Elden Ring has a lot to teach architects about the immersive digital space

Playing through the Elden Ring is to take on a dangerous and foolish challenge. It took 135 hours of my life to finish an impressive role-playing video game directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki with narrative content from Game of thrones Author George R.R. Martin. Not only did I beat it up for bragging, but