The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, like its predecessor Breath of the Wild, is a massive game full of incredible things to do. It should be overwhelming – but in a twist, it’s actually helping me break one of my most compulsive habits.
I’m busy. Not unusual – probably no more than yours – but life just fills up, you know? I have a to-do list for work and a to-do list for everything that isn’t work. I have precious little time for myself and a million things I want to do with it; I have endless lists of things to watch, read, and play that I’ll never keep up with. I have apps for logging movies, TV shows, games, and books. I feel compelled to optimize. I use my free time to the minimum.
Some of these habits are formed through gaming. Think of the sprawling open-world games whose huge maps and epic narratives are wrapped up in an easily digestible structure of objectives, checklists, and collectibles. (My friend calls them “UbiJobs” after the backbone of the later Assassin’s Creed games.) My beloved World of Warcraft is essentially a never-ending to-do list in video game form. It can feel like work, but it’s also satisfying and gives you a sense of accomplishment and accomplishment – so you try life. The designers of gamified apps for micromanaging everything from spending money to watching movies surely learned from this design school too.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
I developed the habit of summarizing everything in a checklist by consuming games that don’t outwardly encourage it. Until recently, the big game of my life was Octopath Traveler 2, a classic RPG with eight parallel storylines, limited to sub-goals and tracking systems, giving the player a lot of freedom of approach beyond the need to keep up with the leveling curve . However, in my Notes app, I’ve made lists for it: an optimized order for completing quests, dungeons sorted by recommended level, items to hunt, and so on.
None of this bodes well for my time with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. But just like I was at Breath of the Wild six years ago, I’m amazed at the extent to which the game encourages freeform, organic play, real exploration, and real adventure.
In the evening I start it with maybe two or three goals in mind – clean up some shrines I’ve discovered, go to the next temple, explore a new section of the depths. Three hours later, I’m only halfway to my first destination, having experienced several surprising adventures and made several surprising discoveries along the way. I’ve done things I didn’t have on any list: tear down a Battle Talus disguised as a Bokoblin post (and turn its heart into a hammer), enter a skydiving competition, hunt fragments of falling stars, clean up seal stuffed animals. I followed my nose, played in an inherently curious, experimental, and free-spirited style, and didn’t worry about progression. I’ve allowed one branch (like exploring a cave) to flow beautifully into another (like building a vehicle to transport a stranded Korok to his friend), taking me far from the route I had planned. I’ve just been in the amazing world that Nintendo has created. As hectic and entertaining as Tears of the Kingdom can be, it could actually be described as mindful.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
How did the Nintendo team around Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi do it? I wish I knew – and I’m sure a lot of game developers do too. Breath of the Wild is often cited as influential, but over the past six years there’s been a notable lack of games that have been able to emulate it, particularly in that regard. Few open-world AAA games can successfully obfuscate the spreadsheets they are based on. If it were easy, we would have more games where we could feel that way. But there are a few pointers.
Tears of the Kingdom’s world map feels effortlessly natural, but is designed with an unwavering focus on lines of sight: there’s always a view, and within that view there is always something to see. This paired with a visual design that emphasizes readability from a distance and draws the eye with clear silhouettes and colored highlights. With all its clever physics systems, it feels like a teeming, living world, but it’s just as important that it looks like it, and that’s where the meticulous craft of the Nintendo artists comes into play. All of that was true of Breath of the Wild, and all of that is underscored by the amazing verticality of Tears of the Kingdom’s three-tiered world of surface, sky, and cavernous depths.
Then there is the diversity of this world and the level of craftsmanship in its construction. Unlike so many open-world games, this doesn’t feel like a landscape made out of a box of fancy content types. Each enemy camp, mini-game or cave system is unique and seems to flow organically into the landscape: these bokoblins, driving a treasure chest in a cart across the prairie, look like they have somewhere to go. I wonder what are they wearing? Why is this sky island shaped like a giant spiral? You won’t be drawn to these landmarks by a map marker, but because they look interesting. You’ve never seen anything like this. In this context, even the most grueling Tears of the Kingdom compilations, like the Korok Seeds, don’t present themselves as a to-do list because they’ve been so carefully embedded (by the hundreds!) in an already rich world, rather than over scattered the card like engagement bait.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
The new cave systems are a brilliant example of how Tears of the Kingdom constantly misleads you. Their inviting entrances aren’t portals to mini-dungeons that throw you back to square one once you’ve completed them. Instead, they take you down winding subterranean passages, often far from your final destination. You end up climbing to the top of a new hill with a new view and revealing new things to explore.
If you want to delve deeper into Tears of the Kingdom, the spartan Pro interface dispenses with most of the HUD elements. In its default form, Tears offers plenty of information – but aside from a pulsing quest marker on the mini-map, it’s not about what to do next. There are map markers that you have placed yourself (perhaps using your telescope to scan the landscape), there is the time, the weather, the temperature, your health, your skills and your geolocation coordinates. The quest tracker, on the other hand, is quite rudimentary and only visible in the menu.
Here’s what’s important to the Tears of the Kingdom developers: where you are, what the conditions are, and what tools are available to you. Not what you should do. Like so much else in this magnificent, unpredictable discovery engine, that’s up to you. Through their artistry and playfulness, the developers have given me permission to stop tweaking, stop hitting goals, stop checking off things on my checklists, and just experience the game they made.