Playfulness is an all-purpose word that we hear all the time. While some might be tempted to ask whether all games are playful, the real question is what is playfulness? Since man first picked up two pieces of wood to entertain himself, play has become more than just a game. It’s an activity that teaches us to confront the realities we face. A ludic activity is therefore an activity of expenditure in play, whose motivation is the assimilation of reality with the aim of ensuring emotional and intellectual balance. The aim is to tinker with our minds, to learn how to handle everything around us and thus give meaning to our actions. To exist, a playful activity requires total commitment, while keeping in mind that we are only pretending. You only have to watch a child playing with his toys to get a perfect idea of this fragile balance. When we pick up our joysticks, we are both captivated and aware. The game is therefore a double-edged sword, because it has to maintain this illusion of truth and plausibility, while at the same time entertaining us without ever breaking our suspension of disbelief. Where many big videogame licenses end up failing in this perilous exercise, there is one that has risen to the occasion, notably through its last two iterations. It’s The Legend of Zelda.
Everyone knows the Nintendo saga. More than just a prestigious name, it is quite simply one of the major pillars of video game history. Since its genesis, the license has never ceased to revolutionize the industry’s codes. This can be seen in its first episode, which was one of the few games of its time to offer a completely open environment from the start of the adventure, with the possibility of completing the dungeons in any order, all on a map filled with playful clues to encourage exploration and experimentation as the player progresses on his quest. While this philosophy of free exploration was somewhat lost in the years that followed, the license continued to focus on other elements in order to deliver memorable stories, but above all mythical dungeons and bosses, always with the aim of encouraging the player to appropriate all the game mechanics in order to triumph.
However, it’s difficult for any license to thrive over time. If the Zelda 3D recipe, democratized by the mythical Ocarina of Time, was long considered an absolute, it ran out of steam in the early 2010s, as evidenced by the lukewarm public reception for Skyward Sword. Skyward Sword was criticized not only for its motion gaming mechanics, but also for the fact that many gamers had grown weary of living through yet another adventure made up of dungeons and environments to be discovered in a certain order. So the need to reinvent itself by returning to the saga’s original essence was born in the minds of Nintendo’s creative team. The result is none other than the diptych formed by Breath of the Wild and Tears of The Kingdom, two games that have succeeded in retranscribing the profound nature of what an open world should be, freeing themselves from codes that have been firmly established in the collective imagery for almost 20 years. While we love a good story that immerses us in a fascinating universe, the humble author of this paper believes that the primary purpose of such an open setting is to encourage us to set off into the unknown.
In taking this risky gamble, the project’s masterminds Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi returned to Miyamoto’s original philosophy when creating the series. For this man, The Legend of Zelda was a way of reconnecting with his childhood memories, when he would set off on adventures in the wilderness, with his little backpack, not knowing what might happen to him or what he might find, and with the certainty that he could brave any ordeal with the elements at hand. The latest iterations of this videogame legend are based on this seemingly simple premise. As Link, the player is propelled into a wild world of which he knows nothing, and which he must explore without being given anything. Like a pioneer, he’ll unravel mysteries waiting to be discovered by his sense of observation, and he’ll have plenty of time to wonder whether it’s possible to cross a crevasse by making a logical connection between his makeshift axe and a tree.
The importance of traveling
When I was a kid, I went hiking and found a lake. It was a surprise for me to stumble across it. As I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling across incredible things as I went, I realized what it was like to set off on an adventure like this.Shigeru Miyamoto
Shigeru Miyamoto’s statement, however simple and concise, perfectly symbolizes the orientation of the two latest additions to the saga he spawned. Before bringing forth ideas that would drastically change the way the world of video games conceptualized the notion of the open world, it was first and foremost a matter of his heirs’ profound desire to look in the mirror and get back to basics. The man who embodies this change is Eiji Aonuma, one of Nintendo’s most emblematic figures since the release of Ocarina of Time in 1998. From the outset of the project, his intention was clear. He wanted to get back to basics, but in a way that turned conventions on their head. When we start thinking about it, we might almost be tempted to believe that Nintendo patiently waited until it had sufficient technology to offer this vast play area, without the need to divide it into multiple screens. Aonuma wanted to offer a sense of freedom and adventure like almost nowhere else. The terrestrial, aerial and underground territories that make up the kingdom of Hyrule are immense, yet both titles leave us free to visit any area that catches our curiosity, without limitation.
