Exploring the world of breath of the wild is one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had. There is something meaningful hidden under every rock, and every area Link explores holds some fascinating secrets. What really amazes me is how incredibly rewarding it feels to explore every area of hyrule. No matter what you do or where you go in this game, you’ll always find something useful, something rewarding. This is key to keep the exploration in an open world game interesting and I don’t think any open world game before nailed this as much as breath of the wild does. But there is one gameplay complaint I have recently seen very often: The weapon durability and the fact that your weapons break after a couple of fights bothers quite a lot of gamers.
While I do understand that this seems pretty annoying at first glance I believe that the weapons breaking so fast in this game is not only ingenious, but one of the main reasons why the whole exploration gameplay in breath of the wild works in the first place. There are a couple of mechanisms in the game which reward exploration, but in my opinion the concept around the weapons is the most important, and it only works because your weapons are basically consumables.
So are you ready? Let’s do this! (INTRO) In order to understand which problems the low weapon durability in breath of the wild solves, we need to talk about the following two problems of open world games first. An open world game promises that the player is able to go to every area in the game at any time, and that he will experience something interesting there. And that’s a huge problem for the game designers, because they completely lose control over where a player is and what happens to him when. In a linear game the designers are able to introduce concepts before they are used, and they are able to constantly increase the difficulty of the game. They can make sure that no player is confronted with a challenge for which he isn’t prepared yet, and on the other side they can ensure that no player is confronted with challenges which are way too easy for his point of progression in the game.
But open world game designers don’t have this kind of luxury. If a game is truly open and every area explorable all the designers can do is give a player hints where they want him to go to, but they can’t control it anymore than that. In theory a player can run into the toughest end-game dungeons, steal an overpowered weapon from a chest there and come back to the early game completely overpowered. Or an endgame character can run into areas meant for the early game and one-shot everything. But it’s not a good idea to design a game in this way, because such mechanics actually make the gaming experience less enjoyable for the majority of players. Running into an area which is too hard for your current level is usually a pretty bad experience. But what’s even less enticing in a single player game, is being overpowered. Being too strong practically takes away the whole gaming experience by rendering former challenges into unchallenging and therefore boring tasks and takes away the actual objective of the game. That’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in game design, because players always try to find a way to cheat the game, to find a strategy so powerful that they are able to completely trick the game, so they actively search for these strategies.
But the moment they find such a strategy the magic wears off, and the game suddenly isn’t fun to play anymore. A strategy that is way to powerful compared to other strategies in a game is called a dominant strategy, and it’s something you usually don’t want in your game. So you can allow a player in open world games to go to areas way too hard for his current progress, but what you can’t allow is a player finding good loot there, because it would completely break every content up to this point.
Your player would be able to equip himself like an end game character and walk through the early game without being challenged in any way. We are pretty far away from the weapons breaking in breath of the wild now, but stay with me for a moment I promise it will make sense soon. The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t have a real open world game where a player can go to end game areas, kill enemies there if he’s skilled enough and come back and one shot everything, because that wouldn’t be a fun experience.
Open world games need mechanisms in place to prevent this from happening. For example the enemies and the loot in skyrim are generated depending on your current level. It doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll always find enemies about your strength and loot fitting your current level. Or as another example the witcher 3 basically locks you out from specific areas until you progressed to a certain point in the main quest. It’s almost impossible to kill enemies far above your current level in the witcher 3, and even if you manage to kill them or find an unguarded high level treasure chest you won’t be able to equip these items because you need a certain level in the game to equip certain items. And by far the best way to level your character is to follow the main quest, as side quests and enemies grant almost no experience. Don’t get me wrong the witcher 3 and skyrim are incredible games, probably among the best ever made. But both have mechanisms in place to control the progress of a player and to prevent the player from breaking the game by finding too strong items.
