From Software’s Cryptic Game Design isn’t a Beautiful Mystery. It’s Just Frustrating.
Spoiler Warning: contains character-quest spoilers
Elden Ring is a phenomenal game. That almost goes without saying at this point. The scale that From Software has achieved, while maintaining (to a certain extent) the granularity and detail in the level design of their previous games, is an accomplishment. The variety in geography, interiors, enemy, the sheer quality of the animation work, and combat heft is all praiseworthy. It has been justifiably lauded by both the gaming press and the community.
However, Miyazaki has a design philosophy that is intentionally mysterious and invites the players to figure out the world and mechanics independently. I am aware of how this ought to work and the reasons behind it, so before Dark Souls purists jump on me for “missing the point,” or being “lazy,” or to “go back to Assassin’s Creed,” let me give my reasons for why this level of intentional obtuseness, when it comes to simply conveying narrative and fundamental information isn’t masterfully cryptic, it’s just frustrating.
Unexplainable Status Indicators
A few hours into the game, icons began appearing under my stamina bar as I started to acquire more talismans and consumables.
I assumed these were buffs. An up arrow indicated that some stat of mine was being raised, potentially something related to a scroll or asparagus. I assumed the knife-looking icon was related to the talisman with the same icon I had just equipped increasing my maximum load.
Now, being a resourceful and curious gamer. I went to a page named Status, which I assumed would give me detailed information about what precisely both buffs do. Imagine my surprise (sarcasm for emphasis since this is exactly how it worked in Dark Souls) when there is nothing on the Status page indicating what buffs or debuffs affecting your character do.
There’s nothing in the entire game that will ever explain what these icons mean. And as the game goes on and the status indicators increase in quantity, this becomes downright frustrating. There is nowhere to scroll over status indicators and learn what they do.
What on earth is this meant to convey to a player? From a graphic design perspective, I will admit that some of them are mildly intuitive:
Something is raising my stamina (green), something is reducing my health (red), there might be something increasing my attack (North-East facing sword), there might be something raising my faith or possibly arcane (scroll or asparagus), but these are all educated guesses.
But as far as UX goes, this is simply frustrating. Fextralife, to date, has cataloged 157 status indicators. However, they’re still missing many of them, and players can check a wiki to figure out what is cutting their HP by 10%. Still, the fact that they must and that this was likely intentional is an indictment against the game and the design philosophy behind it.
It removes nothing of the mystery to have critical gameplay elements explained beyond 30-pixel icons. It is cryptic to have to remove your weapons, armor, and talismans one by one to figure out what buffs are doing. Or scroll through your pouch munching on consumables to determine which icons are applied by which potion, but it is frustrating game design. And this sort of thing does make me want to go back to Assassin’s Creed, maybe because I need to git gud, but it also might be because I enjoy games that present information to players which are necessary when making gameplay decisions.
It adds a level of artificial difficulty to a game that is already difficult. The game has an explanation feature built-in which could be used to identify these status icons. However, instead, that mechanic serves to provide helpful information such as Name: The Name of Your Character.
Undecipherable Character Quests
This cryptic game design carries over to a hallmark of the Soulslike games: character quests. I found them frustrating, but tolerable in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but those games were hub-worlds and linear, making it more likely to run into certain NPCs again, and From Software was able to predict players’ paths. Players don’t expect to find Siegfried in the well, but it is centrally placed and unmissable in the game.
Translated to an open world, these character quests become downright indecipherable, and players will likely miss most of them without relying on a guide or a wiki. Again, this might be intentional, but that doesn’t make it fun.
Early in the game, players will stumble upon an area called Murkwood, where they will hear occasional howling. Now, the obvious response, besides “there may be some wolves nearby,” is to go back to the Church of Elleh, and talk to the NPC merchant, Kalé, who, by the way, gave no hints or any indication that he was aware of this howling or involved in this character-quest.
After talking to Kalé he will give you a gesture, and players should, obviously, perform this gesture under the tower where the howling is coming from, and a character will jump down. Thus begins Blaidd’s story.
Or take a portion of Ranni’s quest where players will collect a miniature Ranni doll. To progress the quest, players must talk to the doll. However, this can only be done at a specific Site of Grace and will not do anything the first time they select the option. Players must exit the Site of Grace; rest again and then try to talk to the doll again. Only then, will the doll react. To summarize: players must know to rest at a specific place, notice the option to talk to the doll, after realizing it failed the first time, players should know to try again. Obviously intuitive.
The game also doesn’t provide a journal. I’m not talking about a quest log, but there’s nowhere in the game that even indicates the hints that players have been given. You’re forced to remember that Blaidd told you he’ll be “somewhere in Mistwood,” (really helpful, you furry bastard), or that Nephali told you she’ll be, “on a rock jutting from the lake” (which one?).
Again, I enjoyed Elden Ring. I think it is an achievement a game, but some elements of From Software’s game design have grown increasingly unwelcome over time. They’re needless frustrating, adding artificial difficulty, and worse of all, they’ve become predictable.
The expectation is that character quests will require you to perform some utterly indecipherable tasks. It changes the core gameplay loop: figure things out by yourself and follow a wiki unless you’ve accepted missing character story progression. The expectation is that character buffs and debuffs will be unexplained, bordering on unexplainable, and unless players want to spend hours equipping and unequipping items, they need to rely on a wiki. From Software’s game design isn’t so much a beautiful mystery, as it is overly cryptic and needlessly complicated at times.