The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is huge. Not just in terms of the scale and scope of the world it presents to players, but also in terms of its reception in the gaming industry. It’s received numerous perfect scores from critics and the Switch version of the game has reportedly sold more copies than the Switch itself. It’s a big flipping deal, and yet…I couldn’t throw myself into it. In the first episode of The TBCast, I stated that—while I thoroughly enjoyed this game—it didn’t even rank in my top three Zelda games. While I aired several of my grievances with the game’s design in that discussion (some of which will be making an encore appearance here), I never got around to going into detail on my biggest complaint about how the game was structured. But before I can explain what that hang-up is, we need to discuss a concept important to game design and narrative media in general.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the interest curve! An interest curve is a graphical representation of the excitement and engagement the audience of a work experiences throughout the duration of said work. The peaks of the curve represent moments of high excitement and intrigue, while the lows represent the story’s slower, quieter moments. While lows sound like they should be avoided, an optimal curve actually alternates between highs and lows, never staying in one or the other too long. The reason for this is that human beings (who are most game developers’ primary demographic) tend to get acclimated to things pretty quickly. Even action can get boring or even tiresome if there’s too much of it.
That’s not to say that interest shouldn’t slowly increase over time. The base level of interest—that is to say, how far down the graph dips—should increase as a game progresses. If the graph dips down further at the end than it did at the beginning, then the game feels like it screeches to a halt, thus killing the player’s sense of progression (*cough* Triforce pieces *cough*). Finally, the story shouldn’t end on the climax, but instead include a gentle falling action to give the player a sense of closure—commonly known as the denouement (pronounced day-noo-Maw…it’s French). Without a denouement, a story’s ending feels abrupt and rushed.
If you’ve ever heard a reviewer talk about a game having a good “gameplay cycle”, he or she is referring to this concept—most likely without even realizing it!
So what’s all this have to do with Breath of the Wild? Well, my primary issue is its interest curve looks something like this:
Oh gosh, this is a mess…After a great introduction, everything just sort of flatlines. Now to be fair, this is based on my personal experience with the game, but even when the order of events are swapped around, I think this pattern basically holds true. The game’s overall arc seems to just maintain a complacent constant; there’s very little escalation, evolution, or extrapolation of the ideas the game presents. This ultimately leads to the game feeling repetitive.
The game’s overall arc seems to just maintain a complacent constant…
So what happened? What are some ways that Breath of the Wild hamstrings its overarching interest curve? What could they have done better? Let’s take a look, shall we?
The Main Quests
The easiest way to create a good cycle of engagement is to carefully craft a brilliant narrative and guide the player through it in a thoughtfully paced linear sequence…the whole point of Breath of the Wild is to not do that. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. My favorite Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: a Link Between Worlds, was at the time of its release notable for being very open-ended. And that game had me hooked the whole time! So clearly, a carefully guided plot isn’t necessary.
That said, there are some notable differences between the the overarching structure of BotW and ALBW. For starters, A Link Between Worlds keeps the series’s usual two-part structure: in this particular instance the first half taking place in the light world, then after a plot twist the second half takes place in the dark world. This means that while the story doesn’t advance much throughout the halves of A Link Between Worlds individually, the events that link both halves of the game still give it the opportunity to raise the stakes of the game’s narrative thus raising the interest curve’s baseline mid-game. This compromise allows the player to pick how he wants to complete his adventure, while simultaneously ensuring the narrative escalates in a natural fashion.
Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, doesn’t follow this two-act structure. Instead, it features a main quest primarily consisting of two parts: awakening the Divine Beasts and the search for Link’s lost memories. Let’s start with the Divine Beasts. The Divine Beast quest is fairly modular, what with each part technically being optional. This means each segment aims to have a similar level of challenge and importance to the overall plot, consequently flattening the interest curve. While A Link Between Worlds‘ dungeons faced a similar issue, as stated before, having a discernible half-way point lets the game escalate the challenge and perceived stakes between the first half and the second making for a more engaging narrative, something Breath of the Wild‘s structure doesn’t.
Another trick A Link Between Worlds used to keep players from noticing the fairly steady baseline engagement throughout each act was the number of dungeons to complete. The concept of an interest curve is scalable, meaning it can apply to a level or chapter as well as a complete work. To this end, dungeons act as climaxes for the (for lack of a better term) chapters of the game they appear in. With several dungeons, the player is constantly experiencing the rising and falling action of finding a dungeon, completing the requirements to gain entry, and then clearing the dungeon and slaying its boss. So long as this cycle isn’t repeated too many times, this cycle sustains the player’s interest until he completes all of the dungeons and moves on to the next plot arc of the game. The problem is that the dungeons in Breath of the Wild are both short and very few and far between. This means that this part of the game is either over too quickly, or these local engagement highs are very spread out (as they were when I played the game).
The concept of an interest curve is scalable. To this end, dungeons act as climaxes for the chapters of the game they appear in.
