Elden Ring, Game Design Hot Takes and Screaming into the Void
Lahftel may be late to the party, but he also has opinions on Elden Ring.
Each time, without fail, FromSoftware releases a new title with great reviews; you’ll see all sorts of opinions floating around their titles. Even though they are too tough, they lack certain features that give them broad appeal or arguments about accessibility. It’s been routine since FromSoftware’s games went from niche hits to cultural phenomenon. And these games always divide the discussion in every possible way.
The AAA Game and Elden Ring
You have industry pros either praising it or complaining about it. Players who defend their favorite thing or…complain about it. And although I can think of other titles released over the past few years that have had similar reactions. None of them come close to Soulsborne..rio.. ring. Or whatever we call FromSoftware games now. And frankly? I’m a little tired of all this noise. So here are some more schmucks with a platform’s long-form opinion on the subject. (It’s mine.)
Oddly enough, a lot of the arguments I see against FromSoftware’s games boil down to, “This game isn’t up to industry standards, so I don’t like it.”
I know, this sounds like a tough argument, but let me explain my point. Today’s gaming audience, especially big hit AAA games, are used to being served all-you-can-eat buffets. If I mention a large open world, with hundreds of hours of gameplay, cooperative multiplayer, crafting and a light RPG system; I’m sure a lot of games from the previous generation or came to mind. And it kind of became a design template for a lot of these titles.
I’m tired of reading hot takes, while having my own.
It’s FromSoftware’s approach to getting you started in a game, with little to no introduction. You get a short cutscene, explaining what’s going on, and an optional tutorial. Now I’ve seen people get carried away by the first little tutorial. What I identify here is less of a design issue with Elden Ring, and more of an issue in how players have been lifted by many other titles. If you walk into a game and expect to be hand in hand, you probably only started playing video games in the last ten years or so. Back when this industry was still considered a “niche”, gamers were less pampered and spoiled.
Is it now the fault of the player? Of course not. If you’ve played five other great AAA open-world cinematic games, why should this one called Elden Ring be any different?
Break the plan
The thing is, FromSoftware doesn’t really make games with mass-market appeal. They always aim for the niche market that brought them their success in the first place. And that’s where all the noise comes in. This game isn’t to the plan that audiences have grown accustomed to; so the game is bad.
Now keep this plan in mind. There’s a reason Ubisoft’s lovingly dubbed open world works, but that doesn’t mean going off the plane isn’t worth it.
If playing with the plan helps you achieve your game’s vision, reach the audience you want to reach; while allowing you to ignore the larger landscape around you. So it should be a success, right? And amid those high ratings on Metacritic and the constant sparks of discussion, FromSoftware knows how to do it. Justin Fisher from GDC gives an excellent talk on the topic of finding an audience. (Don’t let the title fool you, it makes sense!)
Add a little spice
Now, there’s no denying that FromSoftware is a master of his craft. When you see people claiming that its designers were smoking something or working on CRT monitors, you start to question things.
Yes, there are patterns that designers learn from. Accessibility, user experience, interface design, etc. But these design choices are not set in stone. And in some cases, getting rid of certain things that are considered the “norm” can work to your advantage.
Quest log vs organic interaction?
Those ghastly Soulsborne games never had anything so standard as a quest log. Because the game doesn’t really care if you actually complete this quest and get the reward. You will even be kicked out of this quest if you complete certain bosses too soon. Full execution is not a priority for the designers of FromSoftware.
Only when you pay attention to what the characters are saying, visit them once in a while to see if anything is going on; that you get the full picture. It makes the player feel like they’ve experienced something they weren’t supposed to experience. For example the story of Roderika and the blacksmith Hewg. You can convince the grumpy old man to take care of the young lady after she goes to the round table. She will then help you further. As you progress through the story, there’s always a little back and forth between the two. Dialogue you can exhaust, it doesn’t get you any quest rewards. Instead, you’re rewarded with a small but compelling story in between.
Now imagine the same scenario, but every time you kill a certain boss. you will receive the message “New conversations are now available during the roundtable”. Doesn’t really have the same appeal, does it? Instead of an organic discovery that gives you character and story insight, you’re given a directive; an official notice from the game telling you what happened. One of these scenarios reflects how we get to know people in real life, the other not so much.
Find your own story
The same goes for the history of Elden Ring. You’ll get the cliff notes of what’s going on. But no one will tell you why you do what you do. And if you take it as it is, you’ll get the story of an eternal tarnished that wanders around and kills everything in its path. But if you start reading through the dialogue and connecting the dots. Suddenly, the story being told is quite different. (And we’ll get to that eventually, so stay tuned for that.)
In a similar vein, the almost exhausting open world of Elden Ring is delightfully cryptic. Now this reviewer has spent around 90 hours in Elden Ring and seen all the main areas and bosses. And after claiming the title of Elden Lord at the very end, there was a shocking realization.
About two-thirds of the areas in this game are completely optional. Most bosses are optional. It’s crazy ! Any other great open-world game would hold your hand and make sure the main quest sends you to every corner of the map —just to make sure you’ve seen it all.
It’s just FromSoftware’s confidence in the appeal of their design. Players can hear about a location in NPC dialogue or read it in an item description, and that’s enough to make them search for it.
It’s a trend that FromSoftware started in Bloodborne. Half of this game was also optional. You just stumbled upon some of the best gaming content. (Provided the Fextralife wiki isn’t open. Which isn’t a bad thing, by the way.)
The community around these games has always sought to solve them. Even the story, there are plenty of dedicated fans, on forums and message boards, trying to piece it all together. While others still on Youtube put these theories into an digestible format for the casual consumer.
It’s the design of the game that breeds the passion. If you’re making a game that’s cryptic and requires a cooperative effort to solve, that’s part of its appeal. And that’s always been part of the appeal of these games.
Elden Ring on PC is a seamless experience.
Recognize the purpose of design
I want to end this little rant by saying… there’s nothing wrong with claiming that a game has bad design choices if you mean it.
But it’s also important to try to figure out why the developers would make a game like this. It’s unlikely that anyone would make a frustrating game just for the fun of it. Design always has a purpose. There are some very talented people involved in FromSoftware’s games. They’ve been making games like this since the PlayStation One era, starting with Kingsfield, and honing their craft ever since.
The thing about all those hot takes that fly is that they don’t engage with what’s presented. Elden Ring has a story, it’s a pretty good one actually. With the kind of stuff you’d expect from George RR Martin and the girls and guys behind the ultimate game of all time.
Yes, I would like to live in a world where Elden Ring can sell Call of Duty numbers. But for FromSoftware’s games to have mass market appeal; to be critically acclaimed, while knowing their identity? It is not yet possible. Our industry still needs that thing, that game that can grab everyone’s attention while ticking off all those brands. Elden Ring is dangerously close to being that title. It’s just that the environment and climate it’s released into isn’t ready for it yet. It comes at the end of a generation of big hit games with mass market appeal. Well liked and well reviewed. But so abstract and formulaic that you can barely tell them apart a year later.
Who knows, Elden Ring will probably dominate the Game of the Year discussion. Perhaps even the greatest game of the 9th generation of consoles. Because so far. There isn’t a single title on the horizon that comes close to these insane ambitions. The other kids can rest…unless Dragons Dogma 2 is coming out soon.
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