The Next Wild Thing
I’ve returned to Hyrule this week; I’m exploring caves teeming with bioluminescent fish, fusing mushrooms to every shield that I find, and mercilessly stomping on any goblins that dare get in my way. My love for this game is unexpected though because I wasn’t into Breath of the Wild at all—what with its floaty combat, mostly annoying physics, and meh story—yet I’m utterly obsessed with Tears of the Kingdom.
So what makes this game so good? Two thoughts here.
First: a video by NakeyJakey about the problems with Rockstar games. It’s a great review where he argues that in Red Dead Redemption and GTA, Rockstar will give the player a set of tools to explore a beautiful world and then suddenly decide that you must do things precisely the way they want you to. Did you want to sneak through that house? Game over. Oh you wanted to run away from this fight? Game over. Did you want to park your horse anywhere else except this little yellow marker on the map?
Jake compares this to Lego pieces vs. Lego sets. You can either go buy a nasty bucket full of pieces and build anything you want to, or you can get the set and build the Millennium Falcon. That’s fine, but everyone has the same experience because there’s only one way to build the Millennium Falcon. So the problem, Jake argues, is that Rockstar can’t decide whether their games are Lego sets or a bucket full of pieces. And flip flopping between these two decisions is what leads to their games being frustrating, as if your older brother is storming into your room and looking over your shoulder as you play.
So, my point here: Tears of the Kingdom is that nasty bucket of Lego pieces. For a solid hour last night I tried to build a little rocket that would launch me up into the sky and then fall several hundred feet into a tiny pond. Each time I failed, I reloaded my save, adjusted my Lego pieces and then tried again. This wasn’t an objective the game had set for me, this wasn’t a mission or side quest. I was just playing with the puzzle pieces and figuring out what I can build with them. And not only was I playing with all these pieces and having an absolute blast but really, secretly, I was designing my own Millennium Falcon.
And that, to me, is the hallmark of a great game.
Second: this interview with Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi, the producer and director of Tears of the Kingdom. It’s a fantastic interview that captures something about being in a room full of people that you admire and trying to build something great together:
HF: So, the Zelda team, how can I put it... is a group of unconventional people in that they try to do a lot of things that are unconventional, that are unique. It’s a group of people that always really wants to pursue the fun and the surprise, and once we’d gotten the positive feedback for Breath of the Wild, the next step was “How can we go beyond? What can we do more?”
That idea of looking for the next wild thing, the next joyful thing, the next surprise is something that the team really gets a lot of joy and happiness out of.
That’s it, right there. That’s why I love Tears of the Kingdom: they gave everyone on the team permission to find the “next wild thing” and ultimately that’s why it’s a runaway success of a game. They could have easily made Breath of the Wild 2 and slapped a $90 sticker on it without any significant changes and everyone in the world would’ve bought it. But they did something dangerous, something unexpected instead.
Making something as good as this requires an especially rare quality from a multi-billion dollar company though: you have to trust your employees to go find that thing. Without that trust you can’t build anything good, let alone great.
And without that, you’ll most certainly never find the next wild thing.
Until next time,