I’d like to kick things off with a simple question. What was the first open-world game you played that left you truly speechless? For me, there’s only one answer. And that’s The Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time. Now before you reach for your keyboard in furious remonstration of the true definition of the open-world genre, here comes the second question. What really defines an open-world game?
For me, open-world is a promise. It speaks of freedom, of exploration. It teases our curiosity, urging our inner Nathan Drake to go forth and find adventure. The primeval anticipation of stepping out, unencumbered by rules or restraints into unknown lands and simply discovering the environment, each secret unearthed delivering pure, unbridled joy.
As for my choice, Ocarina delivers this feeling in abundance. In fact, a suitable analogy for exactly how Ocarina does this time and again is captured a single moment. For those that are unfamiliar with Nintendo’s finest game (come at me) young link, early in his adventure encounters a ranch. Here there’s a young girl playing a song, and a foal called “Epona”.
Later, when Link returns to the ranch as an adult the player instinctively knows what to do; crack out the trusty Ocarina and play Epona’s song. Of course, this immediately prompts your recollection to the now adult horse, who becomes your trusty steed for the rest of the game. And Nintendo does this without a quest marker or daily activity insight.
Epona, in all her 64 bit glory
The feeling this one moment occasions is overwhelming. By nudging, not pushing the player toward a natural conclusion without literally leading them to it provides a sense of unique accomplishment, of having overcome a puzzle, however simple. We did it on our own, and that counts for something.
Now imagine the same storyline in modern open-world standards. Hyrule would be littered with quest markers, an in-game compass leading the player directly to Epona, who, by the way, would flash bright yellow when Link engaged his “Hylian Sense”. Get to within 20 meters of the horse and up pops a handy div-tip, suggesting you reach for the Ocarina and play the song. The result is the same, but which is the better experience? Nintendo knew then. From Software know now.
The fact is that for quite some time the open-world genre has been broken. Bloated to beyond enjoyable, with filler greedily hoarding the lion’s share of our experience. Quest-markers blot out the map like some livid, ludicrous shawl. Fetch quests repeat ad nauseam, and anything worth investigating blips in iridescent fluorescent with a simple click of the right analog stick. In short, the distended, every expanded open-world HUD sucks every last ounce of fun out of exploration and discovery, hand-holding the player from one listless point of interest to the next.
Sadly, pretty much all of the big-guns have drifted, one by one to this decaying standard, seduced, one supposes by all those pretty flashing lights. So much so, that each developer has its own meme deriding this joyless form of storytelling each has chosen to bloat their wares. Bethesda urges you to help out “just one more village”, while CD Projekt RED have you fetch a fucking frying pan in the middle of what is otherwise an exception RPG.
How Elden Ring might have looked had Ubisoft held the reigns
Even Guerrilla is guilty, with Horizon having contracted the dreaded rainbow-icon infection present in so many titles. In recent months, Dying Light 2 developers Techland announced that their newest title would contain over “500 hours” of content. Unsurprisingly, they missed the mark here as weary players reeled at the prospect of such gargantuan, swollen bloat blocking any meaningful progression. Not to say that any of these games are bad; they are not. But would they be any worse without this needless filler? Frankly, the whole genre has been filled, brimming with bullshit…but Elden Ring provides the enema.
Elden Ring marks the start of something wonderful
Hands up, I’ve only played around 45 hours of Elden Ring. At level 68, and with the meta settling between 125-150 I’m far from finishing my journey through the Lands Between. But for that, I couldn’t be happier. Knowing that I’ve got at least another 40 hours ahead of me puts a smile on my face. A smile wider even than the many “giant but, holes” so many players seem to crave. Consider then, that 40 hours is about where I usually ditch your typical Ubisoft romp. So what is it exactly that Elden Ring is doing differently?
For the three people left that have yet to take the plunge into From Software’s latest epic, Elden Ring achieves this differentiation not through what it has added, but what it has removed. It doesn’t have quest markers. It doesn’t have a “detective” mode. Elden Ring doesn’t have path markers, fluorescent icons, or a mini-map sitting in the corner of your screen, an ever-present reminder that you’re playing a game. In fact, it’s ditched almost all of the now obviously needles visual drivel that the average open-world adventurer took for a genre mainstay. And in doing so, it has re-introduced the inimitable joy of pure discovery.
Many of the very best questlines are hidden in chance encounters with one of many of Elden Ring‘s varied NPCs
Instead of map markers pointing out parts of the game the developers are most proud of, it instead marks places of interest on the map simply by making that place on the map look interesting. So a castle is marked by its ramparts, a swamp by its distinct colouring, and unique architecture denoting townships of deference. Nine times in ten, going to those places will reward the player with a unique experience, be it an armament, hidden catacombs, a boss encounter, or more often than not, all three.
Quests follow a similar structure. Hints are dropped by chance encounters with NPCs who encourage yet further exploration. Tips are interwoven into the fabric of the game through item description or in-game interaction with various statues, fauna, and flora. This is of course the bread and butter of the Souls franchise, but applying this formula to an open-world works so incredibly well, it’s hard to imagine future games not taking a leaf out of From’s capacious book. I mean, From literally created a new genre of games in the Soulslike. Reimagining an existing genre is well within its ample capability.
The worlds smallest violin
But don’t just take my word for it. If ever there was confirmation that From has shaken things up, one need only look at the daggered words of the self-gratifying, circle-jerking developers that have had their work literally ripped to shreds. In a now deleted tweet from Ahmed Salama, an ex-Ubisoft developer now working at Guerrilla Studio commented
“The fact that #Eldenring scored a 97 on Metacritic is proof that reviewers don’t give a flaming poop about Game UX. My life is a lie”.
The now deleted Tweet with some not so encouraging comments from former open-world experts
Whilst this is somewhat self-deprecating, so followed less salubrious comments from Rebecca O’Shea, a Sony developer and another Horizon developer. The truth is that players care very much for game UX. Just not the toot the industry has been lazily shifting of late. Their work has been judged, and it has been found wanting.
This really is a masterstroke from FromSoft. By giving agency back to the player, the developers allow us to own our discoveries. They have removed the shackles of spoon-fed tedium once and for all.
For decades gamers have known that behind every waterfall lies a secret. There was never the need to install a giant red arrow subtly labeled “secret” pointing at it for us to know that, chances are “there be treasure within”. It is this very essence, this elemental human need to explore that FromSoft has re-awakened. The studio has returned to us with sublime execution its reimagining of what a true open-world experience should be. Expect many more to blaze the trail Elden Ring has carved. Allbeit more than likely in the shadow of its colossal achievement.
But of course, and as ever this is just one man’s opinion. Here at ABG, no matter how spicey things get, opinions are welcome from all sides. We’d love to hear yours, so feel free to speak your mind in the comments below.
“Video games are great. I should know, I’ve played some.”
Olly S, July 2020