Posted on December 01 2019 by Charles Xavier
The Zelda series has quite a lengthy history. After 33 years, we’ve had 19 canon releases and quite a few spin-off games. Considering this, aspects of the series didn’t change very much for a long time. So far, only two Zelda games have signaled big shifts within the franchise; the first was Ocarina of Time moving the series into three-dimensions, the second is Breath of the Wild for breaking up the traditional Zelda formula. As innovative as Ocarina of Time was, it still had the traditional formula that it adhered to. Breath of the Wild stands alone in the series for breaking out of the typical mold. This is due to its systemic approach.
In a recent video analysis, Youtuber Adam Millard explains what a systemic game is and claims this type of game saved the Zelda series. In the past, games were limited in what they presented to players; you could only interact with certain things which the game made available at certain times. Millard refers to this style of game as “directed” game design. He uses Skyward Sword as an example; when you obtain the Gust Bellow, allowing you to harness wind, it will only largely impact the game environment in certain areas where the developers intended it to be used.
The wind in Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, effects and is effected by the entire game-world. It can blow light objects around, is stopped by dense objects, and can be generated by the game’s weather system and by Link when he uses Deku Leaves or starts fires that create updrafts. Overall, systems in the game interact collectively and organically, creating a world that responds in predictable and consistent ways through actions. This is to say that the player is merely one small factor in a game world that could theoretically exist on its own.
Adam goes on to talk about other systemic games in which the world and characters do change without a player’s influence, and about the strengths and weaknesses between Systemic and Directed game design. To conclude, he admits that while a game like Breath of the Wild probably won’t be able to tell a tightly woven narrative like with past Zelda games because they’re sacrificing that cinematic approach for the complete player freedom, the stories of this game are mainly the ones you create while exploring. Thus, by experimentation into a systemic design, Nintendo managed to revitalize a series that hadn’t notably changed at its core for a very long time.
This was a pretty cool video going in depth on game design and its potential evolution; I also agree that Breath of the Wild has brought new life to the series. After The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, I was craving a Zelda game that would be open-world. Skyward Sword unfortunately released right at the time when open-world games were really taking off, but it was one of the most linear Zelda games we’ve had. To go from the restrictions of that game to the vastness of Breath of the Wild was such a pleasant shift! I think for a majority of Zelda fans, Breath of the Wild did make the series feel interesting again.
Do you feel that Breath of the Wild saved the series from growing stale, or did you prefer the linear story-driven games of the past? Share your thoughts in the comments below!