Breath of the Wild: Experimental Solutions

The Legend of Zelda games have the childlike wonder of interaction down to a science.The game’s designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, used his childhood experiences of exploring the Japanese countryside as a source of inspiration, and it shows. In Mark Brown’s YouTube series about the design of the Legend of Zelda games, he observes how linear and ‘handholding’ the dungeons in newer Legend of Zelda games are. This is exactly the opposite of the gameplay design of not just the original Legend of Zelda, but also the game’s newest incarnation, Breath of the Wild.

Mark Brown’s look on the original Legend of Zelda

Breaking design conventions is possibly the best thing that can happen to a franchise. It forces people out of their comfort zones in an effort to change the product for the better. Nintendo had the courage to break away from their long running formula, and in doing so they gave the developers the freedom to make what is by my standards an amazing game. This game brings a new experience into the franchise and the world of games, all by breaking the conventions restricting the original vision of one of the world’s most beloved franchises.

GDC talk with the Breath of the Wild developers

At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild developers (including Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Satoru Takizawa, and Takuhiro Dohta), hosted a panel about breaking traditional design conventions. The game has had lots of outstanding reviews about how this grand scale open-world-exploration experience is the most playful and ‘fun’ game in the franchise. The reason for that is due to a design philosophy that will now become center stage for open world sandbox games, as it easily helps create memorable and unique player stories.

One of the most interesting discussions of the panel was an introductory idea that would make interconnected player stories possible. They called it the ‘Chemistry Engine,’ which they thought of as a pair to the ‘Physics Engine’ that keeps track of a game’s movements. This new Chemistry Engine was developed to keep track of the different states objects can be in when interacting with elements within the world of the game. The panelists gave three basic rules that would cause solid materials in the game world like trees, rocks, and weapons to be altered by elements within the game, such as fire, water, ice, and even electricity and wind.

Rule 1. Elements can change a material’s state.

Rule 2. Elements can change an element’s state (water puts out fire).

Rule 3. Materials can’t change other material’s state.

This simplified model of our world gives the game what the designers called “Multiplicative Gameplay,” allowing different ways for players to solve problems. In essence, it multiplies the amount of thinking that goes into problem solving with every consequential element the player decides to add to their solution. The best part of the design is that these connections are made instinctively and intuitively. Using basic knowledge of our physical world, we all should know that lightning is attracted to metal, and that fire can spread to grass. These affordances are all built into the game as well.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild artwork

Now that we have a basic understanding of this Chemistry Engine, it is important to know what this design entails for the player. The foremost point is that no problem has one right answer; the designers encourage you to be creative with these elements, and if there is some ‘golden path’ to use for a scenario, it may be more fun for the player to try to blend every element together instead. The game encourages exploratory-experimentation of gameplay challenges. This gives players the freedom to fail at their own pace, which is congruent with the game’s open-world nature. The experience encourages players to explore and find new solutions in the micro, second-to-second problem solving, as well as where to go in the vast world — filled with countless secrets. To me this game is both groundbreaking and artful in its interactive and narrative design, as it gives players a multitude of ways to express themselves. In doing so it gives the player memorable experiences as they make their own story or ‘narrative’ in the game.



Game Designer with a Bachelor of Science. I talk about techno life and design ethics while I make games.

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Joshua Gad

Game Designer with a Bachelor of Science. I talk about techno life and design ethics while I make games.