*Mechanical and early area spoilers for Elden Ring*
When did you last hold a map? Not the one on your phone that tells you which bus to get but like, a map, brother. Real maps, as an answer to questions like ‘where am I?’ and ‘where should I go?’; as seen in glovebox bound A to Zs and Lonely Planet city guides, are an absolute wilderness of oblique iconography and inhospitable terrain.
Strange then that in video games, the form of entertainment in which exploring vast new locations is openly encouraged and often necessary, maps have become a bit redundant. Players are quick to cite the influence of Ubisoft open world game design as the root of this, but the truth is they were only the first of the big publishers to nail it, it’s taken hundreds of games from dozens of developers over time to arrive at the model we have today, in which maps and their associated waypoints have become big, flat to-do lists. See that mountain over there? You can fast travel to it.
But Elden Ring, ohhh Elden Ring. One of the fascinating things about the evolution of FromSoftware’s core gameplay that Elden Ring represents is seeing the things they’re doing for the first time, which includes drawing up their first map. Think how you, as a mere hollow, committed the backways and rooftops of the Undead Burg to memory, or how you mentally rehearsed the unlocked shortcuts of Yharnam to plot the most efficient route between lamps – piecing the 3D space of these worlds together in your mind (or, for the very curious, viewing a ripped model) is one of the pure joys of the series – surely showing us the whole world from above risks diminishing this? Impressively, with their very first attempt FromSoft found a way around this, and the key to its success is this: they didn’t give you a video game map, they gave you a map.
Elden Ring’s map is not a scaled 3D model, or a view of the real time game world from above, instead it’s a hand drawn approximation of the Lands Between in which individual settlements, structures, and points of interest are shown only as rough inked outlines until your curiosity pulls you in their direction. One key tenet of FromSoft games that runs counter to the work of their peers is that they don’t freak out about the possibility that players are going to miss things, so they only signpost gently. Elden Ring’s map is a logical extension of this: that suspicious looking outcrop you just spotted could be a small ruin containing a chest, or it could be something much, much larger. They also take a unique approach to scale, in that on first seeing the unpopulated map canvas you may presume that the act of filling this space will reveal the entire game world, yet several sweeping reveals and resets later you begin to question exactly where the edges of this space are, surely it can’t get any bigger?
The game is not so obtuse as to provide no navigational help at all, the guiding lights of grace provide just enough ambiguous directional cues, and a post launch update added NPC locations. Aside from these, the player is left to their own interpretation of the world and, after a short time growing accustomed to it, something special happens: we begin to use Elden Ring’s map like a real map – placing pins in it to highlight overpowered foes and unexplored caverns, and scrutinising the land itself, not just the icons above it, to scour for potential adventures.
The contradiction of many modern open world games is that we’re given a broad area to explore, and immediately shown where most of the points of interest are, at which point exploration for the sake of the intrinsic fun of doing so feels perfunctory, as though the developer has hijacked our inner GPS, pulling at us to turn around at the nearest opportunity. Elden Ring has given us a world that genuinely rewards exploration, and trusts us to be smart enough to ascertain this ourselves, by foot and hoof.
Words: Luke Jackson
Catch up on last week’s instalment of The Tarnished Diaries here.