When I was a child, I loved the books and comics with branching paths which allowed me to take part in the story by taking decisions which led to different outcomes, truly affecting the way I experienced the story. It was very fun to go back and re-read them, taking different decisions to explore all the possibilities. These gamebooks were known colloquially as “choose your own adventure books,” and even when it might be considered just a gimmick, at least for me, helped to enhance the experience.
As I grew up, that feeling of embodying the character was amplified by RPGs, or Role-Playing Games, either as a tabletop game or in video games. These games offered the both the freedom, and sometimes, the accountability based on your actions by forging your own path, which would ultimately shape your experience of the game. At the beginning, the narratives of these games were simpler, and the story branches only deviated slightly from the main plot, but now, as the medium progresses, we experience more intricate narratives with an increased number of variables and outcomes to experiment with.
As I shared in my social networks, by the end of the last year, I finally had the time to play the video game Elden Ring, and I must confess, it made me travel back when I would spend hours reading my “choose your own adventure” books.
I believe that regarding Elden Ring, there is little more to be said. It was named Game of the Year, it’s the latest entry from the revered studio FromSoftware, and was a collaboration with George RR Martin, author of Game of Thrones, who helped the developers shaping the story and the lore of the game. Hundreds—if not thousands—of people have reviewed this game on the internet, so there is no need for me to tell you how fabulous this game is, but I want to focus on an aspect of the narrative, which its creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, regards as “Environmental Storytelling.”
During the last decade, FromSoftware has been focused on creating action-RPGs, highlighting titles like Dark Souls, Bloodborne or Sekiro. And the studio has become known by the level of difficulty of their games, trying to emulate the challenge of old console games, but which many consider reach a punishing level. But another trademark of the studio is their secrecy when telling stories. Their games are cryptic, and I say that not only in the genre’s context, dark fantasy, but in how much of the story is actually told to the player through dialogues and exposition. FromSoftware games share only the bare minimum information before sending the player to an enigmatic world to uncover the so yearned answers—or not, if you surrender after the hundredth time you get killed. But here is where the “Environmental Storytelling” comes into play.
The director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, loves to shatter the backstories, and spread the pieces across all the corners of the game world. So, when you play a FromSoftware game, you are not only worried about surviving the enemies and challenges your face but also, you become an archaeologist, collecting the scattered fragments of plot to assemble the history of what seemed like a long-gone civilization.
My experience with Elden Ring, was not only to marvel at the beautiful vistas portrayed by the fantasy world, or to descend into the gloomy mines and catacombs in search of secrets, or fight the dragons and other monstrosities product of the twisted minds of FromSoftware artists, but also, like in my childhood, to choose my own adventure.
Elden Ring provides you with an overwhelming level of freedom—even for today’s game standards—in which you can trace your own path and find your own adventure. The world is so vast and full of elements and tropes ranging across the wide spectrum of dark medieval fantasy that even if you disregard the actual story of the game, you can easily create your own. As I played, very often I forgot about the pieces of the Elden Ring you are supposed to collect, and just surrendered my mind to enjoy the experience, and as I traversed the magical “Lands Between,” the world where the game takes place, I manufactured my own stories of the locales and motivations of the characters I came across. Basically, I gave it my own meaning to the game. I made my own adventure.
This might sound unappealing to some but considering that we currently live in the time and age of “immediacy”, in which we are accustomed to receiving everything fleshed out, to “cut to the chase,” and we hate to investigate, is why Elden Ring—as a split narrative—, feels so refreshing.
I’ve always loved the fictional works that push the audience to ask themselves questions and make conjectures. Because as storyteller, I can relate that it’s quite challenging to pique the interest of the reader enough to keep them hooked through your story despite withholding the so craved answers from them. It requires a special craft to determine how much information is enough to keep this delicate balance, because on the contrary, too much exposition can kill the excitement. I struggled a lot with this during the early drafts of my novel Vandella, but the questions shared by my beta readers and editors became the compass that guided me to find that balance and in the final manuscript, you, the reader, can feel satisfied when reaching the end.
Elden Ring and the other FromSoftware games have been certainly an incredible experience as a gamer, but also have influenced me creatively. Its nihilistic atmospheres, the alluring mystery, the mesmerizing solitude, the hectic sense of insecurity, and the horrors dwelling in darkness certainly build up to an experience described only in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Elden Ring is an immersive narrative experience I would undoubtedly recommend to all looking for dark adventures, even if you don’t like playing video games.
And if you follow my advice and try it, I hope one day we can cross paths in the Lands Between… tarnished.
M. Ch. Landa