The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom, is out now, and is possibly going to be another landmark title for Nintendo. Tears Of The Kingdom is not only a direct sequel to Breath Of The Wild, the previous Zelda game in a series that only sporadically does direct continuation give or take a few titles. But like Breath Of The Wild, Tears Of The Kingdom might be another watershed moment for open-world game design
New to Tears Of The Kingdom is the ability to fuse objects together to create your own contraptions. From stacking crates and logs together to be able to climb over cliffs or river, to full-blown machinery like cars, tanks, planes, hovercrafts and more. Some are practical solutions to a problem, whatever problem that may be. Some are using it for expressions of creativity- that includes creating a giant humanoid statue with a significant package tucked between the legs, lit on fire. Because why not, game says okay.
It was a breath of fresh air when Breath Of The Wild interpret the open-world genre in an imaginative way that made the formulaic potato open-world games to be filled with opportunities of fun. An impressive feat given how empty this version of Hyrule can feel at times.
And it gives me tears of joy seeing players playing Tears Of The Kingdom like it’s an immersive sim, using whatever mechanics and verbs that are available to create their own fun solutions to problems. Emergent gameplay is through the roof.
But the thing is, the mechanics that we see in Tears Of The Kingdom is all entirely brand-new to video games. Scour the indie side of video games and you’ll find many titles dedicated to having you build your own contraptions to solve a problem. From Besieged to Kerbal Space Program.
And as the majority of mainstream gamers have discovered recently, being able to make your own wooden tank or sending a Korok into space using your own makeshift rocket as a form of crucifixion, as unhinged as that may sound out of context, is a wildly satisfying sensation. It doesn’t matter if the solution is janky and odd- that just makes it even more fun. The fact that the game allows such expressions of lateral thinking, or facilitates tomfoolery via its available mechanics, is something you rarely see in big-budget AAA games these days where everything must be polished to the brim. And to do so, it’s by effectively limiting the interactions you can do as a player.
But it really is sad that games that have pioneered such design philosophies aren’t selling well enough for it to be the norm. Banjo-Kazooie introduced a whole build-your-vehicle mechanic to the platformer series with Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and it was the last major appearance for the platforming duo until they became playable characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate 11 years after that game’s release.
And then we have games that label themselves as immersive sims, a vague genre that in truth is a design philosophy that focuses on building systems and simulations that facilitate emergent gameplay, which remains niche. Niche enough that even the stalwarts of the genre in the AAA space, Arkane Studios, recently pivoted off that to make different games, with mixed results. Somehow, games with emergent gameplay just never went mainstream.
I have my thoughts on why immersive sims never caught on with the mainstream, but that’s a story for another day.
The closest we have gotten to this sort of open-world madness is the Just Cause series. By Just Cause 2 and 3 you can start tethering buildings, cars, and people into other buildings, cars or people, put rockets on them and mess around with physics until everything explodes. It was fun! But somehow, the series didn’t push enough in that direction and was overshadowed by its bloated open world, so much so that the series is now dormant since 2018- that’s five years ago.
Maybe the Zelda name holds a lot of weight. I didn’t grow up playing this series, heck I never yet played a Zelda game yet, and from the outside looking in, this is a revered series that have accompanied many a childhood, and has shaped the taste of many gamers. Maybe it’s the franchise name is what made it able to sell to players, its loyal fanbase, that building a makeshift tank by McGyvering some wood and magic wheels together is more fun that just collecting better gear with the bigger number like most games these days try to do. This is me speculating, and I know for sure some games have fallen through the crack just because of their name (go play Prey 2017).
And for that, I will be eternally grateful to the folks at Nintendo going hard on systemic design. No other major game developer we see today is making a game of this scale with this many mechanics that can interact with each other. They have successfully brought the joy that comes specifically from systemic game design to the masses. If Breath Of The Wild has sold close to 30 million units today, surely Tears Of The Kingdom, with its rave reviews from critics and users, should be able to reach a similar sales number.
Tears Of The Kingdom may not have a 0451 code easter egg somewhere (unless you purposely make one- unless I’m wrong), but hopefully, it becomes just as influential to inspire other developers making open-world games to embrace this philosophy. If graphics fidelity and framerate have to be sacrificed to enable various systems like this to work, so be it. I haven’t seen much complaints about the game’s performance on launch as other recent AAA launches. So it’s a fair trade-off. To the players at least. I’m sure making games like this is a nightmare to design and test for bugs. But surely it’s worth the effort, yes?