Simple complexity: How Breath of the Wild’s simple systems generate infinite fun
by on May 7, 2017
Spoiler warning
This article discusses mechanics and puzzles of Breath of the Wild. While there are no story spoilers, it does reveal at least one puzzle solution as well as minor details about the shrines and dungeons.

One of the most amazing parts of Breath of the Wild is the fact that, in lieu of creating the rather traditional, carefully crafted experience of leading players through a linear story, it opens up the world and sets you free to explore the bounds of it without limitation (or, at least, many limitations). The game of course does set out for you — even from the very early moments — solid goals for you to accomplish: raise the Tower of Resurrection, enter a few shrines, and then eventually defeat Calamity Ganon, but once you’ve completed the tutorial zone of the Great Plateau, the rails come off. While, again, it does suggest where you should go, it’ll simply shrug nonchalantly if you choose to go another way.

In this fashion, Breath of the Wild is squarely an open-world RPG.

Yet, unlike most other open-world RPGs that are on the market — The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher series, recent iterations of Fallout, and Red Dead RedemptionBreath of the Wild treats the medium with a very different set of ideals in mind. The world of Hyrule this time is bigger than ever before, quite massive in scope. But Nintendo’s restraint in crafting this Zelda game finds the complex rules and built-up structures from similar games and strips them down to their barest components.

In short, Breath of the Wild is an amazingly simple game. But don’t let that fool you, because within that simplicity is Zelda’s greatest asset: approachable complexity.

The parable of complexity

The other day, I was watching the tail end of an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (don’t judge me) as there wasn’t much else on television. It’s not something I’d normally watch, but the last 20-odd minutes of the show that I saw struck me in a particular fashion. Gordon Ramsay in this episode was in Scotland helping an aspiring French chef to turn his restaurant around in hopes of eventually receiving a Michelin star. One of the things holding this chef back was the fact that he was making overly elaborate dishes. Ramsay tried again and again to drill into his head that he didn’t need 15 to 20 elements on each plate; his dishes were so elaborate that they either didn’t make sense or that people felt too unsophisticated to properly enjoy them.

Gordon Ramsay’s advice probably isn’t the reason you can only cook with five ingredients, but the simplicity principle is still at work.

Instead, according to Ramsay, simplification is key. Don’t try to mash together 20 competing flavors together in one dish because those flavours will compete with one another and prevent each other from really singing. Instead, focus on five, maybe ten — but certainly no more than ten — and do each of those expertly. If he could achieve that, then his actual talent would be easily exposed.

I look at this new iteration of Hyrule, and that world chock full of things to do. Everywhere you will hear stories of people setting out with a particular goal in mind… only to be distracted many times along the way, eventually pushing everyone off of that directed path until they find themselves far from where their initial direction was taking them. That certainly sounds like complexity.

But when we break it down section by section, the complexity melts away, and all we’re left with is just a handful of elements, all of which done expertly, though mind that these elements are fundamentally simple despite being flavorful and vibrant.

Don’t try to mash together 20 competing elements. Instead, focus on five, maybe ten, and do each of those expertly.

Diversity in encounters despite a limited palette

Consider the combat of Breath of the Wild. I actually relish the combat of the game quite a bit, and while the weapon durability system isn’t my absolute favorite thing in the world, I’ve found that it doesn’t bother me as I’m always getting enough good weapons over time that I’m never missing any one particularly much. But in terms of what enemies you end up facing, it’s actually quite surprising how few of them there are.

If we discount all of the elemental and strength-based varieties of enemies in the game, we’ll find that Breath of the Wild only has, if we’re generous, 16 types of enemies. For the weaker enemies, we have Keese, Chuchus, Octoroks, Pebblits, and wolves. (You could count the other animals of the game that are semi-aggressive, but wolves are utterly unique in their desire to hunt you down.) The main mix of enemies comes from Bokoblins, Moblins, Lizalfos, and Wizzrobes. Beyond that, you have Yiga, Guardian Scouts, actual Guardians, and Lynels. And then the world minibosses round out with Hinoxes, Taluses, and Moldugas.

