There is a big divide emerging in the development of open-world video games. It’s been a long time coming.
A good old-fashioned business battle is currently underway between two high-profile titles: Forbidden Horizon WestFollowing Horizon Zero Dawnreleased on February 18, and Ring of Eldenthe long-awaited collaboration of Hidetaka Miyazaki and game of thrones author George RR Martin, arriving a week later on February 25. west forbidden sold well in pre-orders and during its launch week – it’s the third biggest launch yet for the PlayStation 5. But sales and hype for west forbidden stalled quite brutally in the face of the dazzling success of Ring of Eldennow the best-selling game of the year, developer FromSoftware’s best-selling game to date, one of the highest-rated games since Red Dead Redemption 2and potentially the most influential game since 2017 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
west forbidden and Ring of Elden share some topline similarities. They’re both big-budget, open-world action-adventure RPGs set in a ruined landscape. They are also very different titles at the molecular level. west forbidden, developed by Dutch studio Guerrilla Games, is an all-ages character drama with sociable characters working together to save a post-apocalyptic civilization. Hero Aloy leads humanity’s war against mechanized dinosaurs, high-tech humans and rogue AI. She is a shrewd but reluctant leader, and west forbidden is as much a story about his quest to save humanity from a second extinction as it is also a story about his empowerment and self-discovery.
In contrast, Ring of Elden is a grim, exhausting and impenetrable ordeal. The protagonist is a silent outcast known only as Terni. The Ternished collects runes and slays demigods in order to become the next Elden Lord and restore order to a strange medieval realm known as the Lands Between. There is no self-examination in Ring of Elden, only struggle. For more than a decade, Miyazaki has cultivated a reputation for exceptional difficulty in his games as director of FromSoftware. The enormous popularity of Ring of Eldenwith its controller-breaking bosses, is a shock to the system.
For once, however, FromSoftware is spearheading a talk about something other than simple modes and accessibility features. Rather, Ring of Elden and west forbidden now represent a big clash in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). These terms encompass a variety of components: the heads-up display (HUD) in the main player view, game menus, the world map with its legend and various markers, and tutorials for various mechanics. These systems mediate the player’s interactions with the characters and the landscape.
In west forbidden, Aloy can stand in the middle of a settlement, and she will be surrounded by several beacons directing the player to various points of interest: here is a merchant selling weapons, here is a merchant selling clothes, here is the current destination of a side quest, this is the current main quest destination. She also wears an earpiece, called Focus, which illuminates subjects of interest, such as an unsuspecting machine monster, within her field of vision. Aloy also talks to herself – talks to the player, really – about clues, resources, trails, and threats in her immediate surroundings. In Ring of Elden, the Terni lacks such tools. There’s a map with markers at the quick checkpoints, known as “grace sites”, that you’ve discovered so far. But that’s about all. Otherwise, you are left to your own intuition in exploring the Lands Between.
Different games use different tools for different effects. At best, I’d say breath of the wild does it well enough – these prompts and markers orient the player while preserving some sense of open exploration. In the worst case, say, Cyberpunk 2077— “Organization” produces a cluttered HUD, intrusive prompts, excessive tutorials, and countless markers. It was the latter approach that became dominant in big-budget RPGs as the worlds grew larger and the subsystems – leveling, crafting, side-quests – became more complex. This culminates in the common frustration with UI and UX in modern open-world games. west forbiddenwith its dense interface and incessant prompts, represents the status quo. Ring of Eldenwith its sparse interface and restrained feel, presents a unique challenge.
A month ago, video game developer Ahmed Salama, who worked on Horizon Zero Dawn and now works for Ubisoft, expressed his frustrations with Ring of Elden. “The fact that #ELDENRING got a 97 meta review is proof that reviewers don’t care about Game UX,” Salama tweeted (and later deleted). He was joined by a few industry colleagues tweeting additional complaints about the quest design in Ring of Elden and the technical performance of the PC game. Salama and his peers soon encountered a hostile line brigade defending Ring of Elden while disparaging other titles, mainly Horizon, but also Assassin’s Creed, Skyrimand the witcher. The backlash made headlines. The developers have locked their Twitter accounts. The stacking was ugly, but the substance of the disagreement was still interesting to consider. I saw a truly devastating review in the form of a viral screenshot of Ring of Elden doctored to reinvent the game with a cluttered, conventional interface littered with obnoxious gameplay cues.
But it’s been largely bad and uncharitable talk all around. Yes, it was frustrating to see a group of video game developers demonstrate a complete disregard for such common and persistent criticism of open-world games. It was also frustrating to witness such overheated backlash to the scattered reviews of a game that was otherwise acclaimed by all. Ring of Elden actually has its fair share of intrusive prompts, and west forbidden actually allows players to toggle some of the game’s path finding features; no game is the pure caricature you will find in speech. Really, these arguments aren’t about the fussy map button in Ring of Elden or the abundant quest markers in West forbidden, but rather about the last decade of single-player gaming in general.
It’s a question of storytelling but it’s also a question of trust. In the beginning, Ring of Elden deposits the Terni in a secluded chapel and trusts the player to navigate the world with only so much explicit direction from other characters. It works because the Lands Between are designed to encourage this open-ended style of exploration. It has nothing to do with the HUD. Rather, the interface is simply a reflection of the level design and narrative structure of Ring of Elden. On another side, west forbidden plunges Aloy into the middle of a civilizational conflict with complex political dynamics. The world is not designed for pure discovery. It is designed to accommodate an ensemble drama about humanity recovering from its self-destruction. The world – and the interfaces – are designed to emphasize these social imperatives.
west forbidden with the UI and UX of Ring of Elden would feel a bit ridiculous for the same reason that Ring of Elden looks ridiculous when you overlay the HUD of The Witcher III. So really, these arguments seem to rely on the underlying styles. Are we tired of success stories? Are we more open than ever to environmental storytelling? The success of both games, both commercially and critically, portends a bright future for both approaches, but only as long as we’re honest about the merits and limitations of each.