Narrative Design In Elden Ring
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
Elden Ring is the latest in a series of extremely cryptic games from Hidetaki Miyazaki and the team at FromSoftware. Their worlds are dark and oppressive, but full of imagination and wonder, something which sparks fierce loyalty from its players. Those players will read obscure text on items that have a small percentage of dropping from insanely difficult bosses just to find out who it was, exactly, that sparked the last flame, or caused the rot to overtake the land, and so on and so forth.
While these are not narrative games in the traditional sense, they do capture the hearts of their audience, and piecing together the histories of these worlds has become a major part of the game for many. Why? Why did Demon’s Souls capture so many hearts where other games were shrugged off as just another super difficult game? Why does Elden Ring have such broad appeal in its world building despite so many mechanics that, in any other context, would be condemned as obtuse or unapproachable? Whether you like them or hate them, there is something to be learned from the design ethos of Elden Ring, and today I am going to take a look at explaining the how and the why of this game’s narrative formula.
To preface this blog post, I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers, though I may reference specific names, such as characters like Renna or Radahn, as well as locations like Liurnia of the Lakes and Caelid, and briefly discuss their presentation (while avoiding details as much as I can). I’m not done with the game myself, so I won’t be going into overall game narrative, focusing instead on individual quest lines and the mechanics of how they progress their stories and characters. I’ll touch on the overall briefly at the end, and then hop on a quick soap box to explain why I’m only touching it in brief. So if all of that sounds interesting, please join me as I set forth on my adventure through The Lands Between.
Elden Ring is full to the brim with quests, something you may not notice, at no fault to yourself, thanks to a complete lack of a quest log. There’s no list in your UI which tells you your progress so far, and where you should go next. If you find something interesting, it’s up to you to follow through on that interest, the game will lift not a single finger to help. As an example of this, we have the most notable crockery in the game; Iron Fist Alexander. Alexander is an NPC you find stuck in the ground in Limgrave, and whom you can help with a well-placed attack. His quest is brief and simple, he tells you exactly what to do and you do it, and the action required is nothing more complex than pressing your attack button, something you’ll be doing countless times in the game. There is no fancy timing to consider, you don’t have to stand in too specific a location, this quest isn’t about skill, it’s purely about narrative. Once you’ve completed the task, the next time you rest Alexander will be gone, having wandered off now that he’s able to do so, a natural progression given the situation. And that’s it. That’s the end of that quest. The game tells you nothing more, you simply helped someone and now they’ve gone on with their life without you. This is something that Elden Ring, and indeed every other game in this series, will do many times. The NPCs don’t exist for your sake, they exist for their own sake, they have their own goals, and sometimes your interactions with them may change the trajectory of their life, but never will their life stop for you.
In the case of Alexander, you may find him again many times. Often he will demand to be freed of yet another hole in the ground, and the interaction is always largely the same: Whack him with your sword (or your intergalactic-void-scorpion tail. Whatever.). At one point Alexander will mention a great combat festival, something that can help you find your way forward in your story, much as you have helped him move forward in his. It’s in this exchange that we find the major difference in Elden Ring’s narrative design compared to traditional quest design. Quests aren’t an equal exchange, you don’t always get a reward at the end, and they don’t always result in any benefit for your life. The first time you free Alexander, he will give you an item as a reward in the traditional quest exchange. The second time you find him, he will mention the festival, suggesting an interesting event to join, but making no demands either way. The third time he offers to help you in a fight, but that exchange itself doesn’t directly alter anything as he will be there regardless. Indeed, if you haven’t met him before, he will still be present for this fight, because it’s important to him, not dependent upon you. The fact that he is present at this fight regardless of whether you’ve met him or not is a testament to my point that the game’s characters don’t exist solely for your entertainment. You may interact with him, and presumably his life is better for it, but life goes on either way, you are but one way he may get free. This is an essential element of the narrative design of this series, each and every character must move about the world and feel alive. That merchant who sells you prayers may go off on an adventure and leave you without the shop you’ve come to expect. You might balk about that robbing the player of an essential feature, and I won’t argue against that point, but good or bad it is an essential building block of this design ethos. The characters must move around you with autonomy. They must learn and grow and change over time.
Why is this essential? Because this is a game about exploration and discovery, it’s a game about overcoming setbacks and mastering systems you don’t fully understand, and if even your merchant NPCs can up and leave, it sets a tone of uncertainty for everything else in the game. Your game may not want that, your game may not need that, but this is clearly an intended aspect of this game, and so I mark it down as a major element for consideration.
