Why Breath of the Wild’s Empty Space is So Important

Why Breath of the Wild’s Empty Space is So Important

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Hi, I’m Hamish Black and welcome to Writing
on Games. When you first pick up Breath of the Wild,
one thing will probably become apparent to you—this world contains a whole lot of space. That title card when you awaken, staring at
a seemingly endless expanse of green, is downright intimidating. Especially early on, when it’s just you
and your limited stamina meter, it can feel like you’re going through a lot to get to
where you need to be. Not in the sense that there’s too much to
do, but more that a lot of this landscape feels kinda empty. In fact, I have a feeling that a lot of people
will end up complaining about this—in everything you do within the world of Breath of the Wild,
there’s always a sense of space, of relative mechanical silence as you hit “up” on
the analogue stick and just go… somewhere. Perhaps some might not jive with that. However, what this game does better than any
other I’ve played in recent memory, is evoke that childlike sense of awe that comes from
being absolutely dwarfed by your environment. It’s not simply geographical either—in
a way very reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda on the NES, Link is a vessel for the player. You know as much about the state of this world
as Link does, and as such, you want to find out more about it in the same way Link does. And so you explore. You put in the work it takes to get where
you want to go, because you have no idea what that place holds or even what that is in a
lot of cases. Seemingly everything about the game incentivises
this curiosity. Perhaps ironically, however, I feel that the
main reason players want to explore this world so thoroughly is precisely because it can
appear so barren at times. Part of the reason I think the joy has been
sucked out of many open world games is that there’s no mystery to them. You know exactly where you are, why you’re
there, where you need to get to and what awaits you there. On your travels, you’ll find your map peppered
with side objectives that only serve to pad your journey. These oft-meaningless distractions are suffocating,
and read as if developers can’t trust the attention span of their players. You’re not solving anything, you’re ticking
off errands on a checklist. Breath of the Wild, however, on a purely geographical
level, realises the importance of dynamics. The main reason the discoveries you make in
this world feel so significant is because there is so much empty space between them. Enemy encounters hide their telegraphing enough
that their appearance instils a sense of panic in you—your quiet, reflective journey across
the open world has suddenly been interrupted. You’ve been lulled into a false sense of
security and jolted out by something you didn’t expect. When you’ve been traversing the desert for
upwards of ten minutes only to suddenly find a ramp leading to a winding path up a cliff
revealing multiple enemy encampments, you’re absolutely going to be interested in checking
that out. These vast stretches of seemingly nothing
make the somethings you come across all the more impactful. When you come across an NPC riding along in
the wilderness, you talk to them, precisely because the emptiness of the world makes you
feel alone—it’s a nice surprise to find someone else making their own journey. It piques your curiosity—if I could suddenly
make this fairly significant discovery in what seems like an innocuous location, who
knows what I could find if I go in this direction or climb that mountain. You feel like a pioneer—the ebb and flow
of discovery destabilises your understanding of the world and, as such, you feel the desire
to fill in the blanks. This curiosity is hammered home when you consider
that this sense of space isn’t just apparent in the geography of the world—it’s in
how the game refuses to readily give up the nuance of its workings to you. In other words, the space of Breath of the
Wild is systems-deep. You of course get your basic controls, inventory
systems, combat, etc., but aside from that the game is remarkably light on handholding. Take the towers, for instance—you climb
them as you would in any Ubisoft game, for example, but here you’re not rewarded with
a bombardment of meaningless side objectives on your map. These towers are just a useful vantage point
you can use to examine the great distance before you. The points of interest aren’t highlighted—they’re
just there, somewhere, waiting to be found. This shift in expected function of an open
world trope is exemplified very early on where, atop the first tower, an old man tells you
