If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you’ve probably experienced your fair share of “squirrel” moments in the game: Like a dog distracted by a squirrel, you’ll notice something shiny on the horizon that takes your attention away from the previous task.
For people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD, this phenomenon is nothing new. Everyone faces distractions, but for those with ADHD such as myself, distractions come more frequently and are harder to ignore. Breath of the Wild has been one of the only games to not just allow, but encourage and reward that level of rapidly shifting curiosity, instead of forcing me to inhibit it.
ADHD, a developmental disorder that can affect any age or gender, is caused primarily by deficiencies in the brain’s neurotransmitters, which carry messages throughout the brain and to the muscles. Although scientists are still working to find its exact cause, these deficiencies have something to do with the chemical dopamine, often described as the “happy” chemical, which tends to release when we do something that elicits a reward response, from fulfilling basic needs to fulfilling achievements.
I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was seven, and it persists to this day. Everyone with the disorder experiences it a little differently, but for me, it can feel like my thoughts are wading through water. It’s easy to go along the “current” of whatever holds my interest the most, but trying to break away from that current to shift my attention or holding focus on the same task when my attention shifts can be immensely difficult and frustrating, to both myself and those around me. Medication helps immensely, but it is by no means a cure.
Generally, videogames do an excellent job holding the attention of people with ADHD. Most games feature a positive feedback loop that immediately gives players a reward or punishment for playing the game the correct or incorrect way. This immediate feedback isn’t often present in the real world: The outcome of studying for a test may not come for weeks, and there’s no hard deadline for remembering to do the laundry. In this way, videogames can be especially appealing for those with ADHD, if not dangerously addictive. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first prescribed videogame in order to treat kids with ADHD just a few days ago!
However, that feedback loop can also be inhibiting. Especially in open-world games, where the player is given a seemingly wide array of locations and objectives to explore and pursue, it often turns out that limitations, such as character level, equipment or area gating, keep the player on a single or small number of tracks throughout the experience. I’ve been able to play and enjoy open-world games such as Xenoblade Chronicles X and The Witcher III, but my impulse to immediately shift to whatever holds my attention the most has led me to butt up against the games’ constraints too frequently to count, which takes energy and focus I could be using on being productive.
In Breath of the Wild,, that distraction is encouraged. After a brief tutorial on the Great Plateau to make sure you understand the game’s mechanics, you’re set free to do whatever you want, wherever you want. There’s a thin list of story quests to embark on, but it’s not extensive, and the sidequests you come across mostly just incentivize you to keep an eye out for different things while exploring. So the vast majority of your time spent in Breath of the Wild isn’t spent crossing off a checklist of objectives nor progressing through a linear story, but discovering those objectives and stories for yourself through Hyrule’s varied and engaging environments.
This has made Breath of the Wild one of the only games to “keep up” with my brain, not just allowing but rewarding my propensity to switch tasks and pursue the new, shiniest thing on Hyrule’s horizon. Almost always, this curiosity is rewarded with something, whether it be a Korok seed, a shrine or even a dragon. In most games I’ve played, constraints have forced designers to sprinkle rewards around specific, clearly marked points of interest through a “dopamine trail” of objectives and waypoints to guide the player where they need to go next. In Breath of the Wild, there is no such dopamine trail. The dopamine is everywhere.
But it doesn’t stop there. Breath of the Wild’s design is among the most elegant found in a massive open-world game, and this elegance is incredibly helpful in removing distracting stimuli. This helps people with sensory processing issues, another common symptom of ADHD, focus more on the things that matter.
Unless you’re in a major area, such as a town or Hyrule Castle, music is sparse and understated. This has a narrative purpose, showing how Hyrule has fallen into decay, but also has the benefit of not distracting from other important auditory cues. The game’s map, too, is simplified when compared to other contemporary open-world games. In Horizon Zero Dawn, a game that came out around the same time as Breath of the Wild, the map quickly becomes littered with waypoints, markers and other signifiers. In Breath of the Wild, the map remains relatively sparse, with only a handful of landmarks marked upon discovery, and most collectables, such as Korok seeds and shrines, only being discoverable in-game, forcing players to immerse themselves in the actual world instead of constantly cross-referencing a mini-map.
As is often the case, these design decisions have a “curb-cut effect,” where removing clutter and distracting stimuli are most noticeable for those who struggle the most with them, but are beneficial to almost everyone who plays the game. For someone like me, these changes make Breath of the Wild soothing and effortless to immerse myself in without becoming overwhelmed, but for the neurotypical player, these changes simply make the experience all that more immersive and rewarding.
Breath of the Wild is a perfect example of how when you make something accessible to some, you can end up improving it for everyone.
Joseph Stanichar is a Paste intern.