Traditionally, game critics have used certain criteria to critique a game: are the quests varied? Is the loot fun to find and to use? Is the inventory system functional? How long is the main story?
Even recently, a new term entered the lexicon and is already in wide use: the gameplay loop. Does the game push the player effectively from one game system to the next, keeping him clearing checklists like a mouse in a skinner box?
Skyrim, for example, constantly pushes the player to craft new gear, enchant it, sell it, buy better gear, explore, clear dungeons, and return to town with more money and more gear to buy, craft, and enchant. The main story and the side quests are an extra layer on top of this – and then of course there’s the endless role-playing to be done.
Seen through this lens, Breath of the Wild would pass some tests and fail others. But these tests don’t tell the whole story.
If the developers took little time filling BotW with traditional RPG content, it’s because they focused on the emergent gameplay of the game: the complete interactivity with the environment, the physics and chemistry engine, and the life-like detail of every scene.
So while I’d like the game to give me better quests than “go look for these two dudes somewhere up in the mountain” or “bring me 10 bear butts to make medicine for my son,” I’m much more pleased with the fact that I can climb up any mountain I so choose, encounter a couple of cranes and a stag chilling there, shoot the cranes with an arrow, start a fire to cook the meat and eat it, tame the stag, ride it down the other side of the mountain into a Bokoblin campfire, throw a metallic spear right in between the sleeping Bokoblins, and drive-by-shoot it with a shock arrow to create an electricity field that kills or paralyzes the Bokoblins, only for me to finish them off by slashing at them with my sword. Just as a quick example.
Or maybe I’ll just sit by a stable and watch travelers stop by to shelter themselves from a thunderstorm; and when the weather clears, they’ll leave and I’ll stay there watching my own horse meander around, with its mane swaying in the rising wind.
But what can I even call that kind of interactive, life-like detail in this game?
That I can walk around a mountain and discover a magnificent view of Hyrule Plains, with the castle on the horizon – what do I call that?
That I can cut a tree down so that it rolls downhill toward a group of Bokoblins, killing some and pushing others down into the river, where they drown – what do I call that?
That I can witness an ancient Shenglong dragon emerge from a lake and summon a thunderstorm, and I can chase it up and down cliffs and waterfalls while trying to chip a scale off its back, only for it to disappear into the heavens, causing the weather to clear – what do I call that?
Maybe some of you feel that this kind of experience stands apart from the game and it shouldn’t be taken into account as part of the game’s design. But it is a part of the experience, and it is very much intended. Just like Film and TV sets often have experts in charge of making the food look realistic, or making sure the cybersecurity aspects of it are realistic and believable, so did Fujibayashi and Aonuma’s team take great care in making sure the distances between landmarks felt relatable, and into adding their favorite food dishes into the game. They also took great care in designing the land with a practical methodology of peaks and valleys to maximize the impact of every view.
Each of the scenarios that result from these separate elements are as good as any scripted sequence in other open world games – but here they are a dime a dozen.
And it’s this kind of detail, in its fully interactive gameplay form, that has ultimately resonated with me, just like it wasn’t the granola bars or beef jerky I had for breakfast that I remember from my visit to Yellowstone this past summer, but the reflection of the mountains on the mirror surface of the misty Grand Prismatic Spring. The rest is just filler.
It’ll take a while for developers to catch up with this kind of life-like emergent gameplay. So I believe that even those gamers that can’t appreciate these aspects of the game yet will find themselves thinking that something is missing from other open world games they play in the future. I know I’m already not enjoying Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as much as I wish I was partly due to this: the game feels static and non-interactive, so that even the most impressive, surreal scenarios (like crossing a massive lake inside a titanic whale before climbing up to a capital city on the top of a mountain) feel lifeless in comparison. I wish I could cut a tree down, at least.
Because of this, I think it’s important for us to recognize this aspect of BotW, and realize how important it is for the overall experience. Yes, more varied and complete content can always make a game better, but compared to the value and potential of life-like emergent gameplay, all that content is exposed for what it is: filler.