How Zelda Breath of the Wild keeps the player in flow

Flow is a state of mind where people are engaged in whatever they are doing completely. In games, players being in flow keeps them attached to your game and more unlikely to put it down. Players tend to be in flow when they are playing towards goals they care about using mechanics they care about within a certain difficulty threshold such that they appropriately challenged without getting bored or frustrated. Being one of the highest rated games of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild naturally encourages several types of players to be in flow for a majority of the time they are playing. The main mechanisms it uses to keep players in flow are:

  • Allowing the player to choose between multiple orthogonal goals routinely
  • Structuring goals to be achieved using multiple solutions
  • Having natural game mechanics that adjust difficulty

Multiple Orthogonal Goals

Let’s say I’m on my way to continue the story. That’s what I really want to do. I warp to the nearest fast-travel point I’ve unlocked. I start travelling towards my destination, but get stopped along the way because I found a puzzle in the world, or because I found a shrine, or because I found ranch where I wanted to talk to NPCs, or because I found a goblin camp I wanted to attack, or because I found a place that looks like there may be a memory here. Whew, so many things to do!

These various diversions that can be found along the way became interesting to enough to change the player’s primary goal of the moment to something else. Often players will find themselves going way out of their way because of a string of goal-changing they’ve done in their mind and lose track of time.

These multiple orthogonal goals players find throughout the game helps in various ways:

  • It makes the game less repetitive by putting different types of challenges between each other. You’re less likely to get bored of something if you don’t have to do it for too long.
  • It lets the player choose what they want to focus on. This keeps flow control in the player’s hands rather than the developers. If they become bored towards one goal, they will change to another goal naturally. If they don’t care about combat, they can avoid all the goblin camps they see, meaning they can’t get bored or frustrated with it.
  • If players stumble into a goal they find too challenging (such as encountering a guardian in central Hyrule before being prepared), they usually won’t feel it’s the game’s fault because it was their choice to go towards that goal. If they are comfortable with the challenge they can find a way to solve the goal. If it’s too difficult, the player has plenty of other goals they can choose from, usually within a few minutes. This allows them to quickly find a goal to achieve that fits within their flow channel.

Multiple Ways to Achieve Goals

Having multiple solutions to your goals helps achieve flow by:

  • If players are frustrated or bored by difficulty, they can change how they are playing to change the difficulty. For example, players that can’t beat a boss can try cooking a few meals that increase strength or defense. Players that can beat the boss without the meal, are less likely to eat the meal, thus the boss will be a more appropriate difficulty for them.
  • It allows the player to play in the playstyle they like while avoiding playstyles they don’t like. I don’t like cooking, so I don’t ever cook. Instead, I rely on getting better in combat or equipping various temperature appropriate outfits.
  • It makes the game less repetitive by allowing players to try new ways of playing if one playstyle becomes boring
  • It lets the player be creative and experience “I’m a genius!” moments

Here are some examples of goals you have and the various ways of achieving them:

Completing the Main Story

After completing the Great Plateau (at least, no one has found a way to complete the game without completing the Great Plateau; it would be amazing if there is a way to bypass it), you have various ways to achieve your goal of killing Ganon:

  • Go in head first, straight from getting the paraglider
  • Complete however many Divine Beast missions you want – this will make the final battle less time consuming
  • Get all the memories to understand the story first
  • Get the Master Sword to make the battle easier
  • Do more sidequests to prepare even more – more hearts, stamina, finding good weapons, or horses will help you in the final battle

Combat

On a smaller level, most combat encounters have various ways of solving them:

  • Go in head first, attack with your weapons
  • Choose the weapon type you like playing with or is the best in that situation
  • Shoot them with arrows from afar
  • Use the environment to your advantage. Is there a rock? Is there metal? Are there explosives? Are there hills you can use to throw your bombs on? Is there weather I can use to my advantage?
  • Eat a meal to make you stronger, more defensive, etc.
  • Be even more creative (e.g. bring a Cucco to a battle)

Puzzles

Several puzzles can be done in several ways. I can’t list them all, but here are some Reddit threads you can find where one person says, “I did X this way” and then people respond with various different ways they were able to solve the puzzle.

Survive an environment with harsh temperatures

  • Cook a meal
  • Wear clothing that resists temperature
  • Equip weapons that change your body temperature
  • Just run as fast as you can

Going from one place to another

Even the mundane task of going from one place to another has so many options:

  • Run by use stamina efficiently. Extra points for whistling and running at the same time or eating a meal to increase stamina.
  • Horse or another animal
  • Reach a high point through climbing or fast-travelling and glide
  • Shield surf
  • Go up waterfall
  • Use a raft, maybe even turn it into an airship

How does BotW allow for all of these possibilities in every aspect of the game? It boils down to how there are several very basic game mechanics that can be applied in several ways (cooking, items, runes, weapons). Materials in the game and the world itself are made out of “elements” (metal, water, fire, wind, etc) and these “elements” interact together using the chemistry engine the development team created. This is the cornerstone of creating deep gameplay – having simple mechanics people can understand and mixing those mechanics together naturally to create synergy. This synergy creates very emergent gameplay that deserves a whole blog post on its own.

Natural Dynamic Difficulty

Weapon Durability

If you stumble into an area with a lot of strong monsters, all you have to do is kill one and you will get a weapon that is stronger, making you able to handle more monsters of that difficulty.

These strong weapons won’t last forever. They will break, and you’ll be left with the weapons that dropped from enemies around you at the moment. Weaker enemies will drop weaker weapons, making combat harder if you ran out of good weapons.

