The Lands Between Story and Gameplay / Steven Watts

Dando un paseo a caballo – Elden Ring,” © 2022 Vladimir Sahornil, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode

FromSoftware’s 2022 video game Elden Ring does little to acclimate the player to its world. The game’s introductory cutscene commands: “Arise now, ye Tarnished… cross the fog, to the Lands Between to stand before the Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord.” This is the most direct objective the game provides. Your character is a Tarnished, someone who has lost the guidance of the region’s faith—invited back to the game’s kingdom after the “Shattering” of the Elden Ring and a subsequent war for sovereignty among the world’s demigods. You must recover the pieces of the ring, defeat the land’s demigods, and restore order.

Elden Ring is an open world game, which means players can choose where to go and who to fight. Besides the scant introduction, there is little linear direction or authorial voice to direct your progress. The game resists traditional narrative exposition and rarely provides cutscenes; instead, plot happens through play. Discovering new places, defeating enemies, obtaining items and reading their descriptions, and talking with the games non-player characters (NPCs) all provide information about the narrative. In short, the game’s narrative is elaborated through non-narrative means.

Elden Ring might be frustrating to a narratologist, then, because it does not conform to existing understandings of narrative that arise from the critique of other narrative forms and mediums like novels, film, or television. But Elden Ring offers us an opportunity to explore the specific formal characteristics, and corresponding sociality, of the nascent video game artform. Criticism on other artforms, especially the novel, has considered the relationship between a medium’s signal narrative characteristics and the dominant social form at the moment of that medium’s rise to prominence. While Elden Ring is not like a novel, I want to suggest that the game evokes the history of the novel form in ways that are uniquely helpful in thinking through emergent mediums—like video games—and corresponding ideological formations like neoliberalism.

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Video games are distinct from other narrative mediums because they feature interactivity and play to which narrative is often unnecessary. Nonetheless, many games do tell stories by incorporating narrative characteristics like cutscenes—expository videos that interrupt game play. Cutscenes often direct players through a game’s open world toward the next objective. Hugely popular blockbuster games—referred to as AAA games—like Sony’s God of War: Ragnarök (2022) and Horizon: Forbidden West (2022) work this way. They add map markers to help players complete new objectives provided by their cutscenes. AAA games use this structure because their publishers know the games are going to reach a wide audience for whom storytelling is a recognizable interaction with narrative media.

Meanwhile, some of the most popular games of all time—Minecraft, Fortnite, or Madden—are intentionally all play and no plot. Just as the study of narrative has a corresponding critical method in narratology, the study of games has a methodological focus on such interactivity, or game play, called ludology. But because many games have narrative and interactive components, video game studies is split over how much the field should be defined by ludology and narratology. Ludologists often criticize the focus on video game narrative because it invites comparisons to other media and detracts from the interactivity that is unique to video games. If narratologists want to understand how plot moves forward in a game, ludologists are interested in the mechanics that make it fun (or not) to play. While Elden Ring features some narrative elements like cutscenes and dialogue, it does so in a way that forces the player to take advantage of its game mechanics. As such, the game is an opportunity for critics to reconcile ludological and narratological approaches to video game studies.

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Elden Ring was created by Hidetaka Miyazaki, famous for the Dark Souls franchise and Bloodborne, whose notoriously difficult gameplay is precisely the allure to many gamers. The gaming world even has a generic moniker for these games: “SoulsBorne.” Narrative is not central to SoulsBorne games. Rather, they have gained prestige in an increasingly crowded field because of their meticulous attention to detail. Elden Ring follows this tradition, with intricate fantasy worldbuilding provided by none other than Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, whose involvement signaled the possibility that Elden Ring would bring more serious attention to narrative than Miyazaki’s previous games.

But after all the promotional hype about worldbuilding before the game’s release, many critics were frustrated by the game’s narrative opaqueness.  In other open world games, like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V or Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, map markers and mission objectives combine to direct the player’s attention and gameplay. Elden Ring removes these conventions. It provides a map, but little else. The initial directive simply tells you to find the “shardbearers” and gather rune fragments. What?

This lack of narrative information compels players to focus instead on game mechanics. One of the first key mechanics in the game is the “site of grace,” where you can rest to heal. Rest at three sites of grace and an NPC will introduce herself to you and call you “maidenless” (an insult?). You can now increase your attributes. Keep going and you’ll find an NPC who claims her companions have been grafted to a spider. Talk to her again and she says the same thing. Talk to her a third time and she’ll give you a spectral jellyfish to help you in battle.

