Thanks to PushDustIn and Cart Boy for edits.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild opens with an implicit promise. You quietly awake from a long sleep, stumbling through the dark to find a shirt, pants, and a mysterious touch screen device that acts as the light in Plato’s cave. Passing through Jōmon architecture and climbing a short rock wall showers you in blinding sunlight – an entrance. You jog from the dilapidated shrine out onto a patch of ground, one that quickly ends as a high cliff face. From that position, the opening bars of the game’s quiet, haunting theme play as the camera pans, presenting to you the massive land of Hyrule. What the game says is clear: all of this is yours to explore. All of this is reachable. And, importantly, it’s a world of massive, imposing mountains and cliffs and valleys and ruins; verticality is emphasized, just as much as breadth.
Much has been said about the insane amount of freedom Breath of the Wild provides, and while I’ve little interest in repeating those statements, it’s still a fundamental, defining part of the experience. As much as the game is a throwback to the original Legend of Zelda on NES, in many ways it even exceeds even the original’s extreme nonlinearity. The only requirements to beating the game are to finish a tutorial that introduces you to the dungeon-like shrines and how exploration works, and to defeat the final boss in Hyrule Castle. All other dungeons, shrines, locations, quests, towers, and tools are at your own discretion to find. The game does have a critical path with a series of main quests, but they are liberal in if, how, when, and in what order you follow each one.
But the game doesn’t just dump players onto a map and wash its hands of them. Look more deeply into how the world is laid out, and you can see a surprising number of paths, some subtler than others, that help players orient and teach themselves. Most quests abstain from giving players directions, demanding they read the detailed environment for clues. “Choke points” of far tougher enemies dot a map covered with memorable landmarks and mountains and ruins, encouraging less skilled or confident players to go around them or try their hand at fighting. Mountains of differing sizes often have “safe zones” where they can refill their stamina meter before continuing their ascent. Even the critical paths to get through each of the main quests provide all sorts of branching paths, potential for secrets to be hidden away. And as you follow whatever route you’ve made for yourself, it becomes impossible to not break off and chase the next thing that just barely captures your eye.
Readers at this point may be wondering where this article is going; it’s been two paragraphs, and I’ve not mentioned any sort of triangle (it’s especially egregious considering how it references the Triforce, the longstanding Zelda staple that’s otherwise absent in Breath of the Wild). But all of these features of the game are tied together by something known informally as a “triangle rule.” During a presentation at the Computer Entertainment Developers Conferences in Japan, director Fujibayashi Hideyuro and lead artist Makoto Yonezu explained that a fundamental part of the game’s development was imagining each physical obstacle as a triangle, with players being able to interact with it by going either over or around it. Furthermore, these obstruct the player’s vision, meaning they can hide exciting surprises for anyone who crosses them. It’s no coincidence that Hyrule is so intensely mountainous, beyond being inspired by Japanese (and particularly Kyoto) geography; it’s a world filled with these features to challenge, entice, and surprise players. So many of its most memorable moments come from finding puzzles, cities, creatures, and entire biomes obscured by ridges and valleys. Even some of the features themselves can pique players’ curiosity, like the mysterious Akkala Citadel and Thyphlo Ruins, locations entirely separate from the game’s main objectives. The final dungeon, Hyrule Castle, functions in the same way: the surrounding Hyrule Field is one of the rare parts of the map with mostly smaller features, but the castle itself and the surrounding ruins are filled with structures of all sorts, constantly obscuring hidden rooms and secrets that make the area as compelling as any other part of the map.
And all these walls and mountains and environmental types creates an element that is of paramount importance to the game, and that’s verticality. Because more than “run” or “slash” or even “explore,” the primary verb in this Zelda is “climb.” Link can clamber up almost any surface in the game, and the massive amount of freedom that opens is almost incalculable. Most games, even ones that tout their freedom, still exploit invisible walls and blocked-off sections; not Zelda (again, outside of interior dungeons and an opening tutorial). When starting out for the first time, it’s hard to even fully conceive of how much power that gives the player, to the point where it’s easy to understand why some have found it too overwhelming. You’re never bound by roads or cliffs or barriers, because every single one can be overcome. The game never complains about you leaving the “right” part of the map to explore like in Assassin’s Creed or Mass Effect: Andromeda – every part has to potentially be the right one. And it also means that every outdoor thing with which you interact must be able to be walked around, over, or in some cases through.
