Storytelling with Systems: Breath of the Wild’s Open World

The open world game mechanic is a system I’ve talked about before on this blog, though in that instance it was about how Skyrim uses its world to weave a mythic tale. I’ve also talked about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – specifically about its weapons and how they reflect the broken state of Hyrule. This article will be combining those two ideas to discuss how Breath of the Wild uses its open world to tell its story.

What’s unique about Breath of the Wild‘s open world is that, like Skyrim, the vast freedom afforded by the system doesn’t break the game’s narrative. No matter how you play the game, it will never feel as though you’re making Link avoid his responsibilities to the kingdom by having him hunt down Koroks or help someone find love. This is truly remarkable in a game that is simply bursting with optional objectives and quests, so let’s dive into just how this open world avoids the narrative traps that accompany the mechanic and just what sort of story is being told.

The Castle in the Distance

First, let’s talk about how Breath of the Wild avoids narrative trap that so often plagues open world games – the feeling that you’re delaying the very important main quest in order to complete pointless side objectives. No matter where you travel in Hyrule, your primary goal will always be present in some way because you’ll almost always be able to see the great structure in the center of the map – Hyrule Castle. This large fortress is positioned such that the rest of the open world radiates out from it. That plus the constant swarm of malice energy surrounding it make it clear that this is your final goal, the location of your ultimate showdown with Calamity Ganon.

In this way, the game ensures that Link’s purpose in the story is never far from your mind. It’s hard to ignore a great big castle in the middle of an open field, which means that you’ll always have that reminder somewhere in the back of your mind that you need to stop Ganon at some point. Since Link’s character can be pretty easily interpreted as a stand in for the player, we can also say that the castle is always present in his mind as well.

Preparing for the Fight

Breath of the Wild doesn’t just expect players to remember Hyrule Castle due to its distinctive design (although that is certainly part of it). The game also sears the location into your mind with the sharp difficulty spike in enemies and areas that you encounter when approaching it. Multiple Guardians, turrets, Moblins, and a Lynel will ensure that any players attempting to enter the castle early on will be in for a violent surprise.

Difficulty is an excellent way of making players remember areas – it encourages you to return later once you’ve powered up your character and are better equipped to handle the challenges. In this way, the game recontextualizes pretty much every side quest in the game. What would be pointless busy work in another title, existing only to pad playtime, is instead a part of Link’s journey as he regains his strength. You can’t delay working on the game’s primary goal of defeating Calamity Ganon because literally everything you do contributes in some way, whether it means learning a new recipe to buff Link’s combat skills or gaining a new heart container from completing shrines. No matter how seemingly inconsequential, it’s all a part of the game’s larger story.

The Fall of Hyrule

Speaking of the larger story, let’s talk about just that! Breath of the Wild takes place 100 years after Calamity Ganon wreaked devastation across Hyrule. Princess Zelda and her knight, Link, were supposed to keep him at bay with the aid of the Champions and the Divine Beasts, but Ganon took control of the Divine Beasts, Link was badly injured, and Zelda’s power didn’t awaken until too late. Zelda chose to use her power to keep Ganon contained while Link recuperated in the Shrine of Resurrection, a process which stripped him of all memories and brings us to the start of the game.

Link awakes to a Hyrule in ruins as Calamity Ganon prepares to overpower Zelda and escape, freeing him to reign chaos upon the world once again. He has no knowledge of this vast, strange world he finds himself in – and, depending on how you play the game, he may remain relatively ignorant of the world. You’re advised to free the Divine Beasts but you don’t need to do so. In fact, the only thing that the game requires you to do in order to complete it is fight and defeat Calamity Ganon. Whether you do that having explored every corner of Hyrule and recalled all your memories or having just made a beeline to the castle after leaving the Great Plateau is entirely up to you.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

This unique story structure wouldn’t be possible without Breath of the Wild‘s open world. The absolute freedom provided by the land of Hyrule allows for Link’s journey to be distinct for each player. Some versions of Link will find the Master Sword, complete every shrine, finish each Divine Beast, and collect every memory before beating Ganon. Others may only finish as many shrines as they need to in order to not die, or focus on expanding their inventory with Korok seeds, or even miss a Divine Beast or two. The story rolls with it and the ending of the game makes sense no matter what path you’ve chosen.

