Realism and Legibility in Open-World Level Design
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Breath of the Wild has a certain something which makes navigating its open world, Hyrule, especially intuitive. While this definitely defies easy explanation, part of its legibility comes from what may seem like a surprising source: urban planning. The developer behind Breath of the Wild, Nintendo, clearly understands how cities are structured.
People put together mental maps of the places they inhabit. Since the process is fully automatic, it’s performed without even the slightest intent. The reasons for this are purely biological. Helping to ensure the success of our species, we evolved in such a way as to quickly and easily recognize patterns in the world around us. We use this ability for several different purposes, but one of the most important is probably navigation.
In a highly influential study by Kevin Lynch, mental maps of cities were found to consist of five distinct components: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. While some of these terms may seem strange, almost everyone is familiar with the spatial features which they represent.
Think about your home town. How many of the streets can you name? Does it have any rivers, railways, or viaducts? Where does everyone do their shopping? Are there any public squares or parks? Which buildings are most distinctive? In answering these few questions, you’ve just identified its respective paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.
Rather than a city, Nintendo used these five spatial features to structure the design of an entire landscape — Hyrule. This played a big part in its legibility.
Let’s take a look at what holds Hyrule together.
Hyrule is a massive open world
Paths are devices which simplify travel. Guiding people from place to place, they’re primarily important because they provide connections between nodes. Facilitating movement throughout the landscape, Hyrule’s paths are its weaving, winding, and sometimes even zig-zagging roads. Since the shortest distance between two points will always be a straight line, these may not necessarily be the most efficient means of getting around the game world, but you can at least count on them to be leading somewhere. Most begin or end at nodes like Rito Village, Goron City, Zora’s Domain, and Gerudo Town. Few come to a random dead end.
Edges create boundaries between districts. They can take various forms, but the most common kind of edge in Hyrule is clearly the terrain feature. Most regions of the game world are isolated from each other by things like rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges. Eldin for example is removed from Necluda by the Zora River. Hebra is removed from Central Hyrule by the Tanagar Canyon. Surrounded by highlands, you’ll find the best example of an edge in Gerudo, though. The only way to get into this district from Faron is to somehow make your way around Mount Granajh.
Edges in Hyrule take the form of rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges
Districts are places that share a common characteristic. While this tends to be cultural, the characteristic in question can actually be of any kind. There’s pretty good evidence for this in Hyrule. You can certainly identify places like Hebra, Eldin, Necluda, and Gerudo by the culture of their inhabitants, but you can also differentiate them from each other by their flora and fauna. Eldin for example is largely lifeless due to the heat from Death Mountain. With its lush forests and open plains, Necluda by contrast is teeming with plants and animals. The species and genus of these depends on the district, too. You’ll come across Wasteland Coyotes in Gerudo, but Cold-Footed Wolves in Hebra.
Flora and fauna can help define a district
Nodes provide places for people to gather. Since these are focal points of activity, they’re normally found at certain intervals along a path. You can definitely observe this in Hyrule. Settlements like Rito Village, Goron City, Zora’s Domain, and Gerudo Town are easily accessed by road. These hardly represent the only nodes in the game world, though. Stables for example can also be found at various points throughout the landscape. Similar to settlements, these are filled with all kinds of different people like merchants, travelers, and tourists. They’re also closely associated with roads.
Landmarks are distinctive places which allow a person to pinpoint their location. There certainly are a few exceptions, but you’ll pretty much always find these near a node. Landmarks lend importance to nodes, but nodes give meaning to landmarks. You can see this principle at work in Hyrule where nodes like Rito Village tend to be associated with landmarks like Hebra Peak. Eldin provides a good example. Dominating the surrounding landscape, Death Mountain stands in extremely close proximity to Goron City. Necluda provides another good example. Mount Lanayru towers over Kakariko Village in much the same way that Death Mountain does over Goron City.
Landmarks are usually found somewhere in the vicinity of a node
In designing Breath of the Wild, the game’s developer, Nintendo, used these five components of a mental map to help construct its open world. This was largely responsible for its legibility. The approach taken by Nintendo came with a few drawbacks, though.
The study carried out by Kevin Lynch concerned how people think about cities. These may contain formal patterns which are observable in the world around us, but cities are still products of the human hand. They’re basically distilled versions of mother nature. While you can make mash into whiskey, it’s not really possible to make whiskey into mash. In other words, using mental maps of cities to help design landscapes like Hyrule is actually an awkward approach. Breath of the Wild’s open world looks and feels fantastic, but it’s artificiality is difficult to deny. This really comes to the fore when you examine its edges. Take a look around you from atop the Dueling Peaks. You’ll see three or four dramatically different districts. Nintendo clearly traded realism for legibility in this case.
What’s the best way to build an open world? Different problems require different solutions. Breath of the Wild hardly suffers for the artificiality of its open world, but other games definitely do. Sometimes realism for legibility is in fact a fair trade. Sometimes it isn’t, though.