When a videogame series makes the transition from linear structures to more capacious, permissive environments for play, we say that it is “going open world,” in much the same manner, to my ears, as an artist might go corporate, or a band goes pop. Going, because it describes an act of departure: away from humble origins, out in search of greener pastures (and in open world games they’re really greener pastures—minty pastel fields in Breath of the Wild, or the billowing, waist-high grasses that prompt the protagonists of Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and Ghost of Tsushima to run their palms over the fronds like in that scene from Gladiator).
Not just a departure, but a departure relative to us—you or I, the other half of this metaphorical conversation between art and its viewer, left waving from the tarmac. And as with any parting, we may bring to it mixed emotions: fondness and bitterness, a renunciation, or pride (even if pride is a very silly thing for an outsider to reserve for a videogame). I'm proud of taking a flier on 2009's Demon’s Souls, a coarse and doctrinaire game that nevertheless tripled developer FromSoftware's projections in hitting some 250,000 copies sold. Their latest, Elden Ring has, at the point I’m writing this, sold somewhere north of 12,000,000. Approaching cruising altitude.
Open world games are currently quite popular. You know this, I know this, FromSoft knows this. The critic Rosy Hearts knows this, writing recently that "in interviews with the heads of some of the biggest open world proprietors, it has been noted that open worlds are not a continued practice as a consequence of creative decision. Rather, it’s because they allow for more returns on individual property investments and create a longer life span for games." Not having a financial interest in the matter, the former isn’t my prerogative, of course (nor likely yours, in fact, the readership of games criticism being what it is, you’re most likely a games critic, too—50/50 that we’re personally acquainted).
But what about the latter? After all, even if the impetus for going open world isn’t unadulteratedly artistic, we’re still the ones who have to shlep around those fields, separating the wheat from all that chaff: the ubiquitous outposts to be “reclaimed,” the grocery lists to tick off, the icons dumped onto the map with great ceremony. But certainly “a longer lifespan for games” dovetails better with the presumed interest of your average player, for whom that first vista on the open plain signals nothing less than raw, unfiltered possibility. And to that end, as I close in on 150 hours in Elden Ring’s Lands Between, I’m still discovering caches of stuff: whole regions to explore and bosses to fight, new items and weapons to collect. When my old couch co-op buds from college have asked me if I think the game is good (politely indulging me of course—but this rare request is to be cherished, as you fellow critics know), my gut response is to lean back, and exhale hard: ”*pfft*… It’s big. Man. Iunno. But it’s big.” Only after a beat do I remember that for most people, this already plays as a pretty high endorsement.
Since at least Dark Souls 3 I’ve been interested in the idea of the “canonical” Souls game player. I’d imagined that once, this might have been a defeated knight, like the one on the original Demon’s Souls box art—a player “fallen somewhere along the path, a play-through frozen in time like one of those corpses on Everest.” Difficult or not, those early games weren’t a known commodity, nor were they particularly refined, and so the coefficient of friction for the early adopter really was that high. But as the games evolved into a franchise (*ick*), I saw that player ceding ground to another canon, this one hypercompetent, ready to get right to churning through content and stunting on mobs. Taking my cues from the elegiac game immediately in front of me back then, I was seeing Dark Souls 3 as an end—not fully appreciating that these are also works about cycles of resurrection that continue long after the muscle has sloughed off the bone, and the last traces of the former self disintegrate. What will a Souls game look like in five years? Or twenty? You could take that skeleton and graft a lot of things onto it (like say, idunno, robot parts, just off the top of the ol’ dome). It suddenly seems quite appropriate to speculate.
Going open world changes things, no doubt. Whatever you or I may think about its priorities, the format puts asses in seats. Elden Ring, it’s said, is the easiest Souls game to get into; there’s never been a better time to buy. And who is the player buying Elden Ring? A player of open world games, dispositionally, and so I think: wanting to be awed, and to luxuriate in that wide remit. Not fickle, per se, but attenuated to the value proposition of their own play, no longer content to act upon “See that mountain? You can climb it,” until they also hear “... and there’ll be something for you at the top, promise.”
It’s a transactional, even cynical approach, but neither an unusual or even unwarranted response to almost any given open world title (with the notable exception, ironically, of Shadow of the Colossus, a game that is formally about taking and having, but in practice about merely experiencing). There are moments in Elden Ring that invoke Colossus too, and sometimes quite directly: like the giant, stone sentinel that can be fought on a plain beneath the ruins of a viaduct. He guards a talisman that improves your damage from horseback, because Elden Ring, like the entries before it, is just as much about the carrot as it is about its much ballyhooed stick. Fighting one of its bosses is a thrill, and beating them a relief, but it also comes with a showering of points for powering your character up. Chancey detours reliably reveal prizes at the end; there’s always something behind Door #1, 2, and 3.