However, the world of video games didn’t wait for Breath of The Wild to discover the notion of the open world. By 2017, we had already surveyed dozens of games that had opted for this structure. The thundering success of Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and The Witcher 3 confirmed the public’s appetite for this kind of experience. So the codes were already well established. The problem is that the abuse of certain recipes often ends in rejection. Nintendo was well aware that gamers were beginning to dream of something else, and that offering vast expanses of land would not be enough to win them over. So what could be done to revitalize a stale genre? Quite simply, by putting travel and the desire to discover back at the heart of the experience. Zelda’s stroke of genius is to invert the logic of discovery: the map is initially blank, then becomes a medium for inscription. Instead of being guided by a set of points of interest, it’s up to the player to annotate it, to place markers on it, according to the places he or she spots. It’s up to the player to orientate himself as he wanders. The lands of Hyrule are sprawling, and built in such a way that the entire game invites us to keep our eyes on the horizon. Breath of The Wild introduces us to this in a very subtle way. First of all, we’re introduced to the extent of the game zone by means of an aerial tracking shot, which makes the unspoken promise that every square inch of land is just waiting to be explored. Then comes the prologue in the Prelude Plateau, which not only introduces us to all the game mechanics, but also to the logic behind the construction of this world.
In this learning zone, we have to familiarize ourselves with the famous Sheikah Towers. These unlock the map of the area and its relief, but do not indicate anything more. No points of interest materialize to show the various nooks and crannies to be visited. It’s very basic cartography, which updates itself as we make new discoveries. The names of certain places are annotated as we go along. But this is not where the real interest lies. What sets them apart from the synchronization towers of the Ubisoft games is the way they play with lines of sight. Indeed, the kingdom of Hyrule is so vast that these large structures give us a higher vantage point, allowing us to dominate the territory and observe it in greater detail. During this introductory sequence, there’s a brief tutorial explaining this concept, asking us to locate three shrines with our spyglass. Explicitly, we learn to climb a tower, then observe the topography to spot anything that looks interesting, then use the spyglass to place the objective markers that will punctuate our expedition. Implicitly, the title leads us to understand how exploration works through its famous lines of sight. The player who embraces this logic of observation quickly realizes that Hyrule is a deceptively empty setting that always has something to offer. This may be obvious areas, such as a sanctuary, an encampment or the royal family’s castle, or more anecdotal-looking places, like a mountain peak or a heart-shaped lake. Limiting the information on the map radically changes the player’s relationship with his environment.
It’s no longer a question of moving mechanically from one objective to the next, gently following the GPS on our map, as if we were just trying to fulfill a set of specifications. The adventure forces us to be the real protagonists of our journey. From start to finish, it’s our choices that structure the course of the adventure, and it’s unlikely that any two players will experience the same things. The relationship with space is divine, and materializes as a veritable invitation to travel, leading to the appropriation of a territory and the inscription of one’s personal path, while remaining open to the solicitations of the environment. Breath of the Wild and Tears of The Kingdom make the other games seem like highways, where we all end up following the same line in order to move forward. Basically, we’re focused on the points of interest that abound and forget about the world as a whole, which took a long time to develop. After all, why should we explore this forest or this mountain when there are no points of interest and the game itself tells us that this place is therefore not interesting to explore? In games like The Witcher 3 or Horizon Forbidden West, we spend more time navigating from one icon to the next than actually getting lost in the universe we’re presented with. Seeing these points of interest appearing on the map, even in areas where we haven’t yet set foot, creates a form of dissonance, as there’s a dichotomy between the play area offered and the play experience proposed.
Other proposals have emerged, however. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, attempts to bridge the gap between these two types of open world. The main missions and some of the side quests are displayed on the map, but there are numerous secondary arcs and unusual discoveries to be made as you lose yourself in the wilderness. Some of these drop in on us without warning, while others let a search zone appear on the radar as we pass by. Elden Ring is the closest alternative to the latest The Legend of Zelda. What makes it so special is the progressive dezooming of the map as we discover it, so that it’s impossible to have the slightest idea of the area we still have to explore. Nintendo’s double-production is unique in that there are no predefined routes. These are games that remind us at every turn that the journey is just as important as the destination. It may be that a place that seemed interesting in the distance brings us no armor or legendary weapons, and we have to make do with a few korogu nuts, or the sometimes bizarre encounters made along the way. It’s not uncommon to spend several hours before reaching a nearby goal we’d set ourselves, as our gaze is constantly drawn to a point of interest cleverly highlighted by the elegant construction of the world. No path is designed to take precedence over another. Everything is secondary, so everything becomes primary. We are responsible for the shape of our journey. The adventure is in all directions, and the pleasure of the expedition is always with us, as the environmental constraints are numerous, constantly pushing us to experiment in order to tame this hostile territory.
