Like many others, I sank a lot of hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and will likely pick up its direct sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, when it releases this coming Friday.
Though I wasn’t as enamored with Breath of the Wild as a lot of other people were, and missed many of the aspects that were cast aside for this newest iteration of the series, I still found Breath of the Wild’s unique direction refreshing. When it comes to discussing Tears of the Kingdom, everything is purely speculative for those of us who haven’t actually played it yet. But as a direct sequel, Tears of the Kingdom looks like it will be keeping a lot of the key gameplay elements of Breath of the Wild, including its open world.
The inclusion of an open world – an environment that players are free to explore at their own pace – in Breath of the Wild was easily the greatest innovation the Zelda series had seen since the introduction of 3D graphics and environments in 1998’s Ocarina of Time. Whereas more recent games in the series required players to complete certain tasks before other areas could be unlocked, Breath of the Wild – once players had either acquired the paraglider item or finagled another way out of the starting area – allowed players to go whether they wanted within its world.
The player-driven stories in Breath of the Wild mirror those told through playing tabletop RPGs.
This fundamental change switched the series’ previous dynamic from the game deciding what players needed to do, to players choosing what they wanted to do. By putting agency into its players’ hands, Breath of the Wild embraced the same core ethos that drives the design of many tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons: player freedom. Whilst video games like Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are miles apart from tabletop RPGs when comparing the basic way players interact with them, they all have a shared commitment to putting players in charge of driving the narrative.
Players can’t change the events of Breath of the Wild’s actual story, like in an RPG video game such as Baldur’s Gate III – we don’t know about Tears of the Kingdom just yet - they don’t have any control over the game’s narrative beyond how, when and if they receive it. However, the stories players make while exploring its open world are entirely within their hands.
In most tabletop RPGs, players are free to go anywhere and do anything, as long as their character has the ways and means to do so.
The player-driven stories in Breath of the Wild mirror those told through playing tabletop RPGs. Whilst different player groups might hear the same introductory narrative if they’re playing the same pre-made adventure or campaign, the events that occur after that will change dramatically depending on their actions. Though the game master is responsible for controlling the non-player characters and responding to players’ actions, it’s the players who decide the course of the story.
In most tabletop RPGs, players are free to go anywhere and do anything, as long as their character has the ways and means to do so. Just as Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom’s main character, Link, will suffer the consequences for the player’s mistakes, players in TRPGs will have to take into account the possible outcomes if they make ill-advised decisions. Though Breath of the Wild/Tears of the Kingdom and tabletop roleplaying games champion player freedom above all else, they’re also able to use the player’s limitations to provide enough challenge and opportunity for progression.
The stories driven by player choice are the ones that ultimately shape the experience of playing both Breath of the Wild and most tabletop RPGs.
Ultimately, players still need some restrictions regardless of how much Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom and TRPGs embrace freedom. After all, if these video games and tabletop RPGs just let players defeat whatever enemies they wanted or gave them whatever rewards they desired, playing them would get very boring, very quickly.
The freedoms that Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom and tabletop RPGs give players enable them to create and share the kind of stories they otherwise couldn’t in a more linear, game-driven experience. Breath of the Wild’s central narrative is largely unimportant compared to the rest of the game – because most of it is optional, and what is there is incredibly underwhelming – and it is almost impossible for every player experiencing the same TRPG to tell exactly the same story. This means that the stories driven by player choice are the ones that ultimately shape the experience of playing both Breath of the Wild and most tabletop RPGs.
Which is why Breath of the Wild, and mostly likely Tears of the Kingdom, share the same core spirit of tabletop roleplaying games – that of the players’ freedom to craft their own, entirely unique, stories.