Elden Ring is a collaboration between two masters of fantasy: Game of Thrones author George R.R Martin and Dark Souls studio FromSoftware, led by visionary director Hidetaka Miyazaki. With big names like those come equally big expectations, and the game has been hotly anticipated, even as players have seen little of it since it was announced in 2019. (The first gameplay trailer was revealed in June.) In many ways, it’s a big departure for the studio, with a more traditional story structure and an ambitious open world to explore.
To get a better sense of what Elden Ring actually is, I recently had the chance to view a hands-off demo and chat with FromSoftware’s Yasuhiro Kitao to learn about its development and philosophy. Here are six things I learned.
The world is huge
For the first time, FromSoftware is tackling an open world. Called the “Land Between,” Elden Ring’s fantasy realm is a series of dungeons connected by a vast overworld. It’s a big change for the studio — and it involved a lot of iteration and learning.
“When we first set out, we knew we wanted to create a very large world, and have that interspersed with these legacy dungeons, that sort of structure,” Kitao says. “But we thought the overworld would become a lot more flat and plain, and be there to connect these dungeons. As we built it out, we learned that we wanted the Lands Between to have a lot more character, and a lot more verticality, and more intricate design. So we ended up handcrafting a lot of this map, and trying to make it as interesting to explore as possible.”
But it won’t be a chore to traverse
One of the key tenets of the world design, though, is that the studio didn’t want its scale to be a hindrance. Instead, there are a number of features — such as a Breath of the Wild-like system where you can drop waypoints on the map — meant to make it easier to manage getting around. Here’s Kitao on some of the other new traversal-related features:
As we built out the open world, we realized we wanted to alleviate player frustration as much as possible with these large distances involved. We have our existing corpse run system carried over from previous games, but we didn’t want that to be a frustrating or stressful aspect for the player to have to run all the way across the map to collect their experience points. So one thing we did was, in an area with a high level of challenge, we’ve placed these retry points — that’s still a tentative name — and if the player finds that, they’ll have the option when they die of respawning from the retry point or the last checkpoint.
Also, by opening the map, the player can fast travel to any previously visited “site of lost grace,” as long as they’re not within a dungeon currently. It just alleviates some of that stress, and having this burden in the back of your mind of having to travel all the way back to where you’ve previously been. It streamlines that a little bit. Of course we’re conscious of the fact that the world is so big, and we wanted it to be filled with interesting discoveries and encounters. And so we’re currently in the middle of fine-tuning that pacing and that tempo of what you run into out in the overworld.
You get a ghost horse
Maybe the best part of the open world is that you’ll get a horse, called a spirit steed, to move around quicker. It looks cool and can even accompany you into battle. More importantly — as has been the case in games like The Witcher 3 and Shadow of the Colossus — it sounds like you’ll be able to form a connection with your ethereal horse over the course of the journey.
“We hope that players can form at least a small bond with the spirit steed,” says Kitao. “It is a unique creature that is inherited by the player, so it is unique to them. You can’t choose or ride any horse in the game. You will be able to do small interactions, such as feeding it to regain its health and small things like this. Hopefully through this the player will be able to form a small attachment.”
George R.R. Martin set the stage, but FromSoftware took it from there
Elden Ring is billed as a collaboration between Martin and FromSoftware, but the reality sounds slightly less involved than that. Instead of working on the game together simultaneously, Martin got things started by outlining the world and its history, before passing it off to the studio to make the game. Here’s how Kitao explains the working relationship:
George R.R. Martin provided us the mythos for the world, which takes place many, many years before the events of the game, and really shapes a lot of the current state of the world and its characters. We think this original mythos that he created really had a lot of influence on our approach to the narrative this time. George R.R. Martin was kind enough to hand that over for us to do what we want with it, and Miyazaki has had a lot of fun playing around with that mythos.
We felt it was a really inspiring collaboration. When George R.R. Martin says “Okay, here’s the mythos, do what you will with it,” Miyazaki is just going to run with it. So he’s really taken a lot of inspiration. Miyazaki has really been free to take his own interpretations and create his own characters based off of that. He’s really enjoyed having this script as a backbone.
FromSoftware is taking a different approach to storytelling
To go along with this, Elden Ring appears to be a different — and more traditional — approach to storytelling for FromSoftware. The studio’s past work, from Dark Souls to Bloodborne, has been defined in part by deep, convincing worlds that required the players to piece things together themselves. But Elden Ring looks to be a little more like a conventional fantasy story.
“We’ve always tried to make our games approachable and have interesting narratives, but the player has always been getting caught up in something preexisting, and been taken along for a ride,” Kitao says. “This time they have more agency, they have more ambition, and an overarching objective within that fantasy. We feel like this will be very different to our previous titles. Instead of just being a sick foreigner who has come to Yharnam, or an undead warrior who finds himself in a bleak landscape, the player has returned to the Lands Between as a ‘tarnished’ in search of the Elden Ring’s power, to uncover its mysteries. It’s a very simple premise but it helps to drive that mainline story.”
The monsters are terrifying
One thing that hasn’t changed: Elden Ring still has the inventive and often horrifying monsters for which From games are known. During a brief gameplay video I witnessed gigantic dragons, a troll that look ripped from Attack on Titan, an unsettlingly stretchy snake-man, and a boss that looked like a whole bunch of dead bodies smushed together. At one point there was a giant bird with swords in its talons, tossing explosive barrels at the player. According to Kitao, the variety and creativity of From’s creature designs comes in part from the studio’s process.
What tends to happen is Miyazaki will provide some keywords about what sort of creature he wants, and then he’ll give that to the design team. He won’t start with an image. And they’re free to interpret that as they will. That begins this collaboration between Miyazaki and the design team. This doesn’t just apply to the creatures and the monsters, but basically all of the elements of the game, weapons, equipment, characters. It’s a lengthy process, but we think the result is that we get things from each of our artists, working with Miyazaki, to create these things that maybe have not been seen before.
One example is the demigods, the boss characters in the game. The keywords for them were they were “Old heroes from the Lands Between.” So we wanted them to have this heroic and majestic quality.
Whenever we have these design discussions, we try to have the game designers and the game planners involved. They’re always able to watch how this design takes shape and how it’s going to be presented in the game. And while the design does take precedence, but you don’t want anything too crazy to break the game. We try to keep everyone involved in the discussion from the start.
Elden Ring is launching January 21st on a huge range of platforms, including PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X / S.