Elden Ring is the latest game by FromSoftware, the videogame studio that rose to prominence with its Dark Souls series. One of its key selling points is its open-world design, with worldbuilding by two legendary writers: Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R. R. Martin.
With Martin's name on the tin, you'd expect a labyrinthine plot with a large cast of memorable characters and plenty of big fantasy setpieces. But this never comes. After a short opening cutscene, you are dropped into a sprawling world with little to go on. Plot is conspicuously absent. Elden Ring is not the next Game of Thrones: it is a continuation of the Souls legacy. Its plot fades into the fabric of the world itself. Its story is painstakingly pieced together by careful exploration from the players.
The true genius of Elden Ring's worldbuilding is the way it preserves the best parts of D&D. Story can only emerge through a player's interaction with the world, the game, and their friends.
Miyazaki's directive to Martin is to say less. This idea may be a revelation in AAA videogames, but it's the classic technique of experienced Dungeon Masters. To understand how Miyazaki designed Elden Ring like a great Dungeon Master, we need to start with the design philosophy of Dark Souls.
Table of Contents
- The true legacy of Dark Souls
- Collaborative worldbuilding lies in the gaps
- Building an Elden Ring map with friends
- Player-centered worldbuilding in Elden Rings and D&D
The true legacy of Dark Souls
Dark Soul’s most significant legacy can’t be its difficulty.
[...] the challenges are put into place to give life to a world where the narrative itself is interactable. Instead of telling the story linearly, Dark Souls builds an interconnected world where every element is related to the lore.
This distinctive approach to worldbuilding is the main reason it stands apart among so many games.
- excerpt from a Collider article by Marco Vido Oddo
When people talk about Dark Souls, they often mention its difficulty first and its worldbuilding second. At first glance, the difficulty seems to be the most notable thing about the franchise. But there are many other difficult video games that are completely forgettable.
The brilliance of Dark Souls is that its difficulty serves a narrative purpose. It reinforces the fact that you are not special. You are nothing but a lost soul in a crumbling world. Your success is not assured.
Secrets permeate the environment for those who care to look. As you explore the world, collecting items and piecing together more and more fragments of lore, the puzzle of Dark Souls opens up to you. You are left with an even greater sense of accomplishment when you solve it. You are rewarded with a unique and personal interpretation of the world that you weave together during your quest.
Interpreting the lore of a Souls game is a rewarding act of creative puzzle-solving. Your version of the story means much more to you because it was hard to get. You relish your journey through the world and share the tale with your friends.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is not as difficult as early versions of the game, but this hard-earned story discovery remains at its core. Dungeon Masters who run the same dungeon for different groups observe unique stories emerge from every run through. Player groups tell of their victories, their losses, and what to watch out for in the dungeon's depths.
Collaborative worldbuilding lies in the gaps
‘That power of imagination is important to me,’ Miyazaki continues. ‘Offering room for user interpretation creates a sense of communication with the audience—and, of course, communication between users in the community. This is something that I enjoy seeing unfold with our games, and that has continued to influence my work.’
- Miyazaki quote from his New Yorker interview
Miyazaki understands the power of leaving room for interpretation–leaving gaps in the story for players to fill in. This is a radical approach in AAA videogames, but every Dungeon Master relies on this principle of world design.
Dungeon Masters leave gaps by necessity. Creating a complete story is hard–a complete world is impossible. The job of the Dungeon Master is to build an environment designed to prompt players using the tone and subject matter they are interested in collectively exploring. Once set in motion, the world is developed collaboratively by the DM and the players throughout many games.
One of the best parts about being a Dungeon Master is sitting back and listening to your players come up with theories on what will happen next. Their theories often shape the future of the world, and their actions cement their contributions as canon.
Elden Ring's world building consists of this Subreddit, so yeah it has the best world building easy.
- Top voted comment on a poll about which game had the best worldbuilding on r/EldenRing
Miyazaki loves his role as Dungeon Master. He intentionally leaves gaps for the community to place themselves into, then watches on with delight as we share our theories.
In brief, WE create the lore and it was planned all along.
2019's trailer was only a starting point for the community to go from. With that vague trailer, they introduced a few characters but more importantly a theme, an atmosphere for us to expand upon.
Why we haven't seen more of the game? It's because they waited on us to create it, post by post on this subreddit, with each new fake lore post slowly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as the developers add it to their main game, replacing various placeholder items and enemies and levels.
Don't be surprised when you see r/EldenRing's fake lore in the upcoming game trailer. This is a game for Miyazaki to play, HE plays US!
- Elden Ring Worldbuilding Theory by u/omegacluster on the EldenRing subreddit
Building an Elden Ring map with friends
With Miyazaki as our new DM, Braden, Justin, and I spun up a new LegendKeeper project and started dropping map pins to communicate. It was a fun way to share theories, tips, and our journeys through Limgrave.
Not only was it crucial for survival (I'm still a beginner Souls player), it was way more fun to map the world as a group. I had just as much fun reading notes from my friends as I did playing the game.
This is the powerful social element that Elden Rings makes room for with its design choices. In a more linear game, these notes would just be spoilers. Likewise in a cutscene-focused open world. In an easier open-world game, the notes wouldn't be as necessary or enticing. Credit to Braden and Justin for revealing just enough info to pique my curiosity without spoiling too much.
Player-centered worldbuilding in Elden Rings and D&D
Leaving room for interpretation is the invitation to contribute to a world. Building an experience centered around player actions is the reward for contributing. Like a great Dungeon Master, Elden Ring's creator understands the value of player-centered design.
‘In our games, the story must always serve the player experience,’ Miyazaki said. ‘If [Martin] had written the game’s story, I would have worried that we might have to drift from that.’
- Miyazaki quote from his New Yorker interview
Elden Ring pushes further than other open-world games to give players this sense of agency. Most open-world games use quest structures and cut scenes to convey the story. But quest structures can impose weird constraints, making the world less coherent and immersive.
For example, if you travel to the woods in The Witcher 3 before you talk to the quest giver, you will find nothing there. Only after triggering the quest will you encounter the witches. Everything is marked in your quest log, and the "open world" path is brightly lit with red lines and HUD markings.
Elden Ring keeps the world immersive by fading intrusive quest structures to the background. This decision keeps the interests and actions of the player front and center.
Trust me: a quest log would make this a far worse experience. One of the reasons Elden Ring is so special is that it doesn't feel like so many other open-world checklist games. Quests and NPCs weave in and out as you play. They're opaque and surprising and brilliant.
- Jason Schreir, NYT bestselling author of Press Reset
When we play any RPG, we want to follow our interests, explore vast worlds, and inject ourselves into the story. When we're in that state of mind, being pushed back onto a predetermined quest path is just not fun.
Good Dungeon Masters don't write stories. They set the stage then react to the actions of their players at the table. The story is free to move in unexpected directions, and the world is discovered by players in a non-linear way. The world can spontaneously change with player input–something videogames still can't do.
Dungeons & Dragons is delightfully free from the constraints of software, while Elden Ring is not. Despite that, Miyazaki and the team at FromSoftware have crafted an incredible game that puts those constraints in the right places. Elden Ring feels like a grand stage set by your favorite Dungeon Master. Through play, the world and the story emerge.