Design Choices of Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest games ever made, and one of the breakout hits of the Nintendo Switch platform, which is on its way to becoming one of the 10 most popular video game consoles of all time. But now, years after its release (and with a sequel on the way), one of the greatest offshoots of Breath of the Wild's  popularity is the abundance of deep and insightful analyses of the design choices Nintendo made in creating the game.

One incredible detail in BOTW is the sound design, both in the richness and complexity of the sounds used in the game, and especially in the dynamic music in the game. The music responding to a player's actions in the game feels as revelatory as the pioneering iMuse system from LucasArts did in the 90s, in allowing the music to adapt to a player's actions or the situation or environment that they find themselves experiencing.

Just as varied and complex is the character animation used in BOTW. There are an infinite number of animations that could be explored in this way, but specific deep dives are a particular interesting point of analysis, like this look into the climbing animations for Link.

More abstract, and closer to the aspects of interaction design that fascinate me most, is the exploration cycle of BOTW. Feeling "open" and undirected while still guiding and encouraging users to accomplish certain goals is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. This challenge is amplified by the immensity of the game world, as well as the choice to largely forgo text-based instruction or tutorial, or very obviously linear paths. "Hmm, I wonder what this is, it looks cool?" is one of the hardest feelings to generate in any interactive experience, game or app, and BOTW masters it.

Then there's the most remarkable, deep, and pervasive innovation of Breath of the Wild — the system of mechanics that govern everything in the game. BOTW is perhaps the best game ever, and one of the best digital experiences ever, in generating joy from enabling a person/user/player to try something out just for the sheer delight of seeing what happens, and then being rewarded by getting exactly what you expected. Trying to create a complete, comprehensible, consistent system that rewards explorers with delight is one of the hardest challenges in this kind of design. This is a great look at how such systems can be made.

There are also countless resources about the more traditional user interface elements of BOTW as well, from the menus and resource management to core tools like the map, and how it integrates with gameplay. This was a pretty serviceable explanation of what makes the map so smart.

There are, of course, a nearly infinite number of analyses and reviews of BOTW years after its release, with many of them diving deeper into the fan culture aspects of the game, like its story line, characterizations, and ties to both the in-game and real-world history of the franchise. None of those are of particular interest to me, but the breadth and enthusiasm of the serious critique, examination and interpretation of the game is a testament to the choices of its creators.

Truth be told, I'm not much of a gamer, and mostly only care about games enough to analyze why they make the choices they do. I certainly never had any interest in Zelda as a franchise, or swords-and-dragons crap in general. But this one got me. Even aside from the warmhearted feeling of watching my son explore his way through BOTW, this game sets its self apart to me as a master class in smart design choices, and in empowering users by giving them enough tools and context to find delight on their own terms. That's powerful, and empowering, and is more of what I hope to see in every other digital experience we have with all the apps and tools we use each day.