In November 2011, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released as a swan-song to the Nintendo Wii; fully embracing a motion-based control scheme in a way no title this decade has truly done before or since. While the title got a positive critical reception upon launch, the following years of discourse have been unkind to the game. Releasing the same year as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a title the popularized the ‘open world’ genre for the decade, Skyward Sword‘s more laid out, restrictive, set of areas connected loosely by an open sky quickly grew to be regarded as antiquated and overly strict on the player. It’s use of motion controls, unpopular amongst swaths of dedicated players, certainly didn’t help matters.
Fast-forward to the late 2010s, another 3D Zelda game has released, this time with a much warmer reception. 2017’s Breath of the Wild was lauded for the openness of it’s environmental design and it’s ability of facilitate emergent gameplay possibilities for the player to take advantage of. While much has been made, from both individual observations and interviews with the development team, of Breath‘s influences, from the original Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System to more contemporary open world titles, there is an influence that is unsung. Despite their differences, Breath of the Wild owes much of it’s environmental design to Skyward Sword.
In a Iwata Asks interview, key members of Skyward‘s development team placed emphasis on the density on display with the environments. When referring to past 3D Zelda games, Yutaka Hiramuki from Nintendo EAD talked about how “the fields were the scene of more easygoing play, but once you went into a dungeon, you would get a new item and act strategically and solve puzzles”. Other development staff noticed a lack of verticality to these fields as well as a lack of utility to these areas once their associated dungeons were completed.
Looking at Skyward Sword‘s predecessor, Twilight Princess, confirms the development team’s observations. The image above shows a segment of the larger Hyrule field that connects the various other areas of the game to one another. While the vista is certainly beautiful, it doesn’t communicate any intriguing secrets the field might be hiding. The field certainly isn’t lacking in secrets, in fact there exist several collectible bugs, poes, secret holes, heart pieces, and even a hidden cave that acts as an optional dungeon. But it isn’t the quantity of content, or even the quality that’s the problem. The issue is that the player would lack the information to glean where this content is.
Contrast that image to this, admittedly shoddy, first person view of a section of Skyward Sword’s Faron woods. The increased verticality of the area is immediately apparent, with the grounds circling the large tree at the center. From that tree stems several wrinkles and branches that contain clearly visible goddess cubes, ancient monuments that the player can strike in order to unlock loot that can be collected in the sky. The terrain itself is also notably elevated in several places, communicating to the player unique subsets of areas they might want to check out. The area isn’t completely open, there do exist hard gates such as preventing the player from say entering the tree itself without the ability to swim, but it does cleanly communicate to players areas of interest that they are free explore if they are so inclined.
A more clear example of this design principle is Eldin Volcano. From the base of the volcano, the summit remains clearly visible as well as the paths along the slope. The base itself is also marked by vertical structures that connote areas of interest, such as center island in the lava lake that marks the home of the native Mogmas. This design clearly highlights areas of interests and potential secrets for the player to investigate. This guides players, as if by an invisible hand, to the unique gameplay challenges the developers wants them to experience, such as the loose sand slopes that force the player to manage their stamina as enemies attack them from their elevated perch or the interesting scenarios to be found in the Mogmas dwellings.
Breath of the Wild, despite it openness serving as a contrast to Skyward Sword‘s more arranged approach, adopts the same design principles to create a similarly dense world that guides the players to it’s secrets in a discrete manner. Looking towards the horizon in the image above, several mountains can be seen. A volcano to the left, a pair of twin peaks slightly towards the right, and a whole host of smaller pillars, hills, brightly lit structures, and other small oddities dotted across a rugged terrain. This isn’t just for aesthetics though, for example the volcano hides the perpetually autumn Akkala region and the research scientist that has the ability to craft the ancient arrows for the player. On it’s summit lies the heart of the Goron civilization and all of the mining operations that are central to both their economic prosperity, and the player’s own personal pursuit of wealth. Beyond just simply orienting the player, these oddities connote potential places of interest that encourage the player to investigate them, much like how the tree at the center of Faron Woods encouraged the player to circle around it or how the volcano encouraged the player to hike it slopes.
As the player continues to explore these oddities and mountaintops, they are consistently rewarded with either useful loot, seeds from the lovable koroks, or best of all interesting gameplay challenges. Once while exploring a cliffside to the east along the shoreline, I came across a trial that called upon me to collect an orb from a set of three hinoxs, each more deadly than the last. While I conquered the trial in a uniquely emergent fashion, defeating only one of the hinoxs while using the terrain to jump on the bellies of the sleeping beasts to steal their orbs, it was only because the game adopts the environmental design principles of Skyward Sword that I was able to encounter this challenge at all.
Ironically, it’s this adoption of a design principle from a fairly arranged, ‘linear’ game that makes Breath of the Wild such a masterpiece in open world game design. Often games of this type are reliant on abstract means to communicate to the player their location and points of interest in the environment, whether that be through a compass, pre-made map markers, or other means. Breath of the Wild forgoes this and is able to pull off a more natural, landmark-based approach to exploration; an approach possible only through the letters it received from it’s older brother, a seemingly more strict individual that nevertheless had valuable insights on how to have a good time.