With very few cutscenes, what counts as forward progress is unclear, and the game has such a specific and dense language it is hard to even understand what NPCs are saying. Vice called the game “extraordinarily beautiful, but also totally boring” because “there’s no narration, the plot would fit in an iPhone note and its world remains terribly hollow.”1 Alec Kubas-Meyer similarly notes, “hard to pronounce names and huge historical events get referenced constantly in the minimal bits of dialogue and there’s no in-game way of keeping track of any of it.”2 These criticisms credit Elden Ring’s ludological innovation but decry the lack of story in which gameplay would be more narratively meaningful.

But Elden Ring’s form has provoked several narratological responses too. Games Radar compares the game to postmodern fiction, saying that the narrative is “found between item descriptions, character dialogue, and environmental clues” that make the player an “investigator, piecing together the clues of The Lands Between’s past so they can decide its future.”3 Similarly, Kotaku describes it as “a fitting culmination to director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s decades of world-building expertise,”4 explaining that the game’s exploration mechanics are themselves narrative.

While many games have spawned arguments about the gap between game studies’ ludological and narratological approaches, the disagreement about which of Elden Ring’s game mechanics count as narrative highlights the insufficiency of this binary. In the emerging field of video game studies, the quantity and quality of debate over Elden Ring evokes discussions of formative artifacts of other mediums. In particular, theories of the novel can give us a richer understanding of what Elden Ring is and does.

In studies of the novel, many critics consider George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2) as the pinnacle of the form. Middlemarch is also central to how critics have understood the novel form itself. F. R. Leavis begins his history on the novel by looking at what Eliot “magnificently achieved,”5 and how Middlemarch illustrated social changes. J. Hillis Miller calls it “perhaps the masterwork of Victorian realism,” because of the “fullness of its characterization.”6 The metanarrative of Middlemarch goes like this: as political liberalism is being legislated in the leadup to the 1832 Reform Act, the novel form begins to privilege interiority. Middlemarch does this through its polyvocal structure and free-indirect thought used to explore the consciousness of a broader swath of characters than normally represented in fiction.7 Middlemarch explored new narrative characteristics that could represent the way industrialization rearranged sociality in the 19th century, bringing more people than ever to cities while elevating individuality.

It took time for critics to understand how to discuss what Eliot was doing. For example, Henry James, who has perhaps contributed most to contemporary understandings of the novel form, described Middlemarch as “a treasure trove of details, but an indifferent whole” because “the author wishes to say too many things, and to say them too well.”8 But while James was ambivalent about Middlemarch’s defining characteristics, those characteristics would eventually epitomize the novel form. Middlemarch goes from being a respected but generically confusing artifact to one that unifies the study of the novel. It helped generate a critical language for how novels represented an emerging subjectivity grounded in individual experience.

The disjunction between describing the overall goal of the text and the opaque way the text gets to that goal are apparent in James’ comments on Middlemarch and in the criticisms of Elden Ring. In video game studies, this disjunction is symptomatic of the difference between ludology and narratology. Bypassing this tired binary, Elden Ring understands narrative, mechanics, and social representation as a unified form. While I am not the first to propose unifying ludology and narratology in game studies—for example, Johansen Quijano establishes a methodology for considering narrative, rhetorical, and ludic aspects of video games cohesively, “in order to explore both the themes represented in the games as well as possible ways in which those themes could be interpreted by players”9—what is most important to my analysis of Elden Ring is what Clint Hocking calls “ludo-narrative dissonance.”10 Hocking uses this term to describe when gameplay and story are seemingly opposed. For instance, a cutscene may warn the player about the immanence of an apocalypse that can only be stopped by beating the boss. But the game may then allow the player-character to spend as much time as they want pursuing side quests.

Traditionally, dissonance is leveraged against a game as evidence of its incoherence. Elden Ring, however, actively incorporates that dissonance. It is narratively and mechanically possible to “beat” the game as quickly as possible: defeat two shardbearers, beat two bosses in the Leyndell Capital City, walk straight through Crumbling Farum Azula, and arrive back at the burning Erdtree. For a skilled player, this can all be done in only a few hours. Expediency might be the most narratively appropriate method (although if you don’t complete at least one side quest you get the ending where your character ascends to the throne but fails to unite the remaining citizens of The Lands Between).