A sizable benefit of putting the climbing and open-ended focus front and center is that it gives the game an important degree of consistency. Every surface that isn’t a clay wall used in shrines and dungeons can be climbed, and you almost never find situations outside in which the game forces you into a certain pattern of movement. Zelda, far more often than not, caters to the mechanic and makes sure to have environments in which things aren’t just randomly out of reach. You absolutely can climb to the top of the fish statue covering Zora’s Domain; there’s even a small puzzle there for anyone who does. A “paraglider” that rewards climbing by providing a way to quickly move great distances helps as well, ensuring the mechanic can always be trusted and hypotheses can be tested reliably. In addition, the excitement of getting to the top and the tactile sensation of moving makes climbing satisfying, so much so that when producer and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto played the prototype, he spent all his time just climbing trees.
One important tenet of the Triangle rule is that all these obstacles have to be of different sizes, to create incredible geographical diversity that catch players’ eyes. It’s a big part of why it’s easy to just get lost in the game, because it always feels like there has to be something around each corner. Often, there is – the nine hundred Korok puzzles may only have a few variances in type and structure, but they act as both rewards and small challenges for environmental study. That’s the central gameplay loop: you work to larger goals, but keep going out of the way for smaller ones as you do. And players can feel safer doing so, both because those larger or more distinct structures act as landmarks for developing a mental map, and because they can’t block your path. You can see this loop in almost every part of the game, where exploration and discovery beget only more of the same and become their own reward.
This is a freedom that could only function with a minimalist narrative. Breath of the Wild does not have the most compelling plot, characters, or performances, but what it has is the story, the experience of being Link and learning, struggling with, and ultimately understanding this gorgeous, harsh land. A stricter path that would see him growing in predetermined fashion would both be redundant and clash with the emphasis on total freedom that is the game’s identity. This isn’t to decry linear sandboxes – or linear games at all – but Zelda recognizes the central issue with massive worlds that present themselves as limitless but keep drawing players back with the leash of a conventional plot. That’s become a problem in recent years with a glut of open worlders that promise the world and end up using their incredible, massive spaces mostly to dump chores onto the player. While Breath of the Wild loses out on a more narratively strong story, like this year’s NieR: Automata or What Remains of Edith Finch, it also capitalizes on a sensation every open world game chases, that canned line that “you can climb that mountain in the distance.” By 2017 it was long a cliché, but Zelda absolutely deserves it.
One of the most impressive parts of Breath of the Wild is how it uses larger systems to create freedom rather than relying solely on the size of its world. The extensive “chemistry system,” in which elements like fire, wind, rain, and ice can interact with objects and each other, opens the game up to constant experimentation. The various “runes” – powers that replace the various auxiliary weapons of Zelda games old – rarely exist to only solve one kind of puzzle but can be a solution to a variety of problems, and the distinction is deliberate. These separate mechanics and ideas and techniques all bounce off each other, and their reliability means trying new things rarely feels discouraged. And the height may be the most important system of all, because it’s both mechanically and thematically central to the game. Think back to that idea about being able to go to an object or around it. Think about how you can skip almost every part of the game, or just the “intended” path to those parts. More than any other part, the ability of Zelda to be whatever you make of it comes through with climbing. Almost any obstacle isn’t just an obstacle, it’s a challenge to get to the top.
And “challenge” is also important, because Breath of the Wild is a difficult game. It’s not a punishing or onerous one, thanks to a liberal auto-save system and situations that usually allow a variety of responses or solutions, but it is tough. Enemies are strong, the elements hurt you without clothing or food to account for them, inclement weather is a threat, and improving your health or tools requires exploration. And the climbing itself isn’t just a button that lets you go from the bottom of a wall to the top; it’s an actual skill to learn, and a challenge that matches how far you go with a comparable threat. A generous but ticking stamina meter (that even accounts for the severity of the climb, with more extreme inclines drawing more) means you have to plan for longer climbs, using stamina replenishing potions or trying to find alcoves to lie in while the meter fills back. This turns it into not merely another solution but an entirely different puzzle all on its own, an elegant system that rewards and pushes players constantly, often at the same time.
All these systems, ethos, challenge, and verticality are tied to the game’s obsession with “triangles.” They hide secret avenues and deadly encampments to create unique difficulty spikes and encourage players to push themselves. They allow those players to stumble onto so many different types of secrets naturally and subtly, often without them ever noticing the game’s hand at work. They create a wonderfully varied terrain that must be navigated in different ways, a gorgeous topographical diversity of autumnal forests, frozen steppes, stormy plains, and wide marshes. It makes sense how personal the experience feels without relying on systems like procedural generation or branching narrative paths; what drives the game is the player at every turn, powered by curiosity and excitement. That is the Triangle Rule, and more games could stand to take a look at not just Zelda’s openness, plethora of secrets, environmental interaction, and even its emphasis on height, but how those all work together to create a truly monumental adventure.