In the remainder of 2016 we'll re-share some of our favourite feature articles from the year. This article considers the bigger picture behind the design decisions in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, based on some extended playtime with the E3 build at Nintendo UK's HQ. This was originally published on 29th June, back when the Switch was still the 'NX'.
Following the blow-out of coverage and footage from E3, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will now likely drop into the background for a short while, certainly for a couple of months or until whatever point Nintendo decides to start revealing details such as the story, villages / towns and NPCs. After all, these are aspects of the game that we're assured are prominent in the title, but were stripped out of E3 builds in order to save surprises for later dates.
We wrote three separate hands-on impressions from E3 - linked at the end of this article - so when a few members of our UK team were invited to play the demo we decided to approach our playtime differently. Video man Alex sought your requests for what we should do in the game, while Managing Director Anthony Dickens will consider the game - or what we've seen so far - from a personal perspective in the coming week or so. As for this writer the remit was simple - to see first hand what this game is all about, and figure out whether it is the bold emergence of Nintendo into modern-day trends for open worlds and sandbox-style freedom. The short answer? Yes, it is.
What didn't seem abundantly clear from E3 and the live streams, for those that didn't play it for themselves, is how the 'Story Demo' sets out the game's stall in providing a narrative. Having sampled this demo it's clear that, initially at least, a fairly conventional approach can be taken. The voice Link hears, combined with the 'Sheikah Slate', points you in the right direction once you first wake up and emerge from a chamber into the light. As seen during E3, it's a cinematic moment that stylishly gets the player into the adventure.
The voice Link hears, combined with the 'Sheikah Slate', points you in the right direction once you first wake up and emerge from a chamber into the light. As seen during E3, it's a cinematic moment that stylishly gets the player into the adventure.
Part of the shift, of course, is that in theory the player can run off and do as they please right from the start, but in the opening stage there's a tutorial-lite going on, as well as subtle signs to point you towards the first key progression in the story. The camera shows you a mysterious old man, and he can be the source of your first basic items while also giving you some hints and tips to get started. The voice then tells you to follow the waypoint from the Sheikah Slate, and this kickstarts a sequence in which imposing towers emerge into the world. When clambering down from the first tower the old man floats down with a sail cloth and offers you a trade - find some treasure in exchange for that item. He leads you to the first challenge Shrine, therefore introducing that concept and the earliest initial puzzles. Our demo cut here, but presumably you then tackle that challenge, get a sail cloth and receive more tips and guidance on the next key area for story progression.
In fact, if you follow the sign-posting without getting distracted this introduction feels rather conventional, 'typical Zelda' in a nice way. The difference, of course, is that you have the theoretical freedom to experiment for an hour or two at any time rather than do favours for a mysterious old bearded man. The E3 story demo does paint a dramatic picture of potential world-ending events, but if you want to simply charge around with Link wearing nothing but shorts and test out the physics engine then, well, Hyrule can just wait a bit before it's saved.
Personally, I'm the kind of player that likes to get on with objectives in games, and when I mess about it's normally with a dual goal of accumulating resources, which will evidently be vital here. Watching Anthony and Alex in action was informative, though, simply due to the fact they had wildly different play-styles. Anthony's approach seemed similar to mine, probably because we're both 30-somethings that grew up with games driven by objectives and structure. Alex, who spends his days making our YouTube videos and is younger, seemed to spend most of his time experimenting with the game's physics engine and mechanics. His quest seemed to be to make funny, bizarre things happen rather than to save the world with any urgency.
Those opposite ends of the play-style spectrum, and various approaches in-between, are all likely to be supported in the final game. That is also the crux of current-gen design in various RPG / adventure games, and reflects this interesting age of the gaming industry. Never has the age-range and levels of experience of consumers been so broad, with gaming as a hobby now far more acceptable in popular culture than in generations gone by. There's a generation that grew up with games in the '80s and '90s, those that are too young to remember plugging in a hefty cartridge to play a game, and those across the range that have become gamers of various kinds in the past decade. For developers, particularly those seeking big sales numbers from high-budget titles, designing experiences that appeal to as broad a group as possible has been a key challenge.
