Stop comparing Elden Ring’s open world to Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The open world of Elden Ring is a triumph. What could have been an uninformed case of big equals turned out to be better than I could have hoped – from software reimagining what a Souls game could look like with a dark, sprawling world that retains so much of what made previous games click.

But please stop comparing Zelda: Breath of the Wild, okay?

I suppose it’s not entirely inappropriate. Over the past decade or so, the open world has been given a much more specific definition in the cultural consciousness than just a “big map.” Open world means a very specific kind of big-budget (usually Ubisoft) action game. It means checklists; it means climbing towers to uncover activities and clearly marked secrets.

In this sense, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW) is an exception. Nintendo’s acclaimed 2017 RPG not only strayed from the series’ established format for a sprawling open-air Hyrule but pointedly defied the rules set for it. BOTW has towers, but they only reveal the topology of the map, not its secrets. There are expansive courses that exist purely to create scale, environmental secrets that require thinking outside the box to uncover, and a climbing system that means you can really go anywhere, no matter how outlandish the place may seem.

BOTW is undoubtedly an influential game. But because Breath of the Wild is so different from Ubisoft’s form, it has also become shorthand for all other open worlds. Games with huge maps, but, you know, good ones. Not like those different those.

it seems like over time, we attribute almost all of the nice open-world mechanics to BOTW BOTW didn’t invent the “freedom to go anywhere, but you can get your ass kicked,” e.g.February 25, 2022

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There must be a resemblance. The Souls games have always been something like Zelda, a third-person role-playing game in which you explore dungeons with a set of puzzles, clinging to baddies to get around them with daring punches. Like BOTW, Elden Ring hides its dungeons and secrets, but then Souls has always been about hiding everything from the stakes of their world to a dagger behind a hidden wall.

To me, the big difference lies in the intention and how that intention determines the very shape of the world. Breath of the Wild wants to feel like you’re joyfully running across fields and hills, so its world is wide, expansive, rarely if ever guiding you towards anything in particular. It’s not so many roads or enclosed environments that guide you, but the desire to shoot towards a strange new shape on the horizon or an oddly shaped hill on the map, and this climbing mechanic means you can always get where it seems beyond the borders.

Sable also arguably has much better prospects than Zelda. (Image credit: Shed works)

When I think of games inspired by Breath of the Wild, I think of Sable. This game featured an expressive exploration of Zelda and decided to forego combat entirely, focusing entirely on the sheer thrill of climbing strange rock formations, tinkering with bugs, and diving into ancient ruins (be it stone temples or ancient ships). The world is arranged in such a way that is just traveling and soaking up the vibes is enough to pay for the entrance ticket.

Elden Ring, meanwhile, feels more like a successor to the ideas laid back in Dark Souls 1. This game had a twisty game world with layered paths and areas for you to explore freely, but it always led to somewhere. Opening up new areas has always required some understanding, and if you get stuck on one boss, you can usually leave and find another way to get down.

Ultimately, Elden Ring is still a game of roads – paths that define the very shape of the landscape. Impenetrable cliffs and mountain ranges lead you just like the golden trail radiating from Sites of Grace direct you to the next major (or minor) dungeon, the next bonfire, the next boss, the next manual-placement encounter. The difference here is that these roads have fields, swamps, and hillsides filling the spaces between them, and those spaces in between are filled with even more FromSoft obscurities.

Elden Ring world map

GPS where every road leads straight to hell. (Image courtesy of Software)

If BOTW was a game about constantly looking beyond the horizon, then the world of Elden Ring is one precision-engineered to build Dark Souls on a grand scale. There are limitless secrets to be found in the wilderness, but you rarely get so far off course that you’re more than a stone’s throw away from something of value. This is a map that is deeply concerned with how slowly it reveals its scope, and these narrower paths mean that new locations are more packed with detail and thoughtful combat missions.

Of course, there is a Breath of the Wild in the way Elden Ring refuses to reveal its secrets. But there’s also some Elder Scrolls in its tile-based stone catacombs, some Far Cry in its hidden bandit camps. I guess what I’m ultimately asking is that we be less simplistic in how we talk about games. Saying Elden Ring is like BOTW is like saying that Far Cry 3 is Skyrim with guns. Each of these games has open worlds full of fun, but comparisons take away from these games the nuances that make them special. Can Elden Ring be compared to Zelda? Like, of course. But if that’s the link you’re making, you’re missing out on so much of why Elden Ring even works.

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