Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: Super Mario Odyssey/Nintendo

Earlier this year, I threw a temper tantrum. I was mid-way through Horizon Zero Dawn, a game of dazzling polish and exciting potential, and after a few hours of streamlined, mildly inspired introduction, I viewed with horror what the remainder of my time with the game would be: It was to be, yet again, a map game. I would find new regions, climb some sort of tower, unlock a bunch of icons representing various activities on a map, and then go do them. I would gather endlessly generating materials that would let me craft bags that would let me hold larger quantities of those materials. There would be a detailed screen, somewhere in the byzantine menu, that listed exactly how few of these many activities I had accomplished, designed to make me flush with gratitude for the surplus of content this game had afforded me. Only six of 14 errands accomplished! What a brave new world we live in!

We’ve grown overwhelmingly used to this format, whether it’s Rockstar’s various minigame-filled worlds or the vast empire of endlessly upgradeable Ubisoft series. It’s a design principle that always works, packing in the bang players so stridently demand for their buck, and it’s assimilated almost every genre of video game, like the RPG (Dragon Age), the shooter (Borderlands, Destiny), survival horror (The Evil Within 2), even racing (Need For Speed). It’s a massive, overriding principle defining this entire era of games, the way the platformer or first-person shooter once did, forged by the demands of players and the capabilities of designers.

And it is fucking exhausting, at least to me, for both the exploitative way it treats my time—as some sort of bottomless resource to be burned in endless, reycled activities—and my desire for narrative—endlessly shouted at me from my companions or meted out in atomized morsels of sketched-in “world-building.” A few games transcend these limitations—The Witcher 3, Rockstar’s games, maybe No More Heroes—but Horizon Zero Dawn was not one of them. It played it by the book. I hated it, and swore off any future game built around the filling-in of a map and its corresponding checklist of activities.

Screenshot: Horizon Zero Dawn/Sony

Then The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild came out, and it was, well, a game built around the filling-in of a map and its corresponding checklist of activities. And I loved it—I think it’s one of the best games of the decade, full stop. Part of what makes it a sea change in the open-world game is its obsessive focus on the map itself. Rather than a guide to activities, it is the activity. During the first couple dozen hours of the game, I’d lie there after playing for a while, poring over the map, plotting out new paths and how to uncover new territory. You climb towers to unlock new sections, sure, but icons don’t automatically fill in, detailing collectibles and mini-games to fill your time; rather, you find those yourself, manually stamping the map with a variety of symbols that you determine as you go.

The net effect of this was profound. One of the great clichés in open-world video games over the past few years is the promotional video describing “that mountain on the horizon” as a place you can actually walk to. It became a talking point so prevalent, a feature so expected that the technological feat of the background gradually becoming the setting has been rendered no longer impressive. Zelda upends this. The thrill of traversing Hyrule—clambering over rocks and through rivers, finding paths around ravines and under ruins—made the promise of that journeying sensation real. When you stand atop the mountain, for once, you feel utterly alive.

Screenshot: The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild/Nintendo

By emphasizing the map and making it the story, Nintendo’s designers were free to de-emphasize the actual narrative impetus—never one of Zelda’s strong suits in the first place. It’s still there, and, yeah, it ain’t great: There’s been a lot of grousing about the quality of the game’s voice-acting and cut scenes, but this is missing the point. They were minor appendages on a 100-hour journey. The real story recalled, instead, the work of Hidetaka Miyazaki and Fumito Ueda, its narrative written through crumbling palaces and villages, etched into the topography of a world that faded gradually from desert to canyon to cliffside beach town. Its ambient sound, full of whispering bird song and the rustle of wind and playful pianos skittering into abstract melodies, served as the dramatic tension that other games might’ve filled with a surplus of tertiary quest-giving characters. The promise of what lay behind the next hillside worked better than any written cliffhanger or foreshadowing could’ve. And its handful of cities, rather than functioning as utilitarian trading posts and quest hubs, are instead packed full of graceful narrative arcs, picturesque back alleys, and characters humbly going about their day.

