Fairy Tales and Breath of the Wild
Recently I’ve been investigating quest structures and design styles of many different open worlds in other media, which led me to do an investigation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. This exploration taught me many things, but primarily I learned that stories in that show don’t often start with a quest. Stories in that show much more often start with an inciting incident which sparks curiosity in the protagonists. That curiosity eventually leads them to run into a proper quest, at which point they accept or reject as normal.
Notably, quests in Avatar are rarely ever given verbally by a side character, most of the quests kind of happen as a result of some other action being taken. For example, Aang decides to go visit an old temple, which is then attacked by the fire nation. Aang is not given a quest to defend the temple, he simply feels like he must. In other examples, Aang might feel curious about some strange event that has happened, and investigating leads him to discover a quest he must undertake. This is a common interaction throughout that series, and something that stuck in my mind.
In games we often think of a quest as something which starts at an NPC, involves a lot of text, and then ends at that same NPC where we are given a magical boot or whatever as a reward. This is the structure that most open world RPGs tend to use, but I believe we’ve missed a step, and I believe that step is the secret to the success of arguably the best open world to date.
Now you might be thinking to yourself that of course Nintendo can make the best open world game around, they have eleventy billion dollars and a cave of precious gemstones buried beneath their offices, so any conclusion drawn here can’t apply to my game! However, there’s a second contender for best open world in recent memory, at least as far as I’m concerned, and whether you agree on its quality or not, it is indisputably indie.
Noita is a much smaller game made by a much smaller team, but they’ve accomplished something very akin to what Breath of the Wild accomplished in its worldbuilding, and they’ve done it at a fraction of the cost. In this blog post, I’m going to explain what this something is, and show you how you too can replicate it. Follow along for the ride!
Traditional quests are bloated affairs, requiring hours and hours of development time to implement and arrange, often with scripted sequences and long, linear chains of complexly woven narratives involving the entire backstory of a particular NPC. If you google “Best Quests in World of Warcraft” you’ll end up with lists of stories like the Battle of Devonshire, a quest that tells you about a little girl and her dad and is packed full of complex emotions. If you google Skyrim instead, you’ll get a very similar set of results, all about these complicated quests which tell you the story of a particular person in the world. These are the traditional quests you see when you look up quest design, this is what most people think about when you say the word quest. However, these are basically absent from Breath of the Wild.
Nintendo doesn’t tell the story of a particular NPC in Breath of the Wild, they tell you the story of Hyrule. Gone are stories of people who aren’t even real anyway, and instead we get stories of the land. Stories of the history of the place that we’re spending our time. Legends of long lost heroes and how they affected the world, and yes, some of these stories have changed the people telling them, but it’s not about that person. Nintendo eschews personal stories in favor of social stories, each of which about how what has happened impacts the people living through it all.
Nintendo took its inspiration for Breath of the Wild from the original Zelda on the NES. The original game took its inspiration from adventuring out in the real world. Let’s take a moment to do the same, and consider how the real world approaches all of this.
In the real world we don’t have epic quests like in these stories. In the real world we have folklore. If you wander the forests of europe you’ll likely hear about fairies or elves. If you wander in central america you might hear of the lechuzas or of an atotolin. Everywhere in the real world that you travel, the land is given life around us. In the classic epics of literature, it’s the land and the gods which live within that are the narrative focus, not the individuals. Great adventurers didn’t set out to bring milk to their aunt in the forest, or to kill ten cows and return here with the leather, great adventurers set out to slay a gorgon! They slayed the gorgon not because it brought them glory, but because it was a hostile force affecting anyone who traveled near its mountain. The hero didn’t experience this quest alone, it was a known factor among all those who lived nearby and their knowledge was spread to the hero, resulting in the beginnings of the quest. The grand quests of the past are built on the idea that we all share a common plight and must work together to find a solution. Even if the hero ultimately defeats the gorgon, it’s the townsfolk who must spread the story first, giving the hero the chance to respond. These land-driven stories are what we call fairy tales, stories of the wonders of a particular space. The story of a banshee was about a haunting wail you could hear at night while traveling alone on a dark road, and the story haunts us because we all know the feeling of mysterious sounds echoing in the black. These may be social stories about entire groups of people, but they have a visceral emotion attached to them that resonates within all of us.
