don't want to "miss out" on content (and I don't tend to play through games more than once, especially big ones like these - Dragon's Dogma being the exception), so I want to find out what quest path is going to have the most interesting results, what party member is going to have the best dialog or be the most useful to my party, and so on. In short, these kind of decisions freeze me, and really bog down the whole experience. I know some people love that kind of thing, but it often ruins the game for me. I'm okay with it in shorter games with branching paths (like Telltale games and such), but in games that last dozens or hundreds of hours, its a big drain on my enjoyment.

Zelda does not have this kind of decision making. The only thing close to a permanent decision is whether you want more health or more stamina when you "level up" (collect 4 Spirit Orbs). This is not a decision that requires research, as the usefulness of each is obvious. Its also not really a decision you can screw up, since no matter what you choose, both are useful for all styles of play, and early in the game you'll be given the ability to change your mind if you want anyway.

This means the only decisions left are the fun stuff - where do I go next? What approach is best to overcome the obstacle before me? I feel free to make these decisions at my whim, knowing that no matter what I choose, I haven't missed out anything, as I can always go back and explore the other area later, or tackle the next obstacle in an alternate way. I have not felt compelled to stop and look things up with this game, which is very rare for me.

Reason #2: Rewards for exploration are clear and always actually rewarding

Let's say in your typical open world game you find a hidden cave full of skeletons. What are you going to get out of exploring this cave? First and foremost, exp and loot. But is that loot useful? Maybe. Maybe its stuff that's weaker than what you already have. Maybe it will just fill up your inventory with junk you now have to sort through and go sell. And you could get exp from anywhere really, often more of it from doing quests than from killing things, so then it feels like you are just cleaning out an infestation rather than exploring something interesting. Best case scenario, you get some quest or cool backstory somehow (and to be fair, that last possibility is not something Zelda offers).

In Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you have a limited set of rewards for exploration, but unlike the skeleton cave example, they are always useful. You either get materials, weapons/armor, Korok seeds, or a Shrine.

Materials are the least exciting but since you have infinite capacity for them, it never feels like a waste to collect them. Weapons break easily so generally they are worth getting and having a stockpile on hand, and armor is very rare and very useful. Suspicious and interesting areas generally reward Korok seeds, which are used to increase your carrying capacity for weapons and such, and thus you really can never have too many of those and they are always appreciated. Finally, there's the Shrines, which act as fast travel way-points and always reward you with a Spirit Orb. Like Korok seeds, Spirit Orbs are infinitely useful as they can increase your maximum health or stamina, so finding a Shrine is always a net benefit.

Thus, you never feel like you wasted your time exploring somewhere. The world in this game is dense with interesting places to explore and yet, strangely, the variety of rewards for doing so is fairly limited - but that's a good thing because it means you are always rewarded with something you actually want!

Also, the Shrines in particular have to be noted as being much more rewarding than your typical cave or ruins or what-not in most open-world games, in that they always contain unique, hand-crafted gameplay rather than just mobs to kill and loot to get. They may not offer special quests or NPC's or backstory, but I generally would rather have Zelda-like puzzles than lore anyway (especially when new lore is hardly a guarantee anyway with exploring a cave or ruin or whatever in other open world games, and often isn't that interesting).

Reason #3: Truly open, yet always a goal

After the starting area, you can literally march right to the final battle if you want. You will almost certainly die, but you can. Crazy, right? You can also climb pretty much everything in this game, and you start out with several very useful abilities to help navigate past obstacles like a paraglider, so you really can go wherever you want (though figuring out how to get there is still often tricky). BUT, there is no "auto-leveling enemies" or anything, so some areas are just plain tougher than others. This is a great thing! It means you can run into something truly beyond you, and feel like "One day I'm going to come back and be able to tackle that thing! But for now, I think I'll try to just sneak past it, I really want to get to that tower I see over there!"

The game lets you wander as you feel like, and yet always has obvious objectives. The most obvious is the main quest objective of course (though it appears there is really only a handful before "defeat Ganon"), but there are also towers you can see in the distance that you can try to make your way toward, many of which are quite difficult to reach.

I remember when I played Oblivion (I think it was), after the starting part I was plopped out in the world and told I can go wherever and do whatever I want, but I immediately felt like "I have no idea which way I want to go, one direction seems the same as another, how am I supposed to pick?", and rather than feeling free by this I felt unmotivated to really bother. Zelda starts you out on a high plateau where you can see the world around you and all the interesting things you could go and check out, full of compelling landmarks (that you can helpfully "tag" from first-person view to mark on your map, which is a great idea all these games should include from now on).  Therefore I've always felt like I had obvious things to move toward, and though I'll have fun getting sidetracked along the way, I never reach the point where I'm left just wondering "well now what?"

Anyway, there are probably other reasons that made this game compelling where others weren't that are too subtle for me to notice, but this is what I thought of so far. I actually really disliked the last Zelda game (Skyward Sword) and didn't play it much, so its not just Zelda fanboyism, and I don't generally like open world games and was actually disappointed to hear this one was going to be that way (and wasn't sure I was even going to get it at all), so its certainly not just being an open world game that made it hard to put down. Its other factors like those above, and the attention to detail and polish in the game I'm sure, that make Zelda: Breath of the Wild stand out as the first open world game to really deliver on the supposed promise of open world games for me.

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