Elden Ring is called a masterpiece by many but explained why by few. The game is not flawless and on the contrary, it actually is rough on the edges in some aspects. Yet, anyone who played this game for a couple of hours can feel that Elden Ring is not just another open-world RPG. The world of Elden Ring is different; it tells stories without speaking a single word. But how is this possible? What is the source of the magic of The Lands Between that keeps the players on the edge of their seat? How could Hidetaka Miyazaki’s team create a distinguishable identity for their world and transcend it into something more than just a game? The latest work of From Software is the ultimate form of interactive storytelling and this article explains why.
Open World Islands
Elden Ring is a completely open-world game. There are no limitations in exploring the land except for the curiosity and the skill of the players. The player can move toward any part of the map at any given time without any external elements such as loading screens stopping the flow of the gameplay. In short, Elden Ring does its best to create a unified and uninterrupted experience for the players. Yet, it manages to pull off the impossible by creating separate identities and lore for each region. This is what I call “Open World Islands”.
Although all the regions in the game are connected, they manage to remain independent at the same time. This independence stems from the world design implemented by From Software. Each region of the game is made from the ground up as a fully self-sufficient world. The enemies, landscape, environmental challenges, and backstory of each region fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and the more the player explores the region, the more complete the puzzle gets.
Limgrave, the starting region of the game is a green plain filled with life. There are bears living in the jungles, rams roaming the mountains, and green poisonous plants all over the place. To the east lies Caelid; the land of the deadly scarlet rot and the undead. All the creatures in this land bear the signs of sickness and death. The giant skinny dogs and the man-eating crows that suffer from feather loss are all part of the big puzzle that introduces Caelid as the land of the living dead. To the west lies Liurnia, the land of the magic and across the sea up in the north is the great capital. Each region houses different types of NPCs and environment that contains part of the history of The Lands Between.
On top of this islandish design, there is also the multi-layered dungeon. Inside each major region, there are huge landscapes and structures such as caves and castles that each, in turn, has its own “layers”. Raya Lucaria Academy in Liurnia is a good example of that. This castle is the home of the wizards of Elden Ring universe. The castle’s outskirts are filled with graves and undead. In the courtyard, some machine-like creatures guard the stairways and gates. Inside the academy is filled with sorcerers and finally in the heart of the castle, inside the grand library, Rennala, Queen of The Full Moon and her scholars are unveiling the secrets of rebirth. Raya Lucaria Academy and all other “dungeons” of the game share the same layered nature.
This layered design retells the history behind each sub-region and makes it more than just a dungeon designed for looting and XP farming. That is because of this design choice that just looking and the map of Elden Ring brings back memories and stories for the players. Most regions in mainstream open-world games such as Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed lack this distinguished identity. Though I spent 75 hours in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, when I look at the map of the game now, I feel nothing because they all look the same! On the contrary, looking at the map of The Lands Between I can say: This is the land of the wizards, this one is the home of the undead, the other is the frozen wilds, and so on. Elden Ring‘s open-world islands each have their own legends and myth to remember and relive.
You Are the Center of the World
Creating dynamic, living worlds is an art that not many game developers are skilled in it. It is said that in From Software’s games, the protagonist is the most insignificant creature; it is fragile and weak compared to the abominations living in the world. Though this statement is true in Elden Ring as well, the world of the game is made from the ground up around the player. There is no random element in Elden Ring open-world design and every single enemy or landmark is put where it is with the player in mind.
There are many great open-world games where the inhabitants of the game behave like real living creatures; independent of the players and their choices. There are lots of videos of the living wildlife in Red Dead Redemption 2 such as wolf cubs that are playing in the snow or eagles hunting snakes or fishes. Such systematic design makes the game as realistic as possible, but it does not bring any narrative and gameplay value to the table; it is just beautiful but the player has no agency in the scenario. Elden Ring on the other hand utilizes everything in the word to create interaction; making the player the center of this haunted universe.
When the players see a pack of wolves sitting on a stone platform next to a narrow dirt road in the middle of a jungle, they subconsciously and through years of experience as a gamer know that “Enemies” on a “platform” mean something important. Getting close to the platform with the wolves reveals a dilapidated stronghold on the hilltop at the end of the dirt road. Exploring the stronghold rewards the players with useful items and that is when they realize that the wolves and the platform were put exactly on that spot next to the dirt road just to catch the players’ eyes, bring them closer to the stronghold, and get the rewards inside. Elden Ring is like a detective game in which the whole world is your mysterious case and every element inside it is a clue, leading you to the next discovery. Using this magnificent world design and enemy placement, Elden Ring creates true adventures without forcing the players into any specific directions or stopping the flow of the gameplay by rubbing too many HUD elements in their faces.
The Hellish Ecosystem of the Lands Between
From Software is famous for designing the most bizarre enemies. Some of the most grotesque bosses in the history of video games came to life in Dark Souls series and Bloodborne. As mentioned before, every single element in Elden Ring is put where it is deliberately and enemy design is no exception to that. Formidable enemies are often encountered in games by players and usually, there is no specific logic to where these enemies spawn. For example, Resident Evil 4’s Chainsaw Ganado is one of the most frightening enemies in the whole game. Yet, this enemy type is found in several different locations. In Elden Ring, most enemy types are indigenous to specific regions of the world. The Glintstone Sorcerers are only found in Raya Lucaria Academy, Sellia Town of Sorcery, or a few other special places that are linked with sorcery. Tear mimics are native to Nokron only and the giant ants can only be found in the roots of the giant trees and damp underground burrows.
The creatures that are encountered in Elden Ring are not random enemies spawning to confront the player. They are “inhabitants” of the world and live in it. The ant colony of the game has a breeding ground under the roots of the Elden Tree where hundreds of eggs are nested in a pit filled with humanoid skeletons and blood. The creatures in the game are connected to their environment and do not just exist for the sake of being killed by the player. Where they live makes total sense. There are more than 112 types of hostile creatures in the game. They each inhabit specific parts of the world; a concept that creates a notion of an ecosystem in the game where every creature lives in its specific territory. Though the creatures in the game rarely interact with anything except the player and do not feel as alive as the wolf cubs in Red Dead Redemption 2, the cohesion they bring to the world of the game is extraordinary.
Elden Ring Open-World: A Revolution
Elden Ring turns its back toward every cliché that modern open-world games were built upon. The game is a master class in narrative design. The world of the game is so carefully curated that provides each person with a unique experience based on the amount of their curiosity. The map is segmented to maximize diversity and minimize repetition. Yet, thanks to the environmental storytelling and genius enemy design and placement, Elden Ring remains a comprehensive and cohesive experience that will be remembered as one of the most influential milestones in the history of the video game industry.