“Zanzibart… forgive me” — Elden Ring’s Storytelling and the Accessibility Controversy

FromSoftware’s Elden Ring released nearly a month ago and has been met with near universal critical and commercial acclaim. Currently the title holds an impressive 96 rating on Metacritic and a 95 on OpenCritic, scores that place the game among the top rated games on both sites. The game’s highest praises mention the refined gameplay and incredible fantasy world to explore.

Image courtesy of Bandai Namco Europe

Elden Ring takes an incredible amount of inspiration from FromSoftware’s previous releases with the Dark Souls series being the most notable among them. A key component to the FromSoftware formula is their particular brand of storytelling. The company’s games are famous for their cryptic plots. As an example, in Dark Souls the player begins the game as a cursed undead urged to ring the Bells of Awakening. Along the journey, the player is fed details and information through NPCs, cutscenes and encounters about the purpose of the quest — to succeed Lord Gwyn, link the First Flame and prolong the Age of Fire. Truth and intentions are often brought into question when encounters deviate from expectations (such as the great Lord Gwyn’s current state as a diminutive hollow) and when NPCs contradict themselves and each other (think the serpents, Kingseeker Frampt and Darkstalker Kaathe, and their instructions for the player). Voids in the story are left for players to fill with their imaginations and hints are scattered through item descriptions and environmental storytelling.

This mysterious, interpretive and evocative style of storytelling is director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s signature style. In an EDGE magazine interview given near the release of Dark Souls III (via Games Radar), he had this to say:

“… Dark Souls is in some ways an incomplete game, and I like to think that it has been completed by players, by their discoveries, as they moved along. I’d love to say that the nature of this incompleteness was completely deliberate, but it is both deliberate and by accident, in different ways.”

One YouTuber, VaatiVidya, has made a successful career with his videos that explain the lore of FromSoftware games. At writing, his subscriber count sits around two million. Up to and after the release of Elden Ring, Vaati has seen huge growth in viewership and subscribers, proving that Elden Ring is no exception where players’ confusion about the story is concerned.

Stats sourced from Social Blade

Vaati’s prevalence as the community’s dedicated lore master has resulted in the in-joke that FromSoftware games are comprehendible only with Vaati’s help. To many fans, the exploratory nature of understanding the plot and lore of these games is part of the experience and the experience surrounding the titles. Some players are less happy with the way plot is communicated to the player from within the games.

The top three r/Eldenring posts mentioning VaatiVidya as of writing

A few weeks before Elden Ring’s launch, a widely circulated jab at FromSoftware was tweeted out by lead writer for the Borderlands series, Sam Winkler. Winkler poked fun both at how “epic” lore vagaries are often given more attention than the plot and creators like VaatiVidya.

Tweet retrieved from @ThatSamWinkler

Winkler’s joke was generally taken well among FromSoftware fans, but it did stir some controversy. One user snapped back with accusations that Winkler prefers to be “spoon fed,” a common sentiment among some of the most diehard FromSoftware fans. In a reply, Winkler confirmed that he is a fan of the games and that the original tweet was indeed lighthearted fun-making.

Within the community, a singular voice has been the catalyst for the controversy that many have both gathered around and decried. Instead of a popular game critic, the source of this controversial opinion is, according to his strangely long TV Tropes entry, a sword nerd and a fantasy author. His name is Shad M. Brooks, known best for his YouTube channel Shadiversity.

On March 19th, Brooks uploaded a video titled “What PISSES me off about ELDEN RING story and worldbuilding”, one of the many Elden Ring themed videos he has published recently, presumably to exploit the game’s recent release. The video is an unusual upload for Shadiversity; most videos on the channel are focused around the use of real-life swords and the analysis of weapons from pop culture. Over the course of an hour, Brooks explains his only major criticism against Elden Ring, which he goes on to call a “phenomenal game…”

“This is a flawed type of storytelling, objectively,” Brooks says in the intro to the video. He goes on to say something that encapsulates the thesis of the video well:

This [Elden Ring’s method of storytelling] isn’t showing, it’s not telling — it’s hiding. Now, some people like the detective mystery, reading every single description of every single spell and item to find the connections, this is what VaatiVidya does. I don’t like doing that! I want to be immersed in a story, I don’t want have to read pages of text and connect dots. And for the people that do like that, I really feel that the game could still have that element and also provide the essential story and worldbuilding you need for most players to be invested to know how it concludes.

