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So after the hype, the praise and the widespread love, comes an inevitable note of backlash. T'was ever thus with the big games, wasn't it, but it seems to be particularly inevitable when FromSoftware is involved. Ah, The Discourse. Always the toughest enemy in a Souls game.
This time, however, the conversation is not about difficulty, though having seen what awaits in Elden Ring's later areas I am sure that discussion is in the post. Rather it is the user experience, or UX - an umbrella term for an ever-increasing number of things that are designed to ease the player into and through a game - that has borne the brunt of the umbrage.
I am referring primarily to this widely shared exchange between a group of developers, viewing Elden Ring and its lofty Metacritic score through the lens of their own work (one is a UX director for Ubisoft, another a quest designer for Guerrilla Games, the last a graphics programmer for Nixxes). It has, predictably, caused an unseemly pile-on, which as always misses the point entirely. This is not a question of jealousy or, as some dullards have seen it, a slur on Elden Ring and its players. Rather I think it is a sort of throwing of hands in the air, a wry what's-the-point gesture; the kind of thing I do whenever Chris Donlan publishes something on Eurogamer. I also sense in it the recognition that the things that developers have been led to believe will spark better review scores and higher sales... don't. Or at least aren't as mandatory as the consensus would have them believe.
Needless to say, games should have good UX. They should be as approachable as possible for as wide an audience as possible. But a game being easier to understand for a less skilled or less experienced audience does not make it a better game; it does not turn a Metacritic 85 into a 97, or turn a three-million seller into one that does 20m. But they make it more likely to appeal to a larger number of people, which in theory raises its potential sales figures.
Without meaning to pick on anyone, the job of a developer on Horizon Forbidden West was not to make a Metacritic 97, or an Edge 10. (I also doubt anyone at Guerrilla could look you in the eye and say they honestly think they have made one, but that's by the by.) Rather, their job was to make a game that could sell 20 million copies. And at the sharp end of big-budget game development, that pretty much means following best practice to the letter when it comes to... well, a lot of things, and certainly stuff like UX and quest design.
So I can totally understand a UX designer's frustration when a game comes along that hides its tutorial down a hole that, if my timeline is any guide, a great number of people, many of them experienced game developers, have completely missed, and gets one of the highest average review scores of all time. I can imagine a quest designer having an existential crisis when the difference between a player sticking to the critical path or going off on a ten-hour detour is a single line of skippable NPC dialogue in a game with no quest log, and people talk breathlessly about it being the best game ever made.
But this is sort of the point, is it not? This is exactly why FromSoftware games have become so popular: the way they seem to thumb their nose at convention. They are built on a fundamental belief that players are able to work this stuff out for themselves, and that a game is much more rewarding when they do. In an era where so much of the industry's output feels the same, so smoothed out - the tutorials that make us crouch under low beams and mandate an explanatory stealth kill from tall grass, the ubiquitous detective-mode variants and objective markers and map icons; the pause-menu difficulty switches, the loading-screen tooltips, the protagonist VO guiding us to the next task or offering puzzle solutions because we stood still for 20 seconds - FromSoft games stand out. They were a breath of fresh air even before Elden Ring plopped us into one of the finest open worlds ever created. That Miyazaki and team should now be playing in the same sandbox as many of the industry's biggest sellers puts the 'FromSoft difference', if you like, into even sharper relief.
I found it, the Elden Ring with the "good UX" pic.twitter.com/MBEbLPIonx— Alex (@alexdnz) March 6, 2022
None of this is meant to excuse Elden Ring's UX. I have spent hundreds of hours in FromSoft's games and even I have been confounded by its new game's menus. If I had 100 Runes for every time I'd tried to close the map with the same button that opens the map - reader, it does not - I'd have been max level 20 hours ago. The game offers me so much elsewhere that I put up with its foibles, but I think it's completely fair game to call said foibles out, regardless of who you work for, or which game you recently shipped. And if you are in the business of making games, I can understand that this stuff would chafe you more. I am the same. There are some very bad writers out there who are far more successful than I will ever be. It's kind of annoying.
I particularly sympathise with this view - this sense of, oh god, what's the point - when I put my consultancy hat on. A lot of my work in this area focuses on what games should do in their opening hours. Is the game easy to understand and get into? Does the player know what they're doing, where they're going, and how to get there and do it? If not, how could these things be improved? Even before I come along, chances are a developer has done a few rounds of user testing, seeing how players respond to the cues a game is giving them, and tweaking accordingly. I doubt many developers on the planet would dare drop a user-testing group into a huge, threatening world and trust them to figure it all out for themselves. Maybe Itagaki, now I think of it.
The fact that FromSoft ignores the volumes of best-practice guidance on which the game industry has settled does not mean Elden Ring is undeserving of its reception. Nor does it mean that the Horizons of this world are doing it wrong, or that developers are wrong to spend time on UX. There is room for both to coexist, and frankly I am grateful that both of them do. I found Gran Turismo 7 a wonderful palate cleanser while reviewing Elden Ring in part because of the clarity of its instruction: go here, do this thing, come back. I can appreciate a game with a perfectly smooth on-ramp just as I can one that models its early learning curve after a cliffside. All part of gaming's rich tapestry, isn't it. If nothing else I am grateful that a new FromSoftware game has come out and we're not all arguing about easy modes again. Progress!
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