Similarly, another core part of this narrative ethos is the lack of a quest log. When you speak to Alexander, you do so without expectation of a reward. The game never tells you that this is a quest chain, it never tells you that you’ll get an item for freeing this character, you free him because you wish to free him, or you don’t.
As the quest line progresses, you continue to have these interactions with this character, but they aren’t transactional. You don’t have any motivation to speak to Alexander when you see him because there’s no guarantee of a reward. While this may seem inconsequential, this is how friendships are made. And indeed you fight side by side with this character, help him grow and become a better warrior, and when talking about Elden Ring in the community, many people speak of Alexander as a friend. This friendship doesn’t happen in situations where your relationship is purely transactional. I’ve helped countless NPCs in countless games, and I often skip their dialogue because I don’t really need to know why they need me to kill 20 rats in their basement, as long as they give me the 3 gold and that new pair of boots. The moment the game tells me I’m going to get those new boots from this quest, however, I lose interest in forming a friendship because I’m now here for the boots. This is a well known psychological phenomenon, extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation. Someone might want to do something on their own, but if you give them $100 to do it, they’ll lose interest in the joy of the task and focus instead on the monetary reward (A discussion of this concept, for those interested). This is, of course, a reductive generalization, but the science is solid, and I definitely think it applies here.
Lacking a quest log will, of course, cause issues. Tracking states without a log becomes rather difficult. I can sit with a quest guide open on my browser while I play the game and still be unsure if I spoke to Alexander that one time in Caelid or if I need to find him elsewhere instead. Without any record, I won’t know what to do next, and this becomes a problem in Elden Ring, something the series has dealt with since the beginning. Those of you who read my blog regularly might recognize this problem, and indeed foresee a solution, as this is similar to the problem faced in Breath of the Wild which was solved by NPCs spreading rumors and various visual tricks to draw your attention towards or away from certain locations. BotW includes NPCs which mention an interesting location nearby or shine a bright light to draw your attention somewhere as you pass. Elden Ring, on the other hand, relies on its community. These games feature messaging systems and ghostly afterimages of other players, but they also seem to rely on wikis and forums just as much. While many will condemn the use of online forums and guides as cheating, the designers seem to rely on this exchange of information, something which builds up the community aspect of these games. I asked earlier why players so strongly cling to this series while similar games fall flat, and I’m convinced this is a major part of it. By removing a major usability feature, the designers require players to come together to fill the gap. Is this good design? Is this bad design? I’m not really here to claim either way, I’m just here to point it out. It’s a definite choice, and the fact that they’ve made so many games in the same way tells me that this must be what they intend.
So what is it that makes these two things I’ve been talking about so important? Why does it matter that there’s no quest log, or that NPCs might do things without your input? Why did I choose to discuss them first in a narrative design blog post?
Elden Ring starts the game by telling you the back story. Queen Marika has been lost, and in her place many others grabbed power. Now a new group gathers to usurp them, joined by a nameless warrior of no renown, you. That’s all you know when the game gives its control over to you to begin exploring. Your first introduction cutscene doesn’t really explain anything else, and then you enter the Chapel of Anticipation, a name which help you not at all, and you fight a Grafted Scion, another name which means little. From here you end up in a pit where a woman on a horse stands over you, assuming you will wish to find the Elden Ring. There is an implication that she helps you survive here, but she’s gone by the time you wake up either way. And then at this point the game is open. You may do as you please. You can walk directly to some of the highest level content in the game if you like, the only thing stopping you is death.
So in a structure this open, how do you tell your story? How do you guarantee people see certain plot points or meet certain characters? To put it simply: You don’t. This is why characters must move around over the course of the story. If they exist only at a set location, your chances of ever finding them drops. Having them exist many times in the world gives the player many chances to find that character, and thus many chances to experience their story. The other solution here, of course, is to place important NPCs at important locations you are already drawing attention towards, and we certainly see that too. Elden Ring tries to feed you its characters as many ways as it can, hoping to find the strategy that works. Some of them are highly successful, others are less so, but again I’m just here to point out the tools being used, not to judge them. Your game will be different anyway.
