April 13, 2017
Today I supply a simple query (as you have likely gathered from the title of this piece) that has perplexed me since the game’s release. With my personal opinion of the series, there is a terrifying temptation to simply state that Breath of the Wild is the greatest open world game of all time with no reason beyond being the only one with the Zelda logo on the package. To be fair, I have personally found fascination in open world games and their emphasis on exploration since my eyes were opened to the concept by Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and have experienced numerous like titles which gamers glorify with endless esteem. Over the course of several generations in other series, I have discovered where my desire derives to engage this sort of game, and therefore I believe that without bias, I can decide whether or not Breath of the Wild does in fact have the greatest open world in a video game.
Among the quickest quandaries to question when observing such a world is “How big is it?” Unfortunately that answer is not clear, as nobody has yet made an exact calculation, however estimates based on pre launch experiences from several sites generally estimate upwards of three hundred fifty square kilometers, or about a Skyrim and a half. That said, I have said since it first released five years ago that this particular world felt insignificant compared to its predecessor, Morrowind. Boasting a game world in which a character could take literal days to travel between certain points on foot, Breath of the Wild is dwarfed at least as much as it dwarfs Skyrim.
I could go on about how the two Elder Scrolls titles preceding Morrowind were even larger. This all considered, though, does it mean that Skyrim was too small and Morrowind too large? Of course not. The world of Morrowind was never inaccessible since it made use of a logical fast travel system wherein players could pay a mage to teleport them, purchase a ticket for a ferry boat, or use a service known as the Silt Strider, because everybody wants to ride on the back of a forty foot tall beetle. Obversely, Skyrim had to forgo size in order to make way for the new generation consoles’ high definition graphics and full voice acting. Likewise, Breath of the Wild is not the perfect scale because Eiji Aonuma mathematically calculated what was too large and small, and I do not believe such a scale even exists.
Once you hit a certain threshold, it ceases to matter because the world must be not just large, but vibrant and interesting. All three examples here have hit the minimum size threshold (in my opinion) to make a good open-world experience, but they had to focus different aspects of their own games due to technology at the time of their development, the individual games’ needs, and the desires of the programmers.
Forget the last three paragraphs ever happened because they just proved (while making an argument for the importance of size) that size does not matter. Well okay, don’t forget them, they did make a point, but now we must move on to a point which can actually sway this battle one way or another. The most easily distinguishable difference is the way each title presents the story. Taking Skyrim as a good starting point, having over forty game of the year awards to its name, we can look at how the two worlds (which incidentally, Two Worlds another decent open world game) differ and whether or not the impact caused is positive.
In Skyrim, players must travel to point A, B, C, and so on in the correct order, thus exploring a veritable variety of locales, and after completing each requisite task, the story presents itself. In Breath of the Wild, you are led on a nonlinear path through points A through D, then instructed that points E through Y can be completed, making point Z a less trying task and left to your own devices. Nothing is inherently incorrect about either method, however the latter leaves linearity forgotten in favor of freedom. If one player approaches the game in exactly the same way as another, are either of them truly exploring? The latest Zelda title presents a unique opportunity for exploration to every player by eliminating inhibitive elements which have been a plague on my personal preference for years. I have even decried previous Zelda titles for linear dungeon design, so of course I would give this point to Breath of the Wild.
I would direct attention to Morrowind once again, as the linearity issue is not one I experienced to its descendant’s extent. The story, strictly speaking, was presented in a straightforward fashion which allowed players to simply follow one quest cue to the next until they had completed it, however at every opportunity available, the game incited a series of alternate routes to traverse. A good example is in Balmora, the second major city players visit (assuming they are directly following the main story) the player’s character delivers a package to a man who basically tells you “You are too low level to do the next part without some difficulty. Go grind experience and come back.” His exact suggestion is to go across town and see if the Fighters’ Guild or the Mages’ Guild have work, but the implication is not difficult to extrapolate. In this sense, the exploration is not hindered because you may spend as much or as little time as you like questing with either guild, the hidden Thieves’ Guild, join the town guard, or as my personal experience went, sell the package you were supposed to deliver to the vendor in the first town, buy an axe and wander around searching for unique items.
Morrowind’s story suffered from this in my experience since it was never as interesting as whatever other drama was occurring in a random side quest or Guild quest, or even a man standing in the river because Hainab stole his pants. In the end I have never even completed, or even made a good attempt. I have started new characters with that as my goal, but somewhere along the way I end up distracted and resume wanton exploration.
So Skyrim and Morrowind both suffer different problems with the story based on their different approaches, but what of the subject at hand? Is Breath of the Wild really better because it does things its own way? In terms of story, I believe so since it is never intrusive, but always easily accessible. This is only one part of a game, though, and in an open world game, it is very rarely the focus. However, this way of presenting the story is a huge bonus in favor of Breath of the Wild winning this award.
Beyond the method of story presentation, what goes into making an open world great? Obviously the explorability is something to be taken into account, but how do you really rate explorability in a game? Is it just having a cool thing to discover in every inch of the game map? Or is it a false realism that makes you feel like you’re exploring a real place? I think these two ideas are intertwined and without both elements, the world is just less interesting to explore. If a world does not include enough to do or find, it can feel like wandering around an empty field, but even with enough content spread throughout the world, it must all fit together seamlessly and sensibly, otherwise the immersion will be lost.
So how do games fare on this front? It is the general consensus from the gaming community that Breath of the Wild has achieved that which I just described, but did any other game succeed? I would put forth another game yet unmentioned, Fallout New Vegas. Once you get past the glitches, the post-apocalyptic wastelands wrought of Nevada are detailed at least as fully as any other game world, if not more so. The ruins of old towns feel as empty and depressing as they should, awakening a “What happened here?” feeling every time. The few functioning towns and characters create a picture of survivors barely scraping by, overcoming oppression as much from bandits as the land itself. Returning to Morrowind, a similar situation applies. Throughout the land are scattered mines, caves, ruins, and towns in awesome abundance. In addition, nearly every non-player character has a name and a story behind why they are where they are, even if they are programmed a single sentence of text. The discoveries are endless in both titles, and Breath of the Wild, while crazily close, fails this fight.
Now to pick a winner. I would choose Breath of the Wild for as many reasons as I would any other game, but cannot say it is the best. It does things its own way, which may make it my favorite open-world game overall, however as we’ve investigated here, too many other game worlds have as much in their favor, and I haven’t even touched on many other games such as Grand Theft Auto V or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, so objectively I do not think anyone can say there is a “best” open-world. All of the opinions I’ve shared here are subjective anyway, so even if I had decided Zelda was the best, that wouldn’t make it fact.
So my deepest apologies for luring you in with a deceptive opening only to leave my initial question unanswered, but I’d like to turn it over to you. What are your favorite aspects of open-world games? Did I neglect a game you think would be relevant to this discussion? We all have different opinions and I’d really like this to be the starting point of a conversation rather than a statement of my belief superceding yours, so let me know in the comments!