Video games have learned from film, and like to tell us all stories about epic events that happened to a single person. Very rare is the game which will allow us the courtesy of experiencing those events for ourselves, usually games will just recreate a “cinematic” experience due to this attachment to film. Notice how a story like Lord of the Rings is translated into a video game, and how every time the quests are transformed into bespoke sequences coded to evoke a specific emotional reaction. We want players to dive into the Mines of Moria, and when they do we want to show them the balrog, and then we want them to narrowly escape with their lives. These are the events which happened in the book, and so these are the events we feel we must recreate. But this wasn’t a predestined thing in the books. The balrog simply lived there, deep under the mines, and if not for attracting the attention of all the orc army, our heroes might never have seen the beast at all. When we code our quests in video games, we’re thinking like film makers, creating a series of emotional moments that run one after the other like an amusement park ride. However, in doing so, we rob the experience of the magic of discovery. Imagine a video game of Lord of the Rings where the balrog merely lives deep underground and you aren’t told about it at all. Imagine that sense of panic and discovery if you travel through unwittingly. Or the thrill of reading the ancient texts and discovering the rumors therein. This is a magic that Breath of the Wild shows us how to bring back.
We start with the quest structure. In Breath of the Wild, very few quests are linear quest chains. Most of them are simple stories like this one:
This man lives in this world. He has heard something interesting, and he has related that to you, a traveler. If this were the real world, this is exactly how a person might speak to you if you ran into them on the road. No one in the history of mankind has ever approached a passing stranger and said “Hello, nice to meet you, my father just died and I’m really sad and I’d really like it if you could travel six hundred miles into the Pit of Neverending Despair to retrieve his favorite rare lily flower. I’ll give you an enchanted sword in return!”. I played an MMO recently where a cop tasked me with busting a drug ring by finding their farm in a nearby cave. Why on earth would a cop trust me, a random stranger, with this task? On the other hand, if I’m walking along the road and I see someone, why wouldn’t I tell them about the interesting thing I’ve seen? It’s completely natural to tell stories about the world, and indeed this is the very foundation of all folklore.
Folklore is based on truths of the state of the land. That forest is haunted by a ghost. More specifically, that ancient wood is the site of a mass grave and the spirits of the damned rise every month under the light of the full moon. I’m not telling you to go there, I’m not demanding anything of you at all, I’m simply passing along information that I know in a very natural way. If you are in search of an enchanted sword, I can pass along that I just so happen to have heard there’s one under the nearby mountain. If you aren’t in search of that enchanted sword, I’ll still mention it because it’s interesting. If enough people mention the enchanted sword, you’re rather likely to start to wonder about it yourself, and you may end up going to see it. Maybe you’ll even skip the part where the people living nearby tell you, and you’ll instead just stumble into it on accident. It’s possible you might see it and not even realize its significance until you speak to the townsfolk and hear the rumors, only to realize you’ve seen that cave and that sword yourself!
Breath of the Wild has built its entire world around this free-flowing quest philosophy, allowing players to stumble across interesting things as they travel, or telling them about those interesting things via NPC dialogue. Nintendo doesn’t care whether you stumble across something naturally or if you’re pointed to it, what matters to them is that there is something to stumble across, which makes the world feel alive.
By breaking down quests to require less structure, however, Nintendo found a much cheaper way to build a world. Quests in Breath of the Wild don’t require explicit sequencing of complicated narratives, there’s no story about a little girl and her father to pull tears from within you. Instead, there’s just a little girl talking about her dad. There’s just the remains of an ancient battle and the people who died on these fields so long ago. The scaffolding of the quest structure has been removed, leaving only the contents. If you make the connection between the two, you get that extra sense of wonder. If you don’t, you still feel the world’s life.
