The Legend of Zelda always hovered around the very vague borders of what can be considered open-world prior to the release of Breath of the Wild. Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker can feel truly expansive, and even the top-down titles are freely explorable to a degree, but nothing in the Zelda franchise can hold a candle to Breath of the Wild. Nintendo’s first attempt at a truly open-world Zelda was so successful that it still hasn’t been matched by any game, even outside of the series, in minute-to-minute engagement four years after it launched.
Breath of the Wild is deceptively simple. The game gives the player nearly every tool they’ll need in the first couple hours during the Great Plateau tutorial, the combat isn’t very complex, and there are no deep, statistical character systems that accompany many other open-world games. With a barebones narrative to match, Breath of the Wild relies almost completely on its world design, which manages to feel thematically desolate while having something interesting around nearly every corner.
Breath of the Wild does an extremely good job of stringing the player along in a natural way, especially near the beginning of the game when a majority of the map isn’t filled in. Players are given a general direction for their next objective (such as King Rhoam telling players to go east through the Dueling Peaks, then north to the familiar, yet different Kakariko Village), but the destination is so far away, with so many things in between, that the one quest becomes dozens of little adventures.
The tutorial told players what to look out for on their way – Sheikah Towers and Ancient Shrines – and players almost certainly picked up on other things like Korok Seeds, cooking, and some of the tricks possible with BOTW‘s physics. All of these elements are fairly inconsequential on their own, but the game combines and scatters them all throughout Hyrule. There are secrets and items to be found everywhere, and the incremental rewards that players are given instills a natural sense of curiosity that leads to organic exploration.
Part of Breath of the Wild‘s appeal is that players have to do all the work themselves. Climbing a subtly detailed Sheikah Tower does nothing but reveal the map; it places no icons and doesn’t point out NPCs with side quests. Players are subtly dragged through the game by the next thing on the horizon that interests them. Ghost of Tsushima manages to capture some of the same feelings but does it through a more overt (though still relatively natural) game mechanic: the Guiding Wind. This helps in keeping Ghost of Tsushima‘s HUD minimal and players engaged.
A game that is much more structured mechanically than Breath of the Wild, yet still manages to evoke some of the minute-to-minute engagement, is Death Stranding. Kojima’s latest game heavily involves sifting through maps and menus and meticulously managing inventory, but traversal is still a primary vehicle of gameplay. When taking deliveries in Death Stranding, there’s a clear goal and not much to do along the way, but the progressive nature comes in figuring out how to cross rivers, climb rocks, and more. It scratches the same sort of itch that Breath of the Wild‘s traversal does, but Death Stranding‘s open-world is still heavily structured around the primary deliveries.
Breath of the Wild manages to combine a hands-off approach with engaging traversal to deliver an experience that’s just recurring serendipity. The quest marker is ultimately the endpoint, and even if players decide to ignore BOTW‘s Divine Beasts, they will likely want to explore encampments, climb Sheikah Towers, visit Ancient Shrines, and more. Standing almost anywhere in Hyrule, players can simply look around and find something fun to do, which is why Breath of the Wild‘s open-world is still unmatched four years after from its release.