Experimentation to overcome constraints
The constraints imposed by the two titles create a Kiss Cool effect. Total freedom brings an exhilarating sense of freshness and grandeur, but if the experience were limited to wandering from one objective to another, it would quickly lose its interest. The famous observation towers are not always easy to get to, and it’s not uncommon to have to find ways of reaching them by skirting around brambles or finding a sunken access. In such cases, it’s best to rack your brains and observe your surroundings. Having to find a cave, and then use the Infiltration power to penetrate the layers of earth, brings its own share of adventures. The same goes for learning how to light an arrow with a flame, then shoot it at the brambles, which will then be consumed by the embers, giving access to the desired location. Where the experience reaches new heights of ingenuity in the way it pushes us to circumvent constraints, is that we can manage things as we see fit.Perhaps there’s a mountainside to climb nearby, and then we can use our paravane to soar over the brambles, if the idea of using our bow doesn’t occur to us. In the same way, you can take advantage of a thunderstorm by throwing a metal object among the plants to attract lightning and start a life-saving fire. The slightest journey becomes a real game, in which each player tries to twist the game according to the way he or she makes its rules his or her own.
After the journey to the top of this tower, we’ll eventually be drawn to a crevice that leads into the depths of a cave, which itself hides a sanctuary within, as well as other goodies. Or perhaps we’ll be drawn to an elevated islet in the middle of a lake and have to figure out how to get there, since we obviously don’t have the stamina to manage swimming and climbing the wall in one go. The few metres separating us from our goal become another little adventure in the middle of the big one. How can we make this crossing, which would normally be a formality, a success? Why not build a raft? And here we are, looking for trees to cut up and make a makeshift vessel. Once the buoyancy tests have been carried out, we can set off on our assault on this mound of earth, which we are now able to climb thanks to the energy saved by avoiding swimming. The small sense of pride we feel when we take the time to look back at how far we’ve come thanks to our ingenuity is one of the many sensory mini-rewards of these two adventures. Nothing was given to us, nothing was pointed out to us. We put together the pieces of an environmental puzzle with the exhilarating hope that the developer hadn’t thought of this eventuality.
Whereas in other games, we’d have dispatched this passage in record time, here every little journey is a real pleasure to play, as we’re asked to deal with restrictions that are never definitive. The game constantly invites us to think about every little thing we do. We find this logic in the various biomes that await us, which don’t just serve to punctuate the adventure with a variety of atmospheres. Indeed, wandering through a snowy region has a real impact on the gameplay, as good old Link reacts to the different temperatures, slowly reducing his life bar until he eventually perishes from the climatic conditions. It is therefore necessary to think about your environment if you hope to progress. From there, and as is often the case in these two journeys, a whole host of possibilities are open to us. Depending on our equipment, it may be sufficient to clothe our avatar in a padded suit for freezing temperatures. It’s also possible to immunize yourself against the cold by preparing tasty dishes, using a fire that you’ve lit yourself, and which allows you to gain resistance bonuses to this element for a set period of time. The more cunning will quickly understand that brandishing a flaming torch, or equipping oneself with a fire-type weapon are other, more covert means of triumphing over nature. The same logic applies to a desert area or a territory with a continental climate, where climbing can become arduous in rainy weather. It’s not our skill with the controller that enables us to triumph, but simply our ability to think and find a way of bending the slightest constraint.
This cerebral challenge is in every layer of the adventure, including its combat. Let’s be clear, the last two The Legend of Zelda games didn’t revolutionize the basic concepts of combat, as we still find the fast attack, charged attack, dodge and parry. What gives it a special flavor is that every weapon and shield will break at some point. Although it has been criticised by some, it is fundamental, and not just because it pushes us to explore the territory to find even more equipment. In fact, the role of durability is to push us to constantly expand our range of actions. The player who likes to stay in familiar territory will certainly start with a sword and a shield, except that when his weapon eventually breaks and he has to opt for a spear or a heavy weapon, he will find it impossible to use his shield at the same time, as it is incompatible with a two-handed weapon. He will therefore be obliged to use dodging. This example is just the first step towards an infinite number of possibilities. The only limit is the imagination of the player holding the controller. Tears of The Kingdom goes one step further than its predecessor, offering the possibility of combining all elements with each other thanks to the power of Amalgam. This makes it possible to fight with super-powered, surreal weapons. The way in which the player is able to interweave the various objects with the powers given to him at the start of each adventure, while at the same time becoming one with his environment, enables the creation of offensive sequences that are sometimes ultra-stylised, other times completely grotesque, but all the more effective. With a little experimentation, it’s possible to send one of the fearsome Lynels into orbit by making skilful use of the game’s physics.