This is a very different quest structure from what we usually see in games. If you look online for quest design portfolios, you’ll find them full of flowcharts like the following:
They’re formatted this way because tracking states through a quest is complex, you must know exactly where within the nonlinear narrative your player exists at the moment in order to know what to give them next. This is analogous to how film approaches it:
The main difference is that games are nonlinear, so there are multiple paths you can take in the quest structure above. Both are effective ways of communicating a story linearly. Game flowcharts, while ‘nonlinear’, will still have a single straight line. What we will see is a section which expands before contracting again later. In the above, you’ll notice at the left there’s two nodes which happen linearly before a choice section where it expands, and then they collapse for the final bit of the quest, which is the column on the far right. To put that more simply, you start with a straight linear section, you open up the world to let the player make choices, and then you close back down to a linear section when it’s time to wrap things up. This is the most broadly accepted structure for quest design in games because it’s extremely effective and easy to understand.
If your goal is to communicate a story completely nonlinearly, however, you might wish to pull from Jon Ingold’s Narrative Sorcery talk. In this talk, he outlines a way to do all this without everything needing to be a single straight line. Ingold breaks things down into multiple, smaller straight lines instead, as in this flowchart:
The advantage of this is that you can start at the beginning of any of those lines, and finish at the end of any of them, and some of them will imply others. You can meet the peasant first, or you can see the wolf first. You can kill the wolf or not, and if you don’t, the the peasant will disappear, implying the resolution without extra work. All options are valid, and tracking them remains manageable despite the complexity.
Breath of the Wild operates most closely to the Ingold spreadsheet here for the bulk of its open world design. For many of its quests, the quests end up broken down even further such that only one node exists per line. Where Ingold changes his NPCs to react to your input, Breath of the Wild finds a way to feel responsive without the need to change state. On the surface this would seem to rob the world of its reactive nature, making things flatter and more lifeless, but the inverse ends up being true. Hyrule feels even more responsive despite its simpler sidequest structure. So how does that work? How can we replicate the simplicity while still giving meaning to our world?
This is where fairy tales come in, we borrow from the design of our real life open world storytelling. If there is a ghost in the nearby woods, we just inform you of this point of interest and hope that you find yourself compelled to explore. Fairy Tales operate on a principle of building interest in external things, they tell you the forest is magical and warn you about its dangers without a need to ever interact with the forest itself. This pins the source of interest into a space external to the interest itself.
Traditional quests need long, expansive dialogue and scripted sequences to tell their stories.
Ingold style nonlinear quests can require as much or as little as you like, they’re a much more adaptive structure than the traditional one, but they won’t save you anything by default.
Fairy Tale quests won’t allow you to tell a rich story, but they only require a specific location of interest, and a specific interaction that happens at that location, and then sources of information about that location. It’s a far simpler structure than the others and opens up a lot of possibilities for cheap, modular design that is still every bit as expressive as the traditional formula.
I’ve mapped them all out here in this image to help you understand what I’m explaining:
Fairy tale quests take the role of simple, easily producible quests. Imagine filling an open world like World of Warcraft with this type of interaction in place of “Farmer John needs you to go kill 10 dire rats because some extremely convincing reason” quests. Instead of paying writers to justify the repeated murder of rats (and subconsciously telling your players that reading quest descriptions don’t matter because all it says is a pointless story about how dearly this fake person wants you to kill 10 meaningless rats), you just write a handful of randomizeable barks that talk about how cool and interesting your world is. Either way you’re building out enemies in a particular location, or an enchanted treasure chest to give them the magic emerald, or whatever, but this way you can use far simpler means without the player feeling robbed. In fact, now those “meaningless” dire rat quests can become worldbuilding, flipping a negative around to a positive.
