When Breath of the Wild released in 2017, it was hailed as a breath of fresh air for open world video games. The game threatened to dethrone Ocarina of Time as the best scoring game of all time on Metacritic. It easily claimed game of the year for many players and has even made a victorious appearance on a few game of the decade lists as well. I think a lot of people anticipate for future open world titles to be influenced by the things that Breath of the Wild did well, and a few people that I have seen playing open world games since then have mentioned that something feels a bit off after experiencing the freedom that Zelda offered.
For me, the first truly open world game I’ve played since experiencing Breath of the Wild is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. And while I am experiencing it well after its heyday, there has been sort of a Witcher renaissance recently thanks no doubt to the influence of the Netflix show (that’s what got me playing, at any rate). At the time it came out Wild Hunt was similarly lauded as a major step forward for the open world style of video game, receiving excellent reviews well beyond those of the preceding games in the series. I’ve seen plenty of folks swear by the quality of the Witcher over the years, and having played through a not-insignificant chunk of the game myself at this point I can certainly see the appeal.
So here I am playing the Witcher in a post Breath of the Wild world. I have experienced this groundbreaking game from 2017 which for many people redefined their expectations for open worlds. How does this older game hold up? Did the things that made Breath of the Wild special make Wild Hunt look weak in hindsight? Those are the questions I want to explore over the course of this article. We’ll start by talking about my Breath of the Wild perceptions first, then lead into my impressions of the Witcher with those in mind, before finally looking at the interaction of those perceptions to see what comes of it.
WHAT MADE BREATH OF THE WILD SO MAGICAL?
It’s all well and good to say that Breath of the Wild revitalized what an open world could be. But what are the specific choices that were made which allowed the game to have such a powerful impact on its players? One of the first points you’ll see mentioned in discussions of Breath of the Wild’s impact will likely be the freedom to explore. Plenty of open world games let you go wherever you want to go, but there are still limitations in place that can complicate exploration. In The Witcher and in many games like it, when you’re running through a field and then suddenly hit a cliff that cliff impedes your progress; you have to work around it. In Breath of the Wild, you just start climbing. The ability to vertically scale any natural surface in the game opens up a deeply satisfying avenue of exploration. In other open world titles there is often a “right” way to get around a particular natural barrier. In Breath of the Wild, you have options. You can climb up looking for spots to stop for a moment and rebuild your stamina. You can use a stamina elixir or an elixir that helps you climb faster. You can find a smaller cliff that’s easier to reach the top of and then use that to glide halfway up the taller cliff, getting you close enough to the top to climb the rest of the way. In other open world games, the complications you encounter while exploring are interrupting the real meat of the game. In Breath of the Wild, the exploration itself is the real meat of the game, which is why it is key for that exploration to feel satisfying.
Also key to what made Breath of the Wild special is that there are so many ways to approach problems. I touched on this a bit already in the climbing discussion above, but the beauty is that this can be applied to anything. See a pack of bokoblins that seems too big and dangerous for you? Maybe you can shove a boulder down a cliff to crush them. Or maybe you can start a fire in some nearby brush, burning them to death without ever getting near them. Heck, maybe they have a campfire you can shoot with an explosive arrow to send them all tumbling backward, totally dazed and helpless as you charge in. See a big rock on top of a treasure chest keeping it closed? You can pause time with magnesis and smash it repeatedly with a hammer to get it to fly off into the distance when time resumes, or you can throw some octo balloons on top of it and watch it float harmlessly away while you open the chest. In other games there are often right and wrong ways to do things. Recommended levels and vulnerabilities to specific potions or signs in Witcher work to limit somewhat where you can travel or what techniques you use to overcome problems. In Breath of the Wild, whatever you figure out that works is the right way to solve a problem, and no problem feels like there is only one way to accomplish what you have set out to do. Sure, you can rotate your Switch at precise angles while trying to work a metal ball through a maze – but you can also turn the whole platform upside down and roll the ball off of the flat side, avoiding the maze entirely. Exploring isn’t just about navigating the world; it’s also about trying different things in order to find the solution that works best for you in the given moment.
This sense of discovery also extends to the reward mechanisms of the game. The world is full of little puzzles with rewards that are small but tangible, giving you a reason to go out of your way when you see something weird. That well with a ball and chain tied to it? Messing around with magnesis might get you a Korok seed that you can use to increase your inventory size. The nearby camp of bokoblins with a high-tier enemy? Defeating them might net you a weapon that’s a bit stronger than the rest of your gear as well as some useful materials for improving your armor or earning some money. This heart-shaped lake on the map you noticed while you were looking for something else? Going there might give you a side quest that reveals a little more about the land of Hyrule. In many open world games, every tiny point of interest is an icon on a mini-map, a check on a checklist for you to tick off when you go there. Everything in between means nothing. In Breath of the Wild, you never know what you’ll find until you set out and look for it; discovery of the in-between is the fun of the game. And daring to investigate that uncharted territory will almost always be rewarded with at least a little something, so it doesn’t feel like your time was wasted heading over to that spot in the distance that looked a little unusual.
