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  • How Elden Ring Succeeds By Evolving Open-World Design

    [04.26.22]
    - Josh Bycer

  • There's Always a Plan B

    For a lot of open-world games, there is this sense that the world isn't as open as the box implies. Areas are often sectioned off based on plot, missions have strict linearity as to what you can do, and the abilities or level of a character will often be a hard gate towards doing something. With exception to the happy area known as Caelid, enemy strength and challenges are kept consistent. If someone is the same size as the player, they should be easy enough to deal with, larger enemies, a bit harder.

    What's often the frustrating point in previous games is that progress is linear. If the player gets stuck at X, there is no other way to go or progress to be made elsewhere. This is often why the skill curve in Soulsborne titles are so high at the start - if the player can master the beginning, then there aren't going to be challenges that much higher.

    there are more options than never for beating the different bosses

    With Elden Ring, the bosses and general enemies are harder than their contemporaries in previous games. There are more enemies, they have more advanced combo patterns, and are across the board more dangerous. With that said, why aren't more people complaining about the increased difficulty? The reason is that with exception to the late-game challenges and final areas, the player for most of the early and mid-game is not forced to go somewhere to make progress. In my first play, it took about 6 and a half hours of exploring and finding items before I beat Margit. On my second character, I did it in an hour and a half.

    The free-form nature also applies to your combat tactics. You may use spells, summon NPCs, go for your ash summons, use craftables, collect craftables and never make them (like me), and so on. It is very easy to gauge whether you have any chance in a situation, and the player is free to decide how far they want to try and punch up.

    Learning to Cut Loose

    What are the takeaways from all this? Is Elden Ring perfect? I would say no, and there are some general issues with the game that I'll talk about more in my review. From an open-world perspective, the game does a brilliant job of laying out this world to explore and inviting the player to go as far as they want. Instead of the game telling the player to do X, it lets them create their own route through it. The player is the one who creates the mental map as to the rules and discoveries. It's still too early to tell, but I'm going to be curious to see where the churn rates eventually settle on the game in about a year or so.

    Fight or flight is very real in this game

    When it comes to open-world games, I've never liked the "fakeness" of the open-world and why games like SkyrimHorizon, the Assassin's Creeds, and so on, didn't interest me. Too many open-world games focus on macro gameplay, whereas Elden Ring builds its open-world from its moment-to-moment gameplay. For a lot of open-world games, the "world" itself feels secondary to the challenges and hoops the designers want the player to jump through. Here, this feels like a world that has existed for some time, and all the exploration and challenges are organic to the setting itself. The player doesn't know where they're going or what they're going to find, but they know they're going to be in for a challenge no matter what.

    Elden Ring exudes confidence in its design that basically rewrites the entire book on Soulslike and open-world design, and I'm sure there will be more to talk about as I continue my one-man, one jellyfish, one jumping horse, trek through it.

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