In short, Nintendo stripped the open-world map game down to its very defining elements: a rich world to explore and a map to explore it with. Rather than leveling up, you got information about the world; rather than an endless flood of activities, you got stamps to place on the map yourself. Its main quest provided a structure for exploring the verdant world of Hyrule and a handful of set pieces, but little more. This clarity of vision alone would’ve marked the game as a turning point in the history of open-world games, but then Nintendo released Super Mario Odyssey—as daring in its own way as Zelda was, but for entirely different reasons.

Screenshot: Super Mario Odyssey

In Super Mario Odyssey, that mountain in the distance isn’t a new location—it’s probably just a backdrop. After vaulting through the game’s main quest line, you make your way back through the levels on a quest for more of its 999 moons. In so doing the game’s open spaces start to feel less like vast, boundless worlds, and more like intricately designed dioramas, recalling Luigi’s Mansion or Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, as well as the playful interactive gadgets in indie titles like Gnog, Vignettes, and Islands: Non-Places. You come to look at spaces like the Wooded Kingdom as contraptions and even larger settings like the inimitable New Donk City as richly designed fun-houses.

The pleasure comes not from their vastness but from the deceptive density of their design, the way that you keep turning them over, memorizing their nooks and crannies, and shaking out new minutely designed games and pathways and challenges. Its map, pointless in the early going, becomes a minimalist and purely functional set of clues pointing you toward those various delights. A handful of waypoints are given to you midway through, but the vast majority are earned through giddy exploration. By the time you’re paying Toad 50 coins for the privilege of having a single treasure pointed out to you, you’re already deep in the game’s clutches, a few hundred honestly earned stars under your belt.

Screenshot: Super Mario Odyssey

As diametrically opposed as the two games are, they point to some clear-cut ideas within Nintendo about what an open-world game should be, a spiritual kinship similar to the one between Super Mario 64 and Ocarina Of Time’s collaborative envisioning of what 3-D gaming might be. Both Breath Of The Wild and Odyssey have checklists and the frankly implausible amounts of content that has become customary among many big-budget games, but rather than spread this out among a billion different collectibles, they zero in on a single quest—Shrines for Link and Moons for Mario. The variety comes not in what you’re going for but in how you get it, whether it’s a combat gauntlet or a physics puzzle. You don’t get to choose it in advance.

This sense of surprise carries over to the worlds themselves, which delight in letting players uncover secret caches and playgrounds and storylines throughout them. Both shirk the siren call of the cluttered mini-map and HUD, with a simple compass sufficing in Mario and a completely optional directional mini-map in Zelda. They make you earn your various waypoints, destinations, and checkboxes, whether by buying them or scouting them yourself through binoculars. And, perhaps most stridently, they delight in the simple thrill of locomotion through these worlds, galloping through the hills on hard-won and characterful horses or vaulting onto a spinning hat to reach a distant building. There’s even an almost narrative precision to the placement of fast-travel checkpoints. These are worlds you are intended to spend time traversing.

Which is, ultimately, the defining maxim of Nintendo’s new theory of open-world game design: a respect for the player’s time. Sure, they say, we’ll load you up with more game than you can reasonably be expected to play—Super Mario Odyssey will be the first major Mario game I have zero intention of seeing through to its final collectible—but they make sure it’s a meaningful investment, no matter what the scale. Both games can be completed in surprisingly linear fashion in 10 hours or so, but both also reward long, sprawling, leisurely play, as well as the hockey-stick investment of completionists used to Ubisoft-like excess.

Screenshot: The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild/Nintendo

Nintendo’s innovations usually stay within Nintendo, but it’s inspiring to think of what some of these principles might do for games outside their stable. How might the view-finding waypoints of Zelda translate to the world of Red Dead Redemption 2? What might Odyssey-like concision mean for the worlds of Cyberpunk 2077 or Shenmue 3? Is there any chance that Bioware’s massive Anthem contains the sheer tangible joy of movement that Nintendo’s 2017 games did?

Probably not. But eventually the “map game” as typified by Horizon Zero Dawn and all its predecessors will wane, and I’m betting Nintendo’s ideas provide a sort of North Star for whatever comes next, an ideal to aspire to. In the meantime, we’ll always have Breath Of The Wild and Odyssey, and lord knows there’ll always be more of them to play—another mountain on the horizon, glittering with promise, and worth the investment at last.

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About the author

Clayton Purdom

Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.