Horizon Zero Dawn enjoyed three days of social media bliss before the Great Video Game Conversation moved on to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Such is the natural order of things for a fickle fandom: on Wednesday they are stunned by robotic dinosaurs and on Friday they are smitten with a handsome and optimistic fish-man. God bless ’em. But before Horizon and Zelda are usurped by the Next, Next Big Thing (it’s coming), I’d like to take a brief moment to catch our breath, dust off the old magnifying glass, and inspect what led to the arrival of these two very good and very different games in the very same week.
Many years from now, assuming we aren’t searching for dry land, the dual release of Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild will mark the decline of one dominant style of video game, and the ascension of another, a kind of baton handoff made in an unusually warm first week of March. Maybe this sounds strange, considering the many similarities of the two games, as if studios in Amsterdam and Kyoto built from the same source text.
Both titles take place centuries after a cataclysm, in lush worlds reclaimed by nature. Technology is no longer an aspirational goal for creative progress, but a tangible and mysterious relic of ancient civilizations. Massive, robotic beasts — originally built for good — roam the land, and must be extinguished or converted to the hero’s cause. Both games share an intense fascination with nature, encouraging players with a preservationists’ vigor to spend hours of their adventure harvesting the earth for valuable resources, traveling on foot to learn the land, and ultimately rely upon it for survival.
It’s because of these similarities — and the quirky happenstance that the two games should arrive within days of each other — that Horizon and Breath of the Wild are ideal examples of the branching path of open-world games, as if selected for some controlled scientific study. They share the same basic ideas and window of the conversation, and yet they represent a big and crucial aesthetic conflict — one on which game publishers are betting tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
Horizon Zero Dawn is the refinement of a decade-long design trend that prizes humongous maps with hundreds of hand-scripted things to do. The style, which for clarity we’ll call “controlled world,” is the dominant model of the genre, an astonishingly popular design philosophy that counts megahits like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed as its devotees. It allows for player freedom to a point, but ultimately favors the ideas and stories of the people who make the game. A controlled world is actually one game grafted onto another: there’s the open world that you explore, and then there’s a secondary and more traditionally linear adventure that is at best overlaid upon the open world in a series of “go from point A to point B” missions, and at worst, tucked into discrete, standalone zones.
The controlled-world game typically relies on cinematic cutscenes, which often begin and end a mission, and shuttle the player from their hijinks in the open world to the linear experiences of each mission. You can go anywhere and do anything, and yet, where you go, what you do, and what order you do things in won’t be so different from that of every other player. To play in a controlled world is to be an actor performing a role: you can improvise, but you will hit your marks when the script calls for it.
Over the same decade, a handful of open-world games have established the inverse of the controlled-world design (building on and alongside decades of PC games). These games, let’s call them “engaged worlds,” build an explorable setting that isn’t merely a web connecting various adventures, but is the adventure itself. 2009’s Red Faction Guerrilla still relied on scripted missions, but its hook — you are a guerrilla terrorist breaking down the infrastructure of society with a hammer and explosives — let the player create their own solutions. They didn’t have to launch a mission to destroy much of the planet in just the fashion the developers intended, they just needed some heavy weaponry and an eagerness to exploit physics to bring down a martian office complex. The world wasn’t ready for this freedom, apparently, so the now-defunct publisher moved Guerilla’s sequel indoors, where the franchise promptly died.
But arguably the best example of this other form is the Dark Souls series (and its many off branches and knockoffs). There aren’t discrete missions with clear paths to victory. The game is its persistent world, one with few scripted cutscenes and fewer still linear action sequences. Hidden passages serve as puzzles and various ghouls act as gatekeepers, determining if the player has learned enough skills to progress.
These two models aren’t divorced; rather think of them as opposing ends of a spectrum. In recent years, controlled and engaged worlds have largely moved toward the center of the spectrum. Minecraft, originally a world-building tool, has ever-so-slightly streamlined amended mission structures, and games like Watch Dogs 2 have toyed with the idea of open-world architecture being more than a static, tangential ecosystem that binds the campaign. The Witcher 3 marries isolated quests and dense story with a world that exists like a beautiful lab in which the player can experiment with tools, weapons, and magic to create their own narrative vignettes. The game was, in return, showered in Game of the Year awards, including the Game Developers Choice Award, selected by the people who are making (and greenlighting) the future of games.
Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn both live near the center of the spectrum. Horizon’s world is rich and unstructured enough that players can turn its robo-dinosaurs into unwitting members of a futuristic fight club never intended by the game’s creators — but it favors carefully curated missions set against a largely static and constrained world. And Zelda still has dozens of traditional missions and hundreds of isolated puzzle rooms — but it favors exploration and manipulation of its large and interactive world.
It matters, specifically, that Breath of the Wild is a Zelda game. Zelda is one of the oldest, biggest, and most beloved open-world franchises; game creators and publishers will harvest it for lessons from design to storytelling to marketing. But more importantly, Zelda largely popularized the controlled world formula. The Zelda series originated with a large, open map that funneled into standalone dungeons that had to be completed in a specific order with predetermined solutions. Over the years, the series became ever more scripted, both in design and story. But Breath of the Wild’s designers intentionally stripped these barriers between the player and the world, limiting their narrative, but encouraging players to create their own. And to share it.
That’s why engaged worlds have gradually become the dominant mode: they leave room for players to tell and share stories. Publishers, who rent consultants like it’s going out of fashion, know that young audiences are less interested in going to the movies, and more interested in creating moments for mass consumption online — or simply consuming the creations of others. The inevitable reaction is to tweak the model, and to prioritize the player’s story above the creator’s.
This doesn’t mean Horizon is a creative dinosaur (it’s sold 2.6 million copies and counting), or that its developers are behind the time. Developers will continue to make big open-world games that fall on the controlled side of the spectrum — while finding ways to cater to creative players. For example, fans have taken to Horizon’s photo mode, sharing spectacular photographs from the beautiful world. But Breath of the Wild now dominates social media because players share not just photos, but moments in which the game reacted in a way the creators couldn’t have predicted. In an interview with The Verge, Breath of the Wild’s technical director Takuhiro Dohta said of his game’s design: “We included the unexpected in our expectations.”
That’s exciting for players. And it’s exciting for publishers who, to be crass, see each of these moments shared on social media as free marketing.
If Zelda can trade rigid dungeons for open-world freedom, and the notoriously protective Nintendo can cede controlled narratives in favor of user-made YouTube videos, well, any publisher can. And I suspect after Breath of the Wild’s success, most publishers will. As blockbuster game budgets balloon from dozens to over a hundred million, the people who greenlight open-world games will be keen to consider leaning toward the model with fewer expensive cutscenes and plenty of player freedom that, in a best-case scenario, retains players for months, if not years. Ubisoft, the publisher of Assassin’s Creed, took a year off of the franchise to refocus its take on open worlds, emphasizing systematic design over traditional narrative. And Grand Theft Auto, perhaps the most notoriously scripted franchise, has shifted its focus with GTA V from single-player expansion to GTA Online, a massive spinoff that largely hands over its world and designer’s tool kit to its players. In 2016, it had accumulated $500 million in micro-transactions, and spawned a humongous online video community, including members who focus solely on imagining and filming their own adventures in the game’s virtual creation of Southern California.
The future of games is already skewing toward player freedom, not simply because it makes for dynamic moments, but because, in 2017, with games fighting to stay in the conversation from one day to the next, a truly open world is simply good business — and that never goes out of style.