All the elements on offer are linked by a basic understanding of physics and chemistry, as Nintendo’s teams point out after explaining their multiplicative gameplay concept. Without going so far as to say that we have here two productions that sometimes take on the appearance of scientific experiments, we must nevertheless emphasize their experimental aspect. While these are not difficult games in terms of challenge, the player is constantly faced with micro-challenges, sometimes without even realizing it. There are always several ways of dealing with an environmental difficulty. A wet wall can be climbed with special gloves, or after consuming a potion concocted with the help of frogs known for their strong ability to adhere to surfaces. Fans of weird experiments can, with the help of good stamina and a sense of timing that will have prompted numerous attempts, succeed in climbing a wet surface without the slightest outside help. Breath of The Wild and Tears of The Kingdom are games in which nothing is ever made clear, yet everything is crystal-clear. It’s a cryptic adventure that demands our full attention.
Cryptic but never lacunar
Many games have tried to take an enigmatic approach, so as not to serve the player everything on a platter. While some, such as Outer Wilds, have succeeded marvelously, others have sometimes confused stimulating the player’s thirst for knowledge with being lacunar. This is the case with Elden Ring, and not just because of the non-ergonomic nature of its menus. It’s possible to miss out on side quests that are fundamental to obtaining the game’s various endings, because it doesn’t tell us anything. It’s not uncommon to come across an NPC who informs us that he’s off to do something very specific, insisting enough to make us understand that it’s important, but we won’t have the slightest indication as to which direction to take. This is problematic on a map as oversized as Hidetaka Miyazaki’s latest. Some might be tempted to say that, in the worst-case scenario, all you have to do is turn the map upside down, but the problem is that it’s possible to miss out on the various stages of these quests as you progress through the adventure, as the characters linked to these parts of the story don’t wait and go ahead with their destiny even without you, which can lead to a fair amount of frustration. However, it’s also understandable that this is fully part of the experience in order to encourage us to re-launch the game, and because it helps create real sharing on social networks. The whole of 2022 has been driven by a huge Elden Ring community momentum, which has seen these plethora of guides and anecdote exchanges built around the experience.
It’s good to encourage the player to search on his or her own, but to achieve this, things need to be done in a thoughtful and refined way. The aim is not to provoke frustration with a situation impossible to resolve without recourse to external help or chance, but to nurture the satisfaction of finding the end of the string by oneself. This philosophy is reflected in the 272 shrines spread across the two games by Aonuma and Fujibayashi. Each is a small intellectual challenge for the player, during which he or she can create his or her own solutions. We interpret the rules of Hyrule’s world, exploiting and twisting them to suit our needs. There’s no more exhilarating feeling than successfully solving a puzzle, having tried something that didn’t seem to be part of the game. This increases the sense of always having something to discover, as we are never told what the limits are. The player is therefore always in a phase of wonder, as the experience is capable of making him discover something new and unexpected even after fifty hours or so. Did you know that if you combine your shield with a balloon, you can take off several meters? No ? Rest assured, some people have discovered this kind of mechanics after a hundred hours.
It’s a playful proposition that encourages you not to hurry. You need to observe your surroundings, but you also need to take the time to chat with the many inhabitants. Almost all of them have something interesting to say, or likely to enrich your knowledge of the world. Some will help you understand basic mechanics, such as the fact that fire can melt ice, or that, by combining certain ingredients, it’s possible to concoct dishes with rare and powerful effects. Others will put you on the trail of quests, which sometimes end up being subdivided into several distinct quests. While some of these are listed in your logbook, it’s important to remember that this isn’t always the case. So when someone innocently tells you that they think they’ve seen something to the right of the heart-shaped rock at the end of the path, it’s a good idea to check it out, because chances are it wasn’t for nothing. This way of making every dialogue important, even the most insignificant, is what makes the game so enjoyable with its minimalist interface. Many exchanges with Hyrule’s inhabitants only really make sense once you’ve arrived at the location of the item to be discovered.