Moving on to the quest log, a much more contentious design decision. It’s actually my belief that a quest log would benefit this open world design, but only if implemented in a particular way. I spoke earlier about how Alexander’s friendship with the player is a direct result of interacting with him without expectation. If you include a quest log which tracks Alexander, but does not track, for example D, Hunter of the Dead, then you are implicitly stating that Alexander is a more important NPC to interact with than D. If your errant merchant on the side of the road isn’t tracked, you have made a statement that this NPC is not worth tracking. So which characters do you track? All of them? This quickly becomes complicated. To add to the complication, what is it that you’re tracking? If it is your intention to make every relationship transactional, then tracking those transactions is easy, but if it is your intention to make every relationship meaningful, it is very difficult to track what your character means to your player. In favoring keeping automated records, you are inherently favoring transactions. By having a certain character’s quest log appear in the task list, you are implying that THIS character will offer the player an important reward, and by extension you are making that interaction a transaction. If you do this quest, you will get something. Otherwise, why would it bother to appear in the log? The solution here is to allow the player to keep manual records. If the player keeps their own records of what they feel is important, then of course every recorded interaction will hold meaning to them. Indeed, this is what we see in Elden Ring. You can mark your map, you can leave notes in the world, the game extensively allows you to keep your own records, and even rewards you for group records exchanged between you and others in the community.
The problem here, of course, is the lack of clarity of intent. Players won’t know if Alexander is important, or indeed essential, to completing the game as a whole. Elden Ring solves this problem by enabling a community. If you missed Alexander, you can look online to find out he’s important, but that hardly sounds like a solution as much as a proclamation of “Well YOU fix it, then!”. If we look around, we can find other solutions used for this in other games. Breath of the Wild answers this question by filling the game itself with a community of NPCs. Townsfolk will tell you all about the interesting events in the world, so if you miss something, you can always try listening to one of them. Clearly this doesn’t include everything, which is why there’s a viral video about a woman finding a tutorial shrine after completing most of the game, but the bulk of the game comes across just fine, so I think the concept is working, and they’ve just missed a spot. If we applied the same solution to Elden Ring, we would fill the game with more NPCs that tell us about the world around them, but would that rob the world of its isolated atmosphere?
The team on Elden Ring seemingly have chosen to lean on the community as the solution. NPCs are hard to track on your own, so don’t. Just look it up. Just leave a note on the ground. Just join in with the community. In my opinion this still lacks the necessary function of a quest log long-term tracking the state of your world. There’s no good solution in Elden Ring to remind me how much I’ve seen of Alexander’s quest chain. I strongly think there should be, but I also acknowledge the intent behind not including a quest log. Maybe the player should have some way to record their own quest log as a way of keeping from automatically choosing which quests to track, and the implications of importance which comes with that. Or perhaps the game wouldn’t really lose that much if it just did transactional quests like every other game in the industry does, it’s hard to say.
Solving this aspect of the storytelling becomes increasingly important from here as well, because while I’ve been speaking entirely of optional side quests, Elden Ring has this same trouble with its golden path. It is possible to not rest at the first Lost Grace you find in Elden Ring, and subsequently miss the plot point that happens there. The game is aware of this and goes out of its way to draw your attention to these locations, including glowing golden trails of light through the air. Each important Lost Grace is pointed to by at least one nearby Lost Grace, if not several such pointing lines of light in a row as you get closer. Those sites are even glowing balls themselves, with lines in the air pointing your way towards them, ensuring they are pretty difficult not to notice. Personally, I still don’t think it quite goes far enough, because the programming still dictates that certain plot points only happen if you rest at a particular grace point multiple times, something that is never alluded to in any way. For example, I missed meeting Renna at first because I only stopped at the relevant grace point one time, and only revisited it later after seeing it mentioned by the online community, not the game itself. Fortunately, this is a trivial thing to fix, you could simply have your important NPC appear at multiple locations, as discussed earlier in relation to Alexander. If Renna showed up at ANY Lost Grace, then I wouldn’t have anything to complain about in that interaction. In this case it’s merely a matter of copying an existing mechanic and pasting it elsewhere, something trivially accomplished, assuming that no animations need to be changed as a result. In fact, I’ve found this to be the solution I would apply to any and all issues I have with Elden Ring, because other than a lack of clarity and a need to make a few things much more findable, the narrative works surprisingly well with its open world.
Stories in Elden Ring are about spaces and the peoples within them. These two things are treated equally, as spaces are reshaped by people and those spaces in turn reshape those people. Caelid is not just a twisted, warped land of monstrosity and plague, at its center is a city of magic filled with the ghosts of the sorcerers who lived there. The heart of Caelid is surrounded by the ruins of what was clearly a powerfully magical civilization, and that heart is now a black rot that infects everything nearby. Why? Who did this? Those questions are more vague and you have to work to piece together details and motivations, as is standard practice in this series.