Alternatively, you could take the slow route and luxuriate in the game’s environments, treating narrative as guidepost instead of teleology. A primary mode of exposition in the game is its descriptions of items, which fill in the lore of the game’s fantasy world and direct the player-character’s attention. The game’s first “shardbearer,” or boss, is Godrick the Grafted, who lies at the far north end of an enormous fortress called Stormveil Castle. On arriving at the castle’s gates, a guard warns you not to proceed through that entrance and to sneak in through the side. If that advice is heeded, you can experience the full extent of the castle’s design, climbing up and down towers, running through courtyards, and exploring dungeons. You might discover the Godskin Prayerbook and the Godslayer’s Seal. Reading the items’ descriptions, you would learn that “incantations of the god-slaying black flame are written within” the Prayerbook and that the Seal enhances the prayerbook’s incantations. By taking the time to explore the most difficult to reach portions of Stormveil, the player learns which spells exist specifically to kill the game’s gods and gains access to them, making several subsequent fights much easier.

If you go even further out of your way later in the game to reach the Divine Tower of Caelid, you’ll encounter a Godskin Apostle. If the Apostle is beaten, you loot its armor and learn that “the apostles, once said to serve Destined Death, are wielders of the god-slaying black flame. But after their defeat by Maliketh, the Black Blade, the source of their power was sealed away.” Collecting the Apostle’s armor delays your progress in the main story. But you will learn that Maliketh has made the black flame spells useless and that defeating him might reactivate their power. By collecting these items, you can then progress through the game in a more directed way. Or you can ignore that initial guard’s warning, barge through the front gates of Stormveil, and “win” without ever learning about any of this.

My point is that taking your time provides more ludic and narrative information. Playing along with that design facilitates more developed narrative pathways for the player-character as well as a more comprehensive account of the game’s mechanics. In Elden Ring, the game rewards its non-teleologically oriented players. Gameplay as such is narrative. In this sense, Elden Ring is the Middlemarch of video games. It challenges our understanding of how video games convey narrative by forgoing long-used narrative devices and developing narrative techniques distinct to the medium.

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Middlemarch and Elden Ring didn’t just perfect narrative techniques unique to their forms. Those techniques also aid their forms’ ability to relay something of the social world in which they were produced. By attending to Elden Ring’s innovative narrative techniques, we can clarify how the text relates aesthetic form to social form.11 For Terry Eagleton, Eliot’s polyvocal emphasis on the inner lives of her characters is the result of an “urge to dramatize the ideological totalities that transcend the limits of classical liberalism.”12 Eagleton praises Middlemarch for presenting a unity of disparate lives while retaining the individuality of those consciousnesses, and he criticizes the novel for not having a philosophical answer to the question it solves formally. The novel as a form, and Middlemarch as the epitome of that form, is historically bound by proposing aesthetic solutions to the question of how to retain individuality while representing this new sociality.

In his polemic against narratological studies of video games, ludologist Espen Aarseth persuasively argues, “novels are very good at relating the inner lives of characters,” but “games are awful at that, or, wisely, they don’t even try.”13 But Elden Ring’s ludo-narrative dissonance allows it to achieve a unity like Middlemarch‘s—but for a dissimilar time.

For Lukacs, “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by god.” Its investment in interiority follows the destruction of external meanings given by, say, religion or the state. Video games are perhaps the novel of our time, for a world where interiority is for sale. The individual consciousnesses that Middlemarch put into conversation are now competing market forces. As the liberalism of the novel’s time evolves, interiority is weaponized against sociality. Alongside policies of deregulation in a deindustrializing economy, neoliberalism is understood as an acknowledgement that market-logic has been extended to all domains of life. Individual subjectivity is no longer the identifier of a responsible citizen but of a rational market actor, ready to maximize any advantage over competing individuals; it is your edge in an economy increasingly moving to individual contract work and self-entrepreneurship. Personal narratives overwhelm communal wellbeing.

