cn: There are no spoilers in this article, and the discussion is purely about game mechanics.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild has received near universal praise from critics, with Metacritic listing it as one of the best video games of all time. This is an exciting time, as we anticipate the numerous clones that will try (and fail) to capture what makes this game so great.
Like most adventure games, BotW is essentially a power fantasy. What makes the game exciting is the acquisition of power, and the illusion that your power matters. For example, you find better weapons and equipment, which grants you the power to access further game content. If BotW is better than similar games, then it is probably because it maintains a greater illusion of power for a longer period of time.
And indeed, the illusion of power is precisely what most critics praise. BotW is a game that lets you do anything! You can climb anywhere, and paraglide down. You can experience the story in any order, or just skip straight to the final boss immediately, if you so choose.
But as critics praise the extent of power that the game grants you, they are ignoring the other essential characteristic of a power fantasy: the illusion that the power matters.
I say “illusion” because at most you acquire power over the virtual world, and that world doesn’t matter. Yes, you might gain access further story content, but often the truth is you could have gotten better story content from TV and movies. Nonetheless, it is easy enough to maintain the illusion of meaning as long as the power matters within the virtual world.
What tends to make the illusion collapse is when it becomes clear that your power doesn’t matter even within the virtual world. At some point, you have so much power, but all you can really do with the power is acquire more power, and more power is useless to you. After becoming lord of all, you glimpse the pointlessness of (virtual) existence and realize that you are lord of nothing. It is not merely that your adventure has become meaningless, but that it had always been meaningless from the start.
Game designers could give you all the power from the start, including the ability to fly, to ignore wall collision, and to destroy enemies instantly. But if they did, then the power would feel pointless just that much faster. A good power fantasy instead rations out power, drip by drip, and tries to make each drip feel meaningful.
What makes BotW a satisfying game? Is it that the player gets so much power? No! The strength of the game is in how little power it gives, while still creating a strong impression of power. And the particular strategy for achieving this is to give you a taste of power, and then quickly take it away.
One of the most complained-about mechanics in BotW is weapon durability. Every weapon in the game breaks after a few dozen strikes. A single boss battle can have you cycling through several weapons. There is no way to repair them. You are never in want of weapons, because they are just lying around all over the place, but there is a danger of using up your strongest weapons or weapons that fill a particular niche.
People don’t like this mechanic, because it takes away power. With a little skill and perseverance, you can explore a high level area and find some powerful weapons, but that power is only on loan. In fact, you probably don’t even take advantage of the weapon, instead letting it languish in your inventory in anticipation of tough battle in the hypothetical future. Incidentally, inventory space is extremely limited, and one of the other rewards for exploration is a way to expand your inventory.
It’s understandable that players don’t like weapon durability, because it holds you back. But I believe it’s one of the most important mechanics in the game, because it holds you back from the abyss, the same abyss that lurks at the heart of every power fantasy game.
Consider the alternative, where weapons last forever. Instead of exploring to find weapons that grant you power for a finite amount of time, instead you explore to have a small chance of finding a weapon better than the one you’re currently using. This is basically skinner box game design, with a random reinforcement schedule. And to prevent you from charging straight into the abyss, the game probably needs areas with different level tiers, forcing the game to be more linear. The much-praised wide open world in BotW is basically made possible by weapon durability.
Of course, the weapon durability mechanic is not without its flaws. Some people intuitively see past the illusion, realizing the pointlessness of it all. I’ve observed that some people tend to hoard, systematically overestimating the value of saving a weapon for the future. Nonetheless, I think this is a case where people are very much impressed by one aspect of the game (a wide open world brimming with rewards) and unimpressed with another (brittle weapons), not realizing that the latter is what makes the former possible.