At an extremely basic level, video games are a conversation between intent and reception. The developers — made up of designers, coders, artists, etc. — create an idea what the player should be seeing and feeling in a moment and hope against hope that it works. On the player’s end, they interpret that intent through their own lens and it succeeds or falls flat either due to mismatched expectations, poor execution, or simply an X factor of uncontrollable player behavior.
While playing Elden Ring over the last few weeks, I have been absorbed in thought on this dynamic. A big challenge for open world game development is how you get the player to respond to the design in the intended way — how do you make sure the journey is paced well that they’re both having fun and not getting tired of exploring? What is the ideal path through an open world game to maximize enjoyment?
Where, in essence, does the act of playing a game begin and being lead end?
There’s artistry to it, because simply giving people the ability to participate in a world without any sense of design is artlessly not fun, but by and large video games have not captured what that ratio should be yet. I don’t think Elden Ring cracks it in such a way that there’s no room for improvement, but I think it gets far closer than any game has before it. It moves forward that conversation.
Elden Ring is not completely without a sense of direction, but it’s a designed world with an abundance of directions to possibly and eventually follow. The virtue of the game is that players are creating their own journey and finding all these expertly designed areas in which to uncover external and internal progress. FromSoftware asks the players to look in every conceivable direction for their next objective, but follows up that offer by giving you something worth doing at every one of those destinations.
It’s not just that Elden Ring is open, it’s that the openness is only meaningful with an accomplished world to back it up.
Every design decision in Elden Ring feeds into this idea. The graces show you the critical directions, NPCs tell you in vague allusions where to go, but you are never railroaded to any particular destination. I spent dozens of hours in the game bashing my head against Caelid, the landmass to the east of the starting area, which by all means should be tackled by much stronger characters than I possessed at the time. I probably should have taken the hint and backed off, but I persevered and got better weapons and more experience until I eventually emerged a broken, filthy kind of victorious.
But that’s also the story of my journey, my Tarnished, my Elden Ring. I was given the tools to take on this thing that was worth taking on and I made it my own, whether it made sense to or not, and it worked despite tears and frustration along the way. If Dark Souls and other games of its ilk are obsidian black jigsaw puzzles charging the player to assemble them in to a coherent image, Elden Ring is that same obsidian black jigsaw puzzle accompanied by scissors and glue.
This feels like a strange thing to celebrate, answering the simple question of “What if everywhere you could go had something worth doing?” as it immediately seems like a measure of resources and little more. But there have been games before Elden Ring and will be after Elden Ring that have more developers and resources thrown at it than anything FromSoftware could muster that still won’t be quite as full or fascinating.
That the answer is simple betrays the fact that executing it is still frustratingly complex and requires as much skilled artistry as it does raw manpower. The developers looked at their previous portfolio of games and actively thought about how to improve on them, how to make the conversation include more people, which is a rare breath of fresh air in an industry that often doesn’t have time for introspection between sequels.
There’s a temptation to point out Elden Ring’s excellence in this arena and say, that’s it, this key is why the game works, but this quality would fall apart immediately if everything else about the game weren’t able to rise up to meet it. Simply making a point of interest actually interesting does little good if my interactions with it failed to evoke any proper response from me. That is to say, Elden Ring is more than just one good idea, it’s an outstanding game wrapped around a fundamentally good idea.
I have been doing this job for 17 years at this point and I have learned you cannot excise expectations or emotions when sitting down to review a video game. Some segments of the audience wish we could be objective automatons that rattle off fact-based reports, but how a game makes us feel is often far more important than any numerical combination of its components. On the other side of 70 hours, I don’t really remember what I expected from Elden Ring, but I know that I ended every session wishing I had more hours in the day to play more.
The conversation between FromSoftware and I, this time at least, was as synchronous as it could possibly be.
I am not sure if Elden Ring is the biggest game I have ever reviewed, but it might be the most unnecessary. Two weeks ago, I remarked that one week was not long enough to review this game, which I put at the publisher’s feet — I still stand by that weeks later. But I also think that reviews for this game verge on utterly pointless. You know it, I know it, the publisher definitely knows it. There was probably no realm in which Elden Ring would not be good enough for you to at least consider playing it. That leaves us as critics trying to figure out what evaluations are actually notable and worth mentioning for the game in a world that will be utterly filled with every possible observation of it.
In that sense, I think the most valuable thing I can say in an Elden Ring review is that it will make me more skeptical of every other open-world game from now on. I don’t think the game is perfect, no game is, and trying to chase that ideal over the new is always going to lead to bland, overcooked games. But it’s not trying to be a perfect painting, it’s trying to be a coloring book printed on a canvas.
I don’t know if that analogy will make sense to everyone, but that’s part of its charm.