Elden Ring - title

I always considered the first Dark Souls to be an "open world" game in all the ways that matter. The world is interconnected, coherent, and surprisingly functional. Almost every location in the game is walkable from almost any other location, and every distant landmark is an actual place that you can go, which usually has a big, scary monster waiting to show you the "YOU DIED" screen for the thousandth time.

As such, I didn't really expect that a transition to an actual open world would in Elden Ring would really make all that much difference -- either positive or negative. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro already felt open and exploratory despite being a series of linear corridor crawls cleverly interconnected into a tight helix. So I didn't expect Elden Ring to really feel all that much more open or exploratory. Further, all of From Software's games are also designed from the ground-up with a play-at-your-own pace paradigm of story delivery -- in that From's games are more about doling out "lore" in piecemeal rather than about a linear narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. So I wasn't terribly worried that a transition to an open world structure would break any narrative flow or the sense of stakes for the character, as it does in so many other open world games.

From Soft's brand of player-driven lore discovery is well-suited to an open world format.

What I didn't expect though, is how the open world would dramatically improve both the accessibility and the challenge of the game.

Elevating the genre

Having transitioned to a more traditional open world design, Elden Ring does suffer from some of the same problems that plague the sub-genre. Assets, enemies, bosses, traps, and so forth are all re-used throughout the map, and many of the dungeons look like they were pulled straight out of Bloodborne's Chalice Dungeon generator. Each region of the map will assuredly have at least one mine tunnel full of upgrade stones. It will have at least one crypt dungeon (usually with a Burial Tree Watchdog boss that looks like a cat statue). It will have at least one set of ruins with a boss waiting in the basement. And they'll all have a minor Erdtree with an Erdtree Avatar (or similar) boss.

That being said, I haven't come across any of these dungeons that feels to me like it was just haphazardly thrown together. Each dungeon has its enemies, traps, and setpieces thoughtfully arranged to test various gameplay skills and the player's power of observation and thoroughness of exploration. Each one also has a unique piece of loot offered as a reward for defeating it -- usually a weapon, talisman, or spirit ash. Unlike, say, Skyrim, which just rewards all of its dungeons with disposable weapon or piece of armor that is level-scaled and arbitrarily magical, each dungeon in Elden Ring rewards a unique item that conveys a piece of lore. Early in the game, almost all of this loot is something that will be useful to most builds, which really helps to encourage the player to continue exploring these mini-dungeons. And later, even if the item isn't useful for a build, it might still reveal valuable lore.

Bosses are frequently re-used, but none of the dungeons feels haphazardly thrown together.

The sheer volume of places to go and things to do might seem overwhelming, but it's also a huge boon to new or struggling players. They have plenty of options for alternative challenges to try, which vary in difficulty. Getting stuck on the main quest path, or in a particularly nasty optional dungeon is easily alleviated by simply wandering off in another direction -- any other direction -- and trying something new that might be a bit easier to conquer, or which might provide loot that is useful in the places where you are struggling. Or you can just wander around the overworld and grind.

A lot of these dungeons can also start to feel tedious and unnecessary. I can go through entire dungeons, beat a boss, and still not have acquired enough runes to gain a single character level. On the one hand, this is frustrating, and some of these dungeons feel like a waste of time for a mid-to-high-level character. On the other hand, the increased desire to hold onto these runes means I'm more inclined to run away from a fight that I'm not equipped to handle, which forces me to engage more with that open world by trying to find another boss or another dungeon that is more my level, rather than continuously bash my head against the same boss wall over and over again.

If you get stuck on a boss, explore somewhere else.

Players are much more free to follow your own path through the game. In fact, From included plenty of opportunities for sequence-breaking for particularly inquisitive and observant players. Dungeons and bosses that seem like a mandatory bottleneck for progress can sometimes be skipped entirely. And honestly, it's not even all that hard to find these bypasses, since they are often out in plain view for anybody who bothers to deviate off the main path at all.

And this process of exploration really does provide a sense of genuine discovery in ways that most other open world games fail to deliver. The full scope of the map is hidden to the player at the start, so reaching the crest of a hill and finding an entire continent that wasn't on your map a moment ago is genuinely surprising and awe-inspiring. The fact that every notable point of interest is not immediately marked by climbing a tower or finding a checkpoint really facilitates a sense of exploration and adventure. It really feels like there's always going to be something new and interesting over every hill, around every corner, and within every dungeon.

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George R.R. Martin has yet to finish writing the book series.

Let HBO's Game of Thrones series stand as a testament to why companies should not adapt works for television or movies until after that work is actually complete. Game of Thrones was a huge hit when it premiered, and its early seasons are among the best television in recent memory. However, the last two or three seasons have been ... less good. The writing has become more spotty, characters are behaving more impulsively, the pacing has been rushed, and the whole thing just seems to be less well thought-out.

This could be due, in large part, to the fact that after the fifth or sixth season of the show, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have advanced beyond the source material. George R. R. Martin has yet to finish writing the final two books in the series -- a process which may still take years! HBO didn't want to wait, and they continued on with the show despite the lack of established source material from which to pull. They've done so with the consent and advice of Martin, who supposedly provided Benioff and Weiss with an overview of what he wanted to write in those final two books, but the end result has been sub-par.

I've written previously about the show's fifth season, which is the last season of the series that I would consider to be "good". That season was criticized for being "slow and boring" by some, and also for using shock value (such as the rape of Sansa by Ramsey Bolton) as a gimmick to keep people interested. However, I thought that the fifth season was tightly unified by its consistent themes of futility and self-destruction, as each of the major players slowly succumbed to their most fundamental impulses and took actions that ended up undercutting their own goals.

Season five had a consistent theme of self-destructive leaders.

Seasons seven and eight, however, have been much less defensible.

Season seven cut the episode count from the usual ten down to only seven, which resulted in the season as a whole feeling rushed and under-developed. Characters began to act more rashly, with little attention paid to building up to those actions. They travel great distances in what seems like no time at all. Plot threads would be left dangling, or would be set up and never paid off.

The Unsullied were left at Casterly Rock with no supplies,
only to show up a few episodes later no worse for wear.

For example, mid-way through the season, the Unsullied Army travels to Casterly Rock to fight the Lannister army, only to find that the Lannisters have abandoned the castle, destroyed the grain reserves, and salted the land. The episode makes a big deal of the fact that the Unsullied are now stuck there with no provisions and no hope of receiving reinforcements or supplies. Then we don't see or hear from them for, like, two episodes, before they suddenly show up again at Dragonstrone no worse for the wear.

Season eight seems to have doubled down on most of these problems. The season has been reduced further to only six episodes, and events are happening with even less build-up or set-up. Scenes are being added for shock value without any rhyme or reason. Characters are behaving out of character, or suddenly having changes of heart at the flip of a switch. Characters who used to be clever are acting like bafoons.

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