Putting aside for a moment whether that signals faint expectations of the player, it’s certainly a sign that the game's developers are at least thinking about them. In fact, I’m a firm believer that the canonical player interests Elden Ring’s developers as well. And I have to assume that they think he’s a maniac.
In the aftermath of a Ragnarok-esque war of gods called The Shattering, the Lands Between are blighted by monsters, battalions of spectral holdouts, and poison swamps. Into this world comes the player character’s “Tarnished,” not to deliver it, but to feast on the remains. Consider: “quests,” such as they are, involving the other characters in the world, almost invariably entail making things worse. They end with driving them closer to despair, madness, or just plain-old Being Murdered (at which point the player is invited to take their stuff and don it, a little Eve Harrington in chainmail). Much of the early game lore referencing servitude to the "Two Fingers” (presumed to be the title of a pair of religious leaders out to set the world right), is the setup to a punch line where you stand before a giant pair of literal fingers upright in front of a throne, waggling to convey who you’re supposed to murder next. When later on, another character asked if I found the whole dynamic a bit…not on the level, I quite naturally agreed. Cut to a short time later, and I’m in his blood cult serving the “Three Fingers,” presumably the other side of the same hand. Taken as calques of Dark Souls’ already perfectly absurd “primordial serpents” Frampt and Kaathe, I feel as if FromSoft has an internal bet to see how ridiculous a figurehead they can come up with and still have the player do its wetwork.
But as I’ve suggested to players fretting about whether they’re accidentally tumbling down into a chaotic evil “Renegade” run: disabuse yourself of the notion that you’re in these games to be a force for good. It’s no coincidence that since the first Dark Souls, the term of art for taking an object from a corpse has been pressing X to “pillage.” If the better world that all your butchery is in service to only exists as a theory, a residual self-satisfaction after the final cutscene plays, then that world doesn’t actually exist. But don’t take my word for it—Elden Ring reifies this idea and makes it a central element of its plot. Take the hit list provided to the player by Gideon, the taskmaster at the Tarnished home base, and the plundering of those Elusive Targets’ "great runes." Or the sacred order of crones that gleefully exhort the player on in their pillaging: “And you, Tarnished. You are here to take, are you not?”“Tarnished, show no mercy. Have their heads. Take all they have left.”
In order to do all that taking, I spend a lot of time “farming” (in the dark parlance of videogames) a slope of Albinauracs—passive, lowing creatures with big, wet eyes, dressed in sackcloth—because they’re easy to kill and they net 2,000 runes a pop. This is no accident, I think, nor is the fact that the jog back to the convenient bonfire that resets these meaty bowling pins grants you a long look at a cliff face smeared with blood. I wryly noted even a "pacifist" run of the game—a crazy feat—still involved buffalo-jumping a bunch of these guys off those cliffs. Weak, shambling humanoid enemies still appear well into Elden Ring’s late game, and will try to run from the player at chased-in-a-dream speed (I always make sure to plunge my weapon into the small of their back to maximize the damage, still the optimal move in these games).
With that understanding, perhaps it was inevitable that the place where I would finally feel I was truly among my people was called Volcano Manor (it is on the top of an active volcano, thank you for asking, and comes with lots of old world charm). The crowd at that Bond villain superbase, called “Recusants,” take up a position expressly against the role the player character is supposed to fulfill, choosing instead to hunt other Tarnished. Other Souls games have had their player-invasion cults, of course (as just about everything in these games is a variation on a theme), but I don’t recall any of them having a metanarrative so contemptuous of, as one of the characters calls it, the “sanctified pillaging” that is the Tarnished’s lot in life. The critique carries the faint trace of George R.R. Martin’s heretofore unspecified influence on Elden Ring’s plot: for all the high fantasy trappings, it amounts to a decidedly low throne grab, and the individual stakes bring out the worst in just about everyone. One resident of the Manor, Diallos Hoslow, seems so cribbed from Game of Thrones that I suspect he’s homage, rather than Martin’s own creation (he has house words, oft repeated: “the tale of House Hoslow is told in blood, after all”). He arrives alongside the player at the Volcano Manor as a mole, to exact revenge on the cult for killing a friend. But he quickly reneges on his quest, couching his cognitive dissonance in a self-justifying pursuit of power. “After much internal debate,” he dissembles to the player, "I’ve come to realise…I’ve got the stuff of champions. And champions, ironic as it is, are oft forced walk a tainted path.” Preaching to the converted, there: not a few hours later I would kill his brother, mostly just to have his whip, which I would swing around a couple times and then never touch again because it didn’t fit my build. We're all here to take, are we not?
