The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that has played a major role in defining the concept of open world gameplay. Open world or sandbox games utilize a large game world with a variety of spaces that can typically be accessed in any order the player chooses. Some areas may be locked for the purposes of progression or narrative; but the emphasis is on the player’s ability to interact with a diverse variety of gameplay environments in a modular as opposed to linear fashion.
A champion of this form of storytelling and exploration, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was one of the first games to truly exemplify this game world design. The world was built around a large open field which was linked to modular areas along its margins. This made traveling around the game world a narrative unto itself. Going to the desert and returning to the castle was all part of one long experience, encountering a hidden forest while searching for a clue to your next adventure felt like a unique experience. The fact that some areas could remain hidden for an entire playthrough meant that the map itself was a puzzle to solve.
The ability to choose your own path and to find things in any order made the experience one where the player just being in the environment was the primary gameplay experience. The story gave the player an arch to tie their experiences together but exploring the world was its own intrinsic reward. The player became immersed in the world through the careful expansion of their mechanics through the items the player collected on their journey. This provided the player with motivation to study their world, remember its challenges, and to return to them later once they had unlocked the mechanics to overcome the previously insurmountable obstacles.
The Zelda franchise has steadily been experimenting with new ways to grow the concept of open world gameplay since Ocarina of Time. The newest installment in development, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, promises to deliver a deeply immersive experience.
From what we have seen Link now has the ability to: climb rock walls, enabling for larger vertical set pieces and their exploration, collect context based resources, such as collecting mushrooms for food in the forest or chopping down trees for wood, and equip armor tailored to environmental needs, i.e. warm clothes in snowy areas. The emphasis this time around appears to be on making the world more richly populated with unique resources, and that the player will be able to be more self-reliant and resourceful.
The strength of the Zelda open world experience has always been its ability to string together a variety of different experinces into one game world without having them feel tacked on or gimmicky. They have been defining and redefining the open world method of storytelling for many years and it seems like Breath of the Wild may be the next big leap in open world design, featuring strong exploration mechanics and an organic and immersive world.