A popular opinion online is that gamers have grown weary of the open-world formula: it is believed that this fatigue created was largely by titles such as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which was criticized on social media for brimming with mostly filler content. Of course, that’s been a minor curse of RPGs for decades, as creating hundreds or even thousands of quests for an otherwise empty world inevitably takes its toll on the writers’ sanity.
So, when FromSoftware’s Dark Souls was released in 2011, it served as something of an ideal. It was unforgiving, not just in terms of its combat, but because it offered the player almost no direction as they trudged through a grim domain that simply didn’t care whether you were The Chosen Undead or just another lost soul. It also had almost no quest structure. You were on your own.
While Assassin’s Creed Valhalla might seem to suggest otherwise, expectations for RPGs changed as a consequence of Dark Souls’ debut. Dark Souls 2 didn’t fare so well, largely due to a tortured development process, but the third entry in the series at least helped the franchise end on a high. Afterward, Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the mechanically similar games, kept FromSoftware’s bonfire burning.
The 2022 title Elden Ring hit a different note, though. The first truly open-world game in FromSoftware’s catalog, Elden Ring managed to avoid many of the tropes that had typified – and ruined – the long-form RPG in recent years, namely, fetch quests, too much exposition, and a whole lot of hand-holding. It manifests as an adventure of discovery, one in which everything is hidden behind the veil of the players’ ignorance.
Ultimately, players wander as they see fit in Elden Ring. This style of gameplay has been attempted in plenty of PC games before, most famously in Minecraft, but the complexity of RPGs often meant that players were shoved down a linear path. For example, CD Projekt Red’s Witcher 3 contained the player within several small areas at the beginning of the game to set the lore of the world ahead.
The world of RPGs may not be quite as flawed as Elden Ring made it look, as a single offender crops up in most discussions about the seemingly doomed nature of open-world titles – Ubisoft. The French developer has used an identical formula across several franchises for a decade. Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed are good examples, but there are plenty more stashed in Ubi’s back office.
In contrast, despite several high-profile missteps, Bethesda’s RPGs, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, are generally well-thought-of. This is even though they possess all of the characteristics that Elden Ring dispensed with. So, there’s a question to be asked here – is the open world really a problem for RPGs, or is the genre simply starved of the creativity and the virtual drama we all crave?
There’s no denying that Elden Ring served as a wake-up call for RPGs (and its perpetually distracted writer George R.R. Martin), but there may yet be hope for the more conventional open-world experience.
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