Elden Ring thematizes this end of interiority. Almost every character you encounter tries to kill you.  Survival is a battle between your character and them. Existence is a fight over scarce resources. You not only have to kill bosses, but also NPCs who possess items you need to upgrade your weapons. Killing in Elden Ring also grants you runes, which you can use to invest in yourself and level up. Your character also lacks an interior monologue and voice with which to encounter this hostile world. Performing interiority—as the bosses do in their monologues before you defeat them—will get you killed.

“You Died.” Because of FromSoftware’s notoriously difficult battles, players will see this screen often.

As part of the backstory, we learn that Queen Marika was imprisoned and the governance of The Lands Between fell apart shortly after its liberalization. The game challenges the end-of-history narrative, in which democratic liberalism is the final governing form to be perfected. Instead, it asks: when subjects understand themselves to be competing over scarce resources and individual subjectivity is seen as leverage to gain wealth, what role does the social play?

This is the pressing question for our time and for our understanding of video game narrative. Elden Ring doesn’t separate narrative and gameplay to answer it. Instead, another of the game’s key features—online mode—allows you to leave messages for other players. These messages can warn others to avoid areas, advise about methods for beating bosses, or offer praise for making it through a particularly tough battle. Players can also request help from others who have beaten a difficult area in the game. Famously, in Elden Ring fan lore, a player named “Let Me Solo Her” helped dozens of people beat Malenia Blade of Miquella, the most difficult boss. “Let Me Solo Her” inspired copycats who provided the same kind of help to players who couldn’t get past this incredibly hard fight. Outside the text, Elden Ring has launched countless tutorials and walkthroughs, character build guides, and wikis collaboratively made for gamers by gamers, all of which help Elden Ring neophytes synthesize the games tremendous amount of ludo-narrative information. These extra-textual activities promote a sociality grounded in collaboration rather than competition. Narrative, as traditionally understood in novels, is interpreted by the individual. But Elden Ring’s narrative provokes collaborative meaning-making. The game represents liberalism’s necrotic emphasis on market actor’s individual experiences and encourages, instead, a communal experience.

Elden Ring’s ludo-narrative dissonance gets us past the narratology-ludology binary. In so doing, it also offers a new way to tell stories that anyone invested in contemporary narrative should pay attention to. We shouldn’t need novelistic interiority from video games. Instead, we should explore how Elden Ring formalizes the questions of subjectivity in the way Middlemarch did in its own time. Understanding how contemporary problems are represented aesthetically allows us to see the abstract systems acting on our lives so we can better respond to them. When we understand why narrative looks so weird in Elden Ring, we can better understand our world, our lives, and the social forces that shape them.

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  1. Paul Douard, “Elden Ring Is Extraordinarily Beautiful, But Also Totally Boring,” Vice, March 15, 2022. https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgdmkq/elden-ring-is-boring-review.
  2. Alec Kubas-Meyer, “Elden Ring is a Gaming Marvel. But Why is it So Damn Hard?” Daily Beast, February 26, 2022.https://www.thedailybeast.com/elden-ring-is-a-gaming-marvel-but-why-is-it-so-damn-hard.
  3. Emma Kent, “Elden Ring is an impossible mystery that absolutely deserves to be recognized for its narrative,” Games Radar, December 8, 2022. https://www.gamesradar.com/elden-ring-is-an-impossible-mystery-that-absolutely-deserves-to-be-recognized-for-its-narrative/.
  4. Ian Walker, “Elden Ring: The Kotaku Review,” Kotaku, March 24, 2022. https://kotaku.com/elden-ring-fromsoftware-review-hidetaka-miyazaki-dark-s-1848694257.
  5. F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Pelican Books, 1948), 76.
  6. J. Hillis Miller, “Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch,” The Worlds of Victorian Fiction (Harvard UP, 1975), 127.
  7. See Dorritt Cohn, Transparent Minds (Princeton UP, 1978) and David Herman, The Emergence of Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).
  8. Henry James, unsigned review, Galaxy XV (March 1873), 424-8.
  9. Johansen Quijano, The Composition of Video Games (McFarland & Company, 2019), 216.
  10. https://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html
  11. See Dorothy Hale’s Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) for an account on how this concept unifies novel theory.
  12. Terry Eagleton, “Ideology and Literary Form,” New Left Review 90 (1975), 86. https://newleftreview.org/issues/i90/articles/terry-eagleton-ideology-and-literary-form.
  13. Espen Aaseth, “Genre Trouble,” electronic book review, May 21, 2004. https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/genre-trouble/