Tears of the Kingdom and Elden Ring Prove That Open Worlds Should Be Dangerous
Two of the biggest games of the last two years have quite a lot in common, but Tears and the Kingdom and Elden Ring's dangerous open worlds may be their best features.
There are still so many potentially great games left to be released in 2023. Diablo 4, Final Fantasy 16, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, Starfield, Baldur’s Gate 3, and more will finish up one of the best years for new releases in recent memory. In the minds of some gamers, though, the 2023 Game of the Year awards ended the moment that Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. In just a couple of weeks, Tears of the Kingdom has entranced millions of gamers in ways that I haven’t really seen since…well, since last year’s nearly undisputed Game of the Year winner Elden Ring was released.
I’ve been thinking about the similarities between those two games a lot lately. Both are open-world titles, both became historic critical and commercial successes in a short period of time, and both even drew criticism for their lack of certain modern conveniences and technological innovations. Of course, as noted above, both also instantly established themselves as Game of the Year frontrunners shortly after their debut.
Yet, there is another, much more important trait that connects Tears of the Kingdom and Elden Ring. Both games offer not just a massive open world but an open world that feels truly dangerous.
The dangers of Elden Ring are probably pretty obvious. After all, Elden Ring is an open-world game brought to us by the fine folks responsible for the Dark Souls franchise. While massive bosses and devious traps often define the popular perception of what makes Dark Souls difficult, the series has always been about so much more than all that. What makes those games truly difficult in a compelling way is their commitment to making you figure things out by forcing you to fail over and over again in pursuit of new solutions.
Though Breath of the Wild utilized a similar concept, Tears of the Kingdom expands upon that idea in ways that ultimately define the experience. After all, Tears of the Kingdom’s Ultrahand, Fuse, Ascend, and Recall abilities are based on the idea of figuring things out. That process naturally involves quite a few failures. Your first homemade airplane likely crashed into the ground or sent you sailing off a cliff. Your first time trying to fuse a found item to a weapon may have not had the intended results. Those mistakes may easily discourage some, but those who take the time to learn from them will be rewarded.
In their own ways, both games quickly establish that your failures are all part of the process. Those failures aren’t just the consequence of your mistakes, though, but the fuel that feeds the flame. If Tears of the Kingdom didn’t let you use Ultrahand to make broken or useless contraptions, the types of successful devices you could eventually craft would be much more limited. If Elden Ring didn’t show you how easy defeat can be and how many forms it can take, then success wouldn’t feel as sweet. Nintendo and FromSoftware didn’t go out of their way to prevent players from making mistakes; they embraced the inevitability of those mistakes and incorporated them into the design of their games.
By doing so, both games are able to get away with putting you in constant danger in ways that other open-world titles (even enjoyable ones) are often hesitant to do. Those other games want you to feel at home in massive, exotic new lands that are often made to look more uncharted than they actually are. They’re Disney Land. Disney Land is a lovely place, but it’s a carefully curated collection of sights, smells, sounds, and activities designed to simulate the experience of an adventure rather than take you on one.
Elden Ring and Tears of the Kingdom are different. Fundamentally, they want you to buy into the idea that there is some incredible new possibility around every corner, just like so many open-world games try to do. However, both those games realize that such an experience demands an element of danger. Some of those corners have to be occupied by creatures and hazards that will make you realize the hard way that every choice has consequences and rewards.
One of the first enemies I found in Elden Ring’s open world was a boss I wasn’t ready for. In my first few minutes in Tears of the Kindom‘s open world, I ran into a sentient tree with a grudge that was sitting in the middle of what seemed to be a serene field. Call it masochistic, but both of the deaths I suffered in those instances made me feel more alive. Both games immediately made it clear that the dangers in their worlds would not be presented to me on my time or on my terms. Those dangers were natural extensions of open worlds that felt truly alive. They seemed to exist before I even got there, and my presence was not the highlight of their day. Every resource those worlds provided was going to be needed to combat every danger those worlds granted shelter to.
The harmony between those concepts is what makes open-world games like Tears of the Kingdom and Elden Ring (as well as titles like The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and others) so generationally impactful. The concepts of danger and difficulty in video games are often discussed as if they only cater to hardcore fans. Historically, that has sometimes been the case.
However, some of our best modern developers are discovering that far wider audiences are drawn to open-world games where the possibilities such titles inherently promise include dynamic dangers. The trick is to ensure that the freedom to encounter those dangers at any time is equal to the freedom to solve those dangers in any way. Tears of the Kingdom allows you to craft wild creations that make you feel like you’re breaking the game. Elden Ring allows you to pursue a variety of builds, progression paths, and tactics that are all as viable as your execution allows them to be.
Crucially, both games rarely force you into a situation where you have to overcome a significant hurdle before progress can be made. After all, these are open-world games. The openness should extend to how you play and not just where you play. You are given something to overcome and the tools to overcome it, but putting it all together requires you to always be willing to learn and improve. It’s an approach that taps into the fundamental freedom these games are designed to offer in ways that feel so much more significant than how many digital square miles such titles technically offer.
That’s the beauty of a truly dangerous open-world game. Other open-world games love to be measured by width, but these games are showing that depth ultimately defines the biggest modern releases. They plunge us into darkness and ask us to find our way out, and they don’t limit such experiences to certain sections of the game that their developers feel like they are ultimately in control of. Every part of the map can offer some new adventure, and that’s because you honestly can’t say what will happen when you get there or even if you’re ready for what you find.
Open-world games have long been better when they’re dangerous. What Tears of the Kingdom and Elden Ring are showing is that such games can be significantly more critically and commercially successful than the safer competition.