One of my favourite games of the past 5 years is undoubtedly The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There are so many things that are done well in that game that I really should take the time to write a separate analysis on it. However, what I really want to focus on in this post is exploration.
The world of Witcher 3 is absolutely massive, and to some, understandably daunting. It's filled to the brim with quests to do, monsters to hunt, bandits to banish, treasures to find, sights to see, and stories to unfold. It's what keeps me wanting to delve deeper into the world (I even recently started reading the books!). I always know that once I mount my trusty steed, Roach, and head in any direction, I am bound to stumble upon something magical. What actually tends to happen through is that I'd just open the map and head to one of the dozens (hundreds?) of "?"s on it. This is probably my biggest gripe with Witcher - there's just too much to do in the game all at once, and while I was patient enough to do most of them, it did mentally take a toll on me seeing what felt like an infinite amount of objectives to tackle.
Enter The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I have only been playing this game for three days now and I'm already in love with how Nintendo decided to tackle exploration. The map isn't littered with a sea of "?"s. It actually is extremely sparse when you first begin your journey, utilizing the good old "fog of war" technique to hide even the topography until you reveal sections of the map. In order to do this, you must find various towers scattered across the world and climb to their peaks and only then do you get a peek at what the area has to offer.
I say a peek because unlike other open world games - the FarCry series for example - when you activate one of these towers, your map doesn't light up with new objectives, treasures and the like for you to find. No. You have to stand atop the tower (or any other high point) and survey the horizons, setting various markers for places you deem interesting. This simple variance to the classic formula creates a significantly different experience for the player, one that I have fallen in love with - in only three days no less.
No longer am I just going from point to predefined point on my map, wondering what's gonna be there when I arrive. Now, every point I travel to is one that I myself discovered, thus making it a very personal journey. It motivates me to actually take note of the environment and not speed through to different objectives while checking my minimap as I sadly do in most other games of this size. Even when I check my minimap here, it's only to see if I'm heading in the general direction I need to be, because the world is so well designed that the player does not need to consistently look at the map to get a sense of where they are and where they should be going. Simply surveying your surroundings will give you all the information you need, and then some.
Nintendo has done such a magnificent job of piquing my interest and heightening my sense of wonder. I'm not going about to different places on the map because they told me to, I am because I want to. My curiosity is so great that I have to constantly remind myself about main objectives that I need complete. Even so, it's not until hours later that I realize that while I was supposed to be heading to a village in the east, I am plunging off a cliff and sailing through the sky up in the north to a shrine I spotted from miles away.