that you need to complete the trials of multiple shrines. Whereas most games would have waypoints guiding
your path, the only waypoint here guides you to the old man himself, where if you talk
to him he’ll tell you to trust your instincts more. It’s up to you, from your vantage point,
to seek out these shrines. It’s the developers showing faith in the
player’s intelligence and desire for exploration, whilst also asserting confidently that “yeah,
this objective is very far in the distance. Just trust us, you’ll probably find some
dope stuff along the way.” It’s the same when, for example, certain
photos you come across contain glimpses of locations pertinent to the story. The game says “go find them”. Aside from a couple of discrete landmarks
on show, you’ve got nothing. No waypoints, no hints, just a photograph
which doesn’t tell you a whole lot. And so, you explore, keeping these discrete
landmarks in the back of your mind as you go. It widens the focus of your quest from one
specific, clearly defined objective to, more generally, attaining a better grasp on the
world. As far as objective design goes, it’s spacious—just
like this sense of space is not only apparent in the world’s geography, the sense of exploration
is not only about the places you come across. It’s about piecing together the stories
these places carry. I’ve already talked in previous videos about
how open worlds can be more important thematically than they are mechanically—that they don’t
need to offer the player a million things to do at all times, nor that they even need
to allow you to do whatever you want. The open world can be its own storytelling
device, using objects in the environment (or lack thereof) to give you a better understanding
as to the state of the world. Shadow of the Colossus, a game which shares
several features with Breath of the Wild, is a great example of that. It’s technically an open world, in that
you can go anywhere you want, but you always have an objective to take down. There’s no real point to exploring the world
here other than to collect the occasional boost to your grip meter, but you do ride
through it for vast stretches of time to reach your objective. In doing so, the game gets you to ask *why*
you’re being made to do this, and as you wander past the occasional shattered building,
a remnant of a once bustling metropolis, you’re forced to consider what happened to this world
to make it this… empty. It’s from there that the real narrative
meat of that game begins to rear its head. In much the same way, Breath of the Wild’s
vast swathes of empty land encourage you to ask the same question. You’re given multiple visual cues suggesting
a once great civilisation brought low by some calamity, but ultimately your one objective
is clear from near enough the start—“destroy Ganon” graces your quest log as if that’s
something you could just stroll up and do, without once feeling the need to tell you
how to do it. And yet, that is something you’re welcome
to try if you’re feeling bold. You’ll get your ass handed to you even by
the lower level enemies on the way, but there’s nothing stopping you. The castle stands out as one of the few distinct
landmarks in the distance, so why wouldn’t you try? Hell, if you get killed, you choose a different
direction to go in, and you go. The game tells you next to nothing about the
secrets of this world, so you want to uncover everything about it. And it’s because Breath of the Wild trusts
your patience enough to have you navigate a bunch of empty space without much in the
way to guide you, that it’s made me feel compelled to explore its vast landscape more
than any open world game in recent memory—and that rare sense of childlike curiosity is
pretty damn special. So I hope you enjoyed my piece on how Breath
of the Wild uses space to encourage exploration. I am loving the hell out of this game right
now and can’t wait to get back to it after finishing this video. If you’re into what I’m doing, why not
check out the Patreon and get access to goodies like these lovely folks appearing on screen
now? If you’re a patron of my work then you are
absolutely making this show possible and I cannot thank you enough. There’s almost 100 of you now which is kinda
scary to me—when I started the Patreon I could have never anticipated this level of
support, so thank you so much. As a final aside, why not check out the podcast
I do with my friend Nico where we laugh about how dumb games are? It’s a super fun thing for me to do, so
it’s cool so many of you seem to be into it. But that’s enough rambling from me. I’m Hamish Black and this has been Writing
on Games—thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next time.

