Elden Ring and What Goes Into a Good Game
FromSoftware and BANDAI NAMCO’s Elden Ring won the prestigious Game of the Year award at The Game Awards last month. Elden Ring had stiff competition from God of War: Ragnarok, Horizon Forbidden West, Stray, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and A Plague Tale: Requiem, which goes to show just how monumental this achievement was.
The 9th generation of video game consoles saw some definitive titles in 2022, but none as defining as Hidetaka Miyazaki’s magnum opus. Miyazaki was also assisted by bestselling author George R.R. Martin, best known for his A Song of Ice and Fire series of grimdark fantasy novels.
There was a lot of anticipation before the title’s release — not only because Martin was part of the creative team, but to see what new ideas Miyazaki was hatching. The success of FromSoftware games like Demon Souls, the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice has propelled Miyazaki as one of the finest video game developers of the modern era.
These video games had garnered a cult following in the early parts of the last decade, but have gone on to find mainstream success in recent years. They’re endearingly referred to as SoulsBorne titles and are known for their severe difficulty, little guidance, cryptic world-building, and somber atmosphere. It’s one thing to deliver something unique, but another to deliver on the promise by evolving the brand.
Miyazaki has not only delivered on the promise but surpassed all expectations by developing what is being touted not only as his best video game and one of the greatest video games of all time.
What’s So Special About SoulsBornes?
Before looking at Elden Ring specifically, it’s helpful to look at how Miyazaki’s games have come to capture the imagination of the video game community. Miyazaki has often cited Shadow of the Colossus, the 2005 action-adventure game released for the PlayStation 2, as one of his most significant influences.
The game eschewed dialogue almost entirely, leaving it up to the player to interpret a barren but beautiful world full of Colossi. Miyazaki’s games also follow a similar narrative design, using flavor text and environmental cues to loosely guide the player through the game. This makes every player’s journey unique. All gamers might end up with the same conclusion to the narrative, but how they get to that destination feels personal.
He has also cited the darker undertones of groundbreaking manga Berserk, the novels of Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft, and European architecture as inspirations for the design and feel of the games, but created something unique by getting these designs and the atmosphere from these works of fiction to seamlessly overlap with one another.
These rich sources of inspiration bring familiarity, which is always helpful when playing such daunting games. Today, in-game deaths as a form of learning aren’t unique, but these FromSoftware titles were the first to popularize them globally.
When players progress later in the games, they feel rewarded for not giving up the first time. Many players within the SoulsBorne community have suggested how playing FromSoftware games has inspired them to face complex challenges in their own lives.
For all the demonic designs and hardships facing gruesome bosses, there’s a far more humane feeling when climbing levels in these games; they reward patience and perseverance.
The SoulsBorne community is also very encouraging, often advocating the use of guides and video tutorials even though every player’s experience will be unique. Copying a strategy is nigh-on-impossible. Players find a method that works for them and apply it throughout the game. This is also gratifying, as the game doesn’t discriminate between strategies.
Taking help isn’t frowned upon by the SoulsBorne community either, which helps many new players get into the games. Help and guides don’t always work when it comes to beating dangerous bosses, but they convince the player that it can be done. That’s often more important than the skills and strategies used to complete levels. The games also compel players to master levels, which brings great satisfaction.
Elden Ring is Superior to its Predecessors
With so much in common between all the SoulsBorne games, there’s always the fear that the formula will get monotonous after a while. Following the success of Demon Souls and the Dark Souls games, FromSoftware released Bloodborne in 2015, which had a different aesthetic.
Bloodborne went for a gothic theme instead of the medieval aesthetic in Demon Souls and Dark Souls. The optimal approach against enemies was also different. Dark Souls rewarded a cautious approach, whereas Bloodborne rewarded an aggressive approach. This was evident in the “Hunter” designation assigned to the player in Bloodborne. Of course, the lore was also very different.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, released in 2019, was once again a diversion. This game was set in feudal Japan and concentrated on action elements far more than the RPG elements from earlier FromSoftware games. FromSoftware games aren’t known for Hollywood-style visuals, but Sekiro had more of a cinematic feel to it. It was also a more forgiving game, with a central mechanic allowing players to resurrect after dying.
This way, FromSoftware has constantly evolved the formula seen in Demon Souls to significant effect. However, Elden Ring took things to new heights. Elden Ring isn’t just a grueling RPG set in a medieval landscape: it’s also an open-world game akin to games like Skyrim and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
This added an entirely new dimension to the FromSoftware formula. There was a linear feel to most of the games that came before Elden Ring. Previous FromSoftware titles allowed players to take their time before meeting certain bosses, but the paths were mostly the same. Players who don’t feel like heading into another boss battle in Elden Ring can pass the time by just riding through the land as a silent observer.
The freedom in Elden Ring makes it a unique title among the SoulsBorne games and other open-world RPGs. It has taken the best of both worlds and mashed it up into something extraordinary. Most of the FromSoftware games have had a peculiar beauty, but Elden Ring is the first to allow players to bask in it.
One of the outstanding characteristics of open-world games is the feeling that a player is the only one to have visited a specific area in the game. Beating bosses in SoulsBorne games is already a rewarding experience — to then multiply that feeling through exploration makes Elden Ring a generation-defining title.
Of course, Elden Ring also has a horse for the player to ride, Torrent, which helps with exploration. But the horse doesn’t just help with exploration; he also helps the player fight certain enemies.
Elden Ring is likely to be many players’ first FromSoftware game. Players can summon companions and AI allies to make things easier. Another change that new players might not be aware of is concerning the stamina bar, which is always full outside of combat in Elden Ring.
In many other ways, Elden Ring is not unlike most other FromSoftware. It has kept a hold of the fundamentals and added some new features to enhance the experience. Every title can be improved, but it’ll take a while for any game developer to come out with a title that has as much going for it as Elden Ring does.
Elden Ring Has Been a Shining Light for Gamers
With so many other video companies accused of providing very little to gamers and cheating the gamer’s intelligence with loot boxes, lazy narratives, and underdeveloped game mechanics, games like Elden Ring are a reminder of the depth within the video game medium.
Miyazaki is considered an auteur within the video game medium. Still, unlike auteurs in other fields like film, who are struggling to finance their films and not receiving much commercial success, he’s been able to develop masterpieces and improve them over the course of his 15+ years at FromSoftware.
Games like Elden Ring are no longer just critical hits that impact a small segment of the video game audience. They’re commercially successful, winning the most significant awards, and have built a community.
Hidetaka Miyazaki got into game development quite late in life. For all the fantastical elements in his games, they are a reflection of his own life. Before getting a big break in the video game industry, he had to bide his time. There is a human element to all his games that have made them so loved and enduring. The only question now is: how can he top Elden Ring?