Compare this to the original game The Legend of Zelda. Not counting the more trap-like enemies of the Bubble, the Rock, the Stone Statue, and the Trap, the very first game in the Zelda series on the now-ancient NES hardware had nine more non-boss enemy types than Breath of the Wild, each of which had a very distinctive attack pattern and purpose.

At first, this comparison appears to be an absolute embarrassment for Nintendo’s latest game. I kept thinking as I traversed the Gerudo Desert for the first time that Leevers — a practical staple of the series! — would unearth themselves at some point, but no, Nintendo figured they already had enough variety in their game. And in truth, they did.

Consider your stereotypical Bokoblin in Breath of the Wild. Pause for a moment to consider this Bokoblin. Is that Bokoblin wielding a weapon? Typically yes, but some will struggle to find one in a pinch, meaning that they can go in with their claws if they have to. What sort of weapon does it hold? It could be a melee weapon? Spear? Broom? Garden hoe? One-handed sword? Two-handed sword? Club? Or maybe it’s wielding a bow: What sort of arrows is it firing? Normal arrows? Fire arrows? Bomb arrows? Ice arrows? Shock arrows? Also what color is it (and therefore how tough is it)? Is it riding a horse and willing to give chase? Does it have a horn to awaken its allies if it spots you? And what sort of company does it keep: Lizalfos or Moblins? Are there explosive barrels around in order to kill them quickly, or how about metal crates to drop on its head?

The Legend of Zelda doesn’t touch Breath of the Wild in terms of varieties of the same enemy.

With encounters in Breath of the Wild, nearly every enemy encampment has some sort of distinctive flair. How you approach one encounter along the trail might be completely different to how you’ll deal with the next one up the road. Do you stealth this encounter, do you pick them off from afar, or do you just go in guns ablaze? The answer is that it depends upon the circumstances. All of these mitigating circumstances means that the number of unique encounter types you’ll see in Breath of the Wild vastly outnumbers what its eight-bit predecessor could ever dream of achieving even with its broader enemy palette.

Smaller periodic tables makes chemistry decipherable

You could also look at Breath of the Wild’s “chemistry” engine to see this simplistic complexity as well. As a point of comparison, there’s a game on iOS and Android (and many other platforms, but the key consideration here is that it’s a mobile game) called Doodle God that launched way back in 2010. The game is essentially a puzzle game where you start with four basic elements — Water, Earth, Fire, and Air — and combine them in logical and creative ways to produce new elements. Your eventual goal is to create all 248 possible “elements” in the game’s concept of a periodic table.

For example, Air mixed with Water produces Steam, which makes sense: water in a gaseous form is water vapor; that Steam can later be mixed with Metal to craft a Boiler, a metal machine that is powered by steam. Fire and Earth will produce Lava (a chunk of earth on fire, as it were), and that Lava can then be mixed with Water to cool it into Stone. In the beginning, it’s all very simple as you don’t have many elements to choose from, and almost every combination will produce a new result. But by the end of the game, when you’re striving for those last few results, it takes a little more intuition to mix Virus (a combination of Human and Bacteria, implying an illness-producing virus) with a Computer to produce a Hacker. And while Music mixed with Alcohol creating Rock ‘n’ Roll is somewhat logical, why on earth I’d end up thinking that Rock ‘n’ Roll would be something I could create, or that I could mix those two things becomes an unlikely possibility.

I don’t know the full capacity of Breath of the Wild’s chemistry engine, but I can see the sheer shape of it in how it works. When you look at the system as a whole, each object that you can find in the world only has a handful of properties: material (what is it made of?), elemental nature (does it have characteristics of an element?), buoyancy (does it float in water?), buffs (does it give you a bonus either directly or after being cooked?), and food group (what role in cooking does this provide?). Certainly there are others, though these are certainly some of the most relevant.

This electric weapon won’t float, but I wouldn’t recommend dropping it in water for other obvious reasons.