In console adventure games, particularly, this has led to an expansion of player freedom in recent years, with a number of high profile titles being packed with sub-quests and objectives and worlds layered with systems and physics to enable experimentation. A recent example I enjoyed greatly was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a game that was arguably saved by its modern approach. The issues between Hideo Kojima and Konami - along with the protracted and then shortened development cycle of the game - have been well documented, and as a result I've seen plenty describe the story in the game as 'incomplete' and a 'hot mess'. It's definitely the former, coming across as a compromised effort as the doors were closed and budget was cut off, but I enjoyed the game for its systems and gameplay. Though I still typically liked following objectives (including the many side missions) it was the unpredictability and freedom of approach to those tasks that kept me hooked through much of the latter half of 2015.
Perhaps it was the zeitgeist kicked off by Minecraft that made this trend so dominant, but as games get bigger and more time consuming, there's an acceptance among some developers that there are gamers not interested in running from A to B and following the story.
The Phantom Pain is notably one of a batch of games that get a lot of play and attention on platforms like YouTube, and players of various types loved showing off the goofy outcomes that were possible when exploding inflatable Snake mimics next to enemy soldiers, for example. Perhaps it was the zeitgeist kicked off by Minecraft that made this trend so dominant, but as games get bigger and more time consuming, there's an acceptance among some developers that there are gamers not interested in running from A to B and following the story. Some simply want to mess around and have fun.
Plenty of comparisons have been made between Breath of the Wild and the likes of Skyrim, and those are valid in their way. Some have also stated that Nintendo shouldn't follow trends but focus on setting them, though we won't know until the full game arrives whether Nintendo will actually set trends with Breath of the Wild. What's clear, though, is that the format established by Nintendo with such success in the past was no longer the most effective approach for the current age. The Legend of Zelda's home console games, ever since Ocarina of Time or arguably A Link to the Past, have followed a largely similar template, only making small adjustments to the underlying formula. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword tried to experiment a little, but seemed to shy away from taking too big a plunge. The evolution of adventure and RPG games in the past five years or so, undeniably, has pushed Eiji Aonuma and his team towards a bold new direction for the series.
With hindsight we should have seen this coming, perhaps, thanks to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. A sequel to the iconic SNES title (it was actually branded as such in Japan) it nevertheless ditched the normal structure and gave players freedom to tackle dungeons in an order of their choosing, 'renting' the tools for the job. It was a game that used key moments to progress the main story, otherwise leaving the player to experience the world and piece the smaller story details together for themselves. It wasn't a sandbox world in the style of Breath of the Wild, of course, but there were notable structural building blocks in the 3DS title that showed how the development team was switching up its approach.
The big test for Breath of the Wild, ultimately, will be balance. There's a decent-sized audience of loyal series fans that'll want the option of progressing through a narrative in a similar manner to other titles in the series. On the flipside, in likely pitching it as an early hit for NX, Nintendo will be keen to promote its differences from predecessors, and how the freedoms in gameplay can inform the experience. It'll aim to tap into old- and new-school trends all at once.
It'll be intriguing to see how it takes shape, but whatever the outcome Breath of the Wild will be the most fascinating Legend of Zelda release in generations. Beyond that, the work that Nintendo has put into it - pegged at five years with over 100 staff by Shigeru Miyamoto when speaking to shareholders - will lay important foundations for future projects that adopt similar ideas. The physics engine, the systems, the systems within systems, will all provide solid building blocks for the future.
- Hands On: Wide-Open Walderlust in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Hands On: Taking a Breath in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Hands On: Embracing Freedom in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
With plenty of games now being bigger, more flexible and increasingly spontaneous than in past generations, Nintendo looks set to jump onto the bandwagon with Breath of the Wild. Who knows, maybe it'll add its own unique twists and magic to this modern open-world formula; we can't wait to find out.