Elden Ring (2022)

To write about Elden Ring feels almost as daunting as it is to finish it. My first play-through clocked in at around 135 hours, which is the longest of any FromSoftware game I’ve played, and really, any game I remember ever finishing. And so for a few days after that play-through, I sat around thinking about writing, and instead started a second fresh play-through (as opposed to the NG+ route).

As of this writing, I finished the second play-through at 42 hours, and it took me another 7 hours to breeze through NG+ on that save, and get the Platinum trophy the hard-earned way (instead of manually reloading a save file). For the purposes of this write-up, I’m glad I did these 2 extra play-throughs, as it allows me to see through some of the magic (but also appreciating them more).

In terms of my credentials as a fan of FromSoftware’s works, I’m somewhat of a halfway convert. I’ve finished Bloodborne (2015), which was my introduction, and Sekiro (2019); I played Dark Souls III (2016) for maybe 20-30 hours, but never finished it; and I’ve dabbled 10-20 hours in Dark Souls (remastered) and maybe 10 hours in Demon’s Souls (PS5 remake). Suffice to say, I understand the Soulsborne formula, but I’m not a master of its earlier iterations.

Over the years I’ve written a few times about these other FromSoftware games; I’ll try to build on some of the prior analyses below.

The basic loop

The basic loop of Soulsborne game is familiar enough by now:

  • you begin as a fairly weak character, with some very basic gear. From a checkpoint (Sites of Grace in Elden RIng, Bonfires / Idols / Lamps in other FromSoftware titles), you explore the nearby area, killing enemies and collecting loot, until you unlock the next checkpoint, run out of resources (healing potions, which initially you only have a few bottles of), or (very commonly) die.
  • You can rest at any checkpoint to fully recover your health and your potions; but doing so also revives all the enemies (except those that can only be fought one-time, like bosses), and thus in a sense resetting any partial progress.
  • If you die, you respawn at the most recent checkpoint, having lost all of the currency you had; you can recover them if you successfully reach your corpse – but if you die again before then, the currency is lost forever.
  • You can spend your hard-earned currency at any checkpoint to level up, by gaining a point in one of your attributes (vigor, endurance, strength, dexterity, mind etc., fairly typical labels of fantasy RPGs). The level up cost follows a formula that has stood the test of time – literally, as it is the same math used in the original Dark SoulsBloodborne and Dark Souls III.1
  • Eventually, you will run into some boss fights. Many boss fights are optional – you can simply go explore elsewhere.
  • As you make progress exploring, you will level up, unlock more healing potions and skills, find more and better weapons, and also upgrade those weapons. You are becoming more powerful, but you are also facing harder enemies as you explore deeper; and thus the basic loop perpetuates.

Elden Ring is an attempt to take this basic loop, and stretch and fit it to an open-world game. In their execution, FromSoftware has been able to leverage their traditional strengths in intricate level design, while also adopting design patterns from the open-world genre.

Level design principles

FromSoftware is rightfully renowned for their level design craftsmanship. I’ll try to summarize it in a few principles:

  • Unlockable shortcuts that serve as progression meters. The classic example is a door that is locked from your side, close to a checkpoint. When you eventually reach the other side of the door and open it, the previous checkpoint economically becomes a new “rest point”. Purely from a level layout perspective, this is not the most striking feature, but it ties in heavily with the core loop.
  • Interconnectedness. This was more notable in the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne to a degree. You discover paths that eventually lead you back to a surprising earlier section of the world. These connections serve practical functionality as shortcuts, but they also deliver a strong feeling of awe and immersion in the world.
  • Verticality. Every location seems to be designed with verticality as a cornerstone, with at least 2-3 heights at which gameplay can unfold. For example, a hall where you might first play through the ground level (and find yourself being attacked by enemies on the second floor), and eventually find yourself outside on the roof. And this also becomes a pattern to players – if you are ever in a space with a tall ceiling, odds are that there’s a higher level you can get to, with some secret loot.
  • Economical use of space (and thus assets). A corollary of the above point, but sometimes the designers intentionally flex their spatial prowess – for example a space where you play once normally and then later again upside down.
  • Real world scale. Locations are built to scale, so when you do end up on the top of the castle wall, and look down to the valley of the mountain where you began, you truly appreciate the scale of the design.
  • If the place can spawn an enemy, you can reach it. This invites the player to explore more thoroughly, as levels are filled with secrets, and an “unreachable enemy” is a clue that there are parts you haven’t found yet.
  • Memorable traps. A shiny chest in the middle of the room is often a trap, either with the chest itself (mimics in Dark Souls), or with an enemy waiting in the blindspot of the room. Another example is an enemy with their back towards you, slowly walking away – there is likely another enemy waiting in ambush, again in the blindspot of your 3rd person camera. And then there are the numerous “jump-scare” type ambushes. The thing to note about these patterns is that they can be used very sparingly to great effect – it only takes one good use to make players double-check every time in future 2.

