The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, revealed at E3 on Tuesday, could be a PC game. I don’t mean that there’s any chance of Nintendo releasing it on the PC. If it ever shows up on our computers, it’ll be on an emulator years from now. I mean that Nintendo’s new Zelda, its first modern open world game, embodies the values we hold sacred in the greatest games on PC: systemic design and open-ended exploration. Immersive sims like Deus Ex and STALKER, with worlds that feel real thanks to the complex interactions of many interlocking pieces.
I got my hands on Breath of the Wild at Nintendo’s booth and confirmed what I thought watching Nintendo’s livestreams: it’s the most ambitious game Nintendo has made in years. Quite possibly Nintendo’s most ambitious game since it defined 3D controls on consoles with Mario 64.
Does any of this really matter, when the game is never actually coming to PC? I think so, because it signals a potentially huge shift for Nintendo, and could introduce a whole audience of Zelda fans to a new vein of game design that we’ve championed on the PC for years: the systems-driven sandbox. You think weather and stealth and physics all working together, and being able to approach the world however you want, sounds cool? Sonny, do I have some things to show you (this is the point at which I spread open a trenchcoat with illicit PC copies of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and System Shock 2 hanging from the inside).
So how, exactly, does Breath of the Wild take after the PC’s most celebrated games? It’s not just that it’s an open world, deviating from the template Nintendo has followed since Ocarina of Time (overworld connecting towns and dungeons, which are completed in a linear order). The key is that Breath of the Wild’s open world plays host to numerous systems that have real effects on gameplay, interacting as they would in the real world.
- There’s a weather system, which isn’t just cosmetic. Wind can spread fire and alter the trajectory of arrows.
- There’s a temperature system. Link gets cold and loses health without proper clothing. Fire can also produce heat to sustain him.
- Fire is a spreadable force that can burn grass, not just a contained effect from a spell or item. It can interact with other objects—food, for example, which you can cook to gain more health than you would from raw meat.
- There’s a noise gauge that reflects your ability to be sneaky. The faster you move, the more noise you make. It’s possible to sneak up on enemies.
- Everything is governed by physics, allowing you to roll objects and slide down hills with momentum, chop down trees and use them as bridges.
- You can pick up any enemy’s weapon, and all the weapons degrade and break through usage.
- The world is open and explorable nonlinearly, though naturally certain places will only be accessible when you’ve acquired certain items or equipment.
- You can climb almost any surface out in the world, removing the usual artificial barriers of mountains and cliffs.
Those features practically have more in common with DayZ than a Japanese action RPG. There’s quite possibly much more to add to this list—that’s just the stuff I’ve seen so far! How much deeper could it go? Will friendly NPCs travel the world, battling with enemies? This already looks like the most mechanically complex game Nintendo’s made in ages. That approach may not be right for all Nintendo games—I think Mario is at his best as a pure platformer focused on acrobatic moves and brilliant level design and forget the rest—but it does feel just right for the spirit of adventure Zelda once chased after. That’s been lost in Nintendo’s last few Zelda games.
I think this avenue of design is wonderful in games for a couple reasons. It makes the world more believable, because you can make a logical connection in your head—if the wind is blowing south, shouldn’t I stand north of an enemy encampment and torch the grass?—and they’ll be borne out. And when that works, when multiple elements of the game work in harmony and can be used in many ways, it encourages us as players to ask that question more often. To experiment, because we’re more likely to be rewarded or surprised. To really play, and play creatively.
Breath of the Wild is the second famous Japanese series to go in this direction in recent history. Last year’s Metal Gear Solid V, which traded in the usual convoluted cutscenes for a focus on systemic design, ended up . It’s an exciting trend, especially if Zelda proves to be a smash hit. Could we see more Japanese developers embrace this school of design? That could be a great thing, because some of those future games probably will come to the PC.
Imagine how refreshing that could be. For years, the vast majority of open world games have been designed in the west, and many of them follow the exact same conventions. Even Far Cry, which as a series pioneered many of the kinds of systems we’re seeing in the new Zelda, is so obviously an open world Ubisoft game, with the same types of collectibles and crafting and side missions in Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs and so on.
Zelda may not be doing much we haven’t seen in other systems-driven games already, but Nintendo always adds its own magical touch. What western open world game looks like a Studio Ghibli film? How many have Zelda-style puzzles, let alone puzzles built with Nintendo’s penchant for creativity? Or their expressive, even goofy enemies?
If Nintendo took a long, hard look at western open world games and adapted their best elements, rather than shaping Breath of the Wild’s design by focus tests and analysts, a new Zelda could finally become a trendsetter again. And that’s an era of game design I’m excited to live in.