But breath of the wild has no such systems. You are really able to go to the final area as soon as you finished the tutorial. You are able to kill the strongest enemies in the game even if you only have three heart containers and no armor, and you are able to get and use their weapons. And this only works because breath of the wild breaks with a lot of open world RPG conventions. The game can allow you to get the most overpowered weapon in the whole game within an hour, because the weapon is no longer permanent, it’s a consumable. If you find a weapon way too strong for your current point of progression you are completely overpowered for a couple of fights, and then you are back where you started, and that’s great! Finding a really strong weapon too early is no longer a dominant strategy, but a reward the game designers can actually give you for taking out enemies you weren’t supposed to kill yet.
But not only this, they can actually encourage you to explore areas you are yet underpowered for, and let you figure out cunning ways to defeat stronger enemies even without the necessary gear. And while you won’t use a weapon for hours like you usually would in an RPG there is still a system of progression in the form of heart containers and armor in the game. So finding a strong weapon won’t allow you to get more strong weapons by beating stronger enemies forever because at some point you’ll be limited by your health and your defense.
But they are able to allow you to wield these strong weapons at least for a little bit and that’s more than most open world RPGs allow you to do. But there is a second reason why the weapons break so fast, and this one is probably even more important. If you are designing a huge open world, filled with enemy camps to destroy, epic shrines to discover and side quests to solve you run into a problem. The more content there is the harder it gets to give a player a great reward for playing this content. This is even more complicated in open world games, as you have no clear control where your player is at which point. Exploring a huge game world is only fun if you are rewarded for exploration in the first place. But the more content and things to explore are in the game, the harder it gets to reward a player for everything he explores in a meaningful way. The witcher 3 for example solves this problem by rewarding the players by telling them stories in their beautifully crafted universe. Great gear or experience rewards aren’t needed because the stories are already rewarding on their own.
But great storytelling isn’t what the Zelda series is legendary for. So how is breath of the wild able to reward you with something meaningful wherever you go? Well, there are several systems at play at once, but interesting enough most of these systems are tied to the fact that your weapons break. The game is able to reward you with the same useful weapon over and over again. And you will happily be looting the same weapon over and over again because a good weapon is a consumable in this game and you always want to carry as many useful weapons, bows and shields as possible. It’s almost a little bit crazy but I’m still happily picking up useful early game swords, because having these bad swords allows me to save the durability for tough fights on my good weapons.
Weapons are one of the main rewards the game has to offer, and this is really brilliant. If an enemy carries a stronger weapon it becomes way more dangerous, but you want to kill this enemy even more because you want his weapon. Even the reward of the small korok seed puzzles is tied to getting more weapon slots. By constantly taking away what is useful to you the game allows you to find something useful and meaningful around every corner. And finding something rewarding and meaningful everywhere is key to an open world game. Okay that’s mainly it, but there is one more thing I wanted to quickly talk about, why there can’t be a weapon repair system in breath of the wild. Managing your weapon slots is a pretty important part in the game. You always want to have a couple of really strong weapons in case you find a really tough enemy, but you also want to have trash weapons for weaker enemies, so that you don’t need to use the good stuff on trash. Additionally you maybe want to carry something to mine ores, a leaf if you need wind and a torch if you want to set something on fire.
An infinite inventory would completely work against the survival aspect of the game and would lead to horrible item management, so you find yourself in a situation where you want to carry a lot of different items around, but have only limited space. If it was now possible to repair weapons you would start to carry good but damaged weapons around, which would clog your inventory. But using them in order to free inventory space would be a waste because it’s a good weapon you could potentially repair forever. So they can’t have a repair system because it’s important to the whole game not to run around with five damaged weapons and only two slots you actively use.
The whole exploration, fighting and rewarding system of breath of the wild only works the way it works because Link’s weapons are as consumable as his potions. If his weapons were permanent it wouldn’t matter that his enemies dropped their weapons, they would need a system to keep Link away from end-game loot and there would be way less exciting loot all around hyrule. While I do understand that it takes a while to get used to this system, I think it’s a brilliant and elegant solution for a lot of problems open world games tend to have, and I think it’s one of the less obvious reasons why it is so much fun to explore every area of hyrule.
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