Hacking versus Mapping: Engaging the Respective Worlds of Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild

After we recorded the August 4th WIYS at Kyle’s place, I managed to get in a little time with Horizon Zero Dawn. Kyle had paused his game before we started recording, so on our way out I took the liberty of “dipping in” as Cool Ghosts might say.

Kyle had just finished throwing down with a couple of fire bellowbacks and was low on health and medicinal herbs. I figured that I could just run around and replenish the herbs and his health before leaving. I ran across a pack of grazers and immediately fell into my old tricks. I shot the canisters on the backs of the grazers. Kyle shouts, “miss!” His face changed when the canisters caught fire, exploded, and set off a chain reaction on the grazers. A pack of 6 or 7 baddies reduced to rubble with only a handful of arrows—a great way to collect EXP and resources (minus the blaze canisters 😊 ). After a minor hiccup with some enemies that were too strong for the gear/EXP at the time, I picked up some more medicine, had a brief scare from some watchers before diving into the red flowers to hide and one-shotting each of them in the lens/head (with a single burst of slow motion focus), saved the game and “hopped out.”

HZD’s crown achievement is blending action, rpg, and exploration genre mechanics into a compelling set of systems that interlock and compound upon each other such that the “grind” of one system is the joy/pleasure of the other. I didn’t really accomplish any specific goal during this 10-minute play session, but that’s the beauty of this game; by simply engaging with the world around me, I not only had an enjoyable, short experience, but I also collected resources that would be useful later during the game. The designers could have entertained removing the fast travel option and the game might have benefited from the change. Moving from one end of the map to the other, fighting whatever comes along, gathering resources, and improvising on the spot is an engaging task on its own before you get into the “meat” the game.

Ordinarily fighting to level up isn’t the most exciting part of traditional RPGs (Final Fantasy 7 has its charm, but fighting monsters over and over again is only so satisfying). But if the fighting feels like the action of an action game like Uncharted or Max Payne, then “grinding” becomes fun. Similarly farming resources can be a drag, but if the world is stimulating on its own, the drudgery is minimal as you have breath-taking scenery to enjoy along the way. This mode of game design not innovative in this moment (Far Cry, Skyrim, and a number of others also deliver on these kind of promises), but pulling it off in a unique, science-fiction inflected world with fresh mechanics that reflect that world is a commendable feat.

During that WIYS, we had an extended discussion concerning the differences and similarities between HZD and Breath of the Wild. My reflections here suggest a comparison of the critical compelling elements within each game. HZD grabs the player’s attention with intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that give the player a great deal of agency in choosing preferred strategies for problem solving. The example of my “strat” in approaching grazers demonstrates how HZD invites the player to analyze the game space to find opportunities (notice that the grazers are walking gasoline barrels), “see” the various possibilities, and develop preferred strategies and tactics therein. My trick with the grazers feels personal, like it’s my own creation, even though the developers clearly intended it as a possibility. Kyle was surprised to see my approach to grazers likely because he has his own “strat” for those encounters. The level of engagement occurs in the interaction with these specific systems of gameplay.

 

BOTW doesn’t hit those same notes. The constant concern for weapon durability and lack of an experience leveling system discourage such aimless jaunts through the world as it won’t reward your effort and will in fact deplete valuable resources.

Instead, playing BOTW requires thinking like an embodied explorer. The game’s map exploration systems involve finding physical land marks on the “actual” terrain rather than simply interacting with a “virtual” map with automated waypoints. The player must pay close attention to dialogue and various clues as to where you need to go, as the onus is on the player to make a path toward the destination with the available tools. The result is a game that forces a level of role playing through the adventure genre where the reward is progress in the game. It avoids the problem that many adventure games have where the gameplay becomes glue stuck to pages of a book, something you have to muddle through to get to the thing that you actually want (Errant signal example). In many ways, this style of game design is more sophisticated than HZD’s ludic complexity. After all, a number of games prior to HZD have realized that action (as well as shooter) and RPG elements complement each other quite well, and the Far Cry series has made a name for itself through the absurd chain reactions found in its emergent gameplay. While HZD is unique and addictive in its own right, it’s really a variation on something of a tried and true mechanic. BOTW on the other hand, takes the Zelda form and offers a unique way of bringing it into the open world genre without relying too heavily on the dominant mechanics and genres of its moment. HZD is like an exquisitely gourmet Burger compared to BOTW’s complex/intricate culinary art in the style of something you might see on Iron Chef. During the awards season this year, critics and reviewers will have to decide which one of these meals they want to champion for game of the year. My hope is that we can find a way to realize that we can enjoy something for lunch and enjoy something else for dinner without too much of a fuss. Despite his critical review, George Weidman says it right:

 

Perfect games don’t exist.

Good criticism shouldn’t make you pissed,

Different tastes can happily co-exist.

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