Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom owes its design to one of the most overlooked developers

We take it for granted that modern video games allow us to solve a puzzle, survive a fight, or get from point A to B in more ways than one. “Freedom of the player” is ingrained in many tentpole releases – especially open-world games, which rely on your lingering curiosity even after repeating the same general objective ad nauseum. Sure, you’re about to clear your second enemy outpost in 10 minutes, but this time you could be discrete.

2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was remarkable (it still is) for how much genuine freedom it granted the player. The physics system, weather patterns, survival elements, Rune skills and robust inventory all came together in a dizzying array of possible solutions to each problem. There’s a reason speedrunners flock there. Yes, you can roam from Bokoblin camp to Bokoblin camp and kill any enemy with club, spear or bow and arrow. But you can also build up an electrical charge in your sword during a thunderstorm and hurl it into a hostile crowd a fraction of a second before lightning strikes.

That open nature is a big part of it The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s longevity, and based on everything we’ve seen Tears of the Kingdom‘s trailers and gameplay presentations, Nintendo is doubling down on players’ freedom in the sequel. With his newfound Zonai abilities, which allow him to pull through ceilings, fuse insane weapons, rewind moving objects along their recent trajectory, and build entire vehicles, Link is now essentially a magical engineer. I played for over an hour Tears of the Kingdom last week, and I’m still thinking about all the tricks I not attempt.

There is a term for this kind of games: immersive sim. Like most subgenre monikers, the definition isn’t always agreed upon and is often misused (by me), but to put it as succinctly as possible, immersive sims are games that try to say “yes” as often as possible to the player. . It’s actually more of a design philosophy. And nevertheless Tears of the Kingdom looks poised to be the biggest immersive sim ever, this dedication to player choice actually goes back decades, to the work of a studio that made PC games in the ’90s.

Looking Glass Studios, formerly Blue Sky Productions, was founded in 1990 by a collection of like-minded developers who saw video games as an opportunity to create story-driven 3D worlds. They also wanted to emphasize player empowerment and move away from the idea of ​​video games as a linear experience. The studio released games like Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, System Shock and the sequel, and Thief: The Dark Project. Like it Breath of the Wild and the sequel, these games each gave players countless ways to solve puzzles or take out enemies (even if those options were limited compared to what’s possible today).

Despite its pioneering sensibilities, Looking Glass Studios shut down in 2000 after problems with a series of publishers. Regardless, many of his employees continued to create immersive sims, or at least used the skills and institutional expertise they acquired at Looking Glass: Bioshock, Guitar Hero, and even the Xbox itself all spawned from former Looking Glass designers. Arkane Studios is perhaps the most prominent torchbearer of the immersive sim, with games like dishonored, prey, And Deathloop. Arkane’s imminent release redfall also seems rooted in the mindset that Looking Glass helped establish.

Tears of the Kingdom isn’t an anomaly in the realm of modern AAA games emerging from the immersive sim school – aside from Arkane, IO Interactive has pushed the subgenre to its comedic extremes with Hitman world of murder, for example. a System shock there will also be a remake at the end of May. But it’s exciting to see Nintendo, a company best known for extremely sophisticated games that don’t necessarily cause problems for the player, doubling down on what I consider to be the most exciting element of Breath of the Wild‘s design: a willingness to let the player bend the rules. And on May 12, I hope I can even break a few.