I used to describe Super Mario Odyssey as more “fun” than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and felt like that was an imperfect description. But using these new definitions of fun, I can say that it’s because of their respective balances of challenge vs. exploration. Both games heavily include both. But where Odyssey uses discovery to get you to the fun of challenge, Breath of the Wild uses challenge to tap into our natural curiosity to discover.
It starts with the mechanics. Breath of the Wild is an open-world game not just because of the map size and freedom to travel, but because the world itself is open. Consistent across all areas of the game are a physics engine and “chemistry engine” that reward players to find their own way to tackle a problem. The game feels like a world that presents little gifts of obstacle to keep getting you to see what’s around the corner.
So players can theoretically go straight to the endgame boss, but the game excels in getting you to meander at your own pace. Nintendo director Shigeru Miyamoto, when he played the game for the first time, famously spent an hour just climbing trees before the developers asked him if he wanted to do anything else. This captures what makes Breath of the Wild a game about discovery, “a game where the act of climbing could be just as fun as riding horses and slashing monsters.” Being able to climb literally anything in the world is a level of freedom that gamers haven’t had even in the best open-world games. So yeah, if you want, you could climb trees for an hour and have a delightful time: the game insists it’s your world to discover, not theirs to force a certain way of playing onto you.
But where the game really shines is getting you to explore its dynamics. If the consistent physics and chemistry engines serve as mechanics, the game design is built around “multiplicative gameplay” rather than a single, linear experience for all players. In one of my favorite areas, Link gets castaway on an island without any of his gear. You have to navigate this island and its monsters through a limited use of tools, which pushes you to get creative. If you’re in the late game, this is especially interesting because if your favorite tactic is, say, using bomb arrows to blow everyone up from a distance, you suddenly don’t have that! Instead, you look around and see that there’s a boulder on a mountain just above the boss and think to grab a leaf to try to roll it onto them. Or, it starts storming and though you don’t have your sword, you can throw metal objects at enemies and attract lightning to them.
This “multiplicative gameplay” approach is highlighted here, but is really abundant throughout the entire game, even in the “puzzle dungeon” areas. Players are not rewarded for obstacle-course skill, but for experimentation and curiosity.