Every step the player takes in Elden Ring is their own free choice. But their freedom is their responsibility as well as their mistake. This is the cost of freedom the player must be willing to pay in the latest game developed by FromSoftware, to prove themselves worthy of the golden blessing of the Erdtree and to write their own story.
The First open-world Soulsborne game
In Elden Ring, the director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team managed to merge the Soulsborne paradigm with an open world map of outstanding size. George R. R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) and Miyazaki wrote the setting of this dark fantasy game.
Soulsborne is the subcategory of the Action RPG game that FromSoftware presented in 2009: Demon’s Souls. And then in 2011, this new video game subgenre was acknowledged by the world with Dark Souls.
Inspired by ICO, Hidetaka Miyazaki joined FromSoftware and began to create his games. They were set in a dark fantasy world with heavy influences from the manga Berserk. The narrative of these games is subtle and progress is slow, but exploration and truth-seeking are very rewarding. FromSoftware there developed Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls saga, Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice holding dear the principle of player agency as storytelling. With this, during a crisis in the gaming world, FromSoftware taught the player how to act free again. But this freedom is to be earned through various mistakes and attempts.
The freedom in making mistakes
Elden Ring wants to give players the ultimate freedom. The narrative Miyazaki always strives for is embodied by the player agency. Every move, attack, roll, and decision of the player is final; this drives the story of their character as well as progress through the game. A game without consequences for player mistakes is a game without impact and challenge, without player agency hence without the raw storytelling that is exclusive to the video games media.
That is one of the secrets of Soulsborne games: they allow the player to fail. They tell a story through those failures and then let the player make up for their mistakes. By getting better or wiser in the game world they finally overcome the obstacle that seemed impossible to beat. And that’s why Elden Ring, like its predecessors, is a hard game: to make the player’s mistakes matter, along with their character story and narrative in the game.
How much does freedom cost?
Every successful open-world game has to focus on the illusion of freedom because pure freedom may seem impossible to achieve in this medium. FromSoftware managed to throw the players into another gloom and glorious world and this time they can learn and unravel intricate and original mythology from top to bottom. Nothing is cut or left outside the storytelling of the game.
The world the player lives in is complex, alive yet in ruins, with an impressive density of content, characters, and sidequests. It has an outstanding variety of creatures, landscapes, dungeons and caves. It is, in a word, enormous.
In order to have such freedom in such a large world, FromSoftware had to accept compromises. Elden Ring manages to give the player the illusion of complete freedom while they are riding in the vast lands or adapting new tactics to overcome a challenge. Although Elden Ring loses a portion of player agency because it prevents the player from doing the worst, unredeemable mistakes like killing a major NPC (non-player character) or being hostile where they shouldn’t; these actions could change completely the narration, in a game that has only a certain amount of multiple narrative options.
The inability to overturn the game path, and the possibility to play in a protected environment is why this Soulsborne broke out its niche and made it possible for it to reach a mainstream audience.
Elden Ring is still a challenging game with a compelling narrative, set in a huge and intense world. It is a Soulsborne game because the player agency is still the protagonist of its storytelling. Mistakes are there to be made and to be made up for. The narrative is still in the hands of the player.
In the mainstream audience a lot of players, new to Soulsborne games, gave Elden Ring a try, but some of them met challenges that were too difficult for them. This was the community’s time to shine, thanks to the cooperative multiplayer designed by Miyazaki. Some Soulsborne veteran players came to the rescue of those less skilled: Let Me Solo Her is one of them and they have already become a meme.