February 24, 5 hours, Limgrave
It’s clear that I have come into this game with a certain impression of what it will be. After spending two and a half hours on a boss only accessible by starting the game with a specific item, I had convinced myself of the myth of what a Soulsborne game was. This was going to be hard, this was going to be a struggle, and that’s what I came here for.
The snakelike tree creature writhed around the underground arena, hardly giving me any chance to comprehend its movements. Even when I could, a slice from my estoc hardly even scratches his health.
After two hours of throwing myself without mercy against the beast, I decided it wasn’t worth the frustration and left to see what else the game had to offer.
Coming out to Limgrave, rolling hills sweep towards a church shrouded by sun soaked trees. A castle, twisted and misshapen, stands on a cliff in the distance. The branches of the Erdtree’s light reach over the top of the frame. A large horseman patrols a pathway between the ruins and foliage. It’s a striking image, but one I expected to see. Just like so many open world games before it, the protagonist sees the world set before them, a world for them to set out and conquer. A Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.
Just as my first boss fight nudged me into my own presumptions of Elden Ring’s engagement with being a Souls game, I am convinced that I am entering a game similar to so many I have played before.
For years now, the open world genre has continued to be a mainstay of corporate videogame development. I don’t mean the general idea of an open world; that is a dream videogames have aimed for since the beginning. I am talking about an open landscape, with architecture and geographical points of interest lying on the horizon. Since the technical revelations of Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, this landscape-based open world has become the goal of many game companies with development practices and technology working towards standardization. At first it was out of inspiration, but as the years have gone on the open world design has become a goal of investment.
In interviews with the heads of some of the biggest open world proprietors, it has been noted that open worlds are not a continued practice as a consequence of creative decision. Rather, it’s because they allow for more returns on individual property investments and create a longer life span for games. In an interview with Gamesindustry.biz, CEO of Ubisoft Yves Guillemont notes that the direction of open worlds at the company has made it so there can be the equivalent of multiple games inside of the world. He adds at the end that in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, players tracked on average 60 hours playtime in the game and that it allows for longer term investment in a title the company works on. In an interview with The Guardian, Skyrim director Todd Howard notes, “Previously, someone might play a game for a few months, [and] a long-term play would be say six months. Now, they’re playing them for years.”
Upon my fifth hour of playing Elden Ring, I have died to the first major narrative boss, Margit, at least 30 times. After dying once again, crushing any hope of completion, I return back to a point of grace and open my map. Grace lines point north, and an obscure stretch of land reaches north and south. I could start heading in those directions, but I’m tired. I don’t feel an urge to fill out the map.
I close my map, and stop for the evening to go to bed.
February 26, 11 hours, Weeping Peninsula
I’ve crossed a bridge of military ballistas and swordsmen to immediately find a woman requesting me to find her father at the southern castle and ask for his leave. The southern castle used to be their home, but since the shattering of the Elden Ring has been overthrown by the castle’s enslaved misbegotten. I recognize that the game is positioning me as the assistant to the misbegotten’s oppressors, and then slice through them to go find the king. There is no other choice, really. It’s just another dungeon of content for me to fight through.
I am accustomed to the form of design in the genre. Run around, kill a camp of enemies, and gain some form of experience or loot from completion. It’s why I don’t come back to open world games.
To me, open worlds signify a game that doesn’t care about providing meaningful engagement for the player, but something that provides a form of spectacle of images at play that is repeatable in order to fill hundreds of hours. These worlds are created to emulate real world spaces, but never engage with them in a way that could problematize the player’s actions, signify history about the area represented, or the development process of the company which created it.
There are plenty of Ubisoft titles that represent this, with Far Cry 6 and Watch Dogs: Legion among the most recent. But the oversight and flattened engagement stretches across the genre, recently exemplified by the Horizon series, which utilizes native aesthetics to populate its world, and Pokemon Legends: Arceus cutesy-fying the colonizers’ history of Hokkaido to adhere to a “more natural” landscape.
This is one of the goals of corporate videogame development: to not challenge the player’s agency or ideals, but to create a smooth, immersive, computational environment that is seemingly infinite. It is because of this complete awe-striking mass that the ludo-ecosystem obfuscates the code, the labor which created it, and even ourselves as it begins to normalize not playing for the sense of value, but playing for the sake of something empty. Something that does not bring us anything, aside from endless completion, endless tick boxes to check, and a clouded sense of play and work.
This is why Estaban Fajardo notes that No Man’s Sky created the mass hype that it did. It convinced players that the dream of the infinite world game had become real.
You don’t just play an open world, you live in it. There isn’t just one game inside anymore, there are many of them. Only now it all plays the same, and it’s all handed to you without a tinge of challenging your ego. Beyond the horizon lies another valley full of camps for your protagonist to destroy, and another 20 hours of the same buttons being pressed. Worlds which flatten identities into easy to consume stereotypes, which never allow for anything less than a poor attempt at a systemic spectacle, which chase the images of the worlds that came before them. The worst that could happen is that you grow bored, or at worst, become aware that the food served at the buffet has a mediocre flavor that all tastes the same.
