On Incomplete Worldbuilding & Elden Ring

So, like everyone else, I’ve been playing Elden Ring. 

I’m a huge fan of the From Software games when it comes to worldbuilding. There’s just something about how it feels to wander around in these worlds. You have this feeling that everything in them hints at this bigger, broader existence that you’re not quite in on, but you see hints of it everywhere– the architecture, the items dropped by random enemy spawns, the descriptions on the items themselves, the bosses and their arenas, and so on, and so on.

There’s a quote I half-remember from the director of From Software Hidetaka Miyazaki, that I probably heard from someone recounting an interview they read from him (so, an account of an account of an account, which is… maybe not super accurate?) that I nonetheless found really compelling: allegedly, a big inspiration for these games was the experience of reading a fantasy novel in a second language. Like, say, reading The Silmarillion in German. You have these incredible tidbits of information that you know hold meaning– you keep picking up names, these repeating themes and motifs, these significant events and trends, but in your incomplete understanding of the text, you also have so much more space to build the world yourself.

Maybe the reason this tidbit really stuck with me (whether or not it’s actually true) is that it speaks to a design experience that moved me a lot when I was younger– I didn’t have many video games, but I loved video game guidebooks. Like, Prima Official Strategy Guides for the Zelda games, or books of concept art from the Final Fantasy games. I would read these books, and on some level beneath the direct experience of playing the game, I would imagine these fully realized worlds separate from the game itself. Like, I never played Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask as a kid, but I can tell you exactly what I thought the fried food at the Clock Town festival smelled like, or how the water dripping in the sheet-metal labyrinth of Gyorg’s dungeon echoed. I never had the chance to play most of the Final Fantasy games, but the Marlboro monster still terrifies me in a deeply visceral way.

And maybe that’s why I find Elden Ring (and the Souls games in general) so compelling. On some level, playing these games gives me the same type of experience as reading the guidebook of a game I never had the chance to play. It seems like these games are built around the same sort of feeling that comes from closing your eyes and piecing the bits of the world you’ve collected together without the full text. There’s something of yourself you put into a game that doesn’t give you all the pieces. And on some level, I think I enjoyed Majora’s Mask more before I had the chance to actually play it.

Published by itstheinstitute

Table-Top RPG designer, freelance writer

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