To see how it works, we can easily look at weaponry. Every melee weapon, bow, and shield is either metal or wooden, and there are only three elemental effects: fire, ice, and electricity. If you mix any wooden weapon with fire, it will catch on fire (and soon disintegrate), but metal weapons can’t. However, metal weapons are vulnerable to electricity, and holding one when getting shocked will electrocute Link, whereas wooden weapons are safe. (And yes, metal weapons will summon electric lightning in the midst of a storm!)

Some of the weapons also have elemental characteristics, and these will react in very logical ways. Any fire-based weapon will melt ice in the world, and any ice-based weapon will deal a lethal blow to any fire-based enemy. Water (including rain) will prevent anything from catching fire, but water will enhance the effects of electricity. And of course fire and explosives are a deadly combination, which is why you don’t pull out a Bomb Arrow while anywhere near Death Mountain as it will explode in your face. When it comes to combat, there really aren’t all that many other rules than these.

The game trusts you, the player, to figure out these relationships. Once you do, you can rely upon these rules to ALWAYS be consistent no matter the circumstances.

But here’s the really amazing thing about Breath of the Wild: The game doesn’t teach you any of this directly. Sure, there might be a helpful hint during the game’s loading screens that might mention pieces of this rule set, but the game doesn’t go through any sort of in-depth tutorial. The game trusts you, the player, to pay attention enough to figure out all of these relationships. The game trusts you to intuit that these are all perfectly logical and expected results, and you can rely upon these rules to always be consistent no matter the circumstances.

There are two amazing aspects to this system. The first is that players can easily figure out how to exploit these situations to their advantage. If you’re facing a gaggle of enemies that are all wielding Shock Arrows, don’t go into battle when it’s raining. Don’t go in with anything metallic set as your weapon or your shield. Which means that you should be conscious of ensuring that you have always have both metallic and non-metallic weapons in your inventory. Or, if you’re stuck with metallic things, drink an elixir or wear some armor that immunizes you to the effects of electricity.

The second amazing thing is that Breath of the Wild doesn’t prescribe to you the solutions behind puzzles; it merely provides the rules by which puzzles can be solved. My wife and I are both playing the game, and we ritualistically will solve puzzles in wholly different ways. One particular puzzle asked us to “cast a cold shadow onto [a pedestal’s] core.” Further clues highlight the word cold, hinting exactly what one is supposed to do. My wife, using perfect logic, used Cryonis to raise up a pillar of ice from the water from a nearby pond to cast the shadow onto the pedestal. However, this solution didn’t enter my head at all. I saw a little snowball resting in that small pond, so I merely had Link lift it up over his head, and from the perfect spot the shadow of that snowball was cast directly onto the pillar. Both solutions worked.

And it doesn’t stop there. Just watch this video, where one player couldn’t be bothered to go obtain the second electric orb locked away in another room. Instead, he uses this perfect game logic to solve the puzzle in his own unique way.

The game doesn’t need 248 different elements just to compete with a mobile game. It just needed a small handful of them as well as strong, consistent logic to ensure that the suspension of disbelief is never broken.

The non-diversity yet diversity of shrines

The shrines — and, to a lesser degree, the dungeons — seem to be a small point of contention amongst fans. If I’m truly honest with myself, I find myself waxing fondly for the deep dungeon-delving mechanics of earlier games and missing their “omission” with Breath of the Wild. Many have wished that there were much more intricate, much more mechanically deep, more aesthetically diverse, or even just longer experiences with shrines and dungeons than Breath of the Wild provides.

Looking back at previous games, there are a host of dungeons that are absolutely memorable for a host of reasons. From Ocarina of Time, there are several dungeons I really love, but the Shadow Temple is one of my favorites as its tone and theme are rather haunting, and the long slog deep into the earth as you dodge guillotines, invisible enemies, and large swirling scythes propel you forwards. In The Wind Waker, I fondly remember Dragon Roost Cavern, that volcanic crag that saw you dangling preciously over molten rock as you swung from platform to platform via the Grappling Hook. From Twilight Princess, there’s the Arbiter’s Grounds, that thrilling maze of a dungeon that utilized the Spinner in all the right ways, leading towards an exquisite boss fight at the end. And who can forget Skyward Sword’s Sandship, that living, breathing ship that spanned the present and the ancient past as you navigated from the captain’s quarters all the way to the great engines way below deck.

