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Link riding his motorbike in the Nintendo Game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

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Breath of the Wild is one of the best games of this decade, and perhaps the most impactful of the next decade

Here’s to the next decade of open-world gaming

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I turned The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on for the first time in two years this summer. It was mostly on a whim, to ride around Hyrule’s verdant fields uninterrupted. I was feeling anxious, which I’d normally cure with a walk outdoors, but New York City’s swampy August humidity kept me inside. In my mind, the brilliant foliage and varied landscapes available to Link would be an acceptable substitute to an actual park.

I thought I’d already wrung everything from Breath of the Wild during my 120-odd hours with the game, or at least everything I wanted to get out of it. But just an hour or so after I started, my aimless wandering led me to the southeast corner of the map, following the line of a coast I maybe had ignored before. That’s when I stumbled onto Lurelin Village, tucked back in a cove, a beachfront community inspired by tropical fishing villages.

“How did I miss all this?” I wondered as I puttered around, chasing crabs and attempting to retrieve treasure from the depths of the calm, crystal-clear water.

Just over the next hill

Finding Lurelin isn’t essential to completing Breath of the Wild. There isn’t a special set of armor hidden there, or a rare item I couldn’t get in other spots. It’s just a picturesque place tucked away into one corner of Hyrule’s vast reaches. Which is what makes its inclusion all the more fascinating, when you step back and consider it. Many things in Breath of the Wild don’t serve a purpose beyond making Hyrule feel rich and lived-in. They don’t fill up a completionist checklist in a quest log. Instead, they simply reward the player’s curiosity.

Breath of the Wild set a new standard for exploration-heavy open-world games. No NPCs are in your ear, telling you which direction to go in to get to the next town or the next objective. It doesn’t rely on waypoints (unless the player sets one themselves). My map is never littered with quest objectives.

Breath of the Wild bucks many of the trends from recently released Zelda games, but also subverts all the open-world hallmarks that came before it. Its world is so reactive and expansive that it set a new standard for players. And that new standard is changing how games are made.

Developers love to promise that you can “play your own way,” but that often isn’t the case. There are still the “best” routes or play styles that will be rewarded in-game, either by earning experience points or another drip of narrative. But, by designing around player curiosity and offering rewards with every detour — tangible or intangible; sometimes a stunning view is all the reward I need — Nintendo liberated the journey itself from the traditional game cycle. For me, playing Breath of the Wild became more about true exploration, about following my gut whenever something on the horizon outweighed Link’s to-do list.

Nintendo’s deliberate design choices bolster this freedom. Breath of the Wild’s director, Hidemaro Fujibayashi, revealed during a 2017 GDC talk how he’d tried to design for more open, “active” play. He asked the game’s technical director to design a simple 2D version that mirrored the original The Legend of Zelda for NES. The prototype, Fujibayashi hoped, would help the team translate this new Zelda experience from a passive one — you can only take one route forward, and each dungeon can only be solved with its matching item — to more self-directed, active play.

“I wanted to create a game where the user could truly experience freedom in this play field, and a sense of adventure again and again, as they freely navigate through it,” Fujibayashi said at the time. “When I started to think this way, the NES Zelda came to mind. Every time the screen scrolled, there was a new discovery to be made.”

Of course, Nintendo also had to make it appealing to stray from that fixed path. Breath of the Wild’s landscapes vary enough to include a continent’s worth of natural features. Staring off into the horizon always would guarantee I’d see something else I’d want to chase down. Part of that is simple geometry, according to the developers. Triangles dotted across the horizon offer tantalizing objects, but also choice. Should I go up the hill to see another spectacular view, or around it to explore some woods or a valley? Those triangles, whether they’re small hills or looming Mount Lanayru, also obscure other things from view, meaning the developers could hide secrets just over the next ridge.

The in-game map could also spur curiosity. It feels closer to a real cartographer’s map, instead of being cluttered by game objective markers for main quests and side quests. Often, Breath of the Wild’s characters (or a book at the back of an inn) might suggest I look for a natural feature to start a quest: the meadow just outside of town, a lake shaped like a heart. These breadcrumbs felt more natural and lifelike, especially in Hyrule, a world free of smartphones where I can’t drop a pin in Google Maps on places I want to visit.

While Breath of the Wild was a bold step forward in limitless choice, we haven’t seen many games follow in its footsteps — at least, not yet. But some smaller games have already taken cues from it.

Her Story creator Sam Barlow talked openly in many interviews about how his newest project, Telling Lies, was inspired by Breath of the Wild. While that game isn’t about exploration in a traditional sense, it asks players to pore through dozens of hours of video footage. Each word an actor utters is indexed, and I only need to click on a more compelling noun to turn away from what I was originally doing to find a more interesting trail.

“The comparison [I always make is that] walking or running towards something interesting in Zelda was, in itself, interesting and enjoyable,” Barlow told me at GDC this year. “It was not like some open-world games where I’m going from A to B because I have to. I wanted to figure out how to make scrubbing through these videos the equivalent of running through a field in Zelda. The journey should be enjoyable.”

Barlow did succeed in that goal, as Telling Lies’ free-form structure means you can digest its story from many different starting points. Until the game’s narrative and mystery start to take shape, I’d hop from word to word in its in-game search engine, driven by instinct instead of following a checklist of requirements.

It’s only been two and a half years since Breath of the Wild’s release. There are plenty of games still in one stage of development or another whose creators have internalized these lessons, and it’s likely we’ll see many of them on next-generation consoles and beyond. It takes time for these design lessons to trickle down into other games, but my guess is that the future has already been heavily impacted by Breath of the Wild, even if we have yet to play the games that will make the most out of Nintendo’s latest masterpiece.

The most influential video games aren’t always the most popular, and rankings never tell the whole story. To mark the end of the decade, our editorial team published a list of the top 100 games. We’ve also created this supplemental series, in which individual Polygon writers get to talk about the most important games from that same period, and exactly how they changed the course of the industry.

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