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Elden Ring

Elden Ring is winning "Game of the Year" awards left and right. Critics and players are almost unanimously praising From Software for successfully adapting its Dark Souls design into an open world in its latest release. And I have to say, it is, indeed, one of the better open worlds that I've seen.

But you know what? I always kind of considered Dark Souls to be an "open world" game in all the ways that matter. I even brought it up as an example in previous video essays about open worlds. So as far as I'm concerned, Elden Ring isn't really doing a whole lot that the original Dark Souls wasn't already doing. Elden Ring just does more of it and is less subtle in its approach.

This entire essay is available in video format on YouTube.

Why do I consider Dark Souls to be a practical open world? Well, first and foremost, most of the world of Dark Souls is seamlessly connected. Almost every landmark that you can see in the distance is a place that you can (and probably will) actually go. This is also largely true of FromSoft's other games, including Bloodborne and Sekiro. The first 2 Dark Souls games, as well as Demon's Souls are also open to a lot of significant sequence-breaking, allowing players the option to handle levels out of order, or to skip entire levels altogether.

Dark Souls most dramatically diverges from a more traditional open world (like Skyrim) by wrapping its world in a vertical helix, rather than stretching it out over a flat plane. From Firelinek Shrine to the depths of Lost Izalith and Ash Lake, to the heights of Anor Londo and the Duke's Archives, Lordran is an almost completely contiguous place. But despite the narrower confines of the game's levels, there is still a sense of awe and wonder to exploring the depths of a level, only to eventually circle back to someplace familiar and slowly realize that everything in the world fits in place. It's all functional, and the relative arrangements of game levels helps to tell the story of how Lordran's world worked, and how it eventually collapsed. And now that Elden Ring has come along with a more traditional open world, it kind of proves something that I subconsciously knew all along: From Software's particular approach to story-telling is actually perfectly suited to an open world design.

Oh, and before I go on, I want to provide a minor spoiler warning for Elden Ring, and pretty much all of From Software's catalogue back to and including Demon's Souls. I will be talking about how these games deliver their narratives, which will involve talking a bit about the overall narrative structure and some thematic elements that these games all have in common. I will provide a warning for any explicit story spoilers, so that you can skip those. But if you want to go into any of these games completely fresh, then I recommend you play them first, then come back to this video.

Dark Souls's world is wrapped around a vertical helix, instead of spread across a flat plane.

How FromSoft has always told its stories

Elden Ring's success, and the praise for its open world, will likely lead to other companies like Ubisoft, Bethesda, Warner Brothers, or CD Projekt RED taking the wrong lessons and assuming that Elden Ring is good because it's world is huge, combat is difficult, the U.I. is minimal, and there's almost no guidance in where to go or what to do. But this isn't the case. Elden Ring's success as an open world game is not derived from any robust traversal mechanics, or because it is actively about the journey from place to place, or even from being almost entirely player-driven exploration -- even though some of those do certainly apply to Elden Ring. Elden Ring's open world is different from most other open worlds. It doesn't really work along the same design philosophy as games like Skyrim, Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, or Death Stranding. Elden Ring's world, to me, is at least as comparable to a game like Outer Wilds. Both games' worlds provide a massive mystery box that (in the case of Elden Ring) is used to deliver From Software's iconic method of non-linear story-telling.

Elden Ring has the same non-linear style of exposition as Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro before it. Which is to say that Elden Ring's story is more about lore than about plot. Even though those older games aren't technically open worlds, they all embrace the same method of open-ended, non-linear narrative delivery. FromSoft's stories aren't necessarily about exploring the map, but rather, they are stories about exploring that map's history (which you have to do by exploring the map). It gives out pieces of lore, piecemeal, little by little. It's up to the player to put all the pieces together and construct a history of the game world in your own head, because there isn't a quest-giver or villain who's going to monologue and explain it all to you in a cutscene before the final boss fight. Or at least, if there is, then it's not necessarily the case that such an expository character is going to be completely honest and forthright. More importantly, the story being told is multi-layered, and the player's final impression of that story depends largely on how much time the player invested into exploring and absorbing the world, and how many layers of lore the player was able to peel back.

Dark Souls hides critical information in obscure places to be discovered by curious and diligent players.

To put this into context, remember that Dark Souls is a game that hides important, story-changing information in the most ridiculously secretive parts of the game. For example, Dark Souls is the kind of game that hides a massive secret area behind two illusory walls in the back corner of a poisonous swamp that never needs to even be visited or explored in the main path of progress. And that's not even the only time Dark Souls pulls a trick like that.

