Designing for a Sense of Mystery and Wonder

I play games to get to explore intriguing places, while challenge and story is secondary to me. But there still has to be a point to the exploration. I don’t want to just wander around some place - I want to uncover something intriguing and ideally mysterious. But the mystery lies not in the uncovering; it lies in the anticipation, or rather the lack of knowing exactly what I might find. In this article I examine that sense of mystery and wonder that’s tied not to story or themes, but to exploration. I’ll be using the word mystery as a shorthand for the kind of mystery and wonder I’m talking about here.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild from 2017 is an amazing game to go explore in, and one of my all time favorites. That said, while there are many things in the game that exude a sense of mystery - and certainly more so than in the average open world game - there are also a lot of missed opportunities.
Breath of the Wild reinvented the Zelda formula as an open world game.
I’ll compare Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW) with Zelda: A Link to the Past (ALTTP) to try to figure out why ALTTP has a stronger sense of mystery than BOTW. A Link to the Past is a much older Zelda game from 1991 but I first played it in 2019.

Along the way I’ll be extracting four key design strategies for evoking a greater sense of mystery, and apply those strategies in the form of proposed design changes to BOTW. Finally, I’ll touch on some more general considerations to keep in mind when designing for a sense of mystery and wonder in general.
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