There’s a moment in most video games where the player bumps, with sinking heart, against the limits of what a game can do. Open a door where the designers haven’t programmed an interior, scale a mountain you're not supposed to climb, or interact with the world in a way that hasn’t been preordained, and you’ll be abruptly reminded, as your avatar runs desperately on the spot, that freedom in these virtual environments is often just an illusion. Want to explore the wrong bit of an “Assassin’s Creed” level? Divert from a mission in “Grand Theft Auto V”? Chop wood or light fires in the glacial wastes of “Skyrim”? No chance.
I’ve spent a week now exploring “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”, the latest instalment of a 31-year-old series and the flagship game on Nintendo’s new Switch console, and I haven’t once felt this kind of limitation. “Go anywhere, do anything” has been a common boast for years in the field of open-world games – so called because they offer wide, explorable landscapes, rather than a sequence of discrete levels – but the promise has never been kept as faithfully as it is here.
As Link, the player character, awakes from his 100-year coma and is released into the rolling hills, volcanoes and icy tundra of the kingdom of Hyrule to rescue Princess Zelda, it’s not instantly easy to see the difference between this and other fantasy worlds. The opening area is a green wash of meadow studded with trees, lakes and ruins, where monsters squeak and gibber and a mysterious sage spouts a boilerplate narrative of ancient evil. So far, so generic.
After 15 minutes or so of pottering about, I walked my character up to a tree by a river with an axe embedded in its trunk. At this point, the strange, unbounded cunning of “Breath of the Wild” began to unfold. Armed with his woodsman’s axe, he hewed away at another tree; it toppled and thundered down a nearby hill, deftly squishing two capering monsters below. Later, as he longingly contemplated a raft that waited at the end of a ruined jetty, I had him hack down another pair of saplings and float them downstream to make an impromptu bridge.
Traditionally, open-world games have been about landscape and spectacle. From the studious recreations of American cities in “Grand Theft Auto” and “Watch_Dogs” to the island paradises in “Just Cause” and “Far Cry”, their spaces offer aesthetically dazzling backdrops, hand-crafted with zeal and application, against which the more complex game systems – combat, artificial intelligence, driving – can interact. At the other end of the spectrum are games like “Minecraft”, in which entire worlds are generated from intersecting mathematical formulae and can then be assembled or taken apart, block after block, by the player.
“Breath of the Wild” combines elements from both traditions to create a living world of amazing complexity and charm. After the most cursory of tutorials, it looses the player on the world with no restrictions on movement or choice. Any physical surface can be climbed. Anything liquid can be frozen. Anything metal can be magnetised. Anything flammable can be set alight. Go forth, it says; experiment and explore.
This challenge capsizes many of the assumptions that have underpinned video games from the beginning. No parts of the landscape are locked off from the player until they acquire an item or a power. Its puzzles are designed to be solvable with tools that the player receives in the first hour, and there’s nothing to stop people from proceeding straight to the game’s final confrontation as soon as they leave the tutorial. But it’s the journey that counts. Exploring this peerlessly designed world full of secrets and treasures, that bends at every minute to the whims of interaction and choice, is a reward in itself.
At times, the storytelling potential feels genuinely futuristic. The player creates unique micro-stories, their plot determined by collisions and interactions. Once, passing a ruined battlefield, my character surprised a group of unarmed enemies snoozing by a campfire. One of them woke up, dashed over to a nearby clearing and yanked a sword from the soil; his larger companion cast desperately about for a moment then snatched up his friend to use as an impromptu missile. Another time, surrounded by monsters firing jets of fire, the character unfurled a parachute and ascended to freedom on the updraft from burning grass below. Then there was the time he hoisted himself to an impassable platform by pinning inflatable balloons to a box. On one memorable occasion he ascended a waterfall by zapping the falling water into steps of ice.
And I haven’t even touched on the cookery, the forests buzzing with insects and rustling with animals, the palace-sized, ornate, explorable mechanical creatures, or the hundreds of other delights to be found on the long wander through “Breath of the Wild”. It’s a positive delight; a bottomless toy box. If it influences even a fraction of the future designers who play it, the future of gaming looks very bright indeed.