Compounding with these issues are how the memory quest is presented. If the player follows the early quests in the manner the game suggests, he’ll quickly wind up with both the Divine Beast quest and the lost memory quest at the same time. They’re both very lengthy and the benefit of the latter is never really made clear (Spoiler: it changes the game’s ending and little else). This makes it hard for the player to prioritize which one to attempt first. I think the developers wanted players to search for memories intermittently (which is how I completed it), but this makes both quests feel very disjointed, unfocused, and the memory quest far less consequential to the overall experience. Honestly, I think the memory quest should’ve been saved until after the player completed all of the Divine Beast quests: by that point, the player would already be very familiar with Hyrule’s landmarks, making for a shorter quest that required the player to apply their knowledge, instead of one where they wander around looking for the N.P.C. that tells them where to look. It also would provide a makeshift second act, which would give the player a better sense of progression, pace, and momentum.
Okay, on a macro scale, the game only manages to provide a complacent sense of pace, but the interest curve is a scalable model, right? So, how does it fair on a more granular level. Well…it is admittedly better moment to moment, but even then there are times where it outright shoots itself in the foot. Some of the moments of the game that should be exciting, epic, or climatic were memorable precisely because of how underwhelming they were when they play out.
Case in point, the Master Sword: in all prior Zelda games in which the “blade of evil’s bane” appears, getting the darn thing was a major plot point and consequently required some effort on the player’s part. As a result, it’s a big moment. In Breath of the Wild, the only real challenge is figuring out how to get to it. The game does provide some cutscenes upon discovering it and after obtaining it to try to hype it up, which is a good start, but the method in which the player does obtain it feels tacked on, like the quest was an afterthought.
Previously, the player had to collect some items that represented the three virtues of the Triforce—power, wisdom, and courage—to prove their worth, but in this game all they have to do get enough hearts to pull the sword out of its pedestal without dying (it drains hearts to attempt). For any player that is actively looking for shrines, that’s something that’s going to happen in normal gameplay regardless. This means the quest for the Master Sword could be over as soon as the player finds where it’s hidden. This makes the quest’s pacing lopsided and its conclusion anticlimactic, especially for players used to the way previous games devote large portions of their respective stories to acquiring the Master Sword. Instead of an epic moment of triumph that’s built up to, it’s something on the player’s laundry list to be checked back on periodically. “Am I strong enough? No? ‘Kay, see ya after another four shrines!”
To make matters worse, there are three shrines dedicated to said virtues hidden throughout Hyrule. Why didn’t the game include those in the quest to get the Master Sword? I’d guess it probably had something to do with time constraints, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to provide a memorable and unique quest to the player. How much cooler would it be to have to scour the land to find the shrines and overcome a unique trial for each shrine related to the its respective attribute? Now I know some of you are probably saying, “but it’s a callback to the first Zelda,” to which I say, “so?” If the callback is really that important, they simply could’ve just done both methods.
Speaking of weapons, weapon durability also brings with it problems. While I admit finding new types of weapons is exciting, finding weapons themselves gets boring, especially in the game’s second half. One of the exciting aspects of finding a new weapon or item in previous Zelda titles was the understanding that Link was now innately more powerful. He had a new ability that made him more capable in combat or exploration that opened up new possibilities for the rest of the game. Not so in Breath of the Wild. That excitement quickly fades as the player realizes that the shiny new weapon he found will eventually break. In essence, weapons are just temporary power-ups like mushrooms or fire-flowers in Mario. Consequentially, players ultimately have less attachment to—and thereby less investment in—weapons than they would if weapons didn’t degrade.
In essence, weapons are just temporary power-ups like mushrooms or fire-flowers in Mario.
As a point of comparison, let’s examine clothing. Unlike weapons, clothing doesn’t break. This immediately makes clothing a more interesting item as it stays with the player as long a he wishes to keep it in his inventory. More over, it can be upgraded. This adds an element of mystery and intrigue to clothing as certain items gain additional bonuses when upgraded to a certain point. As a result, receiving clothing is exciting and immediately gets the player invested.
Now, I understand why the developers made weapons break. As several critics and apologists have already pointed out, having weapons be fragile forces the player to experiment with different weapon types and thus learn to be versatile in his fighting style. Again, I think a compromise would be fairly easy. Simply let the player find (after much effort) weapons that don’t break. Unlike other weapons, however, they would start off weak and need to be upgraded to be viable against the game’s stronger opponents. Even then these unbreakable weapons would only be upgradable to the point of straddling medium and upper tier, meaning if the player wanted to deal serious damage or utilize special effects (like elemental damage) he would have to stick to breakable weapons. See, that would at least make some of the weapons worth a darn!
I’d like to end this section with the ending. Don’t worry, I’m not going into specifics…because I don’t have to! If you’ve ever beaten a Zelda game before, I don’t think I can spoil this ending. It hits all of the beats, except—unlike other Zelda titles—it adds almost nothing of its own to the mix, making it feel more like the skeletal framework of a standard Zelda ending. It’s lackluster, boring, and predictable. It’s a real shame too, because pacing issues aside, this is otherwise one of the best written Zelda titles to date.
