There’s a great rift emerging in the development of open-world video games. It’s been a long time coming.
A good old-fashioned sales battle is currently ongoing between two high-profile titles: Horizon Forbidden West, the sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, released on February 18, and Elden Ring, the long-anticipated collaboration of Hidetaka Miyazaki and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, arriving a week later on February 25. Forbidden West sold well in preorders and in its launch week—it’s the third-biggest launch to date for the PlayStation 5. But the sales and hype for Forbidden West stalled rather suddenly against the runaway success of Elden Ring, now the bestselling game of the year, developer FromSoftware’s bestselling game to date, one of the best-reviewed games since Red Dead Redemption 2, and potentially the most influential game since 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Forbidden West and Elden Ring share some topline similarities. They’re both big-budget, open-world, action-adventure RPGs set in a ruined landscape. They’re otherwise very different titles on the molecular level. Forbidden West, developed by the Dutch studio Guerrilla Games, is an all-ages character drama with sociable characters working together to save a postapocalyptic civilization. The hero Aloy leads humanity’s war against mechanized dinosaurs, high-tech humans, and rogue AI. She’s a savvy but reluctant leader, and Forbidden West is as much a story about her quest to save humankind from a second extinction as it’s also a story about her self-empowerment and self-discovery.
In contrast, Elden Ring is a grim, grueling, and inscrutable ordeal. The protagonist is a silent outcast known only as the Tarnished. The Tarnished collects runes and slays demigods in order to become the next Elden Lord and thus restore order to a strange medieval domain known as the Lands Between. There’s no self-examination in Elden Ring, only struggle. For more than a decade, Miyazaki has cultivated a reputation for exceptional difficulty in his games as the FromSoftware director. The tremendous popularity of Elden Ring, with its controller-busting bosses, comes as a shock to the system.
For once, though, FromSoftware is spearheading a discourse about something other than easy modes and accessibility features. Rather, Elden Ring and Forbidden West now represent a great clash in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). These terms encompass a variety of components: the heads-up display (HUD) in the player’s main view, the in-game menus, the world map with its legend and various markers, and the tutorials for various mechanics. These systems mediate the player’s interactions with the characters and the landscape.
In Forbidden West, Aloy might stand in the middle of a settlement, and she’ll be surrounded by several beacons directing the player to various points of interest: Here’s a merchant selling weapons, here’s a merchant selling clothing, here’s the current destination for a sidequest, here’s the current destination for the main quest. She also wears an earpiece, called a Focus, which illuminates subjects of interest, such as an unsuspecting machine monster, in her field of view. Aloy also talks to herself—talks to the player, really—about clues, resources, pathmarks, and threats in her immediate surroundings. In Elden Ring, the Tarnished lacks such tools. There’s a map with markers at the fast-travel checkpoints, known as “sites of grace,” that you’ve discovered so far. But that’s about it. You’re otherwise left to your own intuition in exploring the Lands Between.
Different games use different tools to different effects. In the best cases—I’d say Breath of the Wild does this pretty well—these prompts and markers orient the player while preserving some sense of open-ended exploration. In the worst cases—say, Cyberpunk 2077—the “organization” produces a cluttered HUD, intrusive prompts, excessive tutorials, and countless markers. It’s this latter approach that’s become dominant in big-budget RPGs as the worlds got bigger and the subsystems—leveling, crafting, sidequesting—got more complex. This culminates in the common frustration with the UI and UX in modern open-world games. Forbidden West, with its dense interface and its unrelenting prompts, represents the status quo. Elden Ring, with its sparse interface and its withholding direction, represents a unique challenge.
A month ago, the video game developer Ahmed Salama, who worked on Horizon Zero Dawn and now works for Ubisoft, vented his frustrations with Elden Ring. “The fact that #ELDENRING scored a 97 metacritic is proof that reviewers don’t give a flaming poop about Game UX,” Salama tweeted (and later deleted). He was joined by a few industry colleagues tweeting additional complaints about the quest design in Elden Ring and the game’s technical performance on PC. Salama and his peers quickly met a hostile online brigade defending Elden Ring while disparaging other titles, chiefly Horizon, but also Assassin’s Creed, Skyrim, and The Witcher. The backlash made headlines. The developers locked their Twitter accounts. The pile-on was ugly, but the substance of the disagreement was still interesting to consider. I saw one genuinely devastating critique in the form of a viral screenshot from Elden Ring doctored to reimagine the game with a cluttered, conventional interface littered with obnoxious gameplay hints.
I found it, the Elden Ring with the "good UX" pic.twitter.com/MBEbLPIonx— Alex (@alexdnz) March 6, 2022
But this has been a largely bad and uncharitable discourse all around. Yes, it was frustrating to watch a bunch of video game developers demonstrate a total unfamiliarity with such common, persistent criticisms of open-world games. It was also frustrating to witness such overheated backlash to scattered criticism of a game that’s otherwise been met with universal acclaim. Elden Ring does in fact have its fair share of intrusive prompts, and Forbidden West does in fact permit players to toggle some of the game’s pathfinding features; neither game is the pure caricature you’ll find in the discourse. Really, these arguments aren’t about the fussy map button in Elden Ring or the abundant quest markers in Forbidden West, but rather about the past decade of single-player gaming in general.
It’s a matter of storytelling but it’s also a matter of trust. In the beginning, Elden Ring drops the Tarnished into a remote chapel and trusts the player to navigate the world with only so much explicit direction from other characters. This works because the Lands Between are designed to encourage this open-ended style of exploration. This doesn’t really have anything to do with the HUD. Rather, the interface is simply a reflection of the level design and the narrative structure of Elden Ring. On the flipside, Forbidden West drops Aloy into the middle of a civilizational conflict with a complex political dynamic. The world isn’t designed for pure discovery. It’s designed to host an ensemble drama about humanity recovering from its self-destruction. The world—and the interfaces—are designed to emphasize these social imperatives.
Forbidden West with the UI and UX of Elden Ring would feel a bit ridiculous for the same reason that Elden Ring looks ridiculous when you superimpose the HUD from The Witcher III. So really, these arguments seem to hinge on the underlying styles. Are we tired of blockbuster narratives? Are we more open to environmental storytelling than ever before? The success of both games, commercially and critically, suggests a bright future for both approaches—but only so long as we’re honest about the merits and limitations of each.