There's also the secret lore hidden in the Painted World. And there are 2 different ways to completely upend the entire supposed plot as you thought you knew it. One way is to attack a friendly NPC and dispel an illusion that you have no reason to believe is an illusion. The second is to return to a boss arena that takes place in a featureless black void after beating the boss and completing the only business that you thought you had there.

Dark Souls doesn't just hide trivial easter eggs in the fringes of the game space in a desperate attempt to try to reward players for poking at the seams; it hides story-defining narrative there in those fringes so as to make exploring the limits of the game world into an essential part of consuming the story. That's just the kind of game that Dark Souls is, and every FromSoft game since (and also Demon's Souls before) has followed suit to some degree or another. For a first time player, coming into these games fresh and blind, you might start to realize that things just aren't making sense or adding up, and that might encourage you to start probing at the seams -- or maybe you just assume that these games are poorly written and stop paying attention to the story and lore completely. As a veteran of FromSoft's games going all the way back to OG Demon's Souls, I go into all their games just assuming that my "starting quest" is going to turn out to be complete bullshit -- and I'm actually going to go into more detail about that in the next video that I have planned.

Other open world games litter the map with markers to make sure the player sees it all.

Other open world games from other studios are often too concerned with making sure that the player sees as much of it as possible, presumably to justify the purchase price. The actual story is usually aggressively linear, scripted, and very "closed". The openness of the world really only exists to facilitate side quests, and to pad out the game's play time and create a false sense of "value" for the product. Those developers fill the U.I. with quest logs, and objectives, and map markers for collectibles to try to extrinsically motivate the player to go find and do it all. And their stories are delivered in an un-missable, linear format -- a format that often clashes with the open-ended nature of the gameplay, by providing false stakes and dissonant character choices.

FromSoft's DLCs tease with the promise of answers,
but usually leave more questions.

FromSoft's eschews all that. Its maps may be more constrained and linear, but the stories are always open-ended and up to player interpretation. FromSoft games are infamous for being mysterious and obtuse. Players have to work to discover what is going on in the game's story -- almost as much as they have to work to beat a boss. Because of this, FromSoft is able to take advantage of the player's genuine curiosity about where the answer might be. The player, thus, explores the nooks and crannies of the map because of an intrinsic desire to better understand why all of this is happening. It creates a feedback loop. The deeper that exploration takes us, the more enticing the mysteries become, and the more we want to explore further.

This is also, in my opinion, a big reason why FromSoft's DLCs always do pretty well. They always tease at providing answers to big questions. And it's also why the cut content of From Soft's games are always so compelling and alluring. Like, I don't recall cut content being a popular subject for any video games until the Dark Souls YouTube bards started digging into the cut content of From's games. Now, there's a whole YouTube cottage industry of cut content videos and videos about taking the camera out of bounds.

Are the lessons of Elden Ring transferrable?

In addition to praise for Elden Ring, I'm seeing some internet pundits saying that all other developers should look to Elden Ring for inspiration on designing future open world games. But I don't necessarily think that the lessons of Elden Ring are applicable or adaptable to all other open world games, franchises, or settings. Elden Ring's open world works so well, in part, because From Software's particular brand of storytelling is based more around building a mythology than about telling a traditional plot with a beginning, middle, and end. And this story-telling philosophy has worked so well for so many consecutive games in large part because every Souls-Borne game (and Sekiro and Elden Ring) are basically telling the same story, just with different names for people, places, and things.

Yes, there are still lessons that other developers can and should learned from Elden Ring. Like maybe open world games should not be so littered with copy-pasted filler content and mindless collectibles that are designed to pad out the game's size and length. Maybe open world games should use more of their map's space to actually tell their stories. Maybe open world games should embrace a sense of exploration and genuine discovery by letting players discover the world on their own instead of being given a laundry list of tasks to do and map markers to visit.

Most open worlds would not benefit from
removing the mini-map.

Elden Ring's open world, for example, benefits from the lack of a mini-map or explicit route mapping. Players of Elden Ring are actually looking at the game world for paths, landmarks, and points of interest, instead of simply following an objective marker or path drawn on their map. This forced the developers to have to populate the world with distinct, attention-grabbing landmarks and points of reference. The Erdtree, for example, constantly orients the player within the world, and acts as a sort of progress gauge. The closer you are to the Erdtree, the closer you are (presumably) to the end of the quest. And if you reach the foot of the Erdtree, and you still have open questions, you might feel inclined to turn back and investigate the parts of the world that you skipped on exploring earlier.