While the four major dungeons in Breath of the Wild in many ways pale in comparison to the great diversity of themes, puzzles, and enemy encounters of past games, there is a subtle brilliance to the shrines and dungeons of the game.

Without digging too much into the specifics, the dungeon near Goron City is, unsurprisingly themed around mechanics involving fire. But if you look to the shrines within the same general vicinity of Vah Rudania, you’ll notice that they share that theme. The puzzles of some of the surrounding shrines are titled Blue Flame, Swinging Flames, Power of Fire, and Passing the Flame — all of which help teach you techniques that will be useful in navigating the dungeon’s corridors. The Gerudo’s dungeon is themed with electricity, and the shrines there all follow suit as well: The Current Solution, Electric Path, Power of Electricity, and (the less appropriately named but still electricity-based) A Delayed Puzzle. For the Rito, their shrines encompass the wind, and the Zora’s are about water.

In doing this, the developers have provided to you piecemeal experiences that are actually akin to many of the puzzles you would solve in a dungeon. They’ve separated out the various dungeon experiences and scattered them across the landscape. And in doing so the dungeons, these Divine Beasts that have become the centerpieces for Breath of the Wild’s story, became free to be something else entirely. The dungeons could utilize the concepts you learned from the surrounding shrines, sure, but now they exist at a much deeper scale, using dungeon-wide mechanisms that are much more complex than their shrine counterparts, even if the dungeons themselves remain much simpler than the games before them.

As for the shrines themselves, yes, while many of them are experiences that can be wrapped up in five or so minutes each, there is a great degree of variety in those, even if it’s just in mechanics and not aesthetics. Half of the game’s 120 shrines are devoted to puzzles, and those puzzles range wildly. They involve all four of the game’s major elements as creative mechanics involving lasers, rolling balls, switches, and more. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, Link only has a limited palette of ways to express himself in terms of mechanics. He has his sword, his bow, Remote Bombs, Magnesis, Stasis, and Cryonis. There are sixty unique puzzles using just six basic mechanics!

Out of the remaining half, 20 of the puzzles involve combative trials of varying difficulty, five involve gyroscopic controls, and most of the remainder are destination points, shrines that simply give you a reward by having achieved whatever quest or overworld puzzle led you to it. The last of those groups are perhaps the most interesting aspect because, many times, those “reward” shrines are hidden or completely invisible, unable to be found, except by being in the right place at the right time and armed with the solution to a provided puzzle.

While the shrines on their own, on average at least, aren’t unique or amazing enough on their own to stand out, those puzzles and journeys will be, and that provides just enough complexity to still make the game loads of fun.

Complexity through simplification

Nintendo didn’t try to outdo other games by simply adding more elements. Instead, they knew exactly when to hold back and refine the elements they had already decided to include.

Ultimately, what I’ve come to appreciate in Breath of the Wild isn’t the fact that it goes toe-to-toe or compete feature by feature with the biggest and best of its rivals. Nintendo, in crafting this amazing Zelda adventure, didn’t try to outdo other open-world games by simply adding more and more elements to the game just to say that it could manage them all with some modicum of finesse.

Instead, Nintendo knew exactly when to hold back on wanton addition, to take considerable effort to polish, and to refine the elements that they had already decided to include. It’s that restraint that allowed them to hone on how those small set of elements would interact with one another in a perfect way. And this complexity through the use of simplicity means that Breath of the Wild doesn’t have to drill its core concepts into us through some overly elaborate tutorial; it can simply trust players to learn via exploration and experimentation, two of the core tenets of the whole Zelda franchise.

David Johnson
David Johnson, a.k.a. "The Missing Link," was once the webmaster of both Zelda: The Grand Adventures and ZeldaBlog. He works as a software engineer in the games industry. David also pontificates about Zelda, writes features and guides for ZU, and obsesses about CD-i.