Brooks mentions that of the time of the video’s publishing, he had not completed the game.

Brooks’ criticism of the difficult to understand style, widely reported to be inspired by Miyazaki’s experience with reading English-language fantasy novels as a child, has garnered discussion both within his own comments sections and elsewhere. Prominent Elden Ring community member (and much smaller YouTuber by comparison) Ziostorm uploaded a response video titled “Shadiversity is WRONG about ELDEN RING” less than 24 hours after Brooks’ video was published.

Ziostorm’s refutation covered three main points, paraphrased below:

  • At the beginning of the game, the player character is “a Tarnished of no renown”, therefore, there is no reason for the player to be told important information. The player earns the right to knowledge through his or her conquest.
  • Brooks had not completed the game, therefore he could not make a statement on the efficacy of Elden Ring’s storytelling.
  • The player is intended to pay close attention to details, item descriptions, environmental storytelling, NPCs, dialogue and cutscenes to create an interpretation of the story.

Ziostorm concluded passionately with a plea to the audience:

“We as Souls fans know how to look for things, know how to treat these games and that’s why we love them so much because there’s really nothing else like them. Elden Ring is not like other games where it spoon-feeds you the story, no matter how good it is. So please do not get this taken away from us by trying to promote this as a problem of the game rather than a problem of the user.”

Brooks responded to Ziostorm’s reply with a several paragraphs long comment, which Ziostorm has pinned, and with another hour-long video, “ELDEN RING fans CALL ME OUT! But did they understand what I said? | REPLY to Ziostorm.” Ziostorm responded with an hour-long stream of his own.

The dramatic tennis match between the unlikely opponents has been a spectacle, drawing thousands of comments, many of which offer their own opinion in comparison (or contrast) to the two YouTubers. Unlike the “Zanzibart” tweet which was generally enjoyed by the Elden Ring community, this back-and-forth has also provoked several critiques and personal attacks, especially against Brooks. Below are some entertaining examples (Click the name to view the full comment!)

“Extremely hard to take the thumbnail, title and first clip of him saying “objectively flawed storytelling” seriously. Seems like he’s just being volatile to get a reaction out of people.” — u/FGC_Only

“Quick reminder that Shad decided to destroy with facts and logic a literal fucking archer, telling them that they were doing archery wrong (because Shad with his Wikipedia level research knows much better obviously).” — u/DastardlyCoxcomb

“Shad has a massive ego. He thinks cause he wrote a mediocre book and got few million views talking about surface level medieval topics he is somehow the end all be all of medieval history and the fantasy genre.” — u/Sentiancy

One significant flaw in storytelling addressed by FromSoftware post-release was related to NPC questlines. Many, including Brooks in his follow-up, have complained that NPCs, who provide the majority of exposition in Elden Ring, are difficult to locate on the stages of their questlines. On March 17th, nearly three weeks after Elden Ring’s launch, FromSoftware pushed the 1.03 update which added map markers to all friendly NPCs in discovered areas. The update also fixed bugs that prevented some NPC questlines from being finished, added final parts to several NPC questlines, and even added an entirely new NPC.

It’s likely that feedback from players resulted in the addition of map markers, an unprecedented accessibility feature in FromSoftware’s library, judging from the developer’s openness to implementing feedback into its games.

Fears about the casualization of FromSoftware’s releases have long been present in the community. The company’s previous release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice enflamed the issue with its notorious difficulty, leading to many articles and discussions written on the debate of “should FromSoftware games be more accessible?”

The notorious article “I beat Sekiro’s final boss with cheats and I feel fine” and the hilariously memeable reply help paint a picture of the two vocal extremes of the debate.

Tweet retrieved from @TodoNintendoS

Elden Ring has been FromSoftware’s most successful single release yet. A press statement released by the company on March 16th proclaimed Elden Ring has sold 13M units. Another release from May 19th, 2020, puts the units sold in the entire Dark Souls series (including Dark Souls: Remastered) at 27M.

Just as Elden Ring may influence future releases from developers across the industry, discussions, controversy and feedback from gamers may influence which choices FromSoftware will make to appeal to its widening audience in the future.

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