WHAT MAKES THE WITCHER SO MAGICAL?
Open worlds are often criticized as emphasizing size over substance. The worlds are open, sure, but they are empty. Not so with the Witcher. The minimap is absolutely covered in points of interest, everything from monster dens to trapped villagers to places of power to hidden treasures to small sidequests. You can engage as little or as much as you want with the extensive amount of content in the game, but the fact that there is content galore cannot be ignored. Let’s take a moment to talk about Gwent, a card game that is complex enough to merit its own standalone game and yet is fully incorporated into Witcher 3 as an extensive side quest. It seems like every 3rd NPC I interact with is willing and able to play Gwent, and defeating these players allows you to unlock additional cards to add to your deck in order to expand your strategic options and defeat even better players. I personally chose very early on to ignore the Gwent quest entirely, but for those who enjoy it there is a whole subsystem within this already meaty game that allows you hours of extra content. The world is packed full of Witcher contracts, gear hunts, secondary stories, and main quests, each of which expand the lore of the world and involve choices which have some kind of lasting impact, even if that impact is local and not significant to the story at large.
Choices are so key to Witcher that I already wrote an entire article about it, but let’s focus here on how well the game’s storytelling is integrated with the choices that you have to make. Most open world games are criticized for having weak storytelling because the story must be able to be experienced in a disjointed manner. Witcher gets around this somewhat by railroading you on a roughly linear story path through level restrictions, but more than that it addresses story by having the story of the world tied strongly to the contracts that Geralt completes during his adventures. In the process of hunting the griffin during the prologue, you don’t just hunt a griffin – you also learn the story of how a father’s disdain towards the budding romance between two men led to the tragedy of a young woman dying and becoming a wraith as well as a total regime change for the region of White Orchard until the Niilfgardian army marched in. Stories are episodic, tied intimately to choices that you make, and they intertwine in deeply compelling ways. I had no idea that when I investigated the Crones of Crookback Bog after meeting with Keira that I was actually learning information which would ultimately tie back to the Bloody Baron, a quest line that I hadn’t even initiated yet! The order that I did the quests gave me key information in a different order too, perhaps changing the decisions I ultimately made. Breath of the Wild’s story is oft criticized for essentially being over when the game starts – in The Witcher, your actions in the present affect a future which you also get to experience. The story is active, compelling, and full of decisions that matter deeply.
Speaking of criticism against Breath of the Wild, how about that weapon durability? Personally I didn’t mind how weapon degradation was handled in the game, but a lot of folks don’t like how this particular entry in the Zelda series treated their weapons. Witcher too has a weapon durability system, but one that is based much more in reality and that allows the player to truly value the cool weapons they pick up during their journey. As weapons (and armor, too) lose durability, their effectiveness decreases. Points of damage slowly get chipped away as the blade dulls and the sword loses its luster. But weapons don’t shatter suddenly when their time is up, and unlike in Breath of the Wild you have the option to repair your favorite weapons so you can continue to use them until you decide to set them aside for something more powerful. This doesn’t mean the durability system is a joke or something you can just ignore; particularly in the early game when my money was tight, having a weapon run low on durability was deeply stressful because it often took a meaningful chunk of my money to restore it. Having your best sword hit 50% durability when you are on some remote island with no fast travel points in sight forces you to consider your options and determine the best course of action in your weakened state. Durability is still a meaningful mechanism that impacts the game, but it is grounded somewhat in reality and challenges you without interrupting mid-battle to ruin the action of the game.
COMPARING THE MAGIC
Knowing what makes Breath of the Wild special and what makes the Witcher special, I’m already seeing a clear pattern. Each game excels clearly in a category where the other struggles or falters. The world of Witcher is chock full of things to enjoy but traveling between those things is a bore, and the fact that there’s generally one right path between point A and point B bogs down the game. Breath of the Wild may feel empty at time because there aren’t many story beats to encounter out in the wilderness, but the freedom to explore and the fact that exploration itself is so satisfying is part of what makes the game special. Witcher tells a fantastic story where your choices impact the world; Breath of the Wild struggles with its story places exciting or significant events in the distant past. It also struggles with a weapon durability system that is core to the game’s resource management but is unrealistic and ultimately more frustrating than challenging; Wild Hunt incorporates durability in a way that is both challenging and more true to life. But your options in the Witcher are generally limited to the basic tools of your arsenal like signs, potions, and basic attacks – Breath of the Wild lets you turn the environment itself into a weapon, and there are so many possible solutions to any given problem that each gameplay experience will feel unique to the player.
The creators of each title certainly have things they can learn from the other, and that to me is what makes both games worth playing. Playing Witcher 3 has given me a greater appreciation for the things in Breath of the Wild which really changed up the open world system. But it also helped ground my opinion of the Zelda title in reality, a reality where it is not in fact a perfect game and there are games which came before it which did some of the same things in a more effective way. The fact that Wild Hunt stands up to the test of time shows that it too was a game that legitimately earned the accolades it received. I now can see the good in both titles more clearly thanks to the experience of the other, and my hope is to see the strong points of each understood and implemented so that future open world titles can continue to push us to a new level of quality.