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  • Narrative Design In Elden Ring

    [04.12.22]
    - Nathan Savant
  • Elden Ring is the latest in a series of extremely cryptic games from Hidetaki Miyazaki and the team at FromSoftware. Their worlds are dark and oppressive, but full of imagination and wonder, something which sparks fierce loyalty from its players. Those players will read obscure text on items that have a small percentage of dropping from insanely difficult bosses just to find out who it was, exactly, that sparked the last flame, or caused the rot to overtake the land, and so on and so forth.

    While these are not narrative games in the traditional sense, they do capture the hearts of their audience, and piecing together the histories of these worlds has become a major part of the game for many. Why? Why did Demon's Souls capture so many hearts where other games were shrugged off as just another super difficult game? Why does Elden Ring have such broad appeal in its world building despite so many mechanics that, in any other context, would be condemned as obtuse or unapproachable? Whether you like them or hate them, there is something to be learned from the design ethos of Elden Ring, and today I am going to take a look at explaining the how and the why of this game's narrative formula.

    To preface this blog post, I'm going to try to avoid major spoilers, though I may reference specific names, such as characters like Renna or Radahn, as well as locations like Liurnia of the Lakes and Caelid, and briefly discuss their presentation (while avoiding details as much as I can). I'm not done with the game myself, so I won't be going into overall game narrative, focusing instead on individual quest lines and the mechanics of how they progress their stories and characters. I'll touch on the overall briefly at the end, and then hop on a quick soap box to explain why I'm only touching it in brief. So if all of that sounds interesting, please join me as I set forth on my adventure through The Lands Between.

    Elden Ring is full to the brim with quests, something you may not notice, at no fault to yourself, thanks to a complete lack of a quest log. There's no list in your UI which tells you your progress so far, and where you should go next. If you find something interesting, it's up to you to follow through on that interest, the game will lift not a single finger to help. As an example of this, we have the most notable crockery in the game; Iron Fist Alexander. Alexander is an NPC you find stuck in the ground in Limgrave, and whom you can help with a well-placed attack. His quest is brief and simple, he tells you exactly what to do and you do it, and the action required is nothing more complex than pressing your attack button, something you'll be doing countless times in the game. There is no fancy timing to consider, you don't have to stand in too specific a location, this quest isn't about skill, it's purely about narrative. Once you've completed the task, the next time you rest Alexander will be gone, having wandered off now that he's able to do so, a natural progression given the situation. And that's it. That's the end of that quest. The game tells you nothing more, you simply helped someone and now they've gone on with their life without you. This is something that Elden Ring, and indeed every other game in this series, will do many times. The NPCs don't exist for your sake, they exist for their own sake, they have their own goals, and sometimes your interactions with them may change the trajectory of their life, but never will their life stop for you.

    In the case of Alexander, you may find him again many times. Often he will demand to be freed of yet another hole in the ground, and the interaction is always largely the same: Whack him with your sword (or your intergalactic-void-scorpion tail. Whatever.). At one point Alexander will mention a great combat festival, something that can help you find your way forward in your story, much as you have helped him move forward in his. It's in this exchange that we find the major difference in Elden Ring's narrative design compared to traditional quest design. Quests aren't an equal exchange, you don't always get a reward at the end, and they don't always result in any benefit for your life. The first time you free Alexander, he will give you an item as a reward in the traditional quest exchange. The second time you find him, he will mention the festival, suggesting an interesting event to join, but making no demands either way. The third time he offers to help you in a fight, but that exchange itself doesn't directly alter anything as he will be there regardless. Indeed, if you haven't met him before, he will still be present for this fight, because it's important to him, not dependent upon you. The fact that he is present at this fight regardless of whether you've met him or not is a testament to my point that the game's characters don't exist solely for your entertainment. You may interact with him, and presumably his life is better for it, but life goes on either way, you are but one way he may get free. This is an essential element of the narrative design of this series, each and every character must move about the world and feel alive. That merchant who sells you prayers may go off on an adventure and leave you without the shop you've come to expect. You might balk about that robbing the player of an essential feature, and I won't argue against that point, but good or bad it is an essential building block of this design ethos. The characters must move around you with autonomy. They must learn and grow and change over time.

    Why is this essential? Because this is a game about exploration and discovery, it's a game about overcoming setbacks and mastering systems you don't fully understand, and if even your merchant NPCs can up and leave, it sets a tone of uncertainty for everything else in the game. Your game may not want that, your game may not need that, but this is clearly an intended aspect of this game, and so I mark it down as a major element for consideration.

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