I have been spoiled by Breath of the Wild. I can’t play a single game without thinking about BotW and making what are usually unfair comparisons. Nothing will ever be the same for me, after BotW, and every gaming experience I have will be in the context of this game. And I’m only being sorta overdramatic.
For instance, I just restarted Ghost of Tsushima. Rather than doing a New Game+, I started an all-new game. After all, I had found everything collectible, done every side quest, and gotten every upgrade in my original file, so a New Game+ would be just experiencing the plot again. While that might be fun on its own, I want something with collectibles to chase so I don’t spend as much time pausing and unpausing my podcasts. I want pursuits I can doze off to. So I started a new game, began the quite-pleasant collection system of following the wind to every kind of collectible, upgrade, and side quest, and immediately ran into rocky ground.
Most of the weapons and special abilities in Ghost of Tsushima are unlocked via plot quests. Or by upgrading your legend, most of which is accomplished through completing quests, main and side alike. If you’re new to the game, you wind up in situations where you’re supposed to find a vanity item or a shrine charm that you can’t find. While the shrines do a good job of telling you that you need certain abilities to complete them, the vanity items just seem to be missing. When you’ve played through the game already, you know that you can’t get to them because they’re on top of buildings that you can only climb once you’ve gotten the grappling hook.
In Breath of the Wild, you unlock every required ability in the tutorial section of the game. Later outfits, abilities, and items make things easier to do, but none of them are necessary. For most things, you can even get around low stamina using food and elixirs to restore or boost your stamina. Once the world opens to you, it is truly open. A lot of open-world games don’t really operate along those lines. Most games I’ve heard described as “open-world” aren’t truly open world, they just have open-world elements. Or they have large explorable spaces with little direction.
As I’ve played through a lot of big, beloved games, I’m struck by the difference between an open-world and what I’d call a “fully explorable” world. In Breath of the Wild, everything is there. You can go to places you don’t have the quest markers for and do the quest without ever starting it. Eventually, if you should get the quest for it, it will be marked as completed instantly. With the exception of the Divine Beasts, you can go anywhere at any time with no requirements and do anything.
In Ghost of Tsushima, if you find a town that you’re supposed to protect from enemy attack in a plot mission or that you’re supposed to infiltrate and clear in a plot mission, it is empty and devoid of life until you start that mission. It happened so many times during my first play-through that I stopped tring to explore towns until I finished all of the story quests in an area. Which doesn’t make it a bad game since most people don’t immediately decide to ignore the plot until they’ve explored EVERYTHING they can explore prior to the plot, to the point of going into areas the game says will almost instantly kill you just so you can get all the fog cleared from your map, but it does kind of break immersion to be wandering into a giant empty town with no people, no enemies, and only scattered resources for you to collect. Sometimes there aren’t even those until the plot mission happens.
Breath of the Wild was such a revelation to me because it was the first time I had ever played a game that matched the way my brain works. I get interrupted easily, I get sidetracked even more easily, and I seem to lose focus so quickly I’m not sure I can be described as having held it, but that’s just what it looks like to other people. To me, I’m just collecting, cataloguing, and parsing through a series of ideas and thoughts as I take care of what seems the most urgent thing from moment to moment. I run over that hill over there to see if thats a set of korok trees because I won’t remember it if I leave the area.
I will, however, remember that I was trying to get to a shrine I saw. I’ll remember that I’m trying to swing around a mountain on a map to get to a quest marker and just collecting everything I can along the way. It’s like an expanding tree of thoughts, ideas, and impulses that get seen to in order of urgency. While it is utterly incomprehensible to people outside my mind with this kind of detailed explanation, it’s a pretty efficient system inside it. I only forget stuff when I’m tired or distracted by something big enough to wipe out all other thoughts, and that’s just how pretty much everybody works.
When I play games that sort of allow me to play this way but don’t really allow me to play this way, it gets frustrating since now I know what it feels like to be able to do so. Breath of the Wild redefined a smooth gaming experience for me and games that once felt smooth now feel rough by comparison. I can still enjoy those rougher games, but I know what I’m missing now, and how good it could be. Hopefully Breath of the Wild 2 will give me another such experience since I’m getting tired of hoping for it from other games and never getting it.