The jet-set open worlder adopts a very cavalier attitude to the worlds they're a tourist in. Myself included: as I ride towards my destination in Elden Ring, sometimes I find myself veering just to lean over and lump an enemy on the side of the head as I drive by. Not to kill him for his runes or loot—just to fill the empty moment with a small reassertion of control, a little microaggression.
Sequelization, and the arms race for player affordances it sets off, opens the door for these graceless moments. The economy of means with which the earlier Souls games were produced left them with a windfall dignity: a mute protagonist saves on voice acting, and avoids the itchiness of seeing them asserting an argument against their circumstances. Ditto for animating NPCs. Dueling, which was crudely fashioned out of the early games' invasion mechanic, developed a homespun etiquette. "People used to bow afterwards," I’ll complain to the cat, as if I'm kvetching about how classy air travel used to be. But you try to do a nice thing by giving players a crouch button and suddenly you've fucked up the perfectly good monkey ("look at it, it’s teabagging").
To fill these overlarge open worlds requires either brute, exploitative manpower or modular solutions that can be remixed and redeployed at scale. I don't know whether the former applies to FromSoft, but the latter approach has been in play since Bloodborne, whose "Chalice Dungeons" are expanded upon in Elden Ring, though not to any compelling end. The most inartful of these systems are the Evergaols: on-demand boss fights in a bubble, like you're sweatily challenging enemies that previously humiliated you to "1v1 me, no summons." The ruins found throughout the world are of a kind too; and they don’t evoke a mysterious past half as much as “the type that has a cave with a chest beneath it.” I think to myself, “ah, here’s another one of those statues pointing out the location of a catacomb-type dungeon,” or “oh, here’s another Evergaol.” Another Evergaol! Imagine wearing the shine off a word like “Evergaol” through overuse! And yet!
Echoic items and moments pile up on top of the initially unique ones, burying them in a muddle of déjà vu. Combined with the angles of attack that an unbordered environment and a speedy mount open up, encouraging you to rush in to bag the shiny items into your pocket and be out again before the attack connects, and Elden Ring becomes, as the critic Cameron Kunzelman put it recently, “truly the game of ‘I have no idea where I got this.’” Like in Metal Gear Solid V, another late-in-life open-worlder, I suddenly feel less like I’m teasing out the knot of a given level, banking incapacitated guards and bypassed security to create a story of my successes, and more like a particularly ungainly vulture, hopping in fitful circles around some hapless, stranded creature and pecking it apart (as this dynamic plays out in the reverse in Elden Ring’s Caelid region with literal giant vultures, please know that my sympathy for the victim here comes from hard-lived experience. Fuck that place).
But tendrils of blue flame cordon off the temenos that your mount can’t set foot on, physically dividing the open world from the setpieces too precious to be so easily gamed via a double jump. And that capital C Content is good, as good as ever, considered and inspired and confounding. It’s been some time since I’ve played a stretch as trenchant as the giant “Haligtree” and its base, clambering down branches to a massive trunk, buttressed by literal buttresses and bathed in god rays. Feeling in my peak, late game form, I Solid-Snaked my way past all the enemies that could threaten me and quietly slew most of the rest, until I was behind them all in a single go, lighting a bonfire that saw me spattered with the blood of nobler knights.
And sometimes, when these moments inform the open world, the rest even works too. Roaming it with a second character, having beaten the last boss, I found that there were whole swathes I’d missed, castles and temples shrouded by woods, or preserved on mesas accessible only by one circuitous route of switchbacks. These are the colonial pleasures of the open world, really—dozens of little El Dorados—and I suppose that bushwacking for the sheer sight of them makes a conquistador out of me about as much as it would if I was questing for my nth collectible.
At the risk of verging on a tautology: the opposite of all that permissiveness and possibility is the moral certitude the linear game bestows by virtue of its inescapability. In these games, like the original Dark Souls, there is never the consideration that you can just set up camp and, like a staunchly pacifist Skyrim bard roleplayer, exist more or less benignly in the world as it turns around you. There is only the path forward, to walk or quit. The open world introduces a subtle, but significant change to that relationship: places become destinations, to be sighted from afar and arrived at (and ransacked) by choice. And so plausible deniability becomes impossible; the player cannot disavow whatever befalls the residents of the place when they decide they want to impose themselves upon it.
