Elden Ring is one of the most interesting games I've ever played. To those unaware, the game was released in February 2022 and was immediately a success, grossing over 1 billion dollars in a short period of time. Additionally, Elden Ring still hasn't seen a sale on Steam due to it continuing to sell well, which considering how long it's been out is quite astonishing. Add to that it's Game Awards nominations, potential GOTY nod, and you likely won't see a sale until mid-2023. It's not just a success, it's a colossal success. If you're not a souls fan, you're probably wondering why folks are still talking about it and why I just labeled it one of the most interesting games I've ever played. Well, let's dig in and hopefully I'll be able to illuminate why. 
    It really starts with the simplistic view of what Elden Ring is, it's just Dark Souls XL, right? Well, some dishonest actors or those just unaware may describe it like that, but it's much more than that. The best way to describe Elden Ring isn't to call it some groundbreaking game, that'd be hyperbolic and cause skepticism. What it actually should be compared to is the leap from The Witcher 2 to The Witcher 3, but why? The Witcher 3 is my favorite game in the modern era and CD Projekt Red (CDPR) accomplished this because technology met their vision. If you go back and play The Witcher 1 or 2, you can see quite a bit of limitations that held back not only the gameplay, but the impact of the narrative. Considering narrative is one of the most important pieces of The Witcher 3, CDPR being able to meet their vision due to less technical restrictions was extremely important. With less limitations it wasn't surprising that the potential of the Witcher series was realized with 3, as the narrative was able to be as impactful as originally envisioned, while also being encapsulated within a vast world packed with intrigue. Technology met their vision and they went on to fill their coffers with a ton of money and GOTY awards.

    From Software was limited in the same sort of ways early on, you can clearly see it through the complexity of their games and their presentation over time. Dark Souls 1 was more simplistic than Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice for instance, a game made over 7 years later. As technology advanced, so did the ability for From Software to meet their vision. Having higher production value than prior entries, along with more verticality, Sekiro took the souls genre to another level and From Software was rewarded handsomely for it. The game not only sold well, but it went on to win GOTY at the 2019 Game Awards. While it certainly took things to another level, money was still left on the table due to its scope. What I believe From Software knew is that in order to meet their endgame vision, they'd have to take their next game to a far grander level. Enter, Elden Ring. 
    Partnering up with George R. R. Martin, From Software knew that a new world full of intrigue was needed to spice things up. Going into this endeavor, they also knew that world needed to be vast and open unlike past entries. Due to that, they crafted not just the appearance of a vast world, but an open world. This isn't like any open world though, it's map isn't filled with a ton of icons for you to check off your list and it's UX is unapologetic. It's as if From Software played a sandbox MMORPG and a light bulb went off. Make the player spawn in with no knowledge of the world and force them to be resourceful to survive. Where past souls games are fairly linear, not telling the player where to go but not giving them a ton of options, Elden Ring let's you set your own course with no limitations other than you. This course is as vast as it's map, I still haven't beaten the game and with over 40 hours played, the map keeps getting larger and larger. It's like drowning in a sea of content, but unlike an overwhelming checklist, that drowning is as blissful as a gateway to an underground land. With game engines becoming even more intuitive and From Software continuing to build on their own, it's clear that technology finally met their vision. They, just like CDPR with The Witcher 3, were finally able to catapult their formula to the mainstream. No longer was the souls genre just a popular niche, Elden Ring shattered through the glass ceiling and became a mega hit over night. Don't believe me? Look at the chart below, it's undeniably a cultural phenomenon.
    This is all due to the expanded formula that Elden Ring presents. From Software, no longer materially limited by technology and having their coffers full, were able to take the somewhat linear layout of past souls games and provide a near unlimited number of ways for you to survive. All of these added pathways opened the door to new players, increasing the accessibility of the souls genre, while not reducing the challenge. I am one of those new players. There are over 200 bosses in Elden Ring, with a map so large it'd make Ubisoft blush. Packing it full of bosses and quests allows for players stuck on a particular great rune holder to retreat, gain some levels, and try again. In past souls games, while you could go back and grind, it would be on the same content as before. With Elden Ring, you just take a different path untraveled, keeping the dopamine high and lowering overall frustration. It's not that you hit a wall and are now punished for it, you just weren't ready to climb that wall just yet. It's also not like other open world games where the path untraveled is just mindless side quests with no meaning other than to gain XP. Instead, each path is a whole new adventure that feels meaningful. Often times, these pathways lead to new and interesting bosses, some of which feel like any other games last boss fight. Sometimes though, you may open a chest and be teleported to a new land or even meet new characters that illuminate additional ways to survive. In the first 40 hours, when I keep thinking I've seen it all, I get wowed once again. 

    The expanded formula doesn't ensure there's more content for you to consume, it ensures there's more pathways for you to avoid being consumed. Having no guidance in a vast new world with many POIs in the distance doesn't make you overwhelmed, it makes you feel overwhelmingly intrigued. Defeat doesn't make you feel like you hit a wall, it makes you feel like learning how to climb it. Elden Ring isn't a groundbreaking game, it's in my view, a realization of the potential of the souls genre. A game for the history books and one of the most interesting games I've ever played. 


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