It's been a while since I played it, but according to game length aggregator How Long to Beat, most players finish The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in about 30 hours. That's three dungeons as Kid Link, five temples as Adult Link, three mini-dungeons, and Ganon's Castle, along with exploration and side quests throughout the kingdom of Hyrule, all in a little over a day of total play time.
In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo's latest installment in the franchise, I spent roughly the same amount of time simply exploring the Hyrule without even touching the first dungeon.
The opening sequence, in which Link explores an isolated plateau in the center of Hyrule, provided me my first glimpse of the compulsion that would drive me to repeatedly avoid story obligations in favor of exploration. I spent a few hours exploring the plateau, and then I took a look at the map. The wide plateau was just a tiny part of a massive world! Much of it was vaguely visible from my high vantage point — stretching to the horizon and cloaked in mist — but I would need to fight and climb my way there to discover its secrets.
Breath of the Wild is hardly the first open-world game to make exploration a major component of its design, but very often, even great games like The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher use structured quests to encourage the player to delve into the depths of the world. This provides the breadcrumbs that lead to beautiful vistas and challenging enemies. Breath of the Wild has its fair share of similar quests in its main story, but by and large, the game steps back and lets you figure things out yourself; a character may drop a hint about an interesting mountain in the eastern side of Hyrule and this leave you to figure out the rest without an explicit quest waypoint, for example. And many of the world's most interesting spots are ones I simply discovered by accident … without anyone pointing toward them.
This makes exploration feel like true exploration. The game doesn't have a leveling system, so I'm not crawling the map to grind my character. There aren't many new items garnered over the course of the game either, so I'm not backtracking to try out new abilities. What has kept me going is the thrill of not knowing what's around the next corner or on top of the next hill. In fact, some of my most mind-blowing discoveries were the result of me backtracking purely out of curiosity (rather than the artificial gating mechanics of most Zelda games). One time I climbed a mountain near a village and found a sword sticking out of a rock at the summit with no explanation or associated quest. Another time, again while backtracking, I discovered a puzzle nestled in an isolated river cove that yielded a Korok Seed (one of the game's collectibles).
After each discovery, I have found myself swinging the camera around me only to notice another tantalizing glint on a nearby hill or a tower surrounded by monsters on a plain below. It's an incredibly hard game to put down, but it's also pretty hard to pull myself away from the seamless exploration and actually tackle a quest. Sure, there are usually multiple ways to complete each quest, but even so, they feel so much more constricting than the staggering open world the rest of the game presents.
I hope to have a review of Breath of the Wild soon, but I imagine I'll write it before I finish the game, since I don't want to rush through such a vivid, well-realized, and rewarding world. Maybe that's another reason why I took so long to reach the first dungeon; completing it brings me one step closer to the end of this fascinating journey.