Elden Ring has been nominated for Best Narrative at The Game Awards, and this has a lot of people perplexed. FromSoftware’s RPG isn’t exactly light on storytelling, but it also doesn’t dole out its fables in a very conventional way either. Like the majority of Soulsborne games, the tales of characters and landscapes are delivered through cryptic dialogue, item descriptions, and a focus on environmental storytelling. The player is seldom told things straight up, and people come to these games for that very reason. To dismiss it outright is a bit of a lazy critique.
There are plenty of beloved stories throughout history across all media that refuse to explain themselves, or leave that interpretation for us to parse on our own terms. There is something strangely rewarding about figuring out a story for yourself, assembling all the disparate pieces before figuring out the exact sequence of events and what exactly makes them tick. FromSoftware has always stuck by this philosophy, and after a decade of beating the same drum I’m surprised we’re viewing Elden Ring’s narrative nomination with derision.
I’m not saying those who binging lore videos dedicated to Elden Ring are smarter and more evolved than those who don’t, but I don’t think a narrative requiring this level of unpacking makes it inherently flawed or inaccessible. We aren’t meant to understand the bigger picture at first, and these games are designed to keep us in an almost surreal state of morbid curiosity as we walk through alien worlds in search of answers not only for our own place in it all, but what exactly brought each realm to its knees. Dark Souls has NPCs who speak in poetic riddles inspired by classic fantasy, often spouting obvious lies and false observations to constantly throw us off the trail. It isn’t until we take a step back and start to question what we’re being told that the pieces fall into place. Even then, it requires a bit of extra legwork.
Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Elden Ring wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t discovering them on our own terms. The opening cutscene sets the stage and provides the briefest bit of context, but after that we are left to our own devices, forming our own stories through the enemies we fight, the people we meet, and the environments we explore. Its atmosphere bleeds into our focused observations, leading us to make assumptions both true and false as we piece together the intended mythology. There are rarely any audio logs to listen to or long expositional dumps of lore to get us up to speed, even without reading the item descriptions many point to as a flaw of this method of storytelling I am still able to learn so much.
If Elden Ring was to adopt the same storytelling principles as Horizon Forbidden West or God of War, it wouldn’t work. Besides, the last thing I want is another narrative blockbuster trying too hard to be serious. I prefer to bask in the mystique and subject myself to the relentless unknown, always guessing what awaits and how I might come to interpret it. I feared that Elden Ring’s open world would dilute this focused environmental narrative, but it only serves to enhance it. The Lands Between is filled with sprawling fields populated by abandoned mines and occult villages, while once glorious cities sit in ruin waiting to be pilfered. The destruction tells a story, while the remnants of a once glorious civilization point towards a demise we will come to decipher. Despite veering so far from convention, I can point to so many memorable moments that cement my place in this world, whether it be a fleeting line of dialogue or stopping to stare at whatever monolithic structure waits to greet my hesitant footsteps. It might abandon tradition, but Elden Ring is dripping with narrative.
I understand why it isn’t for everyone, and how a seemingly impenetrable mass of lore and mechanics can turn off even the most veteran of gamers. Such misconceptions are well worth examining though, and try not to view the lack of guidance as something to determine you from exploring what is one of the most accomplished gaming worlds in recent memory. I’m not sure if I think Elden Ring deserves Best Narrative when all is said and done, but to dismiss it entirely as an opaque mess of fantastical nonsense is a tragic disservice.
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