This mirrors the way that the lack of a fast travel for the first half of Dark Souls forced the designers to tightly interconnect the world in its infamous helical design full of shortcuts and loops back to previous regions. In both cases, the lack of conventional ease of use features forces the player to absorb and understand the game world (and the story it is telling) much more intimately. It also trains the player to be much more observant when exploring the world, so that players are more likely to notice interesting bits of environmental story-telling, without the game necessarily having to highlight those details under virtual spotlights or marquees.

But other games that take place in certain settings -- especially more grounded or realistic settings -- might not be able to create such distinctive, fantastical landmarks, or allow them to remain visible from most parts of the world. If you take away mini-maps, markers, fast travel, or other ease-of-use features, but have a map full of gray, indistinct, buildings, copy-pasted villages, featureless forests, or samey-looking canyons, it will only make such games frustratingly difficult to navigate. Not every game can have a landmark like the lights of the New Vegas strip.

Games require special (usually fantastical) settings to allow for landmarks to be visible from almost everywhere.

Other games that rely on plot-driven narrative are also going to have trouble trying to adapt the philosophies of Elden Ring's narrative design. Those narratives cannot be delivered in the same non-linear, arcane fashion as a From Software game because they are more heavily-scripted and mostly-linear. Other games may not allow the player to go anywhere and sequence-break to the extent that Elden Ring's non-linear, player-driven narrative enables and encourages. Or if they do allow it, it's going to come at the cost of losing a lot of the game's narrative cohesion and dramatic stakes and tension.

And besides, this sort of lore-based story-telling is best suited to fantasy and sci-fi stories because those fantastical settings are the ones that have the most for the player to discover. A game in a more grounded setting, like Assassin's Creed or Far Cry can certainly try to litter its game world with lore. And in fact, they have tried. But attempts to do so often fall flat because the lore is so mundane. It doesn't motivate the player to seek it out. It's either something that you already know from having opened a history textbook, or because it's just kind of ... common knowledge.

It's not impossible to make an open world game with a story that succeeds in the ways that Elden Ring does, and such games do exist. I already mentioned Outer Wilds, which gives players an entire miniature toy solar system to explore. In addition to the spectacular stellar sights of the Hearthian system, Outer Wilds fills every nook and cranny of its planets, moons, comets, and starbases with pieces of a massive mystery. The player's ever-growing knowledge about the system's history will be the only "upgrade" that leads you to the next key discovery to solving the massive, solar-system-scale puzzle. Hell, Outer Wilds might very well be the best open world game that I've ever played!

Outer Wilds is one big mystery box, left completely to the player to explore on your own.

Breath of the Wild also has a lot of similarities to Elden Ring, except its story is more about building Link's power rather than revealing the lost history of Hyrule. Both games, at fundamental levels, are about the player gaining enough power to confront the final threat, and leaving the player free to accumulate that power in whatever manner you wish.

Fallout: New Vegas is a slightly older example of a comparable design. It is also less about a specific plot, and more about the political philosophies of its setting and factions. Its inciting incident is basically just a springboard to put the player on a path to conflict or cooperation with these various factions. It utilizes open-ended quest structures, each with multiple viable resolutions, along with about a half dozen possible endings, which all synergizes well with the open nature of the game map. Similarly, Elden Ring's legacy dungeons (much like New Vegas's individual quests) retain the open-ended design philosophy of the larger map and game. These dungeons include shortcuts and optional paths, and they support multiple viable play-styles. The addition of the jump functionality takes this design to a higher level compared to older FromSoft games, allowing them to create more alternate paths using the verticality of levels -- paths with may be less obvious and which require more astute observational skills and experimentation from players to discover. After I had cleared Stormveil Castle for the first time, I saw in videos and wiki posts that I had completely missed massive optional areas, including entire mini-bosses and bosses.

And there's certainly other examples of games that succeed at this sort of open-ended narrative delivery. Feel free to share your favorite example in the comments!

Breath of the Wild has a very similar setup compared to Elden Ring.

From the beginning

Put simply, Elden Ring works because it's doing all the same things that From Software has been successfully doing since the first Dark Souls, just at a much larger scale. It's the same player-centric progression. The same methods of narrative delivery. The same level design principles. The same everything -- just spread out over a much greater area. Dark Souls was always an open world game in all the ways that matter. Elden Ring just makes that more apparent.

Comments (1) -

Dima Sook
Dima Sook
12/23/2023 17:04:33 #

Thank you for a great article.
Very much agree on everything.
Many people don’t realise that From games have always been open world. In Edlen Ring there are simply more open wide locations and a goat horse. )

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