The towers and navigation in Zelda: Breath of the Wild (hereon BotW) have problems.
Towers, revealing the landscape
Viewing and pinning landmarks from the top of the tower tied into the theme of using landmarks as navigation. To understand the landscape as an environment to remember, rather than an obstacle blocking the way between a fast travel point and the goal.
The best moments of this navigation were creating pins on landmarks – a strange looking rock out cropping. Oddly shaped trees. A meadow I haven’t seen. The worst – pinning shrines. Adding a chore to my list, a destination which, once I arrive, would often be a passable puzzle box or easy fight.
BotW could have taken a page from Shadow of the Colossus – create a vague map, one without precise roads or area names shown all at once. Never let it fill in with detail, but let the player fill it with their own markings. Forget reaching the top of a tower and revealing 200 place names. I want to see the name only when I walk into the space, and I want to reach these spaces through the use of the tower.
Smaller size for better exploration
BotW’s tutorial plateau is the best part of the game in terms of learning about a landscape through surveying and exploring. In the plateau, we gain this ability to survey the land and decide where to go, to see a forest, a small mountain, and go and check it out – yet, because we are confined to the plateau, there is not as much distraction of the infinite other places to see.
The plateau is how all of the areas in BotW should have been designed. A contained, small geography, which is easy enough to keep in one’s mind while exploring, small enough to become as familiar as one’s morning commute.
Still an open world, but where you rarely need to fast travel.
As in other open world games, fast travel in BotW parallels the creation of public transit hub – neighborhoods centered around train stations, leading us to forget about what lies along the paths in between. Convenient in real life, but flattening with respect to a game’s landscape. BotW’s world feels more like a series of tiny islands we barely think about, warping from one to the next. It’s fun to uncover new places, but rarely did I establish a relationship with one environment, because of how I was constantly in transit.
To be sure, exploration between shrines in BotW is engaging, but it becomes watered down when the game hangs quest, shrine, and Korok seed collection over our heads. It’s hard to focus on that joy BotW does so well, when we’re also looking out for shrines, a certain item, or odd markings that lead to Korok seeds.
I like to imagine a BotW which keeps its towers but removes their Google-Maps-ifying of the landscapes I travelled to reach it. I wonder about how a game might be influenced by Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, to use its ideas of dense, layered levels with exteriors and interiors – and transfer that thinking to creating an enhanced BotW tutorial plateau.
It is no surprise that the second strongest area of BotW is Eventide Island, a tiny, but multifaceted island where you must complete challenging tasks, stripped of most of your items and weapons, only using what you can find. BotW shines when you must actually Think about the items and things you encounter in the landscape, as the game progresses more and more situations become setpieces to steamroll through.
As Tevis Thompson mentioned , there is no underworld in BotW. A few moments do achieve a sense of this – Tevis’ examples: the final castle mimicking traditional 3D action games, Divine Beasts where the traditional ceilings become activated parts of the dungeon space, the introduction. And a few more I like: a cave hidden in a deep hole, where you must go through a small river. A giant skeleton inside of a hidden cave in a remote mountain. A temple filled with Guardians at the end of a quiet canyon. A shrine at the end of a hidden, underground, snaking and icy river. The hidden passages of the tedious labyrinth areas. The approach towards the clan hideout.
Shrines though technically interiors – do not count, with their uniform aesthetics leaving me with a sense of confusion of place in the same way visiting a Starbucks in Chicago and then in Tokyo does. Their spaces are totally disconnected from the entrances in a nonphysical way.
BotW has made a great argument for open world designs, but as one might expect, BotW falls to the issues of scale that plague many other open world games. At least one solution lies in scaling down these worlds.
I look forward to what game designers come up with in response to BotW.
Next time – a few words about the musical spaces of BotW’s shrines, as well as thoughts on the design of how players find shrines in BotW.