March 3, 20 hours, Mistwood
I am wandering through Mistwood as I attempt to procrastinate the boss of Raya Lucaria. I could have come here before, but I notice that I just kind of miss a lot of wandering through the Lands Between. Head straight one way, and then I have missed plenty of other areas paralleling the path I walked. When I look at the map now, I don’t feel tired so much as simply overwhelmed with choices. Typically I expect many pointers on the maps telling me what to do, or some notion of where I need to be. But right now I’m just not strong enough to be where I need to be. All the points of grace directing me to the next important narrative space lead me to a dead end that I cannot surpass. So I go where there is only empty space on my map.
By this point, I have stopped running around new areas with my horse Torrent, and begun wandering by foot, to make sure I catch everything. As I have learned, the spaces in Elden Ring don’t all just appear for you. They want you to trudge around, and feel the corners of each cliffside, ruin, and valley. I walk under a ruin to find a group of soldiers, which I begin to fight. Then, almost immediately upon engaging, a man starts shouting for me. “Hello? Is Anybody there? Someone who might be interested in rescuing the great Kenneth Haight?”
It takes me by surprise, in a comical way. The amount of people who talk to you in Elden Ring are few when compared to the men and monsters that jump to attack. Plus, being in the midst of six foot soldiers fighting me and having a man with a high pitched voice and bourgeoisie tone of speech felt absurd. After killing the soldiers, I find the voice to belong to a king who asks me to save his castle to the south. I keep it in mind as I continue to wander.
Along the way, I also find a sleeping bear which I sneak past without waking to steal treasure and a minor erdtree surrounded by little resource beetles. Each way I go I find something that better develops the world. Next to the tree, I stumble upon an elevator that takes me down for what feels like a full minute. There I find a world underneath filled with stars.
At this point I realize that I’m enjoying this open world more than I initially believed I would and that it continues to impress me. However, I’m not really sure how it happened. Elden Ring isn’t a breakaway from the genre. It is still an open world game tasking the player with an imperial journey across its landscape. As I trek across the Lands Between, there really isn’t too deep of a logic behind why I am taking down every enemy in my path, aside from “everyone in this world has lost their minds and wants me dead; I hope they give me cool stuff.”
However, by building Elden Ring off of the foundations of prior Soulsborne games, the logic of exploring the open world is more enthralling than any other open world I have explored before. When I walk around the world, I don’t feel that the only option I have in playing is to head towards the direction of indicators, with some little side events on the way. Walking around Elden Ring feels like a world that I want to learn more about, not just in the lore or narrative sense. When I discover a cavity in the side of a mountain, I don’t just go in because I know it will bring me a lot of loot or runes. I just want to see another part of this world that isn’t known to me yet. Why did I stumble into these catacombs that lie at the most northern part of the beach shore, and who is inside?
It’s not that other games don’t provoke these questions, but the amount of detail in each space that still leaves an amount of ambiguity provokes my imagination about what has happened.
Along with this, the logic of Soulsborne combat has bled into the way that spaces are traversed in the game. Not only will I run through an area multiple times because I have died, creating a more intimate connection to it. But because the game does not make all of the points of interest in the world apparent, there are many times I will run through an area multiple times just because I want to explore it again. That’s one of the aspects I find to be most unique about Elden Ring, is that even when there is a stretching world ahead of me I am enticed with walking around spaces I have previously explored. These spaces feel like deep texts spatialized that I just enjoy thinking about as I move through them.
None of these elements are really new ideas. The entirety of From Software’s Souls/Sekiro/Bloodborne line of games has thrived on creating dense spaces as texts for players to think through. The combat has only evolved to become smoother and less interesting than the challenging clunk bucket it was before (I say that affectionately). When it’s all applied to an open world it creates a new way for these landscapes to be explored.
March 9, 35 hours, Atlus Plateau
I don’t remember where it was, but after walking through a teleportation gate I arrive in a windmill village on the Atlus Plateau. I walk around groups of dancing corpses and walk out to the cliffside to look at the ocean. For the first time in the game I see nothing in the distance. No islands that tease me to find a way to walk across the water. No looming structures that provoke the possibilities of magic bridges or underground passages. There is nothing except a shadowy gray. I have hit the boundary—the edge of the world.
I turn around, and an entirely unexplored part of the world lies ahead of me. I pull out my map, and once again I am greeted by unknown gray surrounding all of my location. Even though I know what lies ahead will be something incredible, I find myself slightly exhausted all the same.
Rosy Hearts is a trans game artist and freelance writer. You can find her latest projects or rants about the Muppets on Twitter @rosy_hearts.