Media Criticism and Discussion through the lens of Elden Ring and BotW
Alright friends. I’m going to write this thread mostly focused on how Designers can model better critical discussion techniques specifically when talking about games and other media by adopting the language and approach of media criticism.
I believe this is important. The ability for creators to talk productively about their craft and medium has historically been one of the key requirements to elevate what we achieve in our work.
It has also been a turning point in how we can educate folks hoping to join our industry and make the sorts of experiences we can only dream of today.
The games industry is new enough that we’re still in the bumbling phases that film was in from the 1920s to the 1940s. (Yes, I’m generalizing a massively important and fast moving period in film.) The TLDR is that even the folks making films didn’t have great ways of talking about how they worked, what different techniques or approaches did for the audience etc. There is a whole thread to write about how cool this transformation is, but not today.
Game stuff, Jo, talk about game stuff.
Looking at the discussion around Elden Ring and BotW, what is striking to me is how much we talk about our tastes, and absolutist values. Do I like a thing, or do you hate it? Is it good? Is this part bad, etc. Film Criticism and Media Criticism almost never looks like this. Instead, great criticism looks at the functional elements of the media, and describes how they work.
They can describe how they are built, both through craft, or through audience experience, and then what impact that has. Often, great criticism ties how multiple different films achieve similar goals through different means, or use the same means to reach very different outcomes.
This is because the ultimate goal of criticism is not to tell you if something is good or bad, if you should watch it or not, etc. Criticism is about deepening our understanding of how media works, so we can understand media more deeply, and for many, how to make even greater works in the future.
Most of how games are discussed currently uses review centric language. This is not surprising, as game “critics” have almost always been forced into this mode by the publications that employed them. This has also happened with many other forms of media, but games sadly almost never existed outside the model where review centric language was the default.
Ok, but like, actual game stuff. Relevant examples, sure. Let’s do that.
Like every souls game that has ever existed, Elden Ring brought forth a multitude of DiscorseTM. Was it still just a Soulsborne? (Yes) Should it have a difficulty setting? (Whole other thread, and other folks have done this to death). The one that really got me was seeing other designers arguing if Elden Ring or Zelda: Breath of the Wild was better. This is a perfect example of a Review framing. Is Elden Ring a 9.5 or 10? Was BotW overrated? Do you trust Mortdog as your avatar of gaming taste and influencer of choice? (<3 Mort)
Not only do these discussions mostly serve to fragment developers, they rarely lead to meaningful deeper understanding of why folks think something was successful, what they saw as the contrasts, or anything about the functional elements of the games. They instead focus on the individual opinions, and we, as the folks watching these discussions, tend to just pick the person we think we are more likely to be similar to, and agree with them. This is a terrible way to learn anything from our time.
<Soapbox> There is a very valid criticism of all social media, that the goal of these platforms is not to enrich humanity, much less help us gain the ability to talk about our experiences in productive and meaningful ways. They, of course, thrive on high visibility arguments. This is all quite real, but I’d argue that we should strive to be better than the algorithms would ask us to be. <End Soapbox A>
Game stuff Jo, they’re here for the games.
So instead, let’s talk about what a critical examination could look like for Elden Ring and BotW. <Heaven help me, I’m 700 words in before we actually talk about games. If you’re still here, you’re the best, or bored, and either way I’m grateful.>
Specifically, let’s talk about how these games entice players to explore their worlds. These are both massive open world games, and they both center a great deal of the experience and player time on the act of seeing a thing in the distance, and rewarding you for when you get there.
Both of them do this in similar ways, at the highest level. The player looks around from where they stand, and sees something off in the distance. For BotW, this is often a glowing landmark. A temple or tower that uses repeating visual themes and high visibility to pull the player’s eye. This scales all the way up to the massive castle shrouded in swirling magics that is almost inescapable across the world, and wondrously, scales down to even small rocks and plants that appear a little out of place in the environment, hiding Koroks.
Importantly, because it’s a Zelda game, the challenge that these locations present are a multitude of different puzzles. They might be small action mini games, like a Korok archery challenge, or a combat challenge, or motion controlled minigolf, because Nintendo. The rewards are straight-forward and give players clear paths to improving themselves to take on greater challenges.
This loop is exceedingly approachable, and very easy to appreciate. It also took the expectations of long time Zelda players, and through the added obstacle of exploration and discovery, created an experience that had a familiar shape to previous Zelda games, but was made new with the sense of a wide open world with new things to find around every corner.
