I recently came across a video on YouTube about “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and its use of empty spaces. This got me thinking about the idea of empty space in a video game, because by all popular wisdom of the industry, empty space is wasted space. A player isn’t going to go somewhere if there isn’t an objective specifically pointed out for them, a myriad of collectibles strewn around the area, or some sort of hidden easter egg. At least, that's what many video game developers and publishers seem to think. Within the industry, there appears to be this need to densely pack everything in the game world. No corner of an open world can be underpopulated by content, whether it be enemies, items or side activities. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, after all gamers pay $60 or more for a reason, it can lead to some unintended consequences. Namely, a lack of breathing room.
Very few games allow and encourage you to catch your breath naturally through the design of the game world itself. Most of them accomplish this through scripted sequences tailored to that purpose. Often, games will use cut scenes meant to present the story -- moments where the player is no longer involved in the gameplay to any major degree -- to artificially provide this downtime. It is rare that a game manages to establish natural pacing in an open-ended design through the geography of the world itself.
“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” accomplishes this idea of breathing space through its use of empty space. Between villages and shrines, dungeons and enemy encampments, there is open landscape. While there is a fast travel system in place, the real beauty of the game’s world is found in long horseback treks and on-foot meanderings across its vast swaths of nature. Among the plant and animal life, between showdowns with monsters and after each leg of the game’s epic quest, there are moments of reflection. Piano keys gently tingle in the background as the player gallops on horseback through the fields and forests to reach their latest destination, providing moments of welcome solitude and peace.
This is where the idea of self-pacing comes into play. “Breath of the Wild” has a certain rhythmic quality to it, where the world and your experiences within it seem to expand and contract naturally as you play. The pace quickens as monsters ambush the player or a major story beat appears, contracting into a tight, densely focused experience of combat and objectives. However, once these encounters are completed and the player moves on, the atmosphere of the world relaxes, the taut pace loosens and expands, unveiling the world in all its beauty once more.
It is this idea of expansion and contraction that
makes “Breath of the Wild” special among open-world games, a design philosophy
that balances tense action and thoughtful meandering. These extended treks
across Hyrule give the world life, making it feel like it wasn’t just tailor-made to be some sort of monster-fighting arena. You feel like the animals and
people of this world carry on with their lives even when you aren’t present. You can take the time to appreciate the world around you and detox your mind
from both the in-game combat and the world outside the game.