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Breath of the Wild – The Great Plateau | Level Design

Breath of the Wild – The Great Plateau | Level Design
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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took a monumental risk by taking its beloved series to the open-world genre. While the game unavoidably falters here and there because of the series’ new endeavor, the isolated Great Plateau stands as just that — an isolated area where Link can gather himself before jumping off into the rest of the world.

We’ll start by climbing towards freedom, ignoring Link’s resurrection and Zelda’s voice since Zelda and the story belong together as a post in its own right.

Link, Climb Out Of There!

Link climbs his way to freedom out of the cave

After grabbing the Sheikah Slate, Link runs down the hallway in pursuit of freedom. Link has to climb out, which immediately introduces us to a couple of Breath of the Wild’s main mechanics — climbing and the stamina system.

There’s a puddle right before the climb, which is perplexing considering it’s the only puddle in the Shrine of Resurrection. If teleporting back there later, particularly when meeting the Old Man back at the Temple of Time, the Cryonis Rune can now be used as an alternative way of approaching the situation — something Breath of the Wild emphasizes throughout the game.

Welcome To The Wild

The scripted view of the land

After climbing out of the hole, we are treated to the wide expanse of the new world — a promise of something grand across the beautiful landscapes and the distant Hyrule Castle. The camera pans across as Breath of the Wild appears in the corner, building up the open-world experience that we’ll soon be indulging in. As per the Zelda series’ notorious hand-holding, the camera ends on a zoom-in on the Old Man, who quickly turns around a walks back to his campfire hoping Link didn’t notice him peeking. The camera panning to the Old Man is unnecessary since we will discover the Old Man ourselves by running down the only path available to us. In a vast world where the player will be overwhelmed at first, they will talk to the only person in their path.

The Old Man & His Baked Apples

Old Man points out the Temple of Time

The Old Man has personality without piling information and backstory onto us. In just a few lines, we now know we’re in the Great Plateau — the birthplace of Hyrule. He specifically points out, not Hyrule Castle surprisingly, but the Temple of Time. The purpose here is to guide us towards this temple and to become familiar with the temple that we’ll end up coming back to in order to see the Old Man before he departs, albeit it’s awkwardly pointed out.

The Old Man jests with Link after Link takes his Baked Apple

Breath of the Wild builds upon some of the world’s most basic functions through the Old Man, which does well to add to his characterization. Through the Old Man’s jesting, we learn about making succulent treats by mixing food and open flames, and thus we learn the idea of cooking that he expands upon later in the Great Plateau. If we talk to the Old Man afterward, he’ll mention how he needs to bake another apple, and how cooking food makes them “tastier and more nutritious.” Many of the basic aspects of eating, and therefore healing, is taught here through characterization.

So naturally, the player may see an apple tree nearby, only to find out that the only way to reliably make this Baked Apple is to catch yourself on fire.

Link fails at making a baked apple

The Old Man’s Tools

Link picks up the torch.

The first two items the player obtains are very specific ones, and this is no accident. Through the Torch and the Old Man, we learn about locking onto enemies, about using items others would deem tools as weapons and therefore introducing the idea of multipurpose tools, and about fire. There’s another campfire down the path that the player might find appropriate to light using the Torch and the Old Man’s campfire which only further instills the idea.

Link picks up the Woodcutter's Axe and proceeds to cut down a tree.

Next to the campfire is the Woodcutter’s Axe, another multipurpose tool. The player’s first instinct would be to cut down trees, and thus the game leads the player into becoming comfortable with the world, collecting tools, collecting materials, and traversing the landscape. Having the Old Man point out the Temple of Time also helps ease the player in by giving a location to check out.

Although an excellent introduction to the interactive environment, once outside of the Great Plateau the player might realize how useless keeping these tools really is, especially since they’re useless for combat, cutting down trees isn’t needed often, if at all, and Torches (or other tools respectively) are provided for us in the appropriate situations.

The Temple Of Time

Link travels to the Temple of Time

Link can run around or jump in the water; either way, there’s a clear path to the Temple of Time and could be considered a way of introducing the swimming concept, albeit it’s a stretch to say so. A singular Bokoblin — the main enemy type in the game — is isolated at the entrance to ease the player into combat, a prime example of the Great Plateau’s subtly crafted tutorial.

We see a Goddess Statue across the temple that currently does nothing, and traditional Zelda pots on our right that were placed to lead us to the Traveler’s Bow. The temple is surrounded by deteriorated Guardians that spark our curiosity.

Great Plateau Tower

Great Plateau Tower rises as well as many others

The first objective that Zelda gives Link is a mysterious platform to put his Switch on which cues a short yet beautifully cinematic scene of Sheikah Towers rising all over the world. It’s another aspect of the Great Plateau that tries to push home the enormity of the world and the adventures that await us.

Similar to Assassin’s Creed, climbing towers unlocks the area’s map. Unlike Assassin’s Creed however, we scout our own paths and mark our own objectives that are surprisingly visible against the backdrop. Giving the player this kind of control is what really pulls Breath of the Wild’s freedom in its open-world together. This, in addition to their animation and accompanying music, is what makes climbing Sheikah Towers more exciting and rewarding rather than just being a multitude of tedious and mundane tasks. The mundaneness is also helped by many of the different mini-puzzles that block direct access to the towers.