Elden Ring does a very similar thing with the addition of exploration and discovery into a game series that was mostly linear, but incorporates this into a very different base set of player expectations. Souls games are expertly built around the illusion of difficulty, and a sense of unknowableness. We’re not meant to know who we are, and why the world is so strange and alien in a Souls game, and only the most dedicated players will piece together any of that.
So when Elden Ring creates a loop of exploration, the object that pulls our focus isn’t a glowing tower or temple, it’s a caravan pulled by ogres, or a few figures around a bonfire. Similar elements for sure, with movement, humanoid shapes, lighting etc, as the basic tools, but where was Zelda makes sure that we can recognize similar patterns of structures and know something cool must be over their, Elden Ring teaches you that should go check out that weird thing. And it’s probably going to be some huge monster that kills you, probably a few times. Then when you beat it, you’ll get something interesting.
This is another difference between the two. BotW gives you a very limited number of rewards, and sticks mostly with increased hearts and stamina, and a handful of outfits with some set bonuses. Rewards are clear, and players can appreciate how they contribute directly to their success moving forward.
Elden Ring, on the other hand, gives you vast numbers of items, many of which are not useful to your character, and some of which are totally baffling to all players. “Why do I need this eyeball?” is not that weird of a thing to say in a Souls game. Even items that are huge power increases for the player will be blocked behind some stats they don’t have, requiring them to set a new goal, to level up so they can use the thing they already earned from fighting the giant monster that showed up when they went to pet the horse. <Is this a silly example, or a boss you haven’t found yet??!!?>
For players expecting a more traditional gaming take, this can be a lot to ask. The sense of difficulty and inability to know what’s right can be paralyzing. Souls games rely on the player overcoming those feelings, and bet that the sense of satisfaction gained from that greater sense of challenge will be the reward, as much as the ability to put on the new hat, or wave the new slightly heavier stick around.
Each game created this loop of discovery and progression, but maintained the core feel that has existed in each respective series. They both demonstrated that players can be lead through a large world to meet the sorts of challenges that had previously been in a mostly linear path, and that by doing so, would offer the players a greater feeling of moving through a living world, while also giving them the expected moments they’ve built into the series over many, many releases.
Ok, so that’s a lot of words to talk about things that most players and designers would say, yeah, of course that’s how that works. That’s a funny thing about media criticism. Oftentimes, the workings of the thing seem somewhat obvious, especially once someone says the things out loud. In this case, I’m also describing some level design 101 stuff, both because I’m an awful level designer, and to stick to more approachable topics.
That’s also one of the points of talking in the language of criticism. The goal is to make the workings of the thing obvious, both so more folks can understand how games work, and so the audience has a deeper appreciation of what they experience. It helps developers imagine different ways to change their core experience, or how similar tools can be used to very different outcomes.
I’ve alluded to this, but criticism does not regularly attempt to convince the audience of the value of consuming some form of media. Rarely do we include statements of value in media criticism, for multiple reasons. First off, value is subjective and personal. Second, this is counter to the goals of improving our understanding and developing craft. For example, telling folks that they should play Elden Ring over BotW, or vice versa, implies that we would only learn from one, or that each game teaches similar lessons. This is obviously absurd. It’s quite likely that a developer would learn multiplicatively more by playing both and being able to compare and contrast, and that an informed player would appreciate both games more for experiencing them both, if they have the means to do so, even if one or the other is more to their taste.
That’s hundreds of words to ask designers, and the other brilliant developers on twitter, to think about the chances to enrich each other, and players. It will probably not get the views that quote tweeting the most recent bad take would, but that quote tweet won’t build the sort of understanding that will make the games our grandchildren get to play better. It likely won’t inspire devs to think more deeply or constructively about what they are playing, or the other media they are watching.
The films we enjoy today owe tremendously to the filmmakers and film critics of thirty years ago, of sixty years ago, all the way back to the film community of twenty years ago. The ability for those folks to converse about how films work first helped folks to build films that audiences could understand in a somewhat unified visual language. It led to folks being able to expand that language, and understand it rigorously, which allowed for generations of brilliant films and filmmakers to expand beyond what was thought possible. It led to film being something that could be taught effectively and with great scholastic seriousness for decades now, to the enrichment of film and the folks that love films.
I want us to do this for games, even though right now we’re not really on that path, as an industry. I choose to be optimistic, that we could model better and more constructive ways of talking about games. I don’t think we’ll replace the idea of talking about games through the lens of reviews and value, but I do think we could more consistently provide an alternative that improves the understanding of games for future games, and future generations of people that love games.
I very much enjoy dreaming of what our grandchildren and their children will get to play, and how what we do today can contribute to those experiences, even if what we make today will look, to them, like a silent movie does to us now.
Thank you to anyone that made the time to read this.