Hidetaka Miyazaki shares his vision of light and darkness.
Elden Ring’s announcement trailer shown off at E3 2019’s Xbox Briefing had honestly left me clueless. The most noteworthy aspect was, of course, the fact that Elden Ring’s world is being created as a collaboration between Miyazaki and A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin. But besides that, all I understood was that the “Elden Ring” had been shattered… by somebody or something?
It almost felt like the narrator’s words “I doubt you could even imagine it” were addressed to me personally.
Luckily, Miyazaki was not the secretive soul master I had imagined him to be. He was open and friendly and seemed eager to tell me all about his new game and the meaning behind the Elden Ring.
“Elden Ring is a third-person action RPG with a fantasy setting,” he said. “The gameplay is not so far from Dark Souls. That doesn’t mean that the gameplay will be identical, but you could say that Elden Ring belongs to the same genre.”
With a larger world, new systems and action mechanics inevitably become necessary. I think that Elden Ring is a more natural evolution of Dark Souls.
Genre-wise, the same can be said for Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, two of Miyazaki’s more recent works. However, both titles brought a lot of fresh elements to the table. Bloodborne allowed the player to snatch back lost health with a quick counterattack, had transformable weapons and introduced firearms to counter an enemy’s attack. Sekiro came with a unique sword fighting system focused on parrying attacks, literally brought exploration to new heights with a grappling hook and the ability to jump, and fundamentally changed the flow of battle by getting rid of the stamina gauge.
But according to Miyazaki, Elden Ring goes beyond simply bringing new twists to the formula. By adding larger and more open environments, he believes that the game will evolve on a larger scale.
“With a larger world, new systems and action mechanics inevitably become necessary,” he said. “In that sense, I think that Elden Ring is a more natural evolution of Dark Souls.”
Elden Ring will be FromSoftware’s first attempt to bring a Souls-like experience – the now globally acclaimed sub-genre they conceived – to an open-world scale. But weren’t the dungeons and fields in Miyazaki’s previous games directly connected as well? What is it that makes Elden Ring different?
“While the narrow and complex dungeons of our previous games were indeed interconnected, Elden Ring’s environments will be much more open and vast,” said Miyazaki. “The more extensive world will form the base of Elden Ring’s gameplay, and its mechanics are designed with that type of environment in mind.”
Elden Ring’s open and vast world will form the base of Elden Ring’s gameplay, and its mechanics are designed with that type of environment in mind.
While Miyazaki’s previous games were open in a Metroidvania way, with backtracking and unlockable shortcuts, Elden Ring sounds like it could be something closer to the likes of Skyrim.
Miyazaki gives three reasons to why he wanted to introduce this new type of environment: showing the game’s world and lore on a grander scale, adding more freedom and depth to exploration, and creating more variation to battles.
As an example of how Elden Ring’s new scale will change the Souls-like formula, the main character will be able to traverse the world on a horse, with the ability to fight enemies while mounted. While combat in Dark Souls was focused on positioning yourself favorably even in small rooms and narrow corridors, Miyazaki believes that more open environments can create more diverse situations. It reminds me how Breath of the Wild’s battle system itself didn’t feel fundamentally different compared to other 3D Zeldas, but the open world created new possibilities ranging from luring enemies to using objects like barrels and rocks in your favor. It will be interesting to see a similar evolution for the now 10-year-old Souls-like formula.
Exploration was already more varied in Sekiro, but Miyazaki says that for Elden Ring he wants to create depth in a different way than the 2019 shinobi action-adventure. While he did not go into detail, I’m sure that the open world will stand central in the evolution here as well. For example, there might be room for interesting side-activities besides combat this time.
However, a more open world doesn’t mean that we will see vibrant towns and cityscapes in Elden Ring.
“Villages will be the dark dungeon-like ruins that you have come to expect from us,” Miyazaki said, laughing.
“Creating a more open game is a big challenge for us. If we were to add towns on top of that, it would become a bit too much, so we decided to create an open-world-style game focused on what we are best at.”
It all started with me being a fan of Mr. Martin’s works. A Song of Ice and Fire and its drama adaptation Game of Thrones are both masterpieces.
Indeed, a world of grander scale is a new challenge for FromSoftware, and depending on its focus Elden Ring could easily end up as a game that looks inferior to other modern games in the open-world genre. Miyazaki says that while studying various open-world games, he refrained from being too heavily inspired by them, and rather chose to focus on making an experience only FromSoftware could deliver.
Regarding Elden Ring’s world and story, the announcement trailer once again left me with more questions than answers. The collaboration with Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin was obviously big news, but it had been leaked before the official announcement.
“It all started with me being a fan of Mr Martin’s works,” Miyazaki explained. “A Song of Ice and Fire and its drama adaptation Game of Thrones are both masterpieces. I am also very fond of Fevre Dream and Tuf Voyaging.”
FromSoftware approached Martin for a meeting, but Miyazaki originally did not expect that Martin would be willing to meet him so easily. Miyazaki really enjoyed his time with the celebrated author, and immediately felt something clicked. When he proposed the idea to make a game together, he was happy to find out that Martin was all in.
“I was really surprised by how smoothly it all went,” Miyazaki recalled.
Instead of creating Elden Ring’s main story, Martin wrote about a time long before the era the player actually explores. Miyazaki gave two reasons for why he wanted Martin to write Elden Ring’s mythology, rather than the main story.
Storytelling in video games comes with a lot of restrictions for the writer. I didn’t think it was a good idea to have Martin write within those restrictions.