100 thoughts on “Why Breath of the Wild’s Empty Space is So Important”

  1. Got a bunch of people asking me about the music in the video lately. I make all the music for the channel, and it's available for patrons to download: http://www.patreon.com/writingongames

  2. Everytime i see empty space in this game it makes me go crazy because i'll always think there's got to be a Korog hiding somewhere.

  3. The open space is one of the reasons this game is so amazing. It's like a real world. Like you're really exploring the wilderness.

  4. AHhhhg I want to get a Switch so bad that I've even started watching old BotW but I really want to wait and see if the "New" Switch rumours are true

  5. Still enjoyable game and the portability is great, but it can get more benefit such as adding lorule as a shadow world to hyrule like a link to the past and a link between worlds for 3ds and virtual console.

  6. Exactly what I donc like in all AAA games today, you just have to follow a map, an arrow to get to the objective. You don't even have to look at the screen, just watch the map and follow the path you have to take. Even when there are ennemies, the cursor become red (you can see them thought the walls sometimes!), no need to be careful! And one reason is that maps are no memorables. Here, a guy tells you to go behind the big tree at the east of the bridge, it's simple and comprehensive. No need for a stupid cursor! You know where there are, or you can see elements because it's clear.

  7. this game is epic and always will be. it took years to develop, and was delayed several times. what we need is more dlc, more missions, more content in general. im not expecting a new loz game anytime soon because botw has set the bar too high and does not have to get old anytime soon.

  8. everyone complains about botw being empty but they're forgetting that the world of "the best zelda game ever", OoT, is also empty!! there isnt anything in hyrule field except for peahats and stalchildren and poes at night

  9. This is an old video now, but the subject is just so near and dear to my heart!

    I agree 100%. There are certainly other games that succeed in doing the same thing (Fallout- not 76 – or Skyrim come to mind) but there are many more that stumble. That empty space feels so necessary in order for the player to not feel overburdened with objectives and possibilities. It really shifts the focus from open-world for the sake of having as many objectives as possible to open-world for the sense of real exploration. Some of my favorite moments from Breath of the Wild were those unscripted ones. Discovering the locations of the memories were such an old-fashioned kind of exploratory fun, and in between big discoveries like those there were so many little details to absorb about the world. That's what distinguishes Zelda to me from a lot of open-world games, every piece of Hyrule felt hand-crafted in a way that something like GTA or even like The Witcher hasn't felt because of the way developers (understandably don't get me wrong) reuse assets and focus on the Big Picture. Some of the coolest discoveries in that game for me were tiny things, like the apple grove I found on the side of a mountain that I spent ages picking apples in just for the hell of it. That's such a silly little detail in a huge game but it really what made the experience so enchanting to me.

    Aside from all that nonsense I just wrote, great video!

  10. I love BOTW for the open world because I enjoy shield surfing, climbing, cooking, gliding etc. But I personally hate the main quest, which is what makes it a Zelda game. It just feels like a short extension to the main attraction of the game, honestly I feel like people would still play BOTW even if the Zelda aspect was taken out so its not really a Zelda game to me. The main quest is literally just to defeat Ganon, and if you want you can also do the divine beasts but there's only four and they didn't take that long for me to complete. I love BOTW for everything that isn't the main objective, which is a bit disappointing for me. I don't pick it up up like "I can't wait to continue the game to see what happens next in the story" because the story is so quick to finish. There's no twists or progression it's literally all laid out for you at the start like "yeah just defeat Ganon, here's what happened to your friends, off you go have fun procrastinating in the empty world". And as great as it is exploring, there's pretty much nothing to find. I get so much joy climbing a mountain but when I finally reach the top there's nothing there, so what's even the purpose of it being there? That's how I feel most of the time when I play BOTW. Like yeah there's sometimes a shrine as a reward for exploring, but they're basically just the game equivalent of heart containers. I wish there was better music in the background too, everything is just so empty and there's nothing interesting to listen to. The emptiness is still beautiful, I love all the trees and mountains and stuff but there's just no relevance to the actual Zelda quest. It may as well not even be a Zelda game, take away the the name Link and take out the main quest, you'd still spend hours playing the game just for the sake of gliding around, cooking, climbing, shield surfing and doing side quests.

  11. Is it bad that almost two years after Breath of the Wild came out I can tell you where any location is in any of the clips he showed? 900 korok seeds took a big toll on me, ok?

  12. i love games like these that let you figure it all out yourself, or simply nudge you in a direction instead of controlling your entire path. really hope more future nintendo games take up this philosophy.

  13. i kinda agree if you say it is empty, but still a beautiful game and the art style is the best for me. The experience i have is overwhelmingly great and you are free to go anywhere first, the game is not forcing to go here or there.

  14. Empty space is the point of open world. Rather than being lead by the nose from one point of importance to another, they're spread out, and the space between is used to control pacing, create opportunities to explore, and serve as a canvas for environmental storytelling. It isn't used well, in all open world games, but it's a feature of the genre. Not using empty space in an open world game would feel cramped, rushed, overwhelming.

  15. Why the space matters: The game lacks content and the giant world tricks stupid people into thinking the game has a lot of content.

  16. Great video, a lot of good points on how botw actually creates a real adventure, doesn't just paint an on-rails experience to look like one.

  17. I feel like they spent so much time on the look of the over world they just threw in bland shrines. unfortunate feels like the game is incomplete.

