Why Breath of the Wild’s Empty Space is So Important – Writing on Games
Hi, I’m Hamish Black and welcome to Writing on Games. When you first pick up Breath of the Wild, one thing will probably become apparent to you—this world contains a whole lot of space. That title card when you awaken, staring at a seemingly endless expanse of green, is downright intimidating. Especially early on, when it’s just you and your limited stamina meter, it can feel like you’re going through a lot to get to where you need to be. Not in the sense that there’s too much to do, but more that a lot of this landscape feels kinda empty.
In fact, I have a feeling that a lot of people will end up complaining about this—in everything you do within the world of Breath of the Wild, there’s always a sense of space, of relative mechanical silence as you hit “up” on the analogue stick and just go… somewhere. Perhaps some might not jive with that. However, what this game does better than any other I’ve played in recent memory, is evoke that childlike sense of awe that comes from being absolutely dwarfed by your environment. It’s not simply geographical either—in a way very reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda on the NES, Link is a vessel for the player. You know as much about the state of this world as Link does, and as such, you want to find out more about it in the same way Link does. And so you explore.
You put in the work it takes to get where you want to go, because you have no idea what that place holds or even what that is in a lot of cases. Seemingly everything about the game incentivises this curiosity. Perhaps ironically, however, I feel that the main reason players want to explore this world so thoroughly is precisely because it can appear so barren at times. Part of the reason I think the joy has been sucked out of many open world games is that there’s no mystery to them.
You know exactly where you are, why you’re there, where you need to get to and what awaits you there. On your travels, you’ll find your map peppered with side objectives that only serve to pad your journey. These oft-meaningless distractions are suffocating, and read as if developers can’t trust the attention span of their players. You’re not solving anything, you’re ticking off errands on a checklist. Breath of the Wild, however, on a purely geographical level, realises the importance of dynamics. The main reason the discoveries you make in this world feel so significant is because there is so much empty space between them. Enemy encounters hide their telegraphing enough that their appearance instils a sense of panic in you—your quiet, reflective journey across the open world has suddenly been interrupted. You’ve been lulled into a false sense of security and jolted out by something you didn’t expect. When you’ve been traversing the desert for upwards of ten minutes only to suddenly find a ramp leading to a winding path up a cliff revealing multiple enemy encampments, you’re absolutely going to be interested in checking that out.
These vast stretches of seemingly nothing make the somethings you come across all the more impactful. When you come across an NPC riding along in the wilderness, you talk to them, precisely because the emptiness of the world makes you feel alone—it’s a nice surprise to find someone else making their own journey. It piques your curiosity—if I could suddenly make this fairly significant discovery in what seems like an innocuous location, who knows what I could find if I go in this direction or climb that mountain.
You feel like a pioneer—the ebb and flow of discovery destabilises your understanding of the world and, as such, you feel the desire to fill in the blanks. This curiosity is hammered home when you consider that this sense of space isn’t just apparent in the geography of the world—it’s in how the game refuses to readily give up the nuance of its workings to you. In other words, the space of Breath of the Wild is systems-deep. You of course get your basic controls, inventory systems, combat, etc., but aside from that the game is remarkably light on handholding. Take the towers, for instance—you climb them as you would in any Ubisoft game, for example, but here you’re not rewarded with a bombardment of meaningless side objectives on your map. These towers are just a useful vantage point you can use to examine the great distance before you. The points of interest aren’t highlighted—they’re just there, somewhere, waiting to be found. This shift in expected function of an open world trope is exemplified very early on where, atop the first tower, an old man tells you that you need to complete the trials of multiple shrines.
Whereas most games would have waypoints guiding your path, the only waypoint here guides you to the old man himself, where if you talk to him he’ll tell you to trust your instincts more. It’s up to you, from your vantage point, to seek out these shrines. It’s the developers showing faith in the player’s intelligence and desire for exploration, whilst also asserting confidently that “yeah, this objective is very far in the distance. Just trust us, you’ll probably find some dope stuff along the way.” It’s the same when, for example, certain photos you come across contain glimpses of locations pertinent to the story.
The game says “go find them”. Aside from a couple of discrete landmarks on show, you’ve got nothing. No waypoints, no hints, just a photograph which doesn’t tell you a whole lot. And so, you explore, keeping these discrete landmarks in the back of your mind as you go. It widens the focus of your quest from one specific, clearly defined objective to, more generally, attaining a better grasp on the world. As far as objective design goes, it’s spacious—just like this sense of space is not only apparent in the world’s geography, the sense of exploration is not only about the places you come across. It’s about piecing together the stories these places carry. I’ve already talked in previous videos about how open worlds can be more important thematically than they are mechanically—that they don’t need to offer the player a million things to do at all times, nor that they even need to allow you to do whatever you want.
The open world can be its own storytelling device, using objects in the environment (or lack thereof) to give you a better understanding as to the state of the world. Shadow of the Colossus, a game which shares several features with Breath of the Wild, is a great example of that. It’s technically an open world, in that you can go anywhere you want, but you always have an objective to take down. There’s no real point to exploring the world here other than to collect the occasional boost to your grip meter, but you do ride through it for vast stretches of time to reach your objective. In doing so, the game gets you to ask *why* you’re being made to do this, and as you wander past the occasional shattered building, a remnant of a once bustling metropolis, you’re forced to consider what happened to this world to make it this… empty.
It’s from there that the real narrative meat of that game begins to rear its head. In much the same way, Breath of the Wild’s vast swathes of empty land encourage you to ask the same question. You’re given multiple visual cues suggesting a once great civilisation brought low by some calamity, but ultimately your one objective is clear from near enough the start—“destroy Ganon” graces your quest log as if that’s something you could just stroll up and do, without once feeling the need to tell you how to do it.
And yet, that is something you’re welcome to try if you’re feeling bold. You’ll get your ass handed to you even by the lower level enemies on the way, but there’s nothing stopping you. The castle stands out as one of the few distinct landmarks in the distance, so why wouldn’t you try? Hell, if you get killed, you choose a different direction to go in, and you go. The game tells you next to nothing about the secrets of this world, so you want to uncover everything about it.
And it’s because Breath of the Wild trusts your patience enough to have you navigate a bunch of empty space without much in the way to guide you, that it’s made me feel compelled to explore its vast landscape more than any open world game in recent memory—and that rare sense of childlike curiosity is pretty damn special. So I hope you enjoyed my piece on how Breath of the Wild uses space to encourage exploration. I am loving the hell out of this game right now and can’t wait to get back to it after finishing this video. If you’re into what I’m doing, why not check out the Patreon and get access to goodies like these lovely folks appearing on screen now? If you’re a patron of my work then you are absolutely making this show possible and I cannot thank you enough. There’s almost 100 of you now which is kinda scary to me—when I started the Patreon I could have never anticipated this level of support, so thank you so much.
As a final aside, why not check out the podcast I do with my friend Nico where we laugh about how dumb games are? It’s a super fun thing for me to do, so it’s cool so many of you seem to be into it. But that’s enough rambling from me. I’m Hamish Black and this has been Writing on Games—thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next time.
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