What Q1 2017 Means, And Zelda’s Use Of Geography

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My time over the last few weeks has been taken up by Zelda and a few other relatively big things going on in my life. I guess I can take a moment though to at least say something about my time with Zelda and look back at what has been an uncommonly good first quarter of the year in video games.

It almost feels like a fall release schedule in that there has simply been too much new stuff for any one person to play thoroughly, between Gravity Rush 2Yakuza 0Resident Evil 7NiohNier: AutomataHorizon: Zero DawnMass Effect: Andromeda, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. What’s interesting to look at though is that it has been an uncommonly good quarter for console games. Of what I mentioned, only RE7, Nier, and Andromeda have PC versions. If I’d been able to play these games I would have actually gotten some use out of my consoles. Possibly more important though is that this quarter likely signifies 2017 as sort of the year Japanese console games came back.

Persona 5 is in a couple weeks. Namco has Tekken 7 coming this year along with Ace Combat 7 and possibly Ni No Kuni II. I think people expect Dragon Quest XI to also at least come out in Japan this year. With games like Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV, Japanese developers started the PS4 era with a slow ascent from the troubled developments they had in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era. 2017 seems to be when everything is really coming into place. The middle-to-big-budget Japanese games that defined the original PlayStation and PlayStation 2 but the absence of which weakened the PS3 are back in some capacity on the PS4. We’ve seen this coming since Sony’s conferences going back the last couple years but now these games are coming out in relatively rapid succession.

All my gaming time right now though is for Breath of the Wild. I’m not sure how much I can write about it that hasn’t already been mentioned in a podcast or review or other piece gushing praise upon the game. It will indeed go down as one of the jewels if this generation of software. Breath of the Wild doesn’t even really do anything entirely new, Nintendo just took everything the biggest developers had been doing with their open-world games and refined it to a higher level.

I could talk about how reactive the non-player characters are, how the game world’s various systems constantly interact with each other, how Breath of the Wild constantly gives players new things to go find without tacky map icons, or how utterly open-ended the whole game is. I think I’m going to spend this blog post however just talking about what is possibly this game’s biggest contribution to open-world games: its climbing system.

The ability to engage in vertical traversal pretty much anywhere is something I always wanted to see in games like Skyrim or Far Cry. Steep hills and mountains meant to block you in what are supposedly “open-world” games have always frustrated me. Adding free climbing to Breath of the Wild alleviated this and did one really important thing: it made virtually all of its space truly accessible.

Open-world games that boast about their size tend to be deceptive about it because they might count mountains or other areas players can’t actually access on foot. To me this always brought in a bit of artificiality that cracked the illusion of place. Breath of the Wild is a game where I can look out at a vast landscape and truly know that if I see it, I can go there. Almost every game like this I’ve played before has had some mountains off to the side or trees in the background implicitly representing the limits of the play space. That’s gone in Breath of the Wild, everything you see really is there. A few open-worlds before have avoided the geographic gating problem, but none of them reward exploration like Breath of the Wild does. Not only can you reach places that would have been out of reach in other games, but there are things there. An effect of the climbing system is that Nintendo can actually make use of all the geography it has made for the game for a more three-dimensional experience.

One thing about the world of Breath of the Wild I haven’t seen mentioned is the effect of its art style. I’ve read praise about the game’s level design and how well-crafted the layout of the world is without looking completely ridiculous, and I feel like part of that maybe due to its cartoon visual style. Basically all the other open-world games are attached to some level of realism whereas Breath of the Wild straight-up looks like Princeess Mononoke, and I think that might have allowed Nintendo to take some liberties with things like geographic proportions when designing everything. Where other open-world games try to look like real life landscape photos, Breath of the Wild tries to look like concept art landscapes of previous Zelda games.

One last thing I want to say is that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl recently hit its 10th anniversary. It did a lot of great things in 2007 that today’s open-world games still haven’t lived up to, but the industry at large ignored the game because it was a really janky PC-only game made by some guys in Ukraine. Breath of the Wild reminds me of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. more than any other game has in the last decade.

BULLETS:

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