In fact, this is how every space in the game is treated. The physical assets are reused over and over again throughout the game, but it’s their context that is different each time. The buildings of Limgrave are placed again in Liurnia, but this time they’re half sunk beneath a lake just below the Academy gates, something that tells you of the priorities of these people. Each major area of the game comes with a Divine Tower to find and ascend, but the condition of each differs. There are caves all throughout the game, full of skeletons and the various people who would need to hide, or the creatures which have thrived in the dark. These aren’t merely caves, they’re often tombs with crafted architecture, and the regularity of them is what makes it so compelling when you find an underground space like the Siofra River Well, a stark contrast with the rest. The game uses this concept with great nuance, creating the same enemies and spaces dozens of times, and then giving you one exception that hits all the harder thanks to your familiarity. This contrast helps the player to understand the personality of the odd element. If every bear in the forest behaves the same way, then you understand specifically what has changed in the enchanted one you find deep inside a cave. If every student at the academy uses a certain set of skills, you understand how much stronger their teacher must be when you are assaulted by that teacher casting a spell you’ve never seen. Nearly every space in the game shows this progression in its enemies, kings are always a reflection of their vassals which led you to them, and while no words are spoken, you can get an understanding for aspects of these “king” characters just from the people they surround themselves with, and the means you must use to reach them. Nowhere you go will have enemies placed just for the sake of having enemies there, each is chosen along a theme. These may be the same knights you saw earlier in the game, mechanically, but these are under the rule of a different king, wear different colors now, and have greater health. It’s a pattern we’ve seen in games since the dawn of the industry, stronger monsters turn purple or blue, but this time it’s given a narrative context.
Elden Ring doesn’t merely change a biome, it changes the context of everything within the biome and gives each of these things a meaning. This isn’t a blasted wasteland, it’s the rotting land plagued by foul sorcery perpetrated by a village that lies in ruins at its heart. This isn’t a mountain, it’s the resting place of the fire giants, those who lived beyond the rule of the Elden Lords. While other games will announce “This is the fire level! This is the ice level!” Souls games will contextualize them and give them a more specific character. Elden Ring, specifically, expands upon that even more than past titles, really filling each of the game’s major biomes with a specific subset of peoples and creatures which reinforce the overall narrative of the space. You don’t find sorcerers just anywhere, you find them near schools and villages dedicated to sorcery, and you don’t find those built just anywhere, you find them near caves filled with the glintstone needed to make magical items. Reinforcement and repetition drills the personality of a space into the player’s head as they play, and while not all of this information is received consciously, players often walk away remarking about how alive this game feels compared to other open worlds.
Why is this important? Because of the Kings I mentioned earlier. Kings are a repetition of their soldiers, further customized and more powerful versions of their vassals. Vassals are repetitions of their landscape, sorcerers living near glintstone mines, as mentioned. And thus every region tells its story in a pointed way. If everything in Liurnia is about the magical academy, then when you reach the grand ruler of the academy, you don’t need anything explained to you. You know exactly who this is, because you’ve been learning about them all throughout your time in this region. This is a critical technique in a game that doesn’t want to waste time explaining itself.
Incidentally, this is also present in the game at a larger scale. The Erdtree that you see from every location in the game acts as connective tissue throughout your adventure. Your goal is to reach it, and its size is the constant reminder of this quest. Every biome has a king, and every king is vassal of the greater throne of The Erdtree itself, each smaller element building to the next greater element in the same way that films will use throughlines to reinforce their thesis.
This is also an essential concession to the open world design, and the general quest design ethos of the game. If your quest goals are all reinforced via every action leading up to it, it’s much easier to remember what’s going on. The places that run into trouble tend to be near the bottom of the pyramid, those characters which don’t have tons of gameplay elements pointing to them over and over. You may immediately understand who Godrick The Golden is, but poor Alexander may well fall by the wayside in your adventure. My suggested solution, offering multiple points of entry into these smaller quest chains, is based on how this is handled across many other areas of the game. In other words: sites of lost grace are also at the bottom of the pyramid, they’re the things pointing you towards the important places the games wants you to see, but each site of lost grace also has glowing lines pointing towards it to help you find it. Quest NPCs like Alexander should have something similar, some other element which draws your attention to that NPC, even if the element is just an item description or a line of dialogue delivered by someone else.
