Some quick thoughts on Zelda Breath of the Wild

I tweeted the above thoughts on Breath of The Wild after watching waaaaay too many hours of the Nintendo E3 Live Stream. Someone on Facebook asked me to elaborate, so here are my thoughts with a bit more unpacking. 

So Looking Glass Studios were the originators of the first person simulation genre with games like the original System Shock, Thief I & II, Ultima Underworld, etc.. A lot of the games that continued in that vein were made by ex-Looking Glass folks, the first Deus Ex, Bioshock, Dishonoured, etc. These games tend to try to simulate a lot of interesting interactions and prize player agency in creating their own solutions to problems. Enemies also tend to have more complex AI, with some simple emotional states and awareness of the world. However they can suffer from sticking too closely to reality, simulating things that just aren’t interesting and doing a lot of things but doing none of them particularly well (EG stealth in the original Deus Ex was an option but was terrible in practice).

Nintendo design tends toward elegant simplicity, they’ll build a game around a small number of mechanics and execute them really well, exploring a lot of the possible uses for them and making sure everything works well. Nothing is in there that doesn’t need to be. If there is a lot of content it usually doesn’t interact in as many ways as it would in a Looking Glass style game. Nintendo tend to focus on gameplay first rather than worrying about realism or coherent worlds. Puzzles often have a single solution and will sometimes block the player from using their own creative solutions (invisible walls in late stage Majora’s Mask dungeons I’m looking at you!). 

Both of these philosophies have strengths and weaknesses but what’s great about the mix in the new Zelda (based on what I’ve seen) is that they’re working together to make something with the strengths of both while removing the weaknesses. There’s some super robust simulation stuff going on but none of it feels needless or out of place. It’s not overly concerned with making these simulations realistic, so they can exaggerate them to create better, more interesting gameplay (EG spicy food protects you from the cold, carrying a metal sword increases your chance of being hit by lightning in a storm) and it has the level of gameplay polish and “game feel” you expect from Nintendo. 

A good example of a moment in the stream that felt pure Looking Glass style emergent gameplay was Link cutting some saplings to make sticks in a gale force wind. The wind carried the sticks into and through a campfire, setting them alight. The sticks then blew into a field of dry grass that caught fire and quickly spread, alerting a nearby encampment of enemies.

Zelda has flirted with emergent stuff for a long time but it’s never been this coherent and all encompassing, tending towards small one off touches that don’t interconnect above a certain level.

Fun side note. Looking Glass’s best, or at least most elegant games were probably Thief I & II, for which the designers have mentioned being highly influenced by Nintendo’s approach to design. 
In other news we’re Kickstarting a new game “Russian Subway Dogs” soon!