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  • How Elden Ring Succeeds By Evolving Open-World Design

    - Josh Bycer
  • If you're one of the few people who missed the news, Elden Ring, the latest game by From Software is now out. My massive review for it should be out after this piece, but spoiler alert: the game has gotten high praise all around. In an interesting turn, there are developers throwing shade at the game and saying that it did well because of "bad UX" or "horrible controls." For today's post, we're going to dissect why Elden Ring is resonating with so many people, and it did that by ignoring every convention of open-world design over the last 20 years.

    Upen World

    When anyone thinks about open-world design today, they will most likely think of a game from Ubisoft, or one similarly designed. I've joked about how I don't like this style of open-world, or "Upen World" design before, but what does it mean?

    Open-world design for a lot of games is about a very macro experience: with tons of McGuffins, side quests, and "things" to do. The games typically have several side quests types that are repeated and again in each area of the game. One of the most famous is having to climb a tower or high structure to unlock the map for an area and get the entire list of chores to do there.

    When it comes to the actual moment-to-moment gameplay, these titles are often very thin. Combat will often play out the same way, and the mechanics at this level are kept basic so that the player can focus on the objectives and bonus stuff. Around the time of Elden Ring's launch, the other big-name game at the time was Dying Light 2 which boasted hundreds of hours of things to do in the world. And then after that came Horizon: Forbidden West. Incidentally, both games I had no interest in playing due to them being open-world games.

    0_dx6x48nJ7B1ONgfh.jpgmany open world games are less about the world itself, and more about the "things" the developer wants you to do

    There is this sense that you're not exploring a world but going on an amusement ride with everything curated to you. You can really get that feeling out of the trailers for Far Cry 6. You can only go where the game tells you to go, things only really happen on missions, and the world feels very barren to go around. Many open-world games are 1:1 based around the power fantasy trope and how you are going to save the world and be the hero. The first thing that Elden Ring does is exemplify one of the major themes of the Souls games.

    You Don't Matter

    In most stories, the world needs a hero, someone who is going to go out there and save the princess, beat the bad guy, and bring happiness and sunshine back by the end of the game. You know, as the player, that the game isn't going to end with you failing or the bad guy winning.

    In the world of Soulsborne however, you're not the hero and the world can't be saved. A major theme of these games is that the world is for all intents and purposes broken beyond repair. Anyone who could have saved things is either dead or corrupted. Even the villains have long since won and are nothing more than husks with no other purpose. At best, all you can do is restart the cycle for the inevitable next collapse of the world centuries later. I've said before that while the souls games are often poor when it comes to storytelling, they are amazing when it comes to environmental design and lore.

    the world of elden ring is vast, detailed, and does not care about you at all

    There is this somber realization that happens as you wander through the streets and countryside of these games that a whole lot has happened here a long time ago, and you're just a visitor to a dead world. Elden Ring continues this style but in a far larger space. Towns have long since been abandoned or destroyed, no one is really interested in saving the day, and you are given complete freedom to go on the most horrific walking tour of the land.


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