Elden Ring Shows How Complacent Open-World Games Have Become
Elden Ring is a masterpiece that offers us a chance to reflect on how the open-world genre has become too cluttered and complacent.
While the hype for Elden Ring often bordered on “absurd” in the days, weeks, months, and even years leading up to the game’s release, nothing could have quite prepared us for the final product. Elden Ring is not only one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time and, by all early accounts, an immediate sales success: it’s a game that exposes just how complacent too many open-world titles have become and how those all-too-familiar entries into the genre have stripped away some of its magic.
Look, it would be foolish to try to convince you that open-world games are in “trouble” from either a creativity or sales standpoint. Some of the best selling games…well…ever belong to that genre (or utilize open-world concepts), and titles like Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild obviously can’t be ignored when we’re talking about games that use that genre as the basis for some of the most impressive artistic achievements we’ve seen in any entertainment medium. I even recently argued that slightly more familiar open-world titles like Horizon Forbidden West are slowly moving the genre towards a better palace, and I stand by that. The open-world genre is (by all metrics that tend to matter most)…fine.
Yet, Elden Ring reexamines the fundamental concepts of the open-world genre in a way that makes you realize that even some of the best recent open-world games depend on ideas that we may have come to accept as the standard without properly asking ourselves whether or not they’re needed and what they ultimately contribute.
Elden Ring’s Lack of a Quest Log is One of Its Best Features
Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier caused a minor stir ahead of Elden Ring’s release when he advised that you should play Elden Ring with a journal by your side in order to keep up with quests, NPCs, and other things the game won’t automatically track. His tip seemingly inspired quite a few people to suggest that the game’s glowing reviews failed to mention the fact this game was missing “necessary” open-world features.
As Schreier was quick to point out though, that’s really not the case. See, Elden Ring isn’t missing quest logs or a GPS system; it doesn’t need those things in the first place.
There aren’t really any traditional RPG quests in Elden Ring that ask you to do things like “Kill X Bears for X Pelts” or deliver certain items to NPCs (more on that in a bit). “Quests” in this game, such as they are, usually involve you meeting an NPC in the world and figuring out what (if anything) you can do for them. For instance, you’ll encounter a character who mentions that his family once ruled these lands from a castle in the south that they lost years ago. That exchange is meant to inform you that there’s a location to the south you may have not found yet and that you may be able to return to that character after you’ve visited it.
Some Elden Ring “quests” are much more involved than that (there’s one incredibly long and complicated questline that leads to powerful rewards), but most of them are built around the idea that quests are supposed to be something that you discover and complete organically as you explore the world. You could say that the reward for exploring the game is finding these sidequests and the items they often result in, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Elden Ring makes the exploration element of the game the real adventure and treats the “quests” you find along the way as an extension of that adventure you’ve chosen rather than these obligations that have to be designed around so that you can easily find and complete as many of them as possible in order to make the whole thing feel more substantial.
Completionists may balk at the idea that the game is trying to tell them to think beyond their “everything all of the time” mentality, but everyone else will likely come to at least appreciate the fact that Elden Ring never wants you to feel obligated to do anything but explore what is possible.
Elden Ring does allow you to set waypoints, but by removing quest trackers and GPS systems, it leaves you free to remember that the promise that once separated open-world games from everything else was the idea that they were relatively free of guided content and instead offered a world that was yours to explore and uncover as you saw fit. Indeed, some of the best things in Elden Ring are located so far beyond the beaten path that it’s a miracle anyone ever discovered them.
There’s something bold and thrilling about the idea that a developer would craft an open-world game where you can easily miss so many wonderful things simply because that’s the best way to ensure you feel like you’re experiencing something significant no matter what you choose to do.
That brings us to an even more important point about Elden Ring’s approach to quests, objectives, and other common forms of open-world content….
Elden Ring Makes You Feel Like the Hero and Not an Employee
While there are some open-world titles that are clearly designed to acknowledge your character is kind of a goon for hire (GTA 4 plays with that concept beautifully), too many entries in the genre have long stopped bothering to even try to tell you why your hero would spend most of their time completing random tasks of varying importance when they have something more important to do. Even trying to follow the main quests in those games too often results in you becoming a side character in someone else’s story.
In Elden Ring, though, there’s rarely a moment that you don’t feel like the main character of your own adventure. Granted, the game doesn’t have much of a traditional story to tell (though there is plenty of fascinating lore to uncover), but in many ways, that lack of a more traditional narrative means that FromSoftware didn’t have to find a way to awkwardly stretch a cinematic story across the traditional number of standard sidequests needed to make the average player feel like an open-world game is worth their time and money.
You’ll meet a large cast of compelling characters in Elden Ring, you’ll complete a variety of quests in Elden Ring, and you will most certainly collect quite a few items in Elden Ring, but the game never makes any of those elements feel like anything less than the results of the decisions you’ve made along the way. You’re the one who gets to decide what’s important in this game, and your decision isn’t limited to which map marker to pursue next or what questline needs to be completed.
Yes, you can skip and overlook things in Elden Ring, but you never feel like you’re “missing” anything because the adventure you’ve chosen to embark upon always feels most important. I was 30 hours into the game before I realized I hadn’t picked up an item that let me upgrade my weapon with Ashes of War at Sites of Grace, and I probably would have beaten the game without giving that item a second thought simply because Elden Ring never made me feel like I wasn’t playing the game the intended way.