Durability also leads players to save their strong weapons for stronger enemies. You might find a Flamesword in a shrine but don’t want to waste it. You’ll save it until you find an enemy you need it for. This means that in weaker encounters, players will tend to use weaker weapons.

These scenarios lead to a difficulty curve that is rather spiky, allowing them to feel rewarded for finding good weapons while not keeping the game too easy for too long. Let’s say you get a slew of strong weapons from a couple shrines. This good positive feedback makes the game easier, rewarding you by letting you do well against most enemies that come your way. Suddenly, you come across a Lynel. You will use many of your weapons and resources defeating the Lynel.  After that fight, those same areas that you were doing well in could become high-pressure encounters because you lost your best equipment fighting the Lynel.

Enemy Evolution                                                                                                    

One last point related to dynamic difficulty. As you kill enemies, that enemy type evolves. The more you kill, the stronger that species gets. This assures that players who are getting better at combat are getting more challenged as they go through the game. Players who don’t kill anything, aren’t going to get good at combat, so they will still have easy monsters to kill.

Where could flow be better?

User Experience

Controls and user experience can sometimes be a pain. This can interrupt the gameplay leading to frustration, bringing the player out of the game.

  • Some controls don’t feel natural. Shield surfing, moving the magnet, changing equipment, jumping, sprinting, and canceling are examples that I found awkward. I think this due to Link having such a wide variety of actions.
  • Can’t change button mapping (besides jump/sprint/cancel).
  • Some platforming sections are annoying since your control of Link isn’t very precise.
  • Menus can be clunky. Navigating through items or cooking. Remembering which menu the map is in.
  • UX makes it cumbersome to cook things. Going to the menu, picking what you want, placing it in a pot. Cooking things you’ve already cooked or cooking in bulk can get repetitive. Additionally, cooking is the only menu-based solution in the game.
  • “My weapon broke, and now I’m in the middle of a battle and I don’t have anything equipped! Now I have to fumble through the UI to pick a new one taking me out of the heat of the moment.”
  • “Your inventory is full” messages. It makes the player think, “I just opened a chest with a cool bow in it, but it says that my inventory is full. Now I have to go into the menu, drop my bow, and reopen the chest.” There are various shortcuts they could’ve implemented to save the player time.
  • Going to the map in the divine beasts to control them isn’t explained well and breaks you out of the gameplay.
  • Rain prevents you from going where you want when climbing. While interesting at first, it ends up being annoying for some players because they can’t achieve goals they want to complete. This could’ve been solved by unlocking gloves or other equipment that allow you to climb in the rain.

Structure of Divine Beast Quests

The game features four substantial quests that people refer to as the “main story” (even though they are optional). Most players are going to do all four of these quests before taking on Ganon. These quests can be done in any order, so the developers made them approximately the same difficulty. However, Link’s progression makes him stronger as he goes through the game, acquiring more hearts, stamina, better armor, etc. Additionally, the player gains more skill through practice and learning game mechanics. This leads to the first quest attempted will be the hardest, while the last one attempted will be the easiest for most players. This goes against the concept of keeping players in their flow channel. Personally, I found the first dungeon and boss I did to be very frustrating, while the last one was so easy it was boring. These are some of the only times in the game that I found myself out of my flow channel.

Main story quests could’ve taken more advantage of having an implied order. The game already heavily guides the player to the Zora domain as the first main quest fairly heavily, while the Gerudo or Goron sections seem to be the hardest to reach, requiring dealing with multiple types of temperature differences. Strengthening the implied order, while still allowing people to do dungeons in any order, could’ve allowed for them to control the difficulty of the dungeons based on the order they expect new players to reach them. This would help more players stay in flow for more of the dungeons while giving players more challenging bosses as well.

I’m gathering data in a survey to see what order people beat the dungeons in and how that affected the difficulty. I’ll post the results in a blog post next week.

Harder Optional Content

After getting so far through the game, it’s going to be hard for high-skilled players to stay in flow. Once players are done with the divine beast quests and have obtained the master sword, there’s not much more combat content to master. Several players get into the end-game and are unsatisfied that there are not really many challenges, combat-wise to face. I personally beat Ganon with all the divine beast quests finished, all memories obtained, master sword in hand, yet only achieved 15% completion. It’s astonishing to me that while there was still 85% of the game left for me, barely any of it was in more challenging combat sections.

Games like Final Fantasy VII have used optional super bosses to give people who have mastered the game a little more challenge, thus keeping high-skilled players in flow even after completing the main story. BotW would’ve benefited from having some optional hard content like this. There is still DLC coming out that promises harder content, but I fear they left hard content out just to make people want this DLC.

Conclusion

Breath of the Wild allows players to manage their own flow by allowing them to choose what goals they want to achieve and how they want to accomplish it. It uses durability to allow players to feel rewarded with good weapons while not letting the game stay too easy for too long. This encourages the open-world design of the game allowing for even more possibilities of goals to choose from. The way Breath of the Wild can keep various types of players in flow is undoubtedly why the game has near-universal acclaim.

Comments 4

  • Great post! One thing though. I really hate the durability mechanic. I think it takes me out of my flow channel. It seems more annoying than it’s worth.

    • Thanks! I agree that durability is annoying, but the reasons why it’s annoying is mostly related to user experience. If the game had a UI that was more in line with durability, I think people would hate it a lot less. The game design definitely relies on durability controlling difficulty for the reasons I state.

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