Both titles make extensive use of time mechanics. That is, if a character sends us on the trail of a white bird that appears on a mountainside, it’s not impossible that we’ll never find a bird in the indicated location. In this case, we have two choices: retrace our steps to make sure we’ve taken the right route, or wait in the hope that the animal will eventually show up. If we’re patient enough, we realize that the animal we’ve been waiting for will never show up. The description we were given earlier is the result of an optical illusion caused by the movement of the sun which, at a certain time of day, draws the shadow of a white bird indicating the entrance to a cave. Weather and climatic conditions regularly play a part in our journey, constantly forcing us to look beyond the information we are given.
The most symbolic example is the mystery surrounding the legendary sword in both adventures. Whatever route we decide to take, we’ll occasionally come across people discussing the possible whereabouts of this legendary artifact. Numerous rumors on this subject will punctuate our journey, some with more precision than others. The accumulation of these clues lends a mystical aura to the object, heightening the emotions felt when the day of the great discovery finally arrives. If this approach were confined to this one object, the mechanics would become anecdotal, but we find it for a whole host of items just waiting to be found: outfits, shrines, legendary animals. This is where The Legend of Zelda draws much of its power, because while more and more titles offer the possibility of reducing the user interface to its bare minimum, this never really works, because the game design is not designed to be practicable without the numerous position markers. When you opt for such a minimalist user experience, you have to accept it to the end, otherwise any journey is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The art of minimalism
This minimalism is a component of the experience that is not easy to grasp at first. This is one of the reasons why anyone who has only played a few minutes of the latest iterations of the Zelda saga, or who has merely watched fleeting extracts on YouTube, is likely to speak of them as empty games. Yet here we have two adventures that are the antithesis of that, and characterized by a richness at every turn. The reason behind this misleading impression is that the philosophy behind this open-world recipe is radically opposed to what can be found elsewhere. Horizon Forbidden West is the perfect representative of those games that seek to display more detail than is reasonable. There’s such a profound desire to ape reality that it overrides any elementary notion of plan composition and highlighting the elements necessary for the adventure to run smoothly. The smallest hectare is teeming with vegetation of all kinds, but it’s almost impossible to distinguish, without an overloaded interface, between those that serve only to dress up the territory and those that we can use to design our equipment. Our brains are overwhelmed by this constant discharge of information. Aonuma’s men, on the other hand, have opted for something purer, more naturalistic, to pay homage to the wide-open spaces that have shaped so many imaginations. These accumulations of solid colors and less detailed textures are obviously the result of the Switch’s lack of power, but above all they embody the Japanese manufacturer’s desire to offer players a clear, didactic experience.
It’s because there’s nothing superfluous in Hyrule’s landscapes that everything we see on the horizon can have a playful stake in it. The absence of forests made up of hundreds of trees, or plains filled to overflowing with useless bushes, helps to ensure that our eye is constantly drawn to whatever the adventure really has to offer. No matter where we find ourselves, our gaze will always be drawn to a small number of distinct elements, whose routes to reach them will alert us to the presence of a host of other places likely to be able to satisfy our videogame curiosity. Everything is cleverly placed by the developers, so that no matter where our gaze lands, we can be rewarded with that little jolt of adrenaline when the promise of a beautiful journey emerges in our brains. In a way, this visual simplicity allows the full richness of the experience to exist. The Legend of Zelda’s two titles succeed in constantly showering us with playful content by displaying no unnecessary artifice. There’s nothing more pleasant than strolling through a clearing in the direction of a strange tree you’d spotted a few minutes earlier, because it wasn’t hidden in the middle of a whole bunch of visual elements serving only to give a postcard effect to the playground. Link’s adventures have a country stroll feel to them, reminiscent of Ueda’s work.
There’s an obvious link between Shadow of The Colossus and the diptych initiated by Breath of The Wild, which goes far beyond the climbing mechanics and endurance gauge. This link is actually quite amusing to observe when you bear in mind that Team Ico’s second title was, in a way, a game that claimed to be Zelda-like. After all, isn’t Wander a young boy armed with sword and bow, riding a horse across vast lands to rescue what appears to be a princess? The big difference is that the quest of Ueda’s masterpiece is tinged with a pessimism that has always been absent from Nintendo’s saga. From the moment we triumph over the first colossus, we can guess that there will be no happy ending. The world that Wander, the hero of Shadow of The Colossus, wanders is a vision of the realm of Breath of The Wild. Hyrule is almost as bare as the world of the Colossus. It‘s obviously livelier, as we can encounter monsters, different peoples and stop off at protected settlements, but the feel remains the same. In both works, we explore the remains of an abandoned civilization. Marked by a sad sense of ruin and inaccessible past glory. This desire to reduce a world’s civilizational vitality serves to accentuate the gigantism of the wilderness before our avatar. There could be no more skilful way of making us feel the weight of a territory in which we take pleasure in losing ourselves. This heritage, assumed by Aonuma’s work, allows it to take on a relaxing aspect, well helped by the sound work, which never goes overboard.