But in going open world, the Souls series has a few inherent points in its favor. I once heard someone (I think it was former Kotaku editor Kirk Hamilton) say that Elden Ring benefits from the series’ predilection for long-dead worlds, because they do not carry the burden of needing to appear lived-in. And this gets at the other reason I have always encouraged the player of these games to embrace their conquering role: everything in them is arrayed just-so, for the player’s sole benefit, inviting him to tilt at them. Occasionally on the world map, the player will arrive upon two “factions” of enemies fighting each other, and it almost seems like Elden Ring is trying to do a little too much for you—the NPCs in a little gladiatorial mock battle and you the ersatz emperor, holding out your thumb—when the truth is I’ve never believed that this is a place being fought over by people with their own motivations, and I don’t need to. Otherwise, I might have to reconsider how I treat them.
But this is the flattering bargain of most popular games. And perhaps chafing a bit under that patronizing gaze for so long in Elden Ring, I’ve opted to spend much of my second playthrough not in the exotic armors and headdresses I’ve dutifully collected, but in the simple, tattered knight’s armor I found in the beginning and a brimmed foot soldier’s cap, carrying an unornamented spear. I look the spitting image of Don Quixote, on Sancho Panza’s donkey (Torrent, the player’s mount, and no one’s idea of a fine steed), and I suspect that this, too, is a deliberate affordance. To complete the picture, one can even stand in front of the windmills in the north of Atlas Plateau, where some enterprising lit student will have scrawled “Could this be Giant?” on the ground in its golden pastures. And how’s that for canon?
I once wrote that in Souls games “you can practically hear the clockwork mechanisms whirring away behind the helmets of the black knights, or in the cuckoo-clock dragons who circle their bridges to spew fire.” That thought was fresh in my mind while my knight-errant was hacking away at the numb tail of Elden Ring’s massive "elder" dragon—one of those Souls series mainstays who, by virtue of its game engine-straining size, can only really exist as a half-immobile feature of the topography. It might as well have been a windmill for how much it fought back, and the 100,000 runes that it dropped were real, and they weren’t.
It’s in these moments, as a massive health bar dissolves in a sudden, bathetic break, that the artificiality of the Lands Between becomes incredibly conspicuous, and yet without feeling unintentional or discordant. This is why the conventional wisdom exists that there's no such thing as cheating in a Souls game. You're just a little bug in a grand machine, dismantling systems three épée pokes at a time, rolling through illusory walls, peppering the hapless computer code of some black knight-shaped mesh with arrows from up some ladder it doesn't understand how to climb. These are games that could easily receive the superstructure of a late, meta twist—a game outside the game, a-la Inscryption—like an action figure getting a snap-on jetpack.
It'd be gilding the lily, though. It’s not necessary when the metanarrative is already perfectly signaled, when the developer has the canonical player in their sights. Twelve million copies, though …historically, that’s a powerful encouragement to be the same next time, only more so. I do start to wonder: how long will you want to hear me describe that player?
Critics reading critics. I was recently listening to a Longform podcast conversation between host Aaron Lammer and the critic Hanif Abdurraqib, when I was surprised to hear Elden Ring come up (open world games are popular). It was at the end of the interview, and the two commiserated a bit about the size of modern games:
LAMMER: “When I was playing Breath of the Wild—”
ABDURRAQIB: “Ooh, yeah.”
LAMMER: “—I was constantly sort of thinking about like: ‘Is this ten percent? Or is this fifty percent? Or is this one percent of the overall map,’ and that’s a really exciting feeling.
LAMMER: “Right now The Elden Rings (sic) is big, and when I look at—just like reading a few reviews of it—to me that’s like, Ulysses. It’s a book that I know I will never finish. I’ve already allowed myself the grace to realize I will never beat or even probably expose most of the map of that game.”
ABDURRAQIB: “Yeah...there’s a real pleasure to that to though, I think.”
Now that right there is a snippet of conversation I’ve had plenty of times. I recognize that use of videogames as the prelude to a parting: a small talk outro, both of us withdrawing to our own mental version of the same open worlds, with their waist-high grasses. Like the ones Chateaubriand said we all carry within ourselves, made up of all that we have seen—but thinking more about what parts we’ve yet to see still.
Nick Capozzoli is a freelance critic. Tweets @nickcapozzoli.