While Breath of the Wild isn’t perfect, it’s one of the few games I still find myself months on from launch with new things to say about. For any criticisms I have, I cannot deny quite how many unique and interesting questions it keeps raising.
One of the things that surprised me most playing through Breath of the Wild when it launched was how many quest lines in the game could be completed out of order, with the game adapting to the routes you took to different narrative moments.
You can light the torches on the way to the lab in Hateno Village without first triggering the quest by speaking to the scientist in the lab, causing her to have entirely different dialogue thanking you for the fact her tech is fixed upon your first meeting. You can visit Zora’s Domain without ever bumping into Prince Sidon, sidestepping his conversations about how he was told to bring you to the king, and instead have him arrive midway through a conversation playing catch up on your presence. You can run straight for the final boss of the game, being greeted by an entirely different opening boss fight.
As a recent convert to the world of tabletop DMing (I recently ran my first D&D 5th Edition Campaign, self-written) I’ve been learning about the challenges of crafting a gameplay system and attached narrative that can be explored in a truly open fashion. You can create an intended story progression for a game, and you can signpost as much as you want as to what you want the player to attempt, but if your gameplay systems and world are open enough, curious players will deviate from the core path and usually create stories more tailored to their interests and mood.
This emergent narrative inherent to open-ended tabletop campaigns is incredibly similar to the way Breath of the Wild is assembled, and not only is that a big part of why the game feels like such a solid realisation of the open world formula, it’s also one of the most technically impressive aspects of the game’s overall design.
When you’re a DM and your players decide to skip a quest-giving NPC and complete that quest alone, you can improvise and tweak your narrative in response to what the party did. For Breath of the Wild, by nature of being a shipped product, there is no room for that tabletop DM style of improvised narrative alteration.
Nintendo had to foresee as many variations from the critical path as possible, create contingencies for them, and write them all before any players even began playing. As a DM who relies often on improvised re-scripting, the amount of options they foresaw and accounted for was astounding.
So yeah, next time you marvel at Breath of the Wild’s ability to adapt to the way you play, remember that it’s a close match for the rewards and struggles many DMs encounter when they run their tabletop games.