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Breath of the Wild Open World Analysis: Gravity to go Forward

Analyzing the open world design in The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild to break down Nintendo's level design and use of topography to guide where the player goes.

Nic Phan, Blogger

April 1, 2019

6 Min Read

Nintendo’s most recent title in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, is known for its open world. It is widely regarded as the best open world featured in a video game to date. But what makes it so well received? There are many techniques that were used to guide the player in Breath of the Wild, and I will write about one that I find especially interesting.

The Triangle Approach has been discussed by Nintendo, where the majority of shapes in the open world were triangular, inviting players to make the choice to climb up it, or move around it. These both resulted in the slow reveal of the landscape and structures behind it. However, I want to write about something different, based on how Nintendo guides players to key points on the map.

Nintendo uses topography and the height of specific locations on the map to gravitate players toward key locations. Like a boulder rolling into a pit, the player naturally ends up in the valleys and crevasses of the geography.

To begin, the traversal capabilities the player uses to navigate the environment must be noted. The core traversal abilities that the player has are:

  • Walking

  • Climbing

  • Gliding and

  • Shield Surfing

(Horseback riding and swimming are excluded since they are dependent on other factors). These traversal abilities dictate where the player can go and based on them, it is clear that the player can get to many places as long as their stamina permits. They can climb to the top of any mountain, swim across any body of water, fall from any height. But when the player has such wide coverage in a three dimensional space, how is it that they go where designer’s want them to go? Thinking of the core traversal abilities a little deeper, there are limitations to them.

  • Walking is the baseline for the player. As long as they’re on solid ground, they can move along it. However, the player cannot walk along a slope too steep, as they will either automatically climb up onto it if they’re ascending, or fall downwards if descending.

  • The player can climb, which provides a straightforward path from A to B, but at the cost of several other factors. The player moves much slower as they climb, resulting in a drastic change of pace. The player can only see the object that they’re climbing, resulting in less visual information on where they’re going. And finally, the player must now manage their stamina, introducing the risk that they could lose their progress or get injured.

  • Gliding is the fastest way to traverse, given that the player can activate it by being midair and high enough off the ground. The cost of this is that the player gradually loses height. The stamina depletion of gliding is relatively low.

  • Shield Surfing is like gliding, although can only be initiated along the ground. The player only gains momentum if they’re going downhill, and can continue for as long as they are going downwards and their shield is intact.

What do all of these traversal capabilities have in common? It's the fact that going down is easier than going up. When the player is tasked with getting to a certain location, along the way they will naturally find themselves going downwards based on their traversal abilities. They will tend to use the Paraglider whenever available for the increase in speed, or run along paths. They will only climb when an obstacle directly obstructs the path where they want to go and no other path is visible/viable. The player will be choosing to go down much more often than up, because the traversal abilities correlate down with forward. Additionally since going upwards is much more difficult, it becomes a much weightier choice whether the player wants to spend time or resources going over obstacles instead of around them. While keeping this in mind, Nintendo had designed Hyrule to guide the player to key locations by ensuring that each spot is situated in a sunken area of the map.

Looking at the game specifically now, If the main goals of Breath of the Wild is to conquer all 4 Divine Beasts, then the player must go to each location that allows you to access them. These locations are:

  • Zora’s Domain

  • Rito’s Village

  • Goron City

  • Gerudo Town

Below is a height map created by Kevin Jensen (zephenryus on GitHub), where the lighter the area is, the higher up it is. Marking over certain spots, I noted the key locations mentioned earlier and their relative heights toward their surroundings. Due to the nature of a height map, all heights are represented as a percentage where 0 is the lowest part of the map, and 100 is the highest.

By looking at the topography of Hyrule, all of these locations share a trait; they are much lower than their surroundings. Either in a valley or plain, important locations are never on a peak or summit.

Zora’s Domain is on a lake inside a crater like cavity.

Rito’s village is on a rocky tower surrounded by a sunken lake surrounded by mountains.

Goron City-- while on the side of Death Mountain--is inside a small crevasse and is considerably lower than Death Mountain itself.

Finally, Gerudo Town is laid plainly in the middle of a flat desert surrounded by mountains and plateaus.

All of these areas are accessible in two ways; follow the path there by sticking to main roads, or by traversing obstacles off of the main path. However, the main paths that are taken also follow the rule of being lowered, as many of them cut through mountains like the path through Gerudo Canyon or provide an easily walkable path to key areas such as along the Zora River.

With this level design philosophy, Nintendo has made an effective technique to guide players to crucial points of interest. It is so simple, as gravity is something that many players take for granted and by using it as a way for the player to move forward, Nintendo not only created an experience where the player is naturally guided by their environment, but also made the game so much more immersive by choosing not to rely on HUD and map UI as heavily as other open world titles.

By utilizing this elegant, yet powerful technique, Nintendo shows just how much thought goes into every facet of its game's designs.


Triangle Approach

Font used in images

Height map of Hyrule


This article was written originally for my blog, found here.

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