Going Your Own Way: Exploration in Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3

In playing recent releases, it often becomes inevitable one sees striking structural similarities between otherwise seemingly completely different games. After recently picking up The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015), I began to see structural similarities between it and the newest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild (2017). Due to the length of my observations, it behooves me to split the entire text up into smaller chunks for your reading pleasure. What follows is a preliminary comparison between these two games from a specific perspective.

The similarities in structure mostly pertain to the core gameplay of both games. It’s trivial to point to the similarities of the map screen with specific map markers, the distinction between story missions and side quests, an ant trail GPS to guide the player on the minimap, the ability to add custom map markers, the third-person viewpoint with a clear view of the main character, the inventory system, a large overworld divided into smaller chunks, a varied array of enemies with the smaller, useless filler enemies contrasted with the larger, relatively unique boss-type enemies, and a host of other similarities between the two games. Instead, I’m more interested in the way the player deals with all of this, and the overworld that comprises all of these elements. The act of dealing with all of this I’ll simply refer to as “exploration.”

In donning the perspective of exploration, it quickly becomes apparent that these similarities are only present on the face of it (or prima facie, if you know Latin). The process of playing both games is completely different, to the point where one could easily be forgiven for never noticing how similar the two games are. Yet if we return to our reductionist view of comparing the gameplay elements in both games and apply this logic to the traveling mechanics in both games, we again start to see similarities.

In Breath of the Wild, Link can traverse post-apocalyptic Hyrule in various ways. On land, he can ride around on horseback, run around and sprint, jump off taller locations and glide down (stamina permitting), and fast travel to previously explored towers on the map. Link can also traverse watery surfaces by swimming, boating, or fast traveling, and theoretically climb any surface. The more inclined players have also found ways to travel that forego the conventional means of transportation, such as launching boulders or logs into the air by hitting them while in stasis and then grabbing onto them before they fly off, with mixed success. Geralt in The Witcher 3 has very similar traveling capabilities. He can walk, run, ride around, fast travel, swim, and sail. Despite Geralt being unable to fly on boulders, our two protagonists enjoy very similar modes of transportation. Yet these modes of transportation are in themselves uninteresting. More interesting, rather, is the choice of destination.

Both games, despite being similar in a very concrete fashion as I have just shown, are completely separate when it comes to choice of destination. We’ll ignore the tutorial level for obvious reasons and instead focus on the first level following it, which we may argue is the point where both games actually begin. At this point, the player is given control over the main character and is left to pick his every input. Both games give the player the suggestion of how to progress the story by way of marking very important places on the map. In Zelda, this is the four corners of Hyrule where Link can look for Princess Zelda. In The Witcher 3, this is the keep of the Bloody Baron and Triss in Novigrad. In both games, the player is free to explore the entirety of the map, foregoing the suggestions and instead loafing around indefinitely.

But this isn’t as true for The Witcher 3 as it is for Zelda. In Zelda, the player’s inputs are recognised to be valuable to some degree depending on what they are. The player may choose to go to one of these four corners to directly engage in the main story or choose against it, instead exploring any of the other large maps, venturing into villages, shrines, or other points of interest. In doing the former, he embarks on a more direct route to obvious spoils, whereas in doing the latter, he may find himself sorely disappointed. These optional routes of exploration are presented to the player in the very indirect manner of simply existing. The mountainsides, the villages marked on the map or visible in the distance, the lakes with swords in their centres, and the bridges spanning a tremendous length are all in some direct way visible to the player, and this presence alone is what invites the player to explore.

In The Witcher 3, by comparison, the player is guided by any leads offered to him directly. That is to say, someone in-game will have confronted the player and told him where he can go. The innkeeper at the Crossroads is an obvious example. Not only is the player told to engage with the locals, the main quest may not advance before he has done so. And the notice board, with yellow marker signifying its importance to you, is just outside the inn. In either scenario, taking the main road to further your quest of finding the Emperor’s daughter or going your own way – as Fleetwood Mac would put it – , the player is guided by the nose on one path. There are no inviting landmarks; there is only the ant trail. This singular path effectively boils down the diverging paths the player can take, ultimately rendering the distinction between main quest and side attractions as one without a real difference. In effect, the player is always present by the will of the game, and never by his own.

Contrast this, then, with the indirect approach that Zelda takes. In staying with the side attractions for now, one could protest and say, “Well, the very idea of having these side attractions is one the game also exhibits. Therefore the player in Zelda is also always present by the will of the game, making you a big stinking doodoohead.” But this line of reasoning is only true if we forget for a moment that the player never has to be anywhere but Hyrule Castle. In effect, once the tutorial is over, the player can decide to make his way to the final boss, kill him, and end the game in less than an hour. Experienced speedrunners have done exactly that, beating the game in a mere forty minutes. Furthermore, the invitation of the various landmarks is an indirect one precisely because the player is never prompted to go anywhere but these four corners and Hyrule Castle. The player is as eligible to take it or leave it, all depending on the personal whims of the player instead of the game.

Sadly, the direct effects of this disparity in execution are slightly more insidious on the side of The Witcher 3. When deciding to go anywhere, the player, of course, expects a reward to go with traversing a great distance and overcoming an inherent difficulty. In Zelda, because of how indirect the invitation to explore is, the standards can naturally be lowered. If complaining about no reward were to ensue, one could easily counter with, “Well, no one told you to go there and the trip is half of the reward.” While true, I’d also argue that climbing any mountain carries with it the reward of experiencing the beauty of post-Ganon Hyrule from a glorious vantage point. The world is the obstacle to overcome, if you’d pardon my saying so, and the reward need not be material to be worth the time spent climbing in the rain.

But in The Witcher 3, again due to the nature of the invitation (this time direct, as mentioned), one is left sadly disappointed when the loot one fought very hard to collect ends up being downgrades at best or useless at worst. After overcoming the challenge of fighting a wyvern six levels my senior and almost breaking my sword twice, I can’t help but feel cheated when I loot materials I already possess in abundance, weaponry with worse stats than my current equipment, and plans for gear that I won’t be able to use in time for the upgrade to be relevant. My reward for beating the stupid bird is selling junk items and seeing my gold counter jump from 3,000 to 3,200. Worse yet, sometimes the question markers of interest lead to a ghost town or a guarded treasure with several monsters that all outrank you in the damage and health departments, and failing to run away on instinct will lead to a Geraltless Roach roaming Velen until its premature death by Ghouls. In moments like these, the player is effectively punished for deciding to venture off the proverbially beaten path and seeking out his own adventure, an act that Zelda only occasionally warns against with the promise of certain death long in view before enacting on said promise.

This is one of the first ways in which exploration becomes counterintuitive to the player of both games. This simple comparison of traveling with the perspective of exploration should suffice on its own in my equally simple point that “Zelda does it better.” But if it should prove insufficient, I am more than happy to oblige.

In the future, then, I will look at two more areas in which Zelda really does it better, namely combat and the main quest, after which I will investigate the relationship between all of these elements in my Return of the King article for the series. For now, I wish only to forego the suggestion of your next click and hope you return next time for more Geralt spanking, an image you may not be able to remove from your mind and some deviant artist has undoubtedly already drawn to life. Talk about direction!

Continue reading Jorge’s analysis in Part Two. (Editor’s note: This link was added on 12-27-17.)

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