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.
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I think the last few years have brought us to a bit of an inflection point for open world video games -- which I feel have been in kind of a rut for the better part of the last decade. Long-time readers of my personal blog will probably be very familiar with my complaints. The two core complaints that I've had with this particular game design paradigm are:

  1. That the map itself rarely feels meaningful as a game space, and instead serves primarily as a convoluted mission-select screen full of time-wasting filler content.
  2. That the sandboxy nature of the game design means that the world and narrative often feel stagnant (as if in a kind of "limbo").
This blog is mostly a transcript of a YouTube video that I posted.

These problems can be traced back at least to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, which set many of the conventions of open world games for the next two decades. Companies from Ubisoft to Bethesda, and many others, would copy GTAIII's structure of going to a location on the map to trigger a mission in an aggressively linear, cinematic story, while spending free time on time-wasting filler content that did nothing to move the story forward.

Grand Theft Auto III set many of the standards
for open world games over the past 20 years.

Aside from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series, these problems have been present to varying degrees in everything from Skyrim to The Saboteur to Mad Max to Just Cause to The Amazing Spider-Man to Fallout 4 to Metal Gear Solid V, and many more. It started getting to the point that when I would see a game advertise the size of its map, I'd roll my eyes and lose interest. "Great, that's just more wasting my time walking from place to place with nothing meaningful or interesting or challenging to do."

Where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you get there was almost completely irrelevant in these games, which made the map itself (no matter how big and scenic it might be) feel mostly irrelevant. In fact, some games started introducing mechanics that let you bypass the map entirely by letting you fly, glide, or zipline to points of interest without having to engage with the space in between. In the case of Metal Gear Solid V's Afghanistan map, the roads are lined with sheer cliffs, funneling the player along linear paths from enemy outpost to enemy outpost, with practically nothing for you to do in the space between outposts. Even though the stealth action at those outposts was some of the best in the series, I couldn't help but think that Snake Eater provided a much more fulfilling experience of living within an open-ended game world.

I would roll my eyes whenever a game advertised the size of its map or hours of content.

The maps themselves weren't playspaces anymore; they were just the spaces in between towns, dungeons, and set pieces where the actual gameplay would take place. Just point in the direction of a waypoint and walk in a straight line, stopping every minute or so to pick up an umpteenth collectible, or climb an umpteenth tower, or sneak into an umpteenth enemy base and kill the umpteenth recycled mini-boss. Stop me if you've done all this before... A majority of the time with the game was just travelling around the map without any engagement in any gameplay systems or mechanics or strategies, and then playing some rote, recycled filler content to pass the time. And as the maps got bigger and bigger, the filler content just kept multiplying.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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