The story told by the open world here is ultimately one about heroism and courage. By giving players endless opportunities to grow stronger and reveal more about the world and characters around them, the world allows for infinite possible versions of Link to exist. No matter what path you take, though, Link’s journey still takes him to Hyrule Castle and he still overcomes Calamity Ganon. It doesn’t matter how you get there, the open world tells us – just that you do, and that you never give up no matter how many setbacks you face.

Further Reading

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Eiji Aonouma On The New Look And Why Nintendo Wasn’t Inspired By Skyrim | Game Informer

Mechanics as Storytelling: Skyrim’s Open World

The challenge of telling a story in an open world game comes down to time. The main quests of these titles often revolve around urgent problems needing immediate attention – think Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild or finding your lost son in Fallout 4. This narrative line is very often at odds with the nature of open world gameplay, as such a setting encourages getting lost, following up on trivial side quests, and generally just exploring the vast landscape in front of you. It often feels as though you’re delaying the main quest, which can lead to some cognitive dissonance when you realize that there are no consequences whatsoever for putting off the primary conflict of the game for as long as possible.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, perhaps the ubiquitous open world game, avoids this problem entirely simply due to the kind of story it tells. The main quest follows the Last Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of a dragon, as they seek to defeat Alduin the World-Eater. This ancient dragon is a being straight out of myth, a terrifyingly powerful force who means to consume or enslave all the world. It is absolutely a quest of dire importance and one that should not be delayed in the slightest – and yet that’s exactly what you’ll do. Skyrim is chock-full of distractions, diversions, side quests, and opportunities to get off track.

Hero Out of Legend

On the surface, this is the same problem experienced by game like Red Dead Redemption or Shadow of Mordor – you have an urgent quest that needs to be completed, and yet the game design seems to direct you away from it and towards less significant matters. However, Skyrim does not suffer from its scattered narrative because this isn’t just any story – it’s an epic. The tale of the Last Dragonborn and their fight with Alduin is a grand adventure full of sidetracks and pit stops that don’t detract from the story being told, but instead contribute to the mythos.

The Dragonborn is not a modern hero – they’re more like Theseus or Heracles out of Greek myth, figures who had major triumphs and notable moments but whose stories are characterized by the multitude of feats they accomplished. Heracles had his Twelve Labors, Odysseus encountered trouble literally every time he visited an island, and while Theseus may be best known for conquering the Minotaur, that was hardly the only heroic feat he performed. These are classical heroes, known for the breadth of their achievements. The Dragonborn shares that status, and the journey through Skyrim reflects that.

The Hero’s Journey

This is why the open world works so well. The Dragonborn needs to go on many adventures in order to fit into the archetype of a classic hero, and the setting provides heroic feats aplenty. Yes, they will eventually also defeat Alduin and save all mortal life, but they’ll also join the Thieves Guild to gain fortune and plunder, fight alongside the Companions for honor and glory, help guide the College of Winterhold into a new future, and may even bring an empire to its knees as part of the Dark Brotherhood. An epic story demands an epic hero after all, and by the time the game is done the Dragonborn will be just that, having ventured to the furthest corners of Skyrim and accomplished many great deeds, the likes of which will be immortalized in song and prose.

Other open worlds don’t quite manage to capture the same feeling as Skyrim. Fallout 4 takes place in the post-apocalypse, Red Dead Redemption is a western, and Shadow of Mordor is a revenge plot. These stories require more specific heroes, with more detailed motivations to propel their narratives forward. The open world then dilutes that main plotline, mixing in side quests and optional objectives that are not a part of the core problem in the game’s story. It doesn’t make these games bad by any stretch of the imagination as they’re all fun to play – they’re just less focused in their storytelling.

A Hero Defined by Their World

Skyrim solved this problem by featuring a hero who is wholly defined by the expansive world they inhabit. Not every game needs to follow this pattern (Breath of the Wild is an excellent example of an open world game with a singular focus), but it would be interesting to see more in this vein of storytelling. We’ll just have to wait and see if The Elder Scrolls VI keeps up the tradition of epic heroes in epic tales.

Further Reading