Music has always played a role in The Legend of Zelda. The series’ musical compositions are among the best-known in the videogame industry, but what interests us is the fundamental importance they have always had at the heart of the various adventures. Many of them feature musical instruments whose importance is crucial to the story’s progress. Ocarina of Time and Link’s Awakening spring to mind. Many themes are recurrent and evolve in tandem with the games. Some fans were disappointed when they got their hands on Breath of The Wild, realizing that the music had a much more subtle, less bombastic place. Indeed, the turn taken in 2017 says goodbye to grand orchestral flights of fancy in favor of something much more sober and self-effacing. Most of the time, the player is accompanied by a gentle melody of just a few piano notes, as if to perfectly match the minimalist stroll the player is taking. There’s an impressionist aspect to this work on music and sound, as the aim is to immerse us in a specific atmosphere, while using a strong evocative power. This approach fits in perfectly with the last two Zelda games. Large, recurring themes would have become tiresome in the end, whereas this fragmented approach, made up of pieces that flit in and out with the wind, serves the primary aim of Nintendo’s developers: to immerse us in nature and not just in the heart of an epic legend. This is a variation on Fumito Ueda’s philosophy, as the deconstructed design once again shows that less can be more. These evanescent compositions allow nature to exist.
One of the great successes of the sound work done on Breath of The Wild and Tears of The Kingdom is knowing when the music should fade gently into the background, giving way to environmental sounds. We’re in a Hyrule that’s much less alive than in the past. It’s a kingdom that has seen Link’s defeat and failure in the age-old struggle against the Scourge, that inevitable reincarnation of the Void Avatar. This territory, first in agony, waiting for a savior, then in the midst of awakening and rebuilding, could not be accompanied by omnipresent music, as this would have created a harmful dichotomy in the overall atmosphere. That’s why all the game’s sounds have been designed with uncommon care. We’re thinking in particular of the sound of Link’s footsteps, which take into account the slightest surface and the equipment he’s wearing. This creates a relaxing sound, but one that connects us to the organic nature of the areas we’re surveying. If you put your ear to the ground, it’s easy to hear the small variations that indicate the presence of a Korogu. Space and distance are constantly taken into consideration. Simply play with headphones to enjoy the sound of rushing water, breezy tall grass and the reverberations against the imposing trees scattered here and there. The organic aspect of the sounds and music makes it possible to play with the players. While music is more discreet in the wilderness, it takes up much more space in towns and relays, or other specific locations. As the changes in atmosphere are not sudden, the player has plenty of time to try and find the source from which the music seems to originate. The closer they get to the area they’re looking for, the more the score replaces the natural sounds. This creates interactivity between player and sound, and lends a sense of grandeur to the many moments spent in Hyrule’s landforms, where the wind and the sounds it carries are our only companions.
The science of relief
Relief is at the heart of everything in these two games, for considerations that go far beyond visuals and soundscapes. It’s a central game design element. During our hundreds of hours in the heart of the Tri-Force’s vast lands, we survey massive fortresses, dizzying towers and vast plains, all waiting for us to unlock their secrets. As we’ve already briefly mentioned, in order to stimulate our curiosity and invite us to explore, without indicating anything extra-diegetically on the user interface, Aonuma’s teams put lines of sight at the heart of their concerns when building this virtual world. While Nintendo has always been opaque about its development processes, the Japanese company held a major conference in 2017, alongside the release of Breath of The Wild, at the Computer Entertainment Developers Conference. The development teams were on hand with a number of presentations to explain how they came up with the ideas to bring about this revolution in open-world gaming. It was on this occasion that the notion of triangles was brought to light.
Why is this geometric structure so crucial to the revival of the Zelda saga? The answer is simple: the entire play area is made up of triangles. Virtually every obstacle, from steep peaks to rolling hills, is modeled on the shape of a triangle before layers of textures are added. According to the developers, this is the perfect geometric shape to serve as the basis for building a level, as it invites us to choose between going around it or climbing it, two actions that then lead to other choices of the same type as we progress and discover new territories. What’s more, these triangles are the ideal place to hide secrets thanks to the many blind spots they allow, giving us a sense of reward when we discover something new on the other side. Nintendo has ensured that important structures can be seen from afar by making them tall, and has developed a system in which the taller the structure, the more important it is. That’s why we’re always able to find a key landmark by turning the camera. It could be an observation tower, the royal family castle or the goron volcano. So we’re never lost. The choice of direction is ours, and whatever we decide, we’re bound to encounter a combination of triangles that obscure our field of vision while inviting us to play with them.
