Adapting The Legend of Zelda to the structure of a modern, open world may be Nintendo's greatest feat of the last decade; to say nothing of Breath of the Wild's role in fueling sales of Switch consoles. But perhaps more notable than what Breath of the Wild means for Zelda or Switch is the unshakable impact Nintendo has made on the future of open world games. Breath of the Wild is almost without compare, and any open world game in its wake will no doubt be measured against it in some way. For the first time in years, Nintendo is a trendsetter.
As you might expect, creating such an ambitious game was a monumental undertaking. As Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma revealed to us at E3 last year, Breath of the Wild was the biggest Nintendo project to date. When you consider the enormity of its world, the litany of mechanics at play, and the seamless yet varied atmosphere that connects it all, it wasn't surprising when Aonuma felt challenged to keep such a large team--consisting of both Nintendo and Monolith Soft. employees--focused on a single vision:
"When we're building something, we all have to have a shared perspective and goal, and it's important that everyone has this concrete image in [their] mind. When you have this many people, you may say the same thing to everybody, but everyone has a different perspective on it. If we made a game with that, we would have a very broken and disjointed game. One of the biggest challenges is making sure we all have a shared vision."
Breath of the Wild shipped, and by all accounts, Aonuma met his challenge well. Whether you're catching butterflies or infiltrating the ransacked halls of a once-great castle, Breath of the Wild consistently reflects a unified spirit. Around the game's release last month, we had the chance to chat with three Breath of the Wild directors about their experiences crafting this incredible adventure; about the events that transpired while Aonuma fought to unite his own kingdom at Nintendo.
Hidemaro Fujibayashi is the director of Breath of the Wild, but he got his start working on Zelda games back at Capcom during the Game Boy Color days, directing both The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. During our chat, though he did most of the talking, Fujibayashi sat between technical director Takuhiro Dohta and art director Satoru Takizawa--cohorts that have worked closely on Zelda games like Twilight Princess and Wind Waker HD. Though Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto are the names most people associate with Zelda, the three developers that sat across from us arguably deserve a lion's share of the credit that's been laid at the feet of Nintendo's more prominent personalities.
Breath of the Wild is an unwavering adventure set in a world dominated by nature, where elements and objects become the subjects of experiments as you piece together how the world works, and what you can do within that ruleset. Slowly but surely, you learn how to control fire, lightning, gravity, and magnetism. As Fujibayashi was quick to point out, giving the player freedom to experiment was the solution to keeping players engaged while exploring a massive world--one practically devoid of typical open-world filler quests.
"So the easiest way to go about addressing that problem--of not tiring out the player or boring the player--would be to add puzzles here or add elements there," said Fujibayashi. "But then we would have to make all of that, and that's a lot of resources that we would have to devote to that." The now famous multiplicative gameplay was the answer, he added: "So say we make one, two, or three, different calculations. [Between] those calculations there are things that occur. So it looks like we calculated for all of these things, but only just the three."
"We tried to avoid [creating scenarios] where there's only one possible outcome," he continued. "We tried to remove those as much as possible, and this ideal was really well understood by all of the designers and artists that design terrains and landscapes."
The game that resulted from this concept no doubt thrives because of it, and even a month after its release, players around the world continue to make and share their discoveries. What about the people responsible for crafting the game's collection of cause-and-effect mechanics? Even among Nintendo's staff, occasional surprises delighted the team despite their unrivaled familiarity with the game. According to Takizawa: "one thing we saw at E3 was one of the NOA demonstrating staff, just in their downtime figured out a way to use magnesis to make themselves fly in a way, and we're like, 'Okay, we hadn't thought of that.' We all had to go back and try it ourselves."
"At times we would even show Mr. Miyamoto once a week what we'd been working on, because if we don't do that, and then go face-to-face and present the idea, tables might be flipped!'"
He tried to explain the trick, which we were unfortunately unable to replicate. "If you laid two of the metal platforms on top of each other, and got them just in the right position, you could use one of them to lift the other and kind of make yourself float." He relayed another surprise, this time from watching a new player tinker with the game. "We also saw, and I think this was just an E3 attendee," he recalled, that used objects to fashion their own catapult and then fling themselves across the landscape. That also looked pretty fun. And that made me feel, 'Yeah, this freedom we wanted to give players is really coming through here.'"
Breath of the Wild isn't short on challenges or solutions to overcome them, but it wasn't surprising to hear that some ideas were left by the wayside. Takizawa chimed in with one such example that lasted far into development, and the reasoning behind its ultimate disappearance.
"Until about halfway through the development, we had a spec where you could take your weapon and stab it into a wall. When your stamina gauge was dwindling you could stab the weapon and kind of hang out and rest there." Given the emphasis on climbing in the game, it was surprising to hear this option was removed. The reason? Miyamoto's disapproval.
"So the answer," according to Fujibayashi," is that Mr. Miyamoto heard of the concept he said, 'You can't stand on the tip of a sword. This is strange.' And then we explained, "No no no, you stab it in." Then he's like, 'No, it's not going to work.' Another idea is that it's very hard to actually stab a sword into a big piece of rock. We considered that you can stab them into cracks or crevices in the wall, but then you can't freely use that feature anywhere you want, so I decided not to implement it."
Miyamoto may not have been directly involved in creating gameplay concepts himself, but by the sound of it, he kept a close eye on everything the team was doing. "So starting from the early stages of development we had been constantly showing Mr. Miyamoto our progress. At times we would even show him once a week what we'd been working on, because if we don't do that, and then go face-to-face and present the idea, tables might be flipped!'"
Though the team had plenty of leaders and a judicious overseer, Breath of the Wild is a product of the group, and the life experiences its members brought to the team were a key component of its success, particularly when it came to interacting with the environment. Fujibayashi drove this point home."The staff that was involved in creating the game, they all have their own hobbies. Some of them like camping or outdoor sports, and we tried to make it a point that they take all of the experiences that they have in their lives and drop it into the game."
When we told the directors how the game matched up with our own meaningful experiences in nature, Fujibayashi beamed. "Hearing you express that you have this emotion that comes up [while playing], that you haven't felt since you went hiking, makes me really happy because I feel like we were able to convey what we really wanted to."
Part of the allure of hiking through woods or over complicated mountain passes is the joy of discovering something that makes you look at your environment, and maybe the world at large, in new ways. But even in our day to day lives, we experience a version of discovery on a smaller scale. According to Takizawa, "One of the things that we were considering was to incorporate this phenomena, which is very common for us in Japanese culture. Every day you take the same road to school and back, but on the way you're like, 'Oh look, I remember this guy over here has a dog so I'm gonna go over there and pet that dog. And then over here, there's this field I want to explore. There's some plants I want to pluck, or there are things I want to do that make that road itself interesting.' We said, 'Let's create an environment that does just that.'"
"And it's not just the terrain," he continued. "It's all the items and elements within the terrain...you soon get distracted by this shiny thing over here, that cool thing over there. And again, we had that very active conversation to create that world. So kids really like stopping to pick the weeds or stopping to smell the flowers, so we wanted to create a world that not only enabled them to do that but enticed them to do so."