Breaking all the rules of game design!
Elden Ring deservedly won Game of the Year last week – and it did so by breaking almost every rule in the playbook of how Western Triple A Studios are telling stories and designing games. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to harsh criticisms for its UX design, sold 12 million copies, and received critical acclaim.
Director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s vision is inspiring because he expertly challenges the notions of classical storytelling. Instead, he is creating an experience where the player is not merely told a story – they are living it and creating it through their encounter with an alien world.
Here are a few of the significant differences.
Difficulty: Elden Ring is brutal and unforgiving. Here you’ll find no adjustments of gameplay difficulty for easy playthroughs. Instead, you get a sense of accomplishment when you progress in the game.
Fragmentation as a performative storytelling device: Most Western RPGs feel like a narrative wrapped in a game. Everything is made to be evident so you don’t miss parts of the story: “Do this, go there”. The sense of exploration is lost because it is ultimately a linear narrative with tedious and repetitive endless side quests. In Elden Ring, narrative and lore are fragments you stumble upon, but you must piece the puzzles together yourself (or seek help on YouTube). Instead of the narrative being a representation – something told by the game to you. It becomes performative – made into existence in the here and now by your actions as you play through the game. It creates the experience of being in a real world with real mystique and surprises rather than in a story crafted for you to play through.
Community: Because it is so difficult, the game creates a sense of “being in it together”. Not only are players piecing together bits of lore instigating lots of discussion and speculation on YouTube, but you can also leave messages in the game advising other players on dangers ahead etc. Community is a built-in part of the way it makes you experience the story.
Breaking the narrative contract: The game continues to surprise you by breaking the narrative contract with the player repeatedly. For example, in Skyrim, you start with an overview of the whole world: The world to be discovered and conquered by the hero subject. Elden Ring does the opposite – continuously revealing new bits of the world map as you progress, making you discover and wonder over the magnitude of the world. Or it might establish the treasure chest as a well-known device for loot, only to reveal some of them as traps teleporting you to strange and dangerous places – sometimes entirely off the map.
Immersion: Most importantly, this feels like a living world because you are at eye level with the monsters and helpers of this world. You figure out how the world works by exploring it, with very little guidance in the form of descriptions and the like. The immersion comes not by being part of a riveting story but by making your own story by learning how the world works and making progress despite difficult odds.
Dissonance and diegetic sound: The sound design enhances the immersion by often being quite dissonant, setting it apart from the Hollywood flavour of western game scores emphasizing the unique and strange qualities of the world. But it is also unique in the way it continually uses diegetic music: Monsters singing eerie Latin songs, adversaries playing the flute or merchants playing a stringed instrument, giving a sense of depth to the otherwise strange characters and monsters.