At a time when your character in too many open-world games feels like the least important person in a world filled with things you’re expected to do, Elden Ring puts the focus back on you and constantly reminds you (in sometimes painful ways) that you are responsible for your experience. Even better, the game emphasizes an element of game design that too many open-world games take for granted…
Elden Ring is an Open-World RPG and Not an Open-World Game With RPG Elements
It may sound obvious that not every open-world game needs to be an RPG, but try telling that to the many open-world game developers that half-heartedly incorporate basic RPG elements like stats, gear, skill trees, and levels as part of an effort to make you feel like you’re growing your character and playing the game your way when you’re often just becoming a slightly better version of the character you’re expected to be.
In Elden Ring, you get to truly figure out who your character is and what you want them to be. Your choices then impact…well, everything else. An archer is going to play this game in a fundamentally different way than a warrior dual-wielding two greatswords, and both will never be able to replicate a mage’s journey just as no two mages will ever have the same experience.
I find it truly remarkable that Elden Ring is able to not only properly support so many playstyles and offer them an equal experience but allow you to constantly experiment with so many different character growth options without feeling like you’re ever locked into a “build.” About halfway through Elden Ring, I decided that I wanted to trade my two swords in for a polearm and shield, and the game offered me the tools to do just that in a way that was somehow both largely painless and substantial enough to feel like its own journey.
Not every open-world game needs to be an RPG, but Elden Ring proves that open-world games also can’t half-heartedly incorporate basic RPG elements and expect to replicate the thrill of that genre when it’s crafted by creators willing and able to do it justice. At a time when too many open-world titles rely on artificial depth fuelled by the idea that they’re proper RPGs, Elden Ring reminds us that there is no substitute for a true “role-playing” experience that is about so much more than watching numbers turn into bigger numbers as you whittle away the hours and settle into a gameplay loop.
Of course, none of the things we’ve talked about so far would work as well as they do if it weren’t for the one aspect of Elden Ring that truly distinguishes it from the average open-world game…
Elden Ring Constantly Captures the Feeling of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s “Riding Across Hyrule Field” Moment
I was originally going to use this article to argue that Elden Ring is my new favorite Legend of Zelda game, but that felt unnecessarily misleading and hostile. It’s more accurate to say that Elden Ring taps into the real reasons I love the Zelda series in a way that I’m not sure even Breath of the Wild managed to do.
It goes back to that famous moment in Ocarina of Time when you ride (or walk) across Hyrule Field for the first time. That area of the game was nowhere near as big as the average modern open-world environment, but the thing that always keeps that moment from being more than a nostalgic memory is the fact that the game was designed to leave you feeling like every direction you could head in was the next part of the next great Legend of Zelda adventure. That feeling that the next great adventure could be found in any direction soon became the basis of early open-world games.
Elden Ring taps into that feeling in a way that hasn’t been entirely lost over the years (Skyrim, RDR 2, and Witcher 3 all excel at building upon that idea in their own ways), but has rarely been recreated as brilliantly as it so often is here. Everywhere you look in Elden Ring, you’ll see something that feels like it could be where you’re “supposed” to go or even a place that could contain something entirely unexpected. The most important main story landmarks tend to stand out in one way or another, but along the way are dozens of other little things that are just begging to be explored. There’s not this sense that there’s a clear “main story” path and areas for “everything else” like there is in so many other open-world games.
More importantly, Elden Ring often finds ways to reward you for believing the world off the beaten path is just as important (if not more important) than the path. Sometimes that reward is nothing more than a somewhat familiar dungeon, an item you can’t use, or a boss you can’t beat, but there’s always something out there that reminds you that this is a world where you don’t really know what’s behind the next corner. The only way to solve the mystery is to go experience it for yourself.
There’s a degree to which Elden Ring’s difficulty contributes to that feeling (the idea that this is a dangerous world only enhances the thrill of not knowing what you’ll encounter), but the more important point is that Elden Ring is designed in a way that lets you decide what the most important thing is in that moment. I’ve heard players say they spent 30 hours in the first area of the game before they ever bothered to find the first main boss, and there’s honestly nothing shocking about that. If anything, I’d be surprised to learn that isn’t common.
Even incredible open-world titles like Breath of the Wild and Skyrim sometimes struggled to make that mountain in the distance more than a mountain. It was exciting to know you could go to them, but there was too often too little to find there once you arrived. In Elden Ring, you almost always find out the next place you decide to go is exactly where you were supposed to go even if it doesn’t lead you to the next “mandatory” part of the experience.
Not Every Open World Game Should Be Like Elden Ring, but Every Open World Game Can Learn From Elden Ring
I don’t want every open-world game that follows Elden Ring to be Elden Ring. Part of the reason too many open-world games have become complacent is that their developers/publishers started to believe that there is a certain way to do things, and part of the reason Elden Ring feels so special is that it is so different in many ways. It’s more important for developers to keep finding ways to be just a little bit different than it is to have more “Elden Ring-like” open-world games.
Yet, by stripping the open-world genre down to its core and removing so much of the baggage it has acquired over the years, Elden Ring reminds us that part of the reason open-world titles have been so successful is that they, at least on paper, are supposed to offer what Elden Ring so often offers: a pure journey of our own design or one that feels as close as possible to that.
There’s a lot to say about the specifics of Elden Ring’s design, difficulty, storytelling, and visuals, and not all of it is positive. Yet, if other studios take nothing else from this game’s successes, they should acknowledge that the greatest thing an open-world game can do is inspire you to spend dozens of hours or more constantly asking the question, “Oh, what is that?”