  18. I clicked on this video by accident tbh because I was aiming for another one but I sat and watched because I was intrigued by the concept. Beautifully put and I absolutely agree 100%. I've always loved Zelda but this game has completely reawakened my love for games. I've got all the divine beasts and instead of going straight for Ganon I want to explore the world and see what I've missed, much like I did when I was 7 and stealing my brother's Ocarina of Time cartridge. Only this time the world is there to explore! Thanks so much for putting it into words and making me realise what this game has brought me.
    Also hello from a fellow scot and boo to all the people making fun of our accent (they're just jealous they're no in on the brawest accent ever, eh?)

  19. I love that the map is exactly that. A map. No game set way points or anything. You learn to read the map, expand it and learn the locations by heart. You mark yourself stuff

  20. Open Worlds are memes anyway stop defending this lazy bullshit from devs. They made a pretty world put Ubisoft towers & copy pasted shrines to Fool people like you and to make it seem like this world had depth and things to do. There’s more effort PUT in games like TP, SS, which are linear but feel better than BOTW because there was so much care to make it overarching & have a great story. “You get to make your own stories” Oh so we’re just gonna allow devs to be lazy again & not add stories in games. That’s not true BOTW has a story and it’s shit with a terrible ending & cliche “I lost my memory & there’s a time skip” that’s boring. If you’ve played ANY open world game you’ve played them & have played BOTW. it’s just Nintendo’s version of an Open World.

  21. This game is spoiling other games for me, especially open world games. This is probably the single best open world game I have ever had the privilege of playing. I know it will be difficult, but I hope Nintendo manages to give us another major Zelda entry for the Switch and that it can live up to BOTW. It'll be tough to go back to the normal Zelda formula after this masterpiece.

  22. This is the first video game I've bought in 10+ years and am so amazed by it. Had no idea this is how far we've come. Are there other games like this?

  23. I remember the feeling of deciding to climb this barren mountain to only be completely taken back by a dragon laying damaged on its peak. I then realized it was the spring of wisdom which then sent me on an amazing and fun short quest to save the dragon.

  24. Great video! I’m loving the game right now, too. You did a great job explaining why the open world of BoTW is so endlessly fascinating.

  25. I aggre the childlike curiousity is getting triggered,TBH I can finish the game if I want but I keep wanderin around try to gather armor or item,coz I love this game if I finished then its the end.

  26. I hope the next Switch Zelda game is like this but with more story, proper dungeons, proper bosses, and bring back some of the awesome arsenal from before. I appreciated stuff like the rods, but I missed certain classic items as well. Fetching Korok poops to improve your inventory size (for fast-breaking and unfixable weapons) is not the same as getting a treasure in a dungeon. Imagine BotW, but with hook shot(s) or say an item accio'ing boomerang. And maybe music that isn't quite so subtle as well.

  27. If anything, breath of the wild is the best open world game out there in terms of having things to do all the time and making the world interesting

  28. I think the reason the emptiness works is because of how well-tuned and detailed the physics are. The world is never truly empty because there's always physics puzzles scattered absolutely everywhere. And things work like you'd imagine they would.

    Horizon Zero Dawn wishes it had these layers upon layers of physics that make everything in the game feel reactive and alive.

  29. in the beginning of the game i was hooked and WHATS THAt whats that WHATS THAT all the time untli it just became dull and ''whats that'' became oh no not that

  30. I like the empty space but my gripe is the lack of any meaningful content outside of shrines and korok seeds. Main story was boring and sparse, the side quests outside of a very precious few felt worth it or added anything to the overall world, and too much things are repeated. The empty space wasn't the problem I think it was personally a big part of why I liked it but there wasn't anything awaiting me when there was towns and such.

  31. My biggest flaw is repetitive ness. Shrines aren't really fun imo I got to the point where I just googled how to do them because they were not fun to do. Rain is also annoying.

  32. That's one take on it, I myself just could not get into the grindy gameplay. And im effing sick of going around looking for monotonous shrines. Think its sad since im a huge Zelda fan and been playing most of the games before this one. And the fact that it was so well recived, worries me that they gonne keep the same design philosifies.