You can see the game attempting to do this if you just look at the items they spread around. Maps and written messages, paintings of particular locations, and glowing collectables placed right next to doors, the game is filled with techniques that will draw your eye, and items which will provide information about this quest or that one. Clearly the team understands how to do all of these things, and any issue in clarity is just a result of a need to go a little further with the same concepts. Have more items, more glowing lights, more NPC dialogue along the fringes, etc. The techniques are fine, we just may need a greater number of them, and that point is clearly subjective, as well as under pressure from the game’s budget.
At this point, I think we’ve covered too much ground and I expect your brains are probably streaming smoke out of your ears processing it all, so let’s recap these technique as quick bullet points.
NPCs exist with their own motivations and will move around the map as the game progresses. This allows the player multiple opportunities to find them.
The lack of a quest log means that character interactions happen without a promise of a transaction, something which helps build a relationship. It also means that players won’t understand where to find the characters, and this works against the relationship.
There is a hierarchy of information with each element at the bottom explaining about the elements above them. Locations tell the story of the character which rules over that region. Major characters lead armies made of lesser characters which allude to their personality and skills. Item descriptions, NPC dialogue, and other elements at the bottom of the pyramid are used to point you towards the more specific information at the top of the hierarchy. In the end, everything in the game is telling the story of the Erdtree.
And as a last point to discuss: What is all of this being used for? What is the overall narrative and does it come across clearly? Are these techniques useful to understand and even if they are, what should I avoid as I walk away from this blog post?
If I’m in Caelid I am hearing a story about corruption of the land, eventually leading me to understanding more about Radahn who roams this area as a corrupted monster. If I am in Liurnia of the Lakes, I am hearing about the academy and the sorcerers who train there. There is an implication which you can find through a sidequest that the old way of approaching magic is dangerous and that the family who runs the academy is doing so in a corrupt way, but are still the only people holding back the dangers that caused Caelid. The leaders of these two regions are some of the major characters of the game, those who have gained power after the loss of Queen Marika. Caelid, Liurnia, and indeed every other region, tells the story of one member of the inner circle of characters fighting for Marika’s power, and how badly they are corrupted as a result of this fight. When the game began offering me sidequests about undermining the rule of the Erdtree, I accepted those quests without hesitation. How could I not want to resist the rule of law if the rule of law has led to such a horrible world? The fact that each region is telling a single story through the repetition of narrative beats means that whether I read the details in the game’s item descriptions or not (and I do not), for the first time in this series I am still able to understand what’s happening. I understand who Radahn is and why it’s important for me to kill him, no matter how annoying his boss fight may be. I understand that this fight will ripple into many other lives throughout the game and the changes that will happen in the world as a result. I can form opinions on all of these complex politics, and the game accomplishes this without the need to exposit at me in a long cutscene. I understand because I’ve been drip-fed this information slowly over time as I’ve gotten closer and closer to the fight, getting more and more specific details as I go. The game doesn’t have to dump its lore on me, because I’ve lived it.
I have not yet finished the game’s story, I’m pretty far along and my general understanding from the discussions I’ve heard is that I’m at the last act now, so it shouldn’t be too much longer. Still, I can already say that for me this game is the clearest storytelling in the series yet. I understand my goals, I understand the implications, I understand the politics happening around me. I don’t have to read accessory information to understand all this, I just have to talk to the people I find interesting. I know I’ve missed many quests, but that’s kind of the point. The ones I’ve seen have told me enough to understand what’s going on here in the Lands Between, and my experience is better for having the choice.
Elden Ring is a narrative game. It is a narrative game in the way that Metroid is a narrative game, or the way that Zelda is a narrative game. These are games which center around a story that lies in between its gameplay, games which don’t use film’s storytelling techniques. Is the story good? Is the story bad? I’m less interested in those questions, because right now our industry is over-reliant on cinematic storytelling, a consequence of our industry’s youth. Techniques like the ones in this blog post are some of the ones we can use to move our industry forward and tell stories where we only need focus on the quality, rather than the technique. You may enjoy Elden Ring’s story, or you may ignore it entirely, but there is a lot to be learned from it either way.
I will acknowledge the rough patches, but over all I think Elden Ring is incredibly successful in its narrative, and I dearly hope that people will learn from it and expand upon it.
Hopefully reading this might help.
Thank you for your time!