What Separates Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn From Other Games?

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With lots of hype comes lots of scrutiny. As of this writing I haven’t touched either Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Sony’s Horizon: Zero Dawn, and before I (or you) do I think it would be good to examine that scrutiny and think about what each game needs to do to rise above it.

Zelda is in a unique position: it is changing with this latest game because both fans and Nintendo realized it needed to change, but this new game also looks pretty similar to a lot of recent popular games. I think both sides of that dilemma are directly tied to one of the things that makes Zelda games appealing in the first place.

I don’t think any Zelda fans truly agree on what gives the franchise its appeal. I get this feeling from reading many arguments over the years where nobody agrees on which games are the best. Some weigh the games based on combat, some weigh them based on story, and so-on. I think if there’s a common thread the most fans agree on though it’s the sense of mystery that comes with exploring a new Zelda game. I also think that’s what should separate Breath of the Wild from any of the modern open-world games we’ve seen.

Among other things, Zelda games are about finding secrets. You get curious about a waterfall and look behind it to find a heart piece, you spot a cave over yonder and explore it to find a treasure chest. Breath of the Wild has been compared to the likes of Far Cry or The Witcher 3 because in each of them you traverse a big world, unlock areas, and collect loot. Breath of the Wild even has enemy camps to clear out and towers you seemingly climb like in Ubisoft’s games. The difference is all the waypoints and other markers that usually appear on the map of each game, telling you exactly where every secret is.

As soon as I started Witcher 3 I turned off its “undiscovered points of interest on the minimap,” and finding those secrets through normal exploration felt a lot better than clearing all the icons off a  map like a checklist in an Assassin’s Creed game. In this fashion I hope Breath of the Wild stays true to previous Zelda games. I don’t want to head straight towards that cave because a map marker told me something was in there. I just want to come across it through random exploration and wonder “what’s in there?”

The same goes for the objectives of the main story actually. I haven’t watched much of the recent footage of Breath of the Wild at all because I’d like to go into the game as blind as possible, but I did check to see what kind of information its interface gives you. All I’ve noticed so far are the waypoints players are able to set for themselves appearing on the minimap. I’m not against having waypoints as an option for players who prefer them, I’d just prefer more open-world games contextualize directions in a way that doesn’t rely on the player having magic GPS.

Previous Zelda games have used markers on the map screen. I’m messing around a bit with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD right now and that’s pretty much what it does. I wondered how that 2003 game would feel compared to today’s open-world games and the biggest difference seems to be that it simply gives players less information on where things are. Or at least, it offers that information in a less direct way, usually relying on highlighted clues in character dialogue rather than directly pointing everything out on a minimap. The problem that ultimately evaporates the sense of mystery in Wind Waker though is how the islands that make up its world are arranged on a perfect grid, which eventually adds detrimental predictability in where they can be found.

The reason people wanted Zelda to change though is because their overall structure became predictable which diminished the feeling of mystery with each new game. When playing Wind Waker I immediately understood how bombs work when I came across them, when seeing areas I couldn’t yet reach I could immediately guess what piece of gear I’d later use to access them. At that point Zelda stops being a mysterious world and becomes a collection of level design — the game underneath the mystery immediately becomes visible. Breath of the Wild will need to restore that if it wants to really “revitalize” the franchise in the eyes of many. From available footage it seems to be doing so by completely rethinking the tools players have available to them. It just needs to avoid being the kind of game someone can predict because they’ve already played Don’t Starve.

But that’s Zelda. I don’t know if all that is what Sony and Guerrilla games have been going for when developing Horizon. I know Horizon is supposed to be about traversing a big world, about completing quests, and supposedly about hunting robots. It may not be trying as hard to hide things from players, but I think the same issue of player agency may apply to it.

As great as The Witcher 3 is (Guerrilla hired people who worked on it for Horizon) one of the biggest criticisms against it is how most of its quests were built around a detective vision mode and how much information that mode handed to players. Many players no longer felt responsible for finding the clues protagonist Geralt tracked down. During these points Witcher 3 plays at being an adventure game, but too many people get stuck and stumped playing adventure games for one to ever hit as wide an audience as Witcher 3 and Horizon go for. It’s a tough balancing act that mainstream action adventure games are only recently trying to strike.

What I do know about Horizon is it’s a very pretty game with a very high production value. Its environments look detailed, its animations look smooth, and critics are describing it as a technical tour de force among PlayStation 4 games. Zelda of course was developed for much weaker hardware and probably has a smaller budget too. Articles are being published about the technical compromises it makes on both the Wii U and Nintendo’s new Switch console.

Maybe some people anticipating one or both of these games are giving those graphics more weight than I am. In regards to Horizon I’m wondering more about how interesting the story and quests are going to be, as that is what mainly catapulted Witcher 3 to its lauded status. That and its excellent world building.

BULLETS:

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