Tears of The Kingdom, with its structure based on three levels of altitude, takes the formula a step further, as the notion of a triangle is no longer sufficient. No mountain can hide the view of one of the many celestial archipelagos that dominate the kingdom’s skies. So the terrain had to be used intelligently to always indicate a favorable path to begin one’s ascent. For example, it’s more efficient to build a hot-air balloon, or to use the power of Hindsight on a fallen boulder, from high ground than from the plateau of a plain. Once we’ve reached the lowest island, a new territory opens up, and we realize that there are other islands even higher up, waiting for us. Simply trying to reach them becomes a new laboratory for playful experimentation. The management of our endurance, our battery reserves for the vehicles, and our ability to take advantage of climatic conditions become even more crucial than on land. The slightest error, or lack of anticipation, can result in a fall which, while not fatal if the paravane is used, will take us a long way from our goal. One of the most frequently asked questions is: how can I reach this seemingly inaccessible place?
In this science of relief, the depths of the kingdom of Hyrule represent a new stage in the expertise of Nintendo’s teams. This second map, which has the same surface area as the terrestrial territories, has been the talk of the town. Some love it, others hate it, but there’s rarely a middle ground. And yet, apart from the fact that we find the best outfits there, some of them referencing previous episodes, or that the difficulty there is far more arduous because of the miasma, there is above all a fascinating topographical link to be established between Ganondorf’s lands and those of the royal family. While the first few hours as we attempt to map this unknown and disquieting area are steep, and sometimes daunting, we soon come to the conclusion that the two territories mirror each other. If there’s a structure on the surface, we can be sure that we’ll find corresponding ruins in the darkness of the depths. The same applies to the slightest relief. Indeed, the kingdom’s mountains give way to immense canyons underground. Waterholes on the surface take the form of rock faces that are impossible to circumvent underground.
The map and our ability to read relief zones bring a new playfulness to this part of the adventure, which isn’t limited to shooting lumo seeds to see beyond the end of our noses. This is one of the adventure’s greatest assets, and it’s essential to immerse yourself in it if you want to find the 120 sanctuaries spread across the different regions of the continent. Why, you may ask? Because each purifying root indicates the presence of its associated sanctuary on the surface, and vice versa. So we have two sides of the same coin, affirming Tears of The Kingdom’s status as an absolute adventure game, even for players who have played Breath of The Wild from start to finish, and who would be naive enough to think that this new iteration has nothing for them to discover or rediscover.
The pleasure of rediscovery
In the world of video games, we love novelty, we love the exhilarating sensation that comes from discovering a new world. Regardless of the license that makes our hearts skip a beat, it’s inconceivable to many of us that we’d want to explore a territory we’re already familiar with. It’s a preoccupation that we’ve seen grow in importance over the last few years on social networks, where we can see the anathema “it’s a 1.5” being waved as soon as a new game doesn’t throw out all the achievements of the previous opus to propose a new revolution. God of War Ragnarök suffered from this, so did Spider-Man 2, and, of course, so did Tears of The Kingdom when we received confirmation that, apart from the celestial depths and archipelagos, we’d be wandering the same kingdom of Hyrule as in Breath of The Wild. Yet there’s so much to do and say as we continue to explore familiar territory.
The Like A Dragon saga is closely linked to the Kamurocho district. It’s an understatement to say so, since it’s a place that’s present in every game in the main saga, even if it’s often accompanied by other play areas to bring a form of diversity. And yet, it is the major entity of this fresco of the Japanese underworld, to the point of serving as the stage for the events of the Judgment spin-off series. What makes the experience so unique is the way this neighborhood evolves and changes over time. The 80s Kamurocho of Yakuza 0 is not the same as that of 6, which takes place in 2016. The district changes with the times, allowing players to see the ravages of time gradually taking their toll on urban planning, as well as on the mentalities of those who populate these blocks of stone. So it’s not necessarily foolish or lazy to exploit a tried-and-tested game zone, as it serves as a landmark. The trick is to avoid the feeling of repetition. We need to succeed in provoking a sense of discovery and doubt as we survey a territory we think we’ve mastered as our own. To achieve this, developers can add new locations, variations on environments, add abilities that change the way we move through the game, and it just so happens that Tears of The Kingdom does all this at once.
