How Zelda and Horizon fix open worlds in very different ways
How do you fix open world games?
Once, long ago, the answer was to constantly give the player stuff to do. "Thou shalt not be idle" became the overriding commandment for open world games, or sandbox games, or GTA clones, or whatever they've been called (erroneously or otherwise) since David Braben's Elite popularised the concept about 13 years before Grand Theft Auto became its de facto blueprint. Open world is big business, so big that the term has perhaps outgrown its use as a genre description, in the same way that the words 'action adventure' tell us absolutely nothing useful about any game they're used to describe.
We can't get enough of open worlds. But, in recent years, everyone started to get tired of them. After hundreds of Assassin's Creeds, Saints Rows, Fallouts, Skyrims and No Man's Skies, countless millions of collectibles fetched, consumables crafted and towers climbed, a sense of fatigue has - inevitably - started to creep in. Buying an open world game often feels like paying money to do a second job, one they have to work through in eight hour shifts. People used to crave realism in video games, but this isn't what they had in mind.
So when Horizon Zero Dawn was teased back at E3 2015, the collective sigh could have shattered boulders. Despite its imaginative setting, it looked set to be a particularly Ubisoft affair - Far Cry but with primitive tribes, archery, and mechanical dinosaurs. All things which, funnily enough, Far Cry had already done. Many of us wrote it off as just another open-worlder, which has come to mean an unrelenting churn of side-content that leaves us hollow, and yearning for something more meaningful to connect with.
A notable exception is Nintendo's Zelda series. Starting off as a rare early example of non-linear game design its formula, though continually reinvented and refined through every era of console hardware, has been resistant to the cultural shifts happening around it. Its traditions were iron-clad, and almost every entry would run to the same script, with standardised elements in the structure of their overworlds, their dungeons and enemy types.
So, in typical Nintendo fashion, Zelda has always insisted on doing its own thing while everyone else was busy making Ubisoft games (especially Ubisoft, which makes most of the Ubisoft games). The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild breaks that tradition by being a Zelda inspired, to some degree, by things like Skyrim and Assassin's Creed; games that have had an immeasurable role in shaping our modern expectations. It reinforces the same tradition, however, by leapfrogging everyone else's designs and just doing them better.
Breath of the Wild borrows so much from the normal open world recipe that it even makes you climb towers to reveal portions of the map, a trope so overdone that it's become a running joke, so embarrassingly cliched that even Ubisoft, its inventor, has started to pack it in (it mercifully failed to make an appearance in the brilliant Watch Dogs 2 last year).
But somehow, Zelda takes a mechanic that has become a poster-child for open world ennui, and makes it fresh. It's all in the execution - they aren't excessive in number (14 compared to the 66 found in Assassin's Creed 2), they're visible and taggable from miles away and so never feel like much of a chore to get to, and getting to the top of one doesn't take 400 years. They're bite-sized, manageable, and never obnoxious. Zelda isn't in the habit of disrespecting your time; its dungeons are short and sweet - usually focusing on one particular gimmick, and rarely having more than a handful of puzzles to solve or enemies to defeat.
Little and often is Breath of the Wild's mantra. This is the secret of its success, and the key to it being as enjoyable in stolen five-minute chunks as it is in gluttonous eight-hour sessions. No piece of it has to be eaten whole. This is perhaps as a result of its lead platform being a hybrid of home console and handheld, but it makes for a better open world game. It rarely gives you that dreadful sense that you're putting in another gruelling shift at the achievement factory, as so many games of its type do.
Horizon Zero Dawn does not take this approach to solving the open world problem. Instead, it borrows a much older trick from the Zelda playbook: it never stops opening up.
Horizon, in stark contrast with Breath of the Wild, is not designed to be picked up for five minutes and put down again. It's unashamedly a long-haul game, complete with a prologue that shows us its protagonist's journey from newborn to young adult (it's not as obnoxious as Assassin's Creed 3's Ben Hur-length introduction, but it's meaty enough). Once you're out in the wild, your toolset and the roster of enemies you use it on start to expand. Barely an hour goes by without encountering a new machine type, environment, ability, or weapon.
In itself, this is hardly unique. But the pacing is damn near perfect, and Horizon isn't obsessed with busywork like other games of its type. Side-quests and mains are bunched up by area, meaning you can complete several of the former while on the way to the objectives of the latter without any meticulous forward planning. It too has towers, in the form of machines called "Tallnecks", which are giant brontosaurus-giraffe things with dinner-plate hats that constantly move, and aren't immediately accessible. Figuring out how to mount one is an environmental puzzle in itself, which makes them actually fun to do. And there's only seven of them.
That Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild came out within days of each other feels like a moment of cosmic alignment. As if two development teams working in secret on opposite sides of the globe identified the same problems with open world games, set out to fix them, and came up with roughly similar solutions - in both cases, their success comes from rebalancing the workload, taking care to feed the player things to do at a rate that sustains their joy instead of cancelling it out.
There's a crossover in themes, too; both games depict a world rebuilding itself after a mechanical apocalypse. They're both headed by exceptional protagonists, who are aided in their hero's journey by fantasy technology that's analogous to the kinds of smart devices we use in the real world. And, their success depends on planning and skillful improvisation rather than how much ammo they can throw at the problem.
The most pointed difference between them is in how the main character is treated by their respective societies. Link is given a hero's welcome wherever he goes; the denizens of Hyrule fall over themselves to toss him off for being their prophesied saviour. He always gets the champagne reception, while Aloy has to make do with half a can of special brew and lip from the bouncer. She's an outcast, a loner, and nobody is falling over themselves to do anything other than tell her to sod off. Circumstance has made Aloy a hero, not fate.
You could say that Horizon is cynical where Zelda is optimistic, but that's not quite right - Zelda is a storybook glen, a land of clear-cut morality where people who chop wood are good and decent people who chop wood, and the monsters slain by Link are good and decent monsters who know fine and well that their role is be cut down by heroes on their way to save princesses. It's classical and pure, but there's no optimism to be found once you dig beneath the beauty of it; it's etched into Zelda lore that no saviour is successful for very long, and that Hyrule is subject to an endless cycle of hope and devastation.
Horizon is pessimistic, and harsh. It depicts people as they actually are - bastards, basically. An apocalypse wrought by a ravaging of nature has left the human race fearful of progress, suspicious of each other, unwilling to seek the very knowledge they need to rebuild civilisation and turn the tide against that which oppresses them. If Breath of the Wild is a beloved Studio Ghibli film, Horizon Zero Dawn is the gritty, Gareth Edwards remake; but it glimmers with hope, in the way it shows humanity's strength, its drive to build communities while staring down oblivion. It shows us how we will endure, how humankind anchors itself in the now instead of floating adrift in prophecy.
Every video game is a product of ones that came before it, and this is no less true for Horizon and Zelda. But these two are special in that they bring the genre forward by fixing the sins of the past; to varying degrees of success, but all in an upward trajectory. Each of them comes from an unexpected place. Nintendo is, well, it's Nintendo, and Guerilla Games has spent all its time until now making 7/10 shooting games. It seems a fresh perspective is exactly the shot in the arm that the genre needed.
It's an outrageous thought, that a thirty year-old Nintendo franchise and a newcomer from the people who made Killzone would be two of the most important open world games of 2017. But they are, and perhaps that alone illustrates how much rot had set into the genre.
I hope they can fix RPGs next.