Breath of the Wild is an open-world game, a genre characterised by the ability to go out into the world and explore freely – albeit with caveats and limitations often implemented in order to guide the narrative in certain directions. Breath of the Wild is almost unique within the genre in that it encourages exploration and adventure in spite of these things; difficult enemies can be overcome with quick thinking or avoidance instead of direct battle; the narrative explicitly tells you to “go out and explore” to complete your objectives, and the abilities you receive at the start of the game are fundamentally identical to the form they will take at the end of it. This works in its favour, offering a wholly unique experience in open-world games and presents itself as a game primarily about having an adventure.
Concerning the world of Breath of the Wild, there are several aspects to the world design which compound and encourage the players' ability to go out into the world and explore, find and create an adventure for themselves.
The game environment and world design are at the very crux of this design choice, designed from the bottom up to be interactive and engaging, aided, not hindered, by the open-world structure. Instead of how prior Zelda games have handled world design -more as a series of levels designed differently and with themes in mind, in an insular sense-, Breath of the Wild is one big level, one big mystery. In this, the land is divided up into areas each with their own “rules to learn”: you may have an area prone to rain, or a swamp for example, but the mechanics and skills needed to traverse the terrain stay mostly the same and within an interconnected world. You will still be walking, climbing, swimming, gliding, riding, jumping, and ultimately exploring.
The world is built up in such a way that from the very start, looking out over Hyrule, you are tantalised and offered a sweeping panorama. In this initial glimpse, you might well view landmarks or interesting geographical features in the immediate area, which will pique curiosity and make the player want to go out as well as create anticipation in the mind: what is there? What will I find? In this sense, the player is motivated to go out for themselves, to experience the world, to scratch that itch of discovery and this gameplay loop of anticipation vs discovery is recurrent throughout Breath of the Wild.
This aspect repeats in smaller ways with the towers you must scale and can peer out from, which reveal aspects of the map but not any marker: therein meaning the onus is on you to explore and decide where to go; that hillock over there? That ruin? That shrine? That smoke signal, viewed as you crest the hill? Map markers are readily available, and player-controlled, for you to pin and mark your own way over the land putting exploration firmly in your hands – it is you who decides where to go, what hill to conquer, what enemy encampment to battle. Both of these features incorporate verticality and scale, as well as player agency and freedom to further impress upon the player both the size of the land and the multiple ways you can explore therein.
Compounding upon this intended design is the fact that the player is expected to engage with the world while exploring instead of just passively going through the land and listening to the same NPC dialogue over and over. Instead of following markers, as many other games have -which is in itself an inorganic, inelegant way of navigating a world- you instead have to ask for directions, follow sign-posts, and use landmarks as wayfinders and perhaps most importantly and most shockingly of all, decide where to go yourself. You have to actually look and engage with landmarks in the land to work out where to go.
The reason the former feels clunky is that you are not engaging with the game world in any meaningful way, simply following a marker. You can do this automatically and without having to think or treat the game world as anything but a construct that lends itself to passive experience and the sense of following instructions, not charting your own path. The latter, instead, encourages you the player to treat the game world as a tangible object that needs traversing, and as a larger puzzle to solve – you might be told to look for two rocks nearby to a lake, and then, as you explore, you are actively searching for these features instead of just going from A to B. These deliberate design choices make the world feel more alive for the player, more of a character in of itself as well as impounding upon us that the world is in itself a big “level”, that requires understanding and patience to traverse.
The ways in which you traverse this world, as mentioned, depend upon such non-verbal cues such as landmarks and sign-posts. However, another way in which the game encourages exploration and discovery, as well as engagement with the world and characters, is by talking to NPCs. Many non-player characters have quests and often, disappointingly, these amount to “go here and get this thing for me!” which is one of the ways in which Breath of the Wild fails. However some of the more interesting NPCs also dish out directions and riddles for the player to go out and solve; locations of treasure caches, landmarks to look out for, riddles passed down through the ages and now left for you to solve. The ways in which these mini-quests are revealed to the player is often subtle and whilst some are spelled out directly, others are ambiguous enough that they require, again, engagement and exploration with the environment and mechanics rather than simply just following a marker or direction. This compounds the core design philosophy of the game – that exploration, and adventure both, are key, rather than following instructions or being passive.
Further impounding upon this feeling is the fact that exploration is in itself its own reward, but that by exploring every nook and cranny of the various lands of Hyrule you may, in fact, come across ancient hidden treasures, shrines, or Kokiri puzzles to unlock. To explore is, in of itself rewarding for the small incidental player experiences but to have extra content such as shrine quests to complete, further changes up the pace of the game and rewards the player with rare items, weapons, and ways in which they can power up is only further incentive. Exploration is only as much as you put into it: and the more you put in, the more you get out, the more chance you have to master the games' world. Optional boss fights, in the form of Stone Talus which are scattered throughout, are another fun change-up of gameplay; as are the environmental puzzles proffered by Kass' songs: you may hear him first, and spend time tracking down where he is based on how loud or quiet his trademark accordion is, and then he will give you a puzzle in the form of a song relating to the immediate area, often leading to a shrine. Fairy Fountains, where you can unlock fairies and better equipment, are another entirely optional, entirely incidental, aspect to exploration and discovery within Hyrule but one which comes with good reward.
That traversing the world is in of itself incredibly fun and varied further compounds upon this design philosophy and encouragement to explore. There are many ways to explore Hyrule: by foot, by climbing, by horse, by sledding down a hill on your shield or by gliding from the heights of its numerous peaks. In this way, the very act of going out into the world is never dull; you could gallop through the fields and experience the tiny, incidental music cues that compound upon the feeling; you could simply walk, and experience a leisurely pace; if you are atop a hill, you can sled down it on your shield for some fast-paced thrills and even tackle monsters as you do so; and finally, you can glide down using a hand-glider, slowly taking in the scenery as you waft down.
These latter two are important because they allow you to get down a hill much quicker than you got up there in the first place – turning what could have been a repetitive slog up and down into an extra, fun mechanic. It changes up the pace of exploration, too, so that instead of depending only upon walking, you can have a high-action moment that looks, and is, fun to play. That some of these activities, primarily horse-riding, are turned into mini-games in of themselves only adds to that extra layer and depth of the game. You could go through the game with the very first horse you take the time to tame or you can seek out more talented mounts, or special, unique ones. The very act of having a horse also changes up both the speed of which you navigate Hyrule and impacts upon combat – you can fight atop your horse, as can enemies -. And, like so many other quiet, incidental moments of Breath of the Wild, having a horse feels unique and personal to you. When you approach a herd, you can single out which horse you would like to tame and you must then sneak up on it, tame it with fruits and mounting, and then finally, claim your reward. That each horse has a unique look, personality, and set of stats, further adds to the personal feeling: this is your horse, and you must care for it, treat it, tack it and so on. Much like how Shadow of the Colossus has Wander and Agro, often, your horse will be your only companion as you venture through the loneliest spaces of Hyrule.
These mechanics and design choices all lend themselves to a game that feels at once very small-scale and personal, and impossibly large, which puts focus upon the way the player avatar – Link – must feel too, creating a sense of connection and individual player experience. As he explores, so do we: as he is dwarfed, so are we.