We don’t know about tagging objects such as Shrines yet though, as that’s something the Old Man ends up teaching us. Although the Old Man becomes a bit dialogue heavy, partially due to his occasional ranting, it’s almost necessary so that the player knows these main mechanics that will guide Link onward in a more steady and character-oriented fashion rather than info dumping and completely overwhelming the player.

Zelda annoyingly talks to you

We are greeted with a glowing light and Calamity Ganon in the distance. Zelda’s exposition was unneeded since it tells us nothing and doesn’t add to her characterization, whereas the Old Man ends up gliding in after we climb down and gives us a brief and more comprehension history lesson in only a couple sentences. Following with Breath of the Wild’s open-world theme, the more engaging approach would have been to have the beast circle the castle and have the light glow brighter in real-time. The beast’s howling would draw every player’s attention toward it. This would also remove some of the Old Man’s lines, specifically asking about the voice he heard.

Removing Zelda’s constant prodding wouldn’t affect the game because we never hear from her again after the Great Plateau and because the Memories we find later on that include her are mostly forgettable and a squandered mechanic despite the act of finding these Memory locations a rather engaging exploration tool.

The Old Man sends you off to find treasure.

The Old Man sets the tone of Calamity Ganon and how the time where it’ll consume the world is fast approaching, shows us how the Great Plateau is isolated and how we need his Paraglider, and sets us off on our next quest to gather our Runes that we’ll need for the rest of the game by passing it off as “treasure” that he wants in exchange for his Paraglider.

The Four Runes

The Four Runes.

Replacing Zelda’s item system is four Runes that are all introduced in their respective isolated Shrines. For such an open-world game, it’s surprising how isolation can be its main theme for the beginning area, and yet it would never be realized by the player.

Although many would come to miss Zelda’s item system, the new Rune system is an admirable approach and practically necessary considering the pure open-world aspect of the game, and I mean truly open-world, where we can walk up to the final boss at almost any point during our playtime.

After the Remote Bomb and Stasis trials, there are conveniently placed rocks and boulders for the player to test out their new skill in the outside world. This isn’t necessary, but it’s a great addition showing how applicable these new Runes are in regards to the world around us.

There’s one area in particular that’s well-made and found while traversing toward the Shrines.

The Old Man’s Little House On The Prairie

The Old Man's hut, his diary, and the Warm Doublet.

We are formally introduced to conquering-the-cold solutions via two options: Obtain the Old Man’s Warm Doublet that has Cold Resistance by finding the ingredients to his favorite recipe, or make your own Cold Resistance recipes by using Spicy Peppers so conveniently placed on the table and throughout the Great Plateau, specifically next to the cold environments. If we don’t cook the recipe, we can come back after Old Man reveals himself as King Rhoam for the Warm Doublet and a heartfelt goodbye from the Old Man’s diary.

We are also formally introduced to cooking, albeit with its unintuitive UX. Cooking Cold Resistance recipes leads to experimentation and sets the optional mechanic up for the rest of the game.

Chopping down trees with the Old Man.

The Old Man runs toward the trees to cut them down. Talking to him will cue him saying he could use some help, and thus Link can grab the Woodcutter’s Axe in the Old Man’s hut and chop down a tree. Of course this not only adds more to the Old Man’s characterization, but it shows (again) how to chop wood and, in this case, chop down a bridge over the nearby ravine.

Although, again, the tree chopping mechanic isn’t used often further on in the game, if at all, but nevertheless it’s a nice touch in this wonderfully crafted area and builds upon how Breath of the Wild gives so many different methods and ways of proceeding through an area or solving a problem.

And Off We Go!

Meeting King Rhoam and obtaining the Paraglider.

After finding all four Shrines, Breath of the Wild places the player in another do-it-yourself moment. The solution? What do we know, the Temple of Time! This time the Goddess Statue is glowing and is a great way of introducing the leveling system now that we have the four Spirit Orbs needed since we’re already familiar with the area and ends up being a “ah-ha” moment.

On top of the Temple of Time lies the Old Man who now introduces his true self as King Rhoam. He mentions how he didn’t want to dump everything on Link at once, which also lends well to not overwhelming the player, and proceeds to give Link the truth about what happened 100 years ago. This exposition had a build-up and lays the entire goal of the game out for us, so it’s well-received and well-timed to the point where it doesn’t feel like an info dump.

As promised, he hands us his Paraglider. We get to test it out immediately, which is always a good design practice, as we glide below to start our new adventure!


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Comments (1)

  • I’ve just recently realized how similar the beginning of Breath of the Wild feels to the starting area of Dark Souls! Similar to Breath of the Wild, we are introduced to the world by a great perspective of the world (in BoTW) and a flight through it with Snuggly the crow in Dark Souls. And once again, in both games the first focus point seems to be that lost warrior or wanderer seemingly sitting there without reason. (King Rhoam and the crestfallen warrior). Both tell us about our first objectives and their reasoning. (towers & kill ganon // Ring the bells & sens fortress) In both games you can also go to every place that you can see, making yet another comparison. I just thought that would be an interesting note, since lots of games have been looking at Dark Souls for inspiration already, and I don’t think that the newest installment of the Zelda franchise is an exception.

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