If you’ve ever beaten a Zelda game before, I don’t think I can spoil this ending.
Yet another way to keep the player engaged is to provide variety. As stated before, humans get acclimated to stimulus very quickly, so anything monotonous quickly loses people’s interest. To this end, Breath of the Wild features a huge world full of varied environments and unique landmarks…but then completely gives up when it comes enemies and shrines.
Three of the game’s main enemy types—bokoblins, moblins, and lizalfos—are basically all just variations of the same template. Moreover, each region just reuses variations from the same small pool of enemy types. While combat isn’t the main draw of the game, the fact that a hoard of monsters on one corner of the map looks and acts almost identical to a hoard of monsters on the complete opposite side of the world-space makes engagements incredibly boring and repetitive. Heck, even all of the dungeon bosses are basically palette swaps of each other! What makes this especially strange is that there is a lot of variety from region to region when it comes to flora and fauna. What gives, Nintendo? You clearly were able to populate each region with unique creatures. Why not extend that creativity to the enemy design?
Then there’s the shrines: they all look and SOUND THE SAME! *Ahem* Excuse me. If you’re an O.C.P.D. completion-nut like yours truly, you will get sick of the foggy blue corridors and slow, ponderous music of the shrines. If you complete all the shrines, you will have heard that stupid shrine theme at least 120 times! That’s not to say there isn’t variety in the puzzles; oh no, the shrine puzzles are great. But would it kill them to come up with more than one shrine aesthetic? Maybe have puzzle shrines and combat shrines differentiated by their visual and audio design. Or perhaps have the shrines’ interiors vary from region to region, showing that even though they were all built by the Sheikah, each regions’ sense of aesthetics subtly influenced the shrines’ construction (that’s just good world building).
The Consequences of Heroism
Now that I’ve ticked off all of the Zelda fanboys, undoubtedly invoking the wrath of their Yiga assassins, let me talk about something Breath of the Wild did right—at least part of the time. Something that I love seeing, especially in open-world games, is the game’s world responding to my actions. A while back, I praised the first Battalion Wars for making me feel like my actions had a direct impact on the game’s progression. This is a concept I like to call “letting the player happen to the world.”
In most games, the player is an entity that reacts to the game’s environments (i.e. “the world happening to the player”). This is fine for level-based action games, but in narrative-heavy adventures or open-world games, this tends to make the player’s actions feel inconsequential—like everything is basically just meaningless busy-work. While I still think Breath of the Wild has room for improvement in this regard, it does at least actively contextualize many of the player’s actions.
I want to happen to the world, not let the world happen to me.
First, there’s the Divine Beasts themselves. After clearing an area’s dungeon, not only does the disaster afflicting the area cease in typical Zelda fashion, but the Divine Beast become visible for miles around. Next is the fact that the items and enemies scale in proportion to how far the player is in the game. These both give the game a much needed sense of progression. That said, I wouldn’t say either is anything mind blowing. Because the effects of the Divine Beasts are almost entirely localized, finishing a dungeon only really effects the region it’s found in. It would be far more interesting to see characters start to wander around more and more as Link made Hyrule safer to travel. For instance, wouldn’t it be cool if a Rito merchant showed up in Hateno Village after finishing the Rito dungeon? If they threw in a line about him feeling more at ease traveling now that the Divine Beast was no longer rampaging, it would go a long way toward giving the player a sense that his actions actually matter.
A great example of what I’m talking about would be the Yiga Assassins. At one point in the Divine Beast quests, the player has to infiltrate the Yiga H.Q. Not only is this section a great set-piece on its own merits, but it triggers a change in the Yiga’s behavior. After defeating their master, Kohga (one of the best characters and certainly the best boss in the game), the Yiga assassins go from passively waiting for Link to stumble into ambushes to actively hunting him down in an attempt to get revenge. While I’m sure many players found the constant random ninja attacks annoying, the fact that a specific action I took had a logical effect on the way a certain class of foe behaved absolutely delighted me!
A Game of Little Moments
To Breath of the Wild‘s credit, it does a much better job of creating and maintaining a healthy interest curve on a more granular level. Individual quests, shrines, and subplots are well structured when viewed on their own, leading me to my conclusion that Breath of the Wild is a game of little moments. Despite the grandeur advertised, the game’s best moments come in small packages: the little references, the ways it rewards out of the box thinking, the clever quest design, surprisingly mature writing, etc.
That said, it still fails to feel like it grows or evolves. From my experience, this is actually a pretty common issue with open-world games. While the individual components work well, they don’t come together in a cohesive fashion. That said, compared to the other (admittedly few) open-world games I’ve played, Breath of the Wild really is a cut above the rest. I don’t mean to convince anyone that this game isn’t good. Heck, I’ll say it just to be clear: go play it if you haven’t already. It’s worth your time. But I fear all of the critical praise and 10/10’s may gloss over the obvious (to me, at least) issues that need to be addressed in future games. As I see it, the series is standing on a precipice: from here it can either take off soaring or tumble into another rut.