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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild represents the most radical departure from convention in the history of Nintendo’s three-decade-old series. In the game, which launches on Friday, familiar tools are discarded and familiar rhythms upset in an open world game that allows players to define goals of their own choosing, and to devise ingenious and unscripted ways of reaching them.
Nevertheless, as the game’s director, 44-year-old Hidemaro Fujibayashi, revealed at the Game Developers Conference in San Fransisco today, the path to this new paradigm was discovered while looking to “the essence” of the series, which is found in the very earliest Legend of Zelda games.
“I wanted to find a way to enable the player to experience true freedom in an expansive play field, to discover a new sense of adventure over and over again while playing,” said Fujibayashi. “I wanted to build a game where the user can decide where they want to go and what they want to do.” The solution, he explained, was found in exploring a tension: rediscovering the essence of Zelda while breaking its conventions.
“I thought about the original NES game,” said Fujibayashi. “Didn’t my vision sound like that of the original? To battle daunting enemies while scrolling across a huge, expansive field? A game where the player can think what they want to do and experience excitement and adventure? The original land of Hyrule has all of the ingredients for this kind of adventure.” The problem, Fujibayashi explained, was the amount of effort that would be required to fill an open world of today's scale with handcrafted puzzles. To get around this labor issue, he and the team decided to take a different approach, filling the world with a set of rigid physics rules that would allow players to take numerous, flexible approaches to self-made goals.
For example, the team gave the player a few simple tools – the ability to lift metal objects using magnetism, the ability to ride updrafts using a parachute, the ability to freeze certain objects then infuse them with kinetic energy and, after a few seconds, watch them hurl across the environment – and from these abilities, allow people to find their own solutions to issues.
To test the effectiveness of these concepts, and how well they'd meld with the classic Zelda feel, Fujibayashi and his team created an 8-bit, NES-style prototype. In this demo there were no specific puzzles. Rather players would be presented with a simple goal and given a variety of tools which could be used and combined in order to reach it. Players would be able to, for example, chop down a tree, push the log into a river, and then ride the log to their destination. Or they could fire an arrow through a bonfire, set the projectile on fire, and in this way cause a blaze in a nearby forest. “It was at this point I realized that this is the kind of game design I was striving for,” said Fujibayashi.
The team coined the term “multiplicative gameplay” as a way to describe this emergent gameplay. Technical director Takuhiro Dohta explained that, as soon as they put these systems into the game, it changed the way he approached testing, enabling him to look at the game from the perspective of an imaginative player rather than a technical director.
“If you unify the game world with a set of consistent rules the player will come up with their own solutions,” said Dohta. “I would try all kinds of things in the game that the designers had never envisioned.”
For example, Dohta showed a video in which he dropped metallic slabs that were supposed to create a bridge across a river onto the heads of enemies just to see what would happen. In another clip, Dohta showed Link charging a metal crate with kinetic energy before climbing onto it just before it streaked off through the air, carrying him to an island in the middle of a vast lake.
“We even found that, with a great deal of effort, it is possible to roll a boulder all the way from the game’s start point to the final boss’s arena,” Dohta said. “Excitement started to come from imagination, trying things out, and emergent gameplay.”
As well as allowing players to toy with the physics engine, the team also introduced what they refer to as a chemistry engine, which allows any object in the game to be affected by elements such as fire and water, or to be combined to create new items and effects.
“In the end every object and element in the game is somehow joined by the physics and chemistry engines,” Dohta explained, a technique from which hundreds of interactive possibilities grow. The technique allows players to be inventive and, over and over, to feel as though they are smart.