Nintendo creative maestro Shigeru Miyamoto is a genius. He's generally considered to be the greatest game developer of all time. And, just like you and me, all he wants to do is climb trees.
Here's a fun story from deep inside Nintendo, a company that doesn't often speak openly about their development process. When Nintendo was first conceptualizing the next big Zelda game, Miyamoto and Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma asked the directors to describe Breath of the Wild's main theme. What, they asked, could you do in this new Zelda?
Early in The Legend of Zelda. Breath of the Wild, I discovered a puzzle shrine containing a small maze. Inside that maze was a little ball. The goal, I realised, was to manoeuvre the ball out of the maze and slide it into a nearby funnel. To do this, I'd have to rotate my Nintendo Switch controller, using motion controls to turn the maze around and let gravity move the ball through each corridor. One wrong move and the ball would fall out, forcing me to start again.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi decided to get a little ambitious.
"My response to Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Aonuma was: You can do everything," Fujibayashi told me during an interview last week in San Francisco, speaking through a translator.
"But I had to sell it to them," he said. "How we're going to make this happen. And I felt like the best way to convey this idea to them was to show them that you could climb walls."
Fujibayashi and his team built a prototype of Breath of the Wild. They put together a starting area with a small field and a handful of trees, then stuck rupees all across the world, hiding them in places that the development team thought Miyamoto and Aonuma might explore. Then Fujibayashi presented their demo to the two Nintendo elder statesmen.
"We put rupees at the top of the tree to let them know that this is something we're taking into account, but I didn't tell them," Fujibayashi said. "All I did was say, 'Here, play the game.' So the first thing [Miyamoto] did was start climbing, and he climbed the tree, and once he was able to do that and see that he can go anywhere within this small field, he got how this game will play out and that's how I presented it to him."
Then they watched and waited. And watched. And waited.
"When we first presented this to Mr. Miyamoto, he spent about an hour just climbing trees," Fujibayashi said. "We left little treats like rupees on the trees, but we also left other things in other places we thought he might go. But he just kept climbing trees. Up and down. And so we got to the point where we go, 'Do you want to look at other stuff?' But he just kept on going. Once [he] got out of the Shrine of Resurrection, he spent an hour just within a 25-50 meter radius outside of that cave just climbing trees."
It was then that Fujibayashi and his team realised they'd made something special — a game where the act of climbing could be just as fun as riding horses and slashing monsters. From there, they designed around a concept that they called "multiplicative gameplay," referring to the way in which Breath of the Wild's various objects and mechanics work to enhance one another.
Instead of adding a bunch of new gimmicks and ideas, they picked a few core mechanics — climbing, gliding, magnetic force — and tried to use them in as many ways as possible.
"As you're climbing trees you use up stamina, and once you run out of stamina, instead of just falling you can input a key and you start dragging down the wall," Fujibayashi said. "Even that provides another level of fun... What we realised was instead of trying to make all these new ideas and building them from scratch and adding them, we decided to look at what we have. We realised there are so many ways of playing the game hidden within the world we built."