I’m enjoying Breath of the Wild, the near-unanimously praised new entry in the Zelda series, but if I’m honest, its world can be a little overwhelming. Each time I crest a mountain, I spot another handful of towers and mini-dungeons, all waiting far away and in opposing directions. Eventually I choose my next stop and set off, but good intentions to travel from point A to point B are interrupted by another camp or quest, and then another, and another, bending my straight path into an erratic zigzag. I appreciate the scale and I love getting lost, don’t get me wrong. But I lack the mandatory self-control to focus on one objective at a time. Sometimes, I crave limitations. That’s why I’m smitten by Zelda’s perfect little mystery island.
Located on the southeast corner of the map, far into the ocean, the islet condenses the entirety of the game’s design into a compact, distraction-free plot of tropical real estate. And here’s where I say the obvious: spoiler warning.
You may arrive at Eventide Island by boat or a very long glide from a distant mountaintop. When you reach the shore, the game will pause, provide the thinnest of stories, and promptly deprive you of all your possessions. Clothes, items, food, and weapons are gone, but you’ll get everything back once you complete the quest. Or die.
It’s a disorienting setback. For dozens of hours, the game has privileged your inventory, with every sword, shield, and bundle of food heralded as precious and useful. Going back to zero feels, if only for a moment, like a betrayal.
The goal of Eventide Island is, on its surface, undemanding. Three steel balls have been tucked like Easter eggs onto the island. You must find and return them to three circular holsters. It would be easy enough were the land not populated with beasts, including a giant (roughly the size of a Toledo office building) that has mistaken one of the steel balls for a pendant and fashioned it onto its necklace.
You, on the other hand, have no fashionable necklace or anything else, really, except your wits and Link’s boxer briefs. And so the sequence plays like the early moments of modern survival games. First, find a stick with which to pulverize a skeleton, then use that skeleton’s ivory arm to bat some bats. Harvest their wings and bones and guts and every resource in sight, search for a cauldron to make food and elixirs, and once it rains, have a good think about how to get the fire rekindled.
Like Breath of the Wild’s open world, the island is technically open, and yet design tricks are guiding you, like an invisible hand, from one point to the next, gradually introducing stronger enemies and stronger weapons with which to slay them. At the same time, it is teaching you Link’s core abilities. To complete the island, you will use bombs to uncover secret area, magnetize weapons to retrieve them from precarious places, freeze time to turn boulders into projectiles, and freeze water to… well, I won’t spoil that.
And like Breath of the Wild, the design still leaves room for experimentation and discovery. The scenario clearly builds to a battle with the giant, but being a dummy, I abandoned a puzzle, and fought the towering beast midway through the quest. See, I had found one steel ball, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to a holster a few feet into the ocean. I couldn’t throw it that far. And I couldn’t find a boat. A solution finally came to me midway through the boss fight. My little problem was actually a cleverly conceived puzzle, not a quirk in the world’s topography. The missing piece struck me at roughly the same time and with the same impact as the giant’s fist.
Breath of the Wild has a confidence rarely seen in open-world games, hiding dozens of puzzles in plain sight by disguising them within the environment. Which makes each puzzle exist on two planes. You must solve the puzzle. But you must also decode what of this world is a puzzle to begin with. What makes this island so special then is its density. Free of distractions, it trains the player not merely how to survive in this world, but how to look at it.