I don’t know about you, but I’ve been experiencing a bit of something I would call “open-world fatigue” in recent years. It’s not that I hate open-world games by any means, but I do believe that they have become oversaturated. The first question I usually ask myself when I see a new open-world game is, “Why? What does this game have to benefit from an open world?”. Unfortunately, many games are unable to provide an answer for me. This does not mean these games are bad, but this can expose an important flaw in a game’s design. However, the recently released Tears of the Kingdom seems to provide an answer to this question.
What does Tears of the Kingdom do to answer my question? Does it also provide the best answer? The latter question may be a bit loaded, but perhaps it is worth asking. After all, it may be wise for more games to follow Tears of the Kingdom‘s example, or should they? Tears of the Kingdom is a massive critical success, so it seems like a no-brainer that other games should follow suit. However, the philosophy of game design can get quite complicated, and there are reasons why some other open-world games may want to do their own thing.
The Open-World Game Problem
When making an open-world game, you have to consider how a player will interact with it. You can’t just put a map together, put a player character in it, and expect it to be a fun game. Just like any linear game, proper planning and game design are required to make a worthwhile experience. Unfortunately, the bigger a game world is, the more likely that development resources will be spread thin. There’s a reason why many open-world games are filled with noticeably repetitive tasks. Even Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are not exempt from this.
This is where we deal with the elephant in the room known as Ubisoft. They are perhaps the undisputed king of tedious open-world busywork. This is not to say that every Ubisoft open-world game is necessarily bad (I still replay Far Cry 3 now and then), but they are often undeniably filled to the brim with padding. The main point is that they are often pointed towards as the primary example of lackluster open-world game design. To be fair, their formula worked for a decent amount of time, but now everyone is tired of it.
This is not to say that other games are innocent of falling into much of the same trappings as a Ubisoft game. There are several instances where I have played a non-Ubisoft title and the open-world busywork would start to get to me. In these scenarios, I’ll often imagine how the game I’m playing could be improved by being linear. The irony is that, despite being an open-world game, I feel more restricted than ever. These games will often make it abundantly clear where I have to go and what I have to do. There is little room for actual freedom.
Addressing the Problem
How exactly does an open-world game avoid feeling like it’s a checklist simulator? There are multiple valid ways to approach this. The first is to simply make a smaller world. This often allows for more density and less repetition. Publishers can be obsessed with having a giant open world as a selling point for their games. Perhaps it may be time for more games to market a world’s density instead. This way, developers can focus on creating unique locations, events, and NPCs.
Another approach is to make a playground of sorts. A place where the player can go wild with the core mechanics. Think of the old Spider-Man 2 video game. The open world in that game was designed around the player mastering the web-slinging physics for effective traversal. You could do the main story missions if you wanted to, but it was far more fun to experiment with what you could do. For a more recent example, I enjoyed Sonic Frontiers for similar reasons as well. The game was structured around what the player wanted to do instead of being overly restrictive.
Tears of the Kingdom somewhat uses the playground approach but is also something of a unique beast. It incorporates some of the repetitive elements you might see in a Ubisoft game but executes them in a way that people find refreshing. You’ll probably be grinding quite a few shrines throughout the open world, but getting to them is part of the fun. Lots of different things can happen while you’re on your way to an objective.
How Tears of the Kingdom Approaches Open-World Game Design
One of the most important aspects of Tears of the Kingdom is traversal. It isn’t so much about getting to your destination as it is about how you get to your destination. The additions of the Ultrahand mechanic and Zonai Devices are proof of this. You can travel on foot or by horse, which is still valid, but now you can also utilize your creativity to get to your destination. As long as you have the Zonai Devices you need on hand, the only limiting factors are your creativity and your battery.
It’s somewhat reminiscent of Death Stranding. In that game, you can just hike to your destination, but the game allows you to place roads and more to make travel more efficient. Of course, there are still major differences between the two games. If you enjoy Tears of the Kingdom, you may not necessarily enjoy Death Stranding. At the end of the day, they are pretty different games. However, I do believe both titles share similar design philosophies.
Unlike a Ubisoft game, there is more emphasis on your journey to the destination. It’s very easy for open-world games to fall into the trap of making the space between you and your destination pointless filler content. In a game like Tears of the Kingdom, the space between you and your destination is the content. It’s easy to get sidetracked and go off your intended path if something catches your eye.
Does Tears of the Kingdom Have the Best Open World?
You have probably seen all the crazy stuff you can make with Ultrahand. From mechs to not-so-SFW creations, the combination of Ultrahand and Zonai devices allows for a lot of experimentation. If Nintendo meant for these mechanics to be sneaky viral marketing, then I have to applaud them. It allows players to interact with an open world in a rare way. That kind of interaction is what drives the enjoyment of this particular open-world experience.
It is worth noting that much of Tears of the Kingdom‘s map originates from Breath of the Wild. However, the new additions to the game do help recontextualize the experience of exploring Hyrule. I believe that this shows that Zelda‘s open-world design philosophy places importance on the core mechanics rather than the world itself. This is not to say that the game world isn’t important either. The sense of scale is huge and there are several secrets to uncover. It’s just that the game’s core mechanics helps give the game world meaning.
Tears of the Kingdom‘s map may not be a great fit for a complex RPG such as Fallout: New Vegas, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s there to give the player a sense of adventure first and foremost. Sure, you might be completing shrines a lot of the time, but it’s what you do in between each shrine that hooks people on the game. It’s what makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd (besides being a Zelda game, of course).
Should More Games Learn From Tears of the Kingdom?
That really depends on what a game is trying to accomplish with its open world. If a game is trying to be an intricate physics playground, then it might be a good idea to look at the open world of Tears of the Kingdom. If a game is putting an emphasis on traversal and exploration, taking a look at what Tears of the Kingdom is doing is probably a safe bet. However, the design philosophy of this game may not fit every other open-world game like a glove.
There are multiple valid ways to tackle an open-world game, and Zelda‘s example is only one of them. Perhaps the goal is to make a game densely populated with interesting NPCs to interact with. Tears of the Kingdom is not the first example I would go to for this. If you want to make a game that does away with as much bloat/repetition as possible, I still don’t know if I would choose Zelda as the primary example.
Despite how oversaturated I think open-world games are, I believe there is more that can be done to expand on it. I doubt that we have reached the peak of what the genre is capable of. Unfortunately, the game design philosophy of open-world titles has become fairly predictable. Tears of the Kingdom is a game that experiments with the standard open-world formula, which results in something that feels a bit more fresh than usual.
Evolving Open-World Games
It’s understandable why so many open-world games are made with a similar formula. These types of games take large investments, and it’s often safer to go with what’s already been proven. Experimenting with the formula may lead to complications during development, and with how tight some development schedules can be, this may be a wise approach. You don’t want your game to be a broken mess upon launch. However, I can’t help but miss when the concept of an open-world game on its own was exciting to me.
There are some aspects of older open-world games I prefer, as they were made before the genre became largely formulaic. Say what you like about how Morrowind has aged, but its open world still feels more immersive to me than many other modern alternatives. The lack of quest markers makes the player actively pay attention to the world around them, unlike many other open-world games. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but again, it is only one approach to designing an open-world title.
Hopefully, Tears of the Kingdom inspires future open-world games to experiment a bit more with free-roaming formulas. I don’t know if I would say it has the best open-world design philosophy, but that’s only because there are so many ways to make a great free-roaming title. We’re at a point where open-world games need more of a selling point than simply being large. Instead of marketing how many hours you can spend doing repetitive content in your open world, focus on other things it can bring to the table. It’s not about the size of your open world, it’s about how you use it.