There are many things that I could say about Elden Ring, I could go on and on about the many pantheons it takes inspiration from, how it takes the foundation of Dark Souls and blends it with Sekiro style gameplay in order to make something familiar yet different. Elden Ring is such an advancement in gaming in so many different ways, but I feel the most important of which is its open world. So let’s talk a bit about game design shall we, and of course a warning of minor spoilers for locations in Elden Ring.
Before getting into the meat of this article, Elden Ring takes place in The Lands Between, a huge sprawling continent very heavily inspired from not only Norse mythology but also takes tons of inspiration from infamous manga series Berserk, which makes sense given developer FromSoft’s history with similar inspirations in the Dark Souls series. Inspirations go from the extremely Norse-like Mountains of the Giants to even areas that seem to be homages to past Dark Souls locales like the Subterranean Shunning-Grounds and Leyndell, Royal Capital.
Now, a big issue that most open world’s face is giving a perspective on where the player needs to go without needing a constant map marker in their face telling them. This very often results in players not giving much time to explore the world they inhabit and not really gaining a connection with it. A solution a lot of games use for this is by giving players an obvious point of interest that pulls them towards it. Using Destiny 2 for an example, in the most recent raid to release you are able to see this off in the distance towards the beginning of the raid:
This is actually where the final boss is fought later on in the raid, and serves as a point of perspective to not only give you a sense of direction throughout the raid, but it also lets you know how close to the end you are getting, without telling you anything. Its purpose is to look cool so it pulls players towards it and into the raid encounters.
Elden Ring does this but in much smaller forms. Every main area of the game has its own thing that pulls you towards it so you know where to defeat that area’s boss. For example, the scarlet rot covered swamps of Caelid has the desolate Redmane Castle on its shore, where you fight the big boss of the area. Liurnia of the Lakes has the physics defying Academy of Raya Lucaria towering above the middle of a fog covered lake where one fights that area’s boss. Elden Ring isn’t even the first in FromSoft’s catalog to use these kinds of techniques. The first Dark Souls is known for having an interconnected world. You are able to see most other areas in the game from Firelink Shrine, and realizing that an area you saw from the distance is actually the place you’re in now is one of the coolest feelings.
While each area in Elden Ring has its own pull, the big elephant in the room is of course the Erdtree, the giant towering tree that can be seen from practically any point on the map that most people notice first when starting a new game.
The Erdtree’s purpose is to act as a sort of compass for the player to use. The closer the player is to the Erdtree, the closer they are to the end of the game, as the final boss is actually fought inside of the thing. The Erdtree being placed in the middle of the map provides a use where players can use it to figure out distance between locations and what direction they need to go without needing to constantly pull up a map.
Of course having all these things that subtly pull the player through the game wouldn’t actually work without properly scaling the difficulty of each area. Elden Ring being a souls game makes this facet even more important as if one thing isn’t balanced correctly it can disrupt an entire area of the game. If the challenge provided in a new area is too easy or hard then the player will rather just run through everything instead of taking the time to explore properly and discover secrets. This can be shown in Caelid, which is one of multiple huge areas in the game that are entirely optional for players to clear. Caelid is extremely difficult to go through, especially since it is right next to where players start out, Limgrave. But, if players can clear it they gain access to tons of good items that will help them in later areas of the game. This is something shared in common with most if not all Souls games.
Elden Ring having a similar formula to that of other Souls-likes means that players can go to endgame areas much earlier than intended, and in doing so they can either show that they have mastered the game and do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do for a good portion of the game, or the difficulty of the area tells that player that they need to get stronger and come back later. That’s Elden Ring’s biggest strength.
The ability to recognize that something is too difficult, and to go to another place and get better until you can come back is something completely unique to Elden Ring when in comparison to its predecessors, and it is absolutely essential to its identity. To use an extremely early boss as an example. Tree Sentinel is the first thing you see when you step out into the open world, and he is extremely difficult for you to fight because he is there to teach you that you can always come back later when you feel you are powerful enough to take him on again. This is something you could never really do in past Souls games, you had to just keep going at it until you defeated the boss you were stuck on. This even goes back to the entire reason Dark Souls and its sequels are so hard to begin with, to give you the feeling of gratitude after overcoming adversity, and Elden Ring’s take on open worlds helps to serve that message better than ever.