The classic example of all the above is a castle (of which there are many in the Soulsborne universe). In Elden Ring, Stormveil Castle is the first notable example. To illustrate the complexity of the level design in this location, we can simply look at Polygon’s map – this map is hard to read, precisely because it is trying to represent a maze-like 3d space through a number of 2d cross-sections:

Source: Polygon

Open world experience

In Elden Ring, the big question was how FromSoftware would extend its principles to a much bigger scale, and I felt the answer was “same principles, with some patches addressing anything super broken”:

  • The 6 key destinations of the world (with intricate labyrinths, loot and bosses) – the proper terminology is Legacy Dungeons – are self-contained components that follow the proven design principles above, and executed to FromSoftware’s usual quality.
  • Ruins, caves, catacombs, smaller castles and various other smaller locations (which are one-and-done consumable content) populate the “open” part of the world. While the majority offer combat challenges, there are a small amount of puzzles.
    • Some of the later catacombs are particularly memorable in how the designer creates a puzzle by re-using the same level layout in different layers of the tomb, inflicting confusion on the player – “I thought I’ve been here already? But why is there a different enemy?”
  • The verticality principle is taken to a grander level – in Elden Ring there are enormous areas of the world that are directly on top of each other, shown in 2 layers of the map. And there are bits of the map where you can only reach by traversing through a section of the other layer first.
  • Restrained handholding. Much has been said online about the map and navigational UI (in comparison to, say, Ubisoft open world games). I think the point is not that Elden Ring offers no directional handholding, but rather, it does the bare minimum and expects players to be able to understand:
    • For example, the actual map is hidden until players collect the map fragment, but in the hidden view there is an icon for the location of the map fragment, which serves as a natural priority destination for the player to work towards.
    • The big pointers on the sites of grace offer a heavy-handed nudge in terms of bigger objectives.
    • While the map does not offer comprehensive UI to highlight the points of interest, the map is quite readable and you can easily spot the places you’d probably want to visit.
  • The gradual unfolding of the map’s true scale was a neat trick that awed players (the map zoomed out as you explored beyond its boundaries), and is contrary to typical open-world map designs which are eager to show you “look how big it is!”.
  • To break up the natural pace of map exploration, there are numerous portals and even a teleport trap that jump you ahead a bit or transplant you to a different part of the world altogether. Once triggered, the logical thing for players to do is to explore the new area until they reach a site of grace, which unlocks future fast travel. There is also a notable “4 bell towers” location mid-game, with several of the towers teleporting you to places adjacent to late/end game zones, greatly foreshadowing what is to come.
  • As a patch against frustrations of travel, the game is much more liberal with providing the sites of grace checkpoints, sometimes comically so. On the whole I think this is a welcome change, but it also does mean going back to older titles will be harder.
  • The mount. As a necessary and proven solution to overcome open world traversal, Elden Ring’s mount is a bit janky but gets the job done. It even has a double-jump to reduce frustration. Mounted combat is restrictive (you have a much limited moveset), while also encouraging cheese – I defeated many tough bosses in the open-world areas by abusing the mount’s speed with hit-and-run attacks. There’s also a weird i-frame when you mount/dismount. Overall I see it as a practical but not elegant patch.
  • Another (perhaps unnecessary) patch are the potion refill mechanic in the open-world, where if you defeat a complete group of enemies, you will gain a few potions back, extending your run before you need to rest. It has some utility, but I dislike this mechanic simply because it’s yet another rule (along with the mount) that only exists in the open-world, but not in Legacy Dungeons and any interior location, which adds to the cognitive overhead of making sense of the laws of physics in this world.

The sum of the above is an experience that feels immediately familiar to Souls veterans, but with an unprecedented volume of content in an unfathomably large map. It is worth noting that a good amount of the content depth is illusory, or at least, opted-in by the player: it is not required (with no practical rewards) to fight the very first Tree Sentinel patrolling the beginning area, and yet, many players will spend their first few hours just fighting and dying to this mini-boss. And generally, there is little value in fighting the enemies roaming the open world, and it is more efficient to just ride past them (or fight the minimal number guarding loot you want), but many a player will probably fight all of them, simply because they are there.

Difficulty and opt-in challenge

It is easy to sink a hundred hours in your first Elden Ring play-through, due to the combination of content volume and progression scaling. The conventional wisdom is that “progression” in Soulsborne games is less about power scaling, and more about player mastery of mechanics (knowledge and execution). This is still a core tenet in this game, but the expanded content scope has meant that enemies are spread against a wider power distribution. A quick proof here is to compare the player level at end-game (especially given the level-up formula is the same): in Bloodborne, it is common to finish the game at around level 70; in Elden Ring, level 120+ would be more common.

It is still possible to complete the game without ever leveling up – just “git gud” – but that is not the typical player experience. To revisit the “difficulty” topic, I feel the optimal (maybe design-intended?) difficulty is where it takes regular enemies 5-7 hits to kill you (and for bosses, 3-5 hits), while you kill regular enemies in 1-3 hits (and bosses in 10-20 hits). Outside of these ranges and the game feels either too easy or too hard/grindy from a numerical standpoint.