Hyrule has been profoundly changed by Ganondorf’s awakening. The celestial territories of the Zonai people have appeared, ruins have fallen from the sky, and numerous caves and caverns have appeared as a result of the upheaval caused by the return of the miasma world. Gigantic rifts have also opened up, providing access to a subterranean world plunged into total darkness. Yet the overall topography remains the same, with the royal castle in the center, the Ordinn volcano to the northeast and the Gerudo desert to the southwest. Everything is the same, yet everything is different. The introduction helps to dispel any fears about the potential lack of novelty. After a short, linear, scripted sequence, we wake up on one of the largest celestial archipelagos in the adventure. We face the novelty of these expanses, discovering the Zonai and the golems they’ve created. We know nothing of this place; we experience a new musical ambience, new powers and new mechanics that completely change the already wide-ranging possibilities for experimentation in the previous episode. The sense of newness is magnified by the scenography, as we dominate the entire kingdom and can see all the floating islands in the distance, just waiting for us. The breath of the wind amplifies the call of adventure, which explodes with a thousand fires as we make our first jump to reach the plots of land we tamed six years earlier.
Once again, the game makes sure we feel unsettled. This is the Hyrule we know, but the differences are glaring, as evidenced by the existence of the Watchtower Fort, a town that didn’t exist in the previous episode. From this new urban center, we then learn about the new caves, caverns and rifts. We learn how to use our powers to change our approach to exploration. Using the power Infiltration in a cave allows us, on occasion, to discover new hidden sections within the mountains. As we continue on our way, our brains are quickly plunged into a state of permanent doubt, as the unknown and the mysterious remain. The changes affecting cities and known climatic biomes only intensify this sensation. The places that have profoundly marked us have changed. The prelude plateau, where we all learned to master all game systems in relative tranquility in 2017, bears the brunt of the Demon King’s return. It is now an inhospitable and dangerous place, under the domination of deadly creatures and the Yigas gang. All is chaos and stained by thick layers of miasma. It’s one of the many moments that make it clear why Nintendo didn’t say goodbye to Breath of The Wild’s map. This decision brings its own story to each player. The relationship with the card is then more intimate than ever, as it will have a different resonance depending on the experience of the person holding the joystick.
This is the moment when the writer in me allows himself a little deviation and uses the first person. Surveying this realm on which I spent so many hours in Breath of The Wild had the same effect on me as when I set foot on French soil again in 2022, after more than three years without having returned to my native land. I was on familiar ground, yet the truth was clear: everything had changed drastically in so few years. The stores were different, the faces less familiar. It was like being a stranger in your own home. After the difficult years we lived through, marked by the infamy of those long confinements, Hyrule was a land of escape for me. I lived with this game space for hundreds of hours. I’ve spent so much time there that it’s deeply rooted in my memories, and even echoes some of the memories of my life. So how can I be insensitive when it’s time to dive back into this realm that has evolved without us? It was then that I remembered the importance of the virtual worlds that animate our videogame peregrinations. Why bid them farewell when a thoughtful revisit can be just as powerful? Tears of The Kingdom reminded me of an emotion that only Red Dead Redemption 2 had made me feel. When I was able to wander with John through the wilderness that had been the main setting for the first opus, its desert-like appearance left me with a deep sense of loneliness after dozens of eventful hours in the company of Arthur Morgan. It was a place I knew and revisited with a new prism, more aware of the dramaturgy of the work and its territory. Game environments age with us, and I’m more convinced than ever of the ludic utility of giving us this experience of time, even if it means giving the false impression of making an easy choice.
By overturning the conventions of the open world, but above all its own, The Legend of Zelda demonstrated the importance of thinking every aspect of an adventure through the prism of playfulness. An element should never be placed at random, especially in an open world where one of the primary aims is to arouse the call of adventure in the hearts of players. Before being a genre, the open world is a game design tool. What’s most fascinating is that there’s nothing exotic about the basic principle of this diptych. It’s all about giving us all the keys to exploration, while living in symbiosis with the world around us. It’s all about being at one with the experience to get the full substance. These are two experiences that go straight to the heart of the matter and seek only to propose a result in keeping with their proposition. This is a far cry from the philosophy of some games that try to do everything without ever achieving anything satisfying. It’s a minimalist journey that is paradoxically infinitely rich, thanks to the existence of rules that perpetually resonate with one another. Breath of The Wild and Tears of The Kingdom are not just great video games, they are THE video game. They remind us of the childlike wonder of discovery and the pleasure of reflection.