“Storytelling in video games – at least the way we do it at FromSoftware – comes with a lot of restrictions for the writer. I didn’t think it was a good idea to have Martin write within those restrictions. By having him write about a time the player isn’t directly involved in, he is free to unleash his creativity in the way he likes. Furthermore, as FromSoftware we didn’t want to create a more linear and storydriven experience for Elden Ring. Both issues could be solved by having Martin write about the world’s history instead.”
Elden Ring is a FromSoftware game with a main story by Miyazaki and lore from Martin in one package. And while the two might have created their stories separately, according to Miyazaki they are heavily influenced by each other. He says that the excitement, drama and depth of Martin’s lore has had a huge impact on FromSoftware’s world creation for Elden Ring.
“It was a fascinating collaboration, as we both weren’t restricted by each other, yet still influenced each other’s work,” he reflected.
Miyazaki compared the mythology that Martin wrote for Elden Ring to that of the dungeon master’s handbook in a tabletop RPG. As a writer, it must have been a largely different experience for Martin as well.
“It really is like a guide for the world’s lore, and therefore feels quite different from his novels. As someone that loves to learn about a world’s setting, it was very exciting to read,” Miyazaki told me.
The period the player actually explores is still connected to the old times, so as you slowly discover why the world has become the way it is, you will learn more about Martin’s mythology as well.
Miyazaki says that it has not yet been decided whether Martin’s mythology will be novelized, but he was not hesitant to state that he personally would prefer you to experience it through the game.
“A novelization would mean that all the secrets and mystery hidden in our game would be revealed,” he said. “From the point of view of a director, I’m not sure if that would be the right thing to do.”
The thought that players will be able to experience a new story by Martin through a FromSoftware game is exciting to say the least, and with a more open and vast world, it can be expected that FromSoftware’s environmental storytelling has evolved as well.
“The player will be able to learn about Martin’s mythology through exploration,” confirmed Miyazaki. “We are known for letting the player explore the game’s lore through fragments of environmental storytelling, and this time around Martin’s story is what you will be trying to unravel. The period the player actually explores is still connected to the old times, so as you slowly discover why the world has become the way it is, you will learn more about Martin’s mythology as well.”
Both the 2018 PSVR title Déraciné and 2019’s Sekiro had different approaches toward storytelling compared with Miyazaki’s previous works. As a traditional adventure game, Déraciné was a different type of experience to begin with; but with a fixed main character, Sekiro changed the formula of storytelling within FromSoftware’s usual genre.
Now that Miyazaki is collaborating with Martin, one would think that Elden Ring is going to be an even more direct and storydriven experience, but the contrary appears to be true. Not only Martin’s mythology, but also the approach of the main story by Miyazaki himself is closer to Dark Souls than Sekiro.
“There is no fixed main character in Elden Ring,” said Miyazaki. “We mostly leave it up to the player to decide the characteristics and personality of the character they create.”
There is no fixed main character in Elden Ring. We mostly leave it up to the player to decide the characteristics and personality of the character they create.
Miyazaki did say that he and his team enjoyed portraying NPC characters in a more detailed manner for Sekiro, and with Martin’s mythology as a source of inspiration, he believes that Elden Ring’s NPC characters are more compelling than in his previous works.
That means that while the characters around you have more personality, the player becomes Elden Ring’s main character. This may be a rather traditional approach in RPGs – especially in Japanese games – but it is exciting to think that NPCs will likely function as an additional layer of exploration for the player to unravel the world’s mystery.
One thing that Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne and even Déraciné have in common is that they all have a Western fantasy setting. Sekiro was Miyazaki’s first game to have a Japanese setting, but for Elden Ring Miyazaki is going back to his Western fantasy roots.
“Depending on the game’s setting, beauty, justice, and strength all have a different nuance,” he mused. “With a Japanese setting, those aspects had to be portrayed in a different way. I always want to create worlds with a beautiful aesthetic, but the approach toward that goal is always different. While for Elden Ring we are going back to Western fantasy, the game’s themes are very different from our previous works, which means that beauty, justice, and strength will be different once again. That difference has a big impact on our games as a whole.”
Hearing Miyazaki say that he always wants to create beautiful worlds left a deep impact on me. The man is known for creating unforgiving games that play out in dark, grim fantasy worlds. Yet, at the same time, they always manage to feel stunning.
Personally, a world that is happy and bright is something that just doesn’t feel realistic to me. It may sound like I have a trauma or something.
“Light looks more beautiful in darkness,” said Miyazaki. “When there is something beautiful in the middle of a wasteland, we are able to appreciate it more. One jewel doesn’t look like much when you have a pile of them, but if you find one jewel in the midst of mud, it is worth so much more.”
That is how Miyazaki explained why his worlds are dark and beautiful at the same time. But there’s more.
“Personally, a world that is happy and bright is something that just doesn’t feel realistic to me. It may sound like I have a trauma or something,” he said with a laugh, “but I believe that the world is generally a wasteland that is not kind to us. That’s just the way I see it.”
Elden Ring’s announcement trailer begins exactly with what Miyazaki describes: A small light, in the middle of total darkness. It gradually draws closer. It seems to be a lonely blacksmith. We learn that the Elden Ring – which according to Miyazaki functions as the rules and rhythm of the world – has been shattered. A burning crimson sky seems to indicate that something terrible has happened.
We’re slowly piecing it all together, collecting everything we know about Elden Ring, but for now, it all looks absolutely stunning.
Esra Krabbe is an editor at IGN Japan. FromSoftware is one of his favorite modern game developers. Come say hi on Twitter!