From a mechanics standpoint, the game has a wide range of tools (weapons, skills, spells, consumables) for you to approach any challenge. There is a wide range of builds, though organically discovering builds would take a lot of time, and thus reading community guides outside the game are a core part of gameplay. And with each balance update, the community is motivated to discover the latest “meta”, further extending the game’s playtime.

Given the open world nature, Elden Ring is far more generous than previous FromSoftware titles in presenting opt-in challenges. (Indeed, the shortest path to completing the game only takes up maybe 10% of the entire map.) My favorite story here is my experience in a small cave in the dreaded Caelid region. The cave had something I wanted – ironically, now I can’t remember what -but it was filled with scarlet rot swamps, and if you stood in them for too long, you are afflicted with a long debuff that constantly drained your health.

I had a number of options to tackle this terrain: to remove the debuff, I could use a consumable item, but I couldn’t be bothered to farm the crafting materials for it (indeed, crafting seems to be a largely forgettable system in the game). Alternatively I could use a spell, but I would need to get a few more levels to meet the attribute requirements; again, something I didn’t want to wait for. Another path was to try to minimize the time in the swamp, by equipping a quick-step skill – I was greedy and impatient, so this is what I chose.

A few minutes later, I had successfully reached the boss fight area of the cave, and died, dropping a tidy sum of Runes for my level at the time. I remember laughing at the time – do I want to go through this BS again? Or come back when I’m more powerful? I decided to try one more time – since if I died again before reaching my corpse, the Runes would be forever lost, and thus I would have little reason to bash my head against this wall here. Alas, I ended up defeating the boss in this next attempt, and that triumphant feeling of overcoming an unreasonable challenge (while not fully believing in myself) was addictive.

This is very much a core philosophy of Hidetaka Miyazaki – as he said in the excellent New Yorker profile, “hardship is what gives meaning to the experience.”

The world becomes smaller, as you get wiser

I mentioned earlier that in subsequent play-throughs I could see through some of the magic. Specifically, it was much more apparent that I should skip as much content as possible until I got to the level where I could play the build I had in mind. This means largely just riding through the lands and picking up items, while avoiding combat. I also took a shortcut with some “meta’ power-farming tricks, although they became way too mind-numbing for me after 10-15 minutes.

A friend of mine regretted acquiring this knowledge early (after watching some power-leveling guides), as he felt robbed of the early-game exploration. I understand the sentiment, but I also think the early game is part of the portion of content that has little replay value, and I’d rather “just get to the good part” which is mostly about experiencing different builds. I’ve played almost 200 hours, and really I’ve only played 4-5 builds. At end-game, builds revolve around very specific combinations of weapons and skills/spells, and given the game’s vast amount of weapons/skills/spells, there is a lot of depth here. So much so, it’s easy to lose the bigger picture – we are talking about just the single-player experience easily offering hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Closing thoughts

I wanted to end with some quick notes about production. Let’s start with some quick headcount comparisons from browsing the credits of FromSoftware games since 2015. As a lazy effort, I only did a subtotal tally of programmers, designers and artists – there are lots of many other folks in other role (audio, QA, localization, the management layer etc.), and this is not to diminish their contributions. Without insider knowledge, this also doesn’t reflect how outsourcing or other significant workflow adjustments impact production capabilities.

Source: game credits

Caveats aside, I do feel that these numbers support 1) my previous sentiment that Sekiro was done on a tighter scope, and 2) Elden Ring was a bigger production, but maybe surprisingly not by that much – the bigger growth was in art and design, perhaps with a focus on authoring content using mostly mature internal toolchains. Continuing my quick-and-dirty comparison (from my Sekiro review) of regular enemies count, the list of enemies in Bloodborne vs Sekiro vs Elden Ring stands at 68:45:150 – maybe indicative of good returns on content volume with the additional headcount.

At 13.4M copies sold in the first month, Elden Ring crushed the publisher’s internal forecasts of 4M. This is the nature of the business – in hindsight it’s easy to rationalize, but no one can confidently predict outsized hits. With Elden Ring as a breakout title in terms of mainstream adoption, FromSoftware is now in rarefied air – one of the few elite studios which players will buy upcoming games solely based on trust in the studio brand. This status is attained after over a decade of hard work in a genre of their own creation.

  1. The formula is y = 0.02x^3 + 3.06x^2 + 105.6x – 895, for those curious.
  2. For example the chest teleport trap in the beginning area in Elden Ring, that mischievously takes players to a much harder area with no easy way back.

1 thought on “Elden Ring (2022)”

  1. > The cave had something I wanted – ironically, now I can’t remember what

    Moonveil Katana i believe? 😉 can’t recall whether if that dungeon has the scarlet rot swamps tho

    Again, great article. thanks for the really thoughtful insights

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