Speaking at GDC, Nintendo’s Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Satoru Takizawa, and Takuhiro Dohta revealed how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was born from a desire to break with the series’ long-standing conventions.
This is the first in our three-part report on the Breath of the Wild session from GDC 2017. The 90 minute talk was an extremely in-depth examination of the many decisions the development team made in creating Link’s latest adventure, so we’ll be breaking our coverage into three to ensure we cover as much of the detail as possible.
A new approach for Breath of the Wild
Hidemaro Fujibayashi has a long history with the Zelda franchise, having worked on titles including Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, and the Wii’s Skyward Sword. In taking the role of game director on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, he wanted to take a fresh approach that would discard many traditions from the long-running series.
As development of Breath of the Wild started, Fujibayashi asked himself what he wanted to do with a new Zelda title, and then, what did he need to do to make it happen?
“The key to answering these questions was in rediscovering the essence of what Zelda was and then breaking those conventions,” Fujibayashi says.
“What I wanted to accomplish with this new Zelda was to create a game where the user can truly experience freedom. This means a game where the user can think and decide on their own where they go and what they want to do.”
Taking this approach meant an entire rethink in how the world of Breath of the Wild would need to be envisaged and built. As Fujibayashi considered how to achieve his ambition he was reminded of the first Legend of Zelda game that was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. In particular found an appreciation in the way game would continually surprise the player.
“Every time the screen scrolled there was something new to discover,” Fujibayashi says. “I thought to myself, maybe what I need to do is go back to the essence.”
Creating a sense of freedom is one thing in a two-dimensional, 8-bit game, but another challenge entirely when applied to a complex three-dimensional game world.
The Zelda games are generally considered to be semi-open world but, as Fujibayashi explained, they are in fact tightly structured. For one thing, Zelda games usually have a predetermined sequence of events. Secondly, many of the environments act as impassable walls. The result is predetermined experience that an illusion of freedom.
In his desire to create what Fujibayashi terms an ‘active game’ these conventions would have to be challenged.
“The first step in designing the game was to re-examine these conventions and put our sights on changing the structure of the game from one where you play within the confines of a pre-prepared mechanism, to one where the user can actively engage with the game,“ explains Fujibayashi.
“Our first approach was to remove those impassable walls, by transforming them and allowing the user to climb them.”
By changing the nature of walls they became another path for the player to use. This opened up the entire landscape in a new way for the player and added verticality to the experience.
“It was at this point I realised that this was the kind of game design I was striving for, and it held the potential to create the active game I had envisioned.”
Of course, having given the player the ability to climb anywhere, the next question was how to get them down again.
“You jump!” says Fujibayashi. “By introducing an action whereby you can glide through the air with an item, once you climb you can glide to wherever you want. I felt that this was the crucial ingredient that would expand the sense of freedom for the user in the new Zelda.”
A puzzling challenge
Many of the puzzles found in Zelda games are based on natural phenomena or simple scientific facts. This helps the player easily understand what the rules are, and then helps them to solve the puzzles. The burning of a rope with a torch in Wind Waker is just one such example.
“It’s not a stretch to say that the objects that made up these puzzles were made specifically for those puzzles,” says Fujibayashi. “This, of course, allows us to fine-tune and polish the gameplay experience, but unfortunately it requires a lot of resource.”
Fujibayashi had the idea of using multiplicative gameplay, essentially creating a set of mechanics and methods that could be scaled and multiplied consistently throughout the game world.
“I wondered if I could use this idea of multiplication and apply it to the mass production of these puzzles,” he says.
The intention was to make the game so that objects react to the player’s actions, and the objects themselves could also influence each other.
“If we could do this I felt that we might be one step closer to creating an active game,” Fujibayashi says.
To test his hypothesis Fujibayashi took the concept and tested it in a recreation of the original NES Legend of Zelda. This 2D prototype – in actual fact, a three-dimensional game engine – was used to prototype the multiplicative gameplay mechanisms.
This small sandbox allowed the development team to test many the of Breath of the Wild’s interactions at a base level. In one example, 8-bit Link uses the trunk from a felled tree to jump back and forth across a river.
“This prototype does not include any puzzles. All we did was provide a situation involving a river and some trees, but the user is then able to think for themselves and create a path forward,” Fujibayashi says. “In this simple setup there was only one rule: there’s a simple goal, can you reach it?”
“And when the players’ diverse actions, items, landscape, and objects that react in various ways, are multiplied together using this simple rule, an active game was created where countless different events occurred for which the user can freely create solutions.”
In our second report from this GDC talk we’ll hear how Takuhiro Dohta, technical director on Breath of the Wild, used physics and chemistry to bring Fujibayashi’s vision to life.