I believe the challenge and promise of computer game design is that our most important tools are the ones that involve and empower players to make their own decisions. That is something that allows each player to explore him or herself, which is something our medium is uniquely equipped to do. - Doug Church, Formal Abstract Design Tools
The new Zelda game is really good. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is fresh and challenging in a way that Zelda games - hell, Nintendo games - haven't been in years. This sea-change seems to come from a break with tradition, favoring a systems-based open world design over the story-driven experience offered in the two previous Zelda games. However, while there are indeed many new systems, mechanics, and design decisions not previously seen in the series, the design philosophy that employed those new systems is classic Nintendo.
RETURN TO FORM
Breath of the Wild offers a huge open world with few gates - from the beginning, you can go anywhere you want, though at your own risk. It seems natural to compare the vast, mountain-enclosed plains to those of Skyrim (2011), and many have done so. Like in Skyrim, if you can see it, you can travel to it, even if it takes an hour and you die a few times on the way.
However, Breath of the Wild isn't the first, or even second Zelda game to offer an open world for exploration. When first playing, I was immediately reminded of Wind Waker (2003), which also offers an open world to explore, though it has to be traversed by boat and there isn't as much stuff in it. However, Breath of the Wild intentionally references The Legend of Zelda (1986) in its open-world design. In that game, too, you could go anywhere you wanted from the starting area, and in exploring you would die a lot.
That tough-love, learn-by-dying approach is popular in game design today, particular in indie roguelikes and in the Dark Souls (2011) series. What's interesting is that the difficulty of those games is a kind of throwback itself, a reaction to the tendency for modern games to coddle the player with tutorials and easy difficulty curves. Dark Souls and indie roguelikes are influenced directly by games like the original Zelda, which would explain nothing to the player and have them figure things out by trial and error. For a Nintendo game, it's bold for Breath of the Wild to do so little hand-holding, though it certainly fits into the gaming zeitgeist.
In a different way, Breath of the Wild has a lot in common with Super Mario 64 (1997) (bear with me). In the 90s, former Looking Glass game designer Doug Church wrote an article about game design called Formal Abstract Design Tools, which was seminal for discussion and thinking about design itself. It called for a new vocabulary for describing how games actually work, from design to experience. As an example, Church picked apart Mario 64, and came up with a couple of terms: "intention" and "perceivable consequence." They aren't the best-defined terms, and there are more refined ones now ("player agency" and "feedback" come to mind), but they were important for describing principles of design that allow for exploration and play. Those underlying principles are absolutely at work in the new Zelda game. For instance, the following quotes could easily describe either game:
Simple, consistent controls, coupled with the very predictable physics, allow players to make good guesses about what will happen should they try something. ...This makes game situations very discernable — it's easy for the players to plan for action. If players see a high ledge, a monster across the way, or a chest under water, they can start thinking about how they want to approach it.
...The key is that players know what to expect from the world and thus are made to feel in control of the situation. Goals and control can be provided and created at multiple scales, from quick, low-level goals such as "get over the bridge in front of you" to long-term, higher-level goals such as "get all the red coins in the world." Often players work on several goals, at different levels, and on different time scales. - Doug Church
Church here focuses on mechanical consistency and player agency because those are aspects of game design he focuses on in his own games. After all, he was a designer at Looking Glass, who had a specific design philosophy: "immersive gameplay emerges from an object-rich world governed by high-quality, self-consistent simulation systems."
What's new about this Zelda game is that Nintendo has chosen to express its design principles with the use of dynamic systems that promote emergent gameplay. The physics engine, "chemistry engine" (a state-based system that determines the effects of elements such as fire, wind, and electricity on objects), weather system, enemy AI, stealth system, and Link's weapon degradation and crafting systems all work together to create a multi-layered experience with a high degree of unpredictability and self-creating drama. Because these are "simulated" systems, they are consistent in how they behave, which gives the player enough feedback to understand them without a tutorial. In this way, Nintendo utilizes dynamic systems to give the player feedback and agency - or in Doug Church's words, "perceivable consequence" and "intention."
As in the Looking Glass design philosophy, having consistent, simulated systems allow the player to come up with and execute creative plans of approach to problems. For example, there are many enemy outposts throughout the game, and there are almost always more ways to approach them than simply rushing in head-on. You can sneakily climb to a vantage point and shoot arrows at them. Or, you could shoot a fire arrow into the grass upwind and let the fire creep into their base, triggering exploding barrels and finishing them that way. Or, you can choose to leave the monsters alone and just play around with the mechanics and see what happens. Because the entire world has so few gates (obstacles or tasks preventing you from exploring or progressing), Hyrule is practically a giant sandbox for the player to experiment in at their leisure.
However, while interacting systems can afford the player more agency, they can also introduce unexpected, uncontrollable elements into the game world. Here, I want to introduce (if nobody has already done so) another Formal Abstract Design Tool: chaos. Chaos is present in a game when there are enough dynamically-interacting systems to create unpredictable events that may be harmful to the player and/or NPCs. A classic example of this is the "grenade rolling down the hill," an aphorism coined by the Idle Thumbs podcast that originally described the chaos that emerges from the systems in Far Cry 2 (2008). In that game, chaos emerges often as a result of interaction between its physics system, fire system, weapon degradation, AI, and malaria attacks. Firefights with enemies can unfold any number of ways, literally depending on which way the wind is blowing. Dishonored (2012) and its sequel also utilize simulated systems to promote emergent gameplay, and even have a morality-based "chaos" system that creates more instances of certain enemies if one's play is violent enough. In all cases, these dynamic challenges force the player to think on their feet.
There's so much more to Breath of the Wild than new dynamic systems applied to Nintendo's design philosophy. There's the art, the charm, the classic Zelda mechanics, the non-linear story, the hundreds of surprises scattered throughout Hyrule, and plenty of stuff I'm forgetting or haven't seen yet. These things are also important parts of game design, and shouldn't be ignored. At the bottom of this post I'm linking to a talk given this year at GDC by the makers of Zelda, on the discussions and thought process that ended up making this game. I highly recommend it (as well as the game, if you hadn't gathered already). It's not every day that a new classic comes out.