The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild begins with Link being woken up from a very long sleep before being introduced to the game’s world. He knows as much as you do, which means he knows nothing. You’ll quickly meet a character who explains a few things, but not much, and then off you go. The rest is up to you.
Your map isn’t dotted with locations and goals, and you aren’t guided by the hand through each of the game’s systems. No one pops up to say “Hey! Listen!” when new aspects of the game needs to be explained. In fact, next to nothing is explained. It’s there for you to learn about and figure out, but that’s it. You get out of the game exactly what you put in. Which is why Breath of the Wild can feel so liberating for players who are used to being spoon-fed every aspect of how a new game works.
As if there are many new games. I’ve given up on trying to count the number of open-world Ubisoft games that are forced to pretend that the players have never played an open-world Ubisoft game before. It’s that assumption that can be so infuriating. The idea that the player is helpless without the game connecting every possible dot for them.
No developer can assume any knowledge on the part of the player, but Breath of the Wild at least lays out the game in such a way that you’re invited to figure things out by yourself instead of having the game make every new system or challenge explicit.
Breath of the Wild is the rare game that rewards you for learning how it works, and then it allows you to break the core experience in fun and sometimes delightful ways.
“Hyrule is full of emergent opportunities to push your basic understanding of the world and its rules, which only works because of how clever it all is,” we wrote in our review. “Weather and elements play a key role, and each act the way that they should, and, as importantly in a video game, Nintendo EPD goes out of its way to explain in multiple instances how that environment works.”
But I don’t want to just repeat things you’ve already read in other reviews.
Breath of the Wild outsources its tutorials to the players, and the press
Breath of the Wild can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming when you can’t figure out what to do next, and sometimes the game feels as if things are under-explained to the point where I feel adrift in the world and unwilling to spend the time necessary to figure out where to go next.
That aimless drifting is part of the game’s appeal, sure, but there are times in the game where I just want to get on with things, and I get tired of trying to figure out a lesson the game is struggling to teach me. Or maybe there are times where I’m being dense and miss an important NPC or even a rather large hint about what to do next, and it’s my fault that my progress gets stuck. Lord knows it’s happened before.
Still, so few games are comfortable under-explaining that it feels like a revelation when they try this hard to leave you to your own devices, and Breath of the Wild doesn’t assume that you live in a world that only contains Breath of the Wild and nothing else.
The backup plan for those moments isn’t a cutscene that tells you what to do or a character that gives you another hint. It’s the fact that the internet is filled with guides that explain how to play the game, along with a YouTube culture that is sure to find every secret and recipe to share with the world.
Breath of the Wild feels like a return of the schoolyard culture, where friends meet to discuss the latest things they’ve found in a Nintendo game and share rumors of even bigger possible secrets, except now the schoolyard is the entirety of the internet. It’s comfortable with assuming that you’re smart enough to figure things out, and it knows that it’s not going to be ultimately responsible for everything you miss or even built-in frustration. The answer to every puzzle is a quick Google away, and the game’s design seems comfortable with that option being a viable path to moving forward.
Think of it this way: The player can’t do much when a game interrupts itself constantly to explain every single new idea or concept, but developers can be comfortable taking a step back from their fear of frustrating the player when they know those players will soon be able to look up the solution to every puzzle or situation online. Keeping the game this open and breakable also rewards players for their cleverness, and it can create moments that go viral, keeping the game popular in the press and social media.
“Make your games intricate enough that surprises happen to everyone constantly and they’re delightful” isn’t a strategy that would work for everyone, but Nintendo sure seems to have figured it out.
The backup plan for player frustration isn’t the game: it’s other players. It’s the sort of verbal and written tradition that used to be so common in games during the NES era, but has now been moved to games like Dark Souls that are often perceived as being a niche success while becoming part of mainstream gaming.
But seeing Nintendo being so comfortable moving in the same direction as the Souls series with a franchise as big as Zelda isn’t just impressive; there’s something beautiful about it.
The mutual trust between player, game and community feels fresh in general while also feeling like something of a throwback for the series. It’s both new for modern Zelda games and comforting for players above a certain age. It’s great when a game isn’t scared to give the player some credit, even if we get stuck along the way. And with the number of great Zelda guides and tips being written online, you only need be stuck for as long as it’s enjoyable.