  33. I think at the least this model is an amazing framework for future Zeldas, at least for awhile… but the way the development for it went I know that there were things that probably SHOULD have been in the game that weren't, that can make 2nd or extremely long playthroughs kind of slow. Underwater exploration, better rewards for exploring/quests, more caves/dungeons, better and more expansive sidequests… This game is certainly a lovely starting point and an amazing experience that first time through… I just hope they don't stagnate and leave the next game the way this one is. But, for better or worse, I tend to trust Nintendo, so I have faith that they'll take this lovely game and expand upon it! Great vid dude.

  34. I love this game, but it’s just too big for me to be able to experience all of the cool locations on the map. There are literally places you may never find without seeing it in someone else’s play through

  35. You nailed! This is part of the exact reason I think that this game great for lovers of the outdoors. Between this and the way they manage to capture the essence of outdoor environments with thier sound effects and wind mechanics and lighting. It's amazing.

  36. This is exactly why I love open world, single player, serene experiences in gaming, with emphasis on storytelling and lore elements. I like your style and taste, you got yourself a new subscriber 😉

  37. I've been looking into buying a ps4 but there is something about this single wii game that's making me consider putting aside all the ps4 exclusives i want to play just to experience this. it really looks special.

  38. One of the greatest, most engaging exciting an addictive open world is the one of Xenoblade Chronicles X, and that developer, Monolith Soft, helped Nintendo with the world design of Breath of the Wild. X is gorgeous, alive and organic, and it doesn't treat you like an idiot with no sense of direction. I've been playing the game Centre Kmart and I still get called by the game to play it.

  39. BOTW is the best Zelda game

    If you disagree, that is okay because we all have different likes and opinions.

  40. Well done for not using spoilers, and for telling us that at the start.

    I'm also looking forward to finding the fighter jet. Those clever Sheika.

  41. The feeling of climbing an enormous mountain and exploring vast valleys to find a small town and civilization is the best aspect of the game. It’s an adventure and requires you to take your time.

  42. Y'all need a bit more imagination, this game is one of the greatest bases for it. In fact, it's so great i felt almost the same emotions i once felt when i was hella yong, imagining adventures over boring and empty real life, but unlike reality, botw is a fecking downpour of beautiful colors, landscapes and other stuff that makes the game so enjoyable
    Walking up a cliff to see a rising sun with grass waving around me is one of the best moments in my memory of playing this fantastic game

  43. I wish more open world games had more space because it feels more like an actual world then a sandbox stamped full of stuff.

  44. Great video – really appreciate your well thought-out point of view. Looking at Far Cry 5 in a different light now.

  45. Best, real "Must Play"-titles (for some reason all Open World) since 2015:
    -The Witcher 3
    -Zelda Breath of the Wild
    -Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain
    I underestimated both of the latter, by the way, but especially MGS5, and put it off a long while. I sort of knew Zelda was awesome anyway — though not genuinely a major landmark achievement. However MGS5 is also just amazing, a really great game, of the best sort you can find. Top-notch stealth, strategy, open-world and storytelling.
    There is pretty much consensus on all of them, — even if shallow appearances may be different in the case of MGS5 (even Quiet makes sufficient sense in the setting, and the "fanservice" element is part of its playful but complex anime style, which contains various layers of seriousness, yet is always recognizable and unique).
    And both Zelda and MGS5 have a kind of rough, but well-designed "hardcore" feeling of game design (where you have to figure things out and there is not much hand-holding, you can also try different stuff…), which the Japanese have carried over from the 90s.
    However they are not collected like that in any list, I bet.

  46. "The game takes place after an apocalypse! It's supposed to be empty!"

    Yeah the developers totally had no control over that right?

    Saying you like a game is one thing, defending it with shitty logic is another entirely. This comment section seems mostly in the latter camp.

  47. I lost interest because of the lack of random events. I felt I had seen everything once I got halfway and lost interest.

  48. A lot of these arguments are why I thought dark souls 1 world felt so memorable and mysterious, big open space where anything could be next, the feeling of being so small and that any discovery could be ahead. The large barren castles of Anor Londo, the big lava chasms of the demon ruins and lost Izalith,the Blighttown swamp, the ash lake, the large barren land really gives a sense of mystery

  49. Same enemies, same enemy camps, same "dungeons", same trash rewards and all with the worst boring soundtrack ever created.

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