Beyond all of those advantages, you can also combine the fairy tale quests onto the front of the others, using rumors and NPC barks to point towards a more traditional quest. This is the structure I found in my Avatar analysis, and is remarkably effective. Simply tell your player something cool is nearby, and when they approach the cool thing, then begin the scripted sequence now that you know they’re interested.
Ok, so hopefully you’re convinced of the utility of this concept well enough by now, but how do you implement it? If you’re just putting 10-rat kill quests out into the world and having NPCs talk about them, well that’s not really any better than the old method, so how do you make this all meaningful?
This is why I mentioned Noita earlier, and it’s back to Noita we can return now. Noita does an amazing job of building folk lore into its world silently.
These strange artifacts beckon curious players, and most of the strange artifacts in Noita offer immediate rewards for curiosity. Bring the hourglass some blood and you’ll get gold as a reward. There are also artifacts like this which are part of a larger quest chain. These usually come in the form of multiple, related artifacts such as the strange music box on the right image above, which is part of a chain that requires you to find and use many other artifacts.
Noita’s quests tend to be about bringing an item to a location. Bring blood to the hourglass, or a broken wand to the forge, or bring a random fluid into that unnatural circle you found, hoping it’ll do something interesting. If you bring the right thing to the right place, the game will transmute it into something new, because Noita is all about alchemy and magic.
Breath of the Wild has quests which primarily center on returning the world to a harmonious state. Koroks will often appear when you make three fruit trees match, or complete a circle of rocks. This is in keeping with this game’s theme of bringing order to a world ravaged by Ganon. It makes thematic sense to return the stone to the hole, because the game is about returning things to their natural order after a calamity.
A more mundane world might ask you to follow rumors of an illicit drug ring, or investigate a noise someone heard in the night. While fantasy games will of course make these rumors magical, the rumor is the important part here, and anything you can hear about from afar could be used in place of a fairy tale. And, of course, don’t forget that urban legends also exist, because even mundane worlds need a touch of magic.
Noita and Breath of the Wild both use simple interactions for their fairy tale quests. Bringing an item to a location is one of the core elements of a quest, one of the simplest interactions you can use to build around (something I’ve discussed more at length here ). You could just as easily be asked to press a button to turn on a machine, or break a particular seal, or etc. The actual interactions for all of this stay simple, and that’s part of what makes it a fairy tale instead of a more involved narrative. Fairy tales are simple, they’re short, and they give a bit of life and magic to a particular item or space. They ask you to walk into the forest, they ask you to open the enchanted box, and they tell you the consequence of doing those things, and then they end.
So how can we use that in our own game? Well, first thing you’ll need are some simplified interactions to build around. Let’s start with the core elemental actions of quest design:
Go To A Location
Interact With An Object
Stop Someone Else Interacting With An Object
These are the core components of quest design, these are the most simplified versions of what you can ask your players to do. Nearly every game you can create will have some ability to move, and thus it is a near-universal possibility to tell someone a story about a mystic forest and ask them to go there (or a mystic drug den, if you prefer). Similarly, you will almost always have some verb you can use to interact with the world. Samus Aran uses an attack verb to open doors, so clearly you can use even your own action-focused verbs to do nonviolent things, if you choose to do so. And lastly, there surely must be some NPCs or enemy AIs you have in your world, and even if all they can do is walk, that can be used to create an effective defense quest. After all, stopping a horde of monsters from reaching a location is a classic game design.
So in conclusion, Breath of the Wild shows us a path forward for simpler quests we can use to fill out an entire world without breaking the budget. Simply create an interesting location and tell rumors about it. You don’t need to pull the player aside to spread these rumors, just include them in your barks as they go by. BotW also shows us how we can tell stories about our world rather than about the people who live there, something which will make the space feel more alive. This makes our time spent in that space more enjoyable (though should certainly not replace quests about interesting characters. A good game should include both!).
That’s all for me today, thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and feel free to leave a comment or a question below!