Elden Ring, Game Design Hot Takes and Screaming into the Void

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Elden Ring, Game Design Hot Takes and Screaming into the Void

Lahftel might be late to the party, but he also has opinions about Elden Ring.

Every time, without fail, FromSoftware releases a new title to great reviews; you will see all kinds of opinions float around about their titles. Be it that they're too hard, they lack certain features that give them a broad appeal or arguments about accessibility. This has been a routine ever since FromSoftware's games went from niche hits to cultural phenomenon. And those games always split the discussion in every possible way.

The AAA Game and Elden Ring

You have industry professional's either praising it or complaining about it. Gamers who either defend their favorite thing ever or… complain about it. And while I can think of other titles that came out in the past few years that conjured similar reactions. Non of them come close to Soulsborne..rio.. ring. Or whatever we call FromSoftware games now. And honestly? I'm kinda getting sick of all the noise. So here is some other schmucks with a platform's lengthy opinion on the topic. (It's mine.)

Weirdly enough, lots of the arguments I see made against FromSoftware's games boil down to: ‘This game does not conform to industry standard, hence I don't like it.'

I know, this sounds like a harsh argument but allow me to explain my take. The audience for games today, especially the big blockbuster AAA games, are used to getting ‘all you can eat' buffets. If I mention big open world, with hundred hours of playtime, Co-op multiplayer, crafting and a light RPG system; I'm sure plenty of games of the past generation or came to mind. And it's become somewhat of a design blueprint for many of these titles.

A character in FromSoftware's Elden Ring rests inside a spartan room
I'm tired of reading hot takes, while having my own.

It's the FromSoftware approach to drop you into a game, with little to no introduction. You get a short cinematic, explaining what is going on and an optional tutorial. Now I've seen people blissfully run by the first little tutorial. What I identify here is less a problem of Elden Ring's design, but more a problem in the the way players have been raised by lots of other titles. If you come into a game and expect to have your hand held, then you've probably only started playing video games in the past ten years or so. Back when this industry was still considered ‘niche', players were less coddled and spoiled.

Is that now the fault of the player? Of course not. If you played five other big cinematic AAA open world games, why should this one called Elden Ring be any different?

Breaking the Blueprint

The thing is, FromSoftware doesn't really make games with mass market appeal. They're still aiming for the niche market that brought them their success in the first place. And that's where all the noise comes in. This game doesn't conform to the blueprint audiences have become used to; hence the game is bad.

Now keep this blueprint in mind. There is reason the lovingly dubbed Ubisoft open world has been working, but that doesn't mean that stepping outside the blueprint isn't worth it.

If messing with the blueprint helps you to realize the vision for your game, reach the audience you want to reach; while also allowing you to ignore the greater landscape around you. Then that should be a success right? And of those hefty ratings on Metacritic and the constant sparks of discussions are anything to go by, FromSoftware knows how to do it. Justin Fisher from GDC gives a great talk on the topic of finding an audience. (Don't let the title fool you, it makes sense!)

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Adding some Spice

Now, there's no denying that FromSoftware are masters of their craft. When you see people arguing that its designers were smoking something, or working on CRT monitors, you start questioning things.

Yes, there are templates designers get taught. Accessibility, User Experience, Interface design etc. But those design choices are not set in stone. And in some cases, getting rid of certain elements that are considered the' norm', can work to your benefit.

Quest log vs Organic Interaction?

Those dreadful Soulsborne games never had something as standard as a Quest log. Because the game does not really care if you actually finish that quest and get the reward. You'll even get locked out of that quest, if you complete certain bosses too early. The full clear run is not a high priority for FromSoftware's designers.

It's only when you pay attention to what characters are saying, visit them every now and then to see if something comes up; that you get the full picture. It makes the player feel like they've experienced something that wasn't meant for them to experience. For example the story of Roderika and the smith Hewg. You can convince the old grump to look after the young woman after she makes it to the Roundtable Hold. She'll then help you further. As you progress through the story, there is always some little back and forth between the two. Dialogue you can exhaust, that doesn't net you any quest reward. Instead you're rewarded with a small, but compelling story between the two.

A character in Elden Ring interacts with the statue of a woman with long braided hair

Now imagine the same scenario, but every time you kill a certain boss. you'll get the message that ‘New Conversations are now Available at the Roundtable Hold'. Doesn't really have the same appeal does it? Instead of an organic discovery that provides you with some character and story insight, you're given a directive; an official notice from the game telling you what's happened. One of these scenarios mirrors the way we learn about people in real life, the other, not so much.

Finding your own story

The same goes for the story of Elden Ring. You'll get the cliff notes of what is happening. But no one will tell you why you do what you do. And if you take this as is, you'll get the tale of an undying tarnished ⁠— who goes around and kills everything in his wake. But if you start reading into dialogue and connecting dots. Suddenly the tale told is quite different. (And we'll get into that eventually so stay tuned for that.)

In the same vein, Elden Ring's almost exhausting open world is deliciously cryptic. Now this reviewer has spent around 90 hours in Elden Ring, and seen all the major areas and bosses. And after claiming the title of Elden Lord at the very end, there came a shocking realization.

About two thirds of this game's areas are completely optional. Most of the bosses are optional. That is insane! Any other big 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 everything.

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This is just FromSoftware's confidence in the allure of their design. Players might hear about a place in NPC dialogue or read it in an Item description, and it's enough to make them seek it out.

Community Collaboration

It's a trend that FromSoftware started back in Bloodborne. Half of that game was also optional. You just stumble into some of the games best content by accident. (Provided you don't have the Fextralife Wiki open. Which isn't a bad thing by the by.)

The community around these games has always been about solving them. Even the story, there are plenty of dedicated fans, on forums and message boards alike, trying to piece it all together. While still others on Youtube, put these theories into a digestible format for the casual consumer.

It's the game's design breeds passion. If you make a game that's cryptic and needs a cooperative effort to solve it, that's part of its appeal. And it has always been part of the appeal of these games.

A screen grab from one of Elden Ring's unique areas
Elden Ring on the PC is a flawless experience.

Recognizing the Purpose in Design

I want to close out this little rant by saying… it's okay to argue that a game has bad design choices if you feel that way.

But it's also important to try to understand why developers would make a game like this. It's doubtful anyone makes a game frustrating purely for the sake of it. The design always has some purpose. There are some seriously talented people involved with FromSoftware's games. They've been making games like this since the PlayStation One era starting with Kingsfield, and have been honing their craft ever since.

The thing about all these hot takes flying around is they aren't engaging with what is presented. Elden Ring has a story, its a pretty good one actually. With the kind of stuff you'd expect from George R.R. Martin and the girls and guys behind the Ultimate Game of all Time.

Yes, I would love to live in a world in which Elden Ring can sell Call of Duty numbers. But for FromSoftware's games to have a mass market appeal; to be critically acclaimed, while also knowing in their identity? It's just not possible yet. Our industry still needs that thing, that one game that can just grab everyone's attention while checking off all those marks. Elden Ring comes dangerously close to being that title. It's just the environment and climate its released in, is just not ready for it yet. It comes at the tail end of a generation of big blockbuster games with mass market appeal. Well liked and well reviewed. But so boiled down 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. Possibly even the greatest game of the 9th console generation. Because so far. There's isn't a single title on the horizon that comes close to these foolish ambitions. The rest of the kids can lay theirs to rest… Unless Dragons Dogma 2 comes out any time soon.

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Elden Ring, Game Design Hot Takes and Screaming into the Void
Timo Reinecke
Has once claimed that FSH is the only job in FFXIV worth playing and stands by that firmly. Top Guy, Smart Guy, Educated Speaker. (sometimes) Writer of all things FFXIV, FGC, News, Reviews and More