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How Zelda’s Tears of the Kingdom unlocks the potential of open world gaming

A scene from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

by Dr James Birt, Associate Professor of Computer Games and Associate Dean Engagement

Whether you’re an experienced gamer or simply curious about the allure of open world games, Nintendo’s latest instalment in the long-running (35-year) Zelda franchise, Tears of the Kingdom provides a captivating single-player journey through an intricately designed world.

But for many, the open world genre is a mystery. Being a gamer for over 40 years and having played the latest Zelda for more hours than I care to say, I wanted to delve into open world games, what makes open worlds captivating and the process of creating these expansive games.

Think of an open world game as like stepping into a virtual world where you can go anywhere you want, do whatever you like and embark on exciting adventures in a huge and detailed game world with lots of things to discover and missions to complete.

While there is an over-arching plot to adhere to, in an open world game, players can choose to ignore many of those narrative structures and go their own way, and forge their own path.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom – Official Trailer #3

World building: crafting immersive game worlds

There is no doubt that open world games are popular and the latest instalment of the critically acclaimed Zelda series is no exception. It sold over 10 million copies worldwide in the first three days, becoming the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch game in the United States.

The first open world game is often attributed to the 1976 text-only game Colossal Cave Adventure. Other recent popular open world games include Red Dead Redemption 2, Grand Theft Auto V, Elden Ring and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Game designers invest significant effort in creating open world games with intricate and believable environments. They are filled with rich lore and history, allowing players to approach the game and its challenges in their own self-driven order and manner – a hallmark of open-world games. But making these great games is a significant undertaking requiring large development teams with a shared vision.

In Tears of the Kingdom, the game excels in constructing three distinct world levels: the sky, the surface and the depths. There are also over 152 mini levels or shrines. Each level presents a unique atmosphere and challenges, enticing players to explore and uncover their secrets. The attention to detail in the game’s environments and the depth of its lore contribute to a truly immersive experience.

One of the defining characteristics of open world games is the meticulous attention to world building. Compelling world building allows players to feel a sense of immersion and engagement as they become invested in the game world and its inhabitants. It adds depth, richness and believability to the gaming experience, encouraging exploration, storytelling and player agency within the virtual environment.

Player agency: shaping the narrative

Although Tears of the Kingdom is built upon the shoulders of its predecessor Breath of the Wild, the game feels like a vast improvement, building on the success story of the previous game.

Players have choices in terms of quests undertaken, order of solving the quest and the routes they take, adding a layer of personalisation to their gameplay. These choices influence the player’s interaction with characters and the overall progression of the game. But it’s in the new building mechanics that Tears of the Kingdom rises to the top of the pack and amplifies exceptional player agency.

Interactions with non-playable characters, environments and objects play a crucial role in open world games. Engaging with characters through dialogue and completing quests for them enhances the immersion and sense of connection with the game world. Furthermore, the ability to manipulate objects and solve puzzles adds depth to the gameplay experience.

Tears of the Kingdom introduces innovative puzzle mechanics and object building through the new Ultrahand ability, offering players a diverse range of interactions and ways of engaging with the world. From customised weapons to elaborate vehicles in the form of flying battle tanks, the only limit in the game is the player’s imagination and collecting enough materials.

It is this no-holds-barred system that sets the game apart. You can solve puzzles in endless ways. For instance, the game may have wanted you to create a bridge but instead you build a flying platform with a rocket. The thrill is in the discovery and exploration of the mechanics and the application of this in the world.

Challenges and balancing act

There has been significant criticism of open worlds over the years, with critics highlighting how open world games can be vast and empty, simply cloning other games or failing to live up to hype.

While open world games offer immense opportunities for immersive gameplay, they also present unique challenges. Repetition, unclear objectives and technical performance on ageing hardware are some of the issues developers must address to ensure a satisfying player experience.

Tears of the Kingdom demonstrates impressive performance on the ageing switch hardware, but maintaining a balance between a vast world and engaging content is a constant challenge for game designers. Striking the right balance is crucial to avoid overwhelming players and maintaining their interest.

Open worlds will remain

As the world of video games evolves, open world games will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of interactive entertainment.

By understanding the intricacies of game design in this genre, players, industry professionals and enthusiasts can gain valuable insights into the immersive and ever-expanding landscape of open world gaming.

So, whether you’re an experienced gamer or simply curious about the allure of open world games, Tears of the Kingdom provides a captivating journey through an intricately designed game world. Embrace the adventure, explore the possibilities and discover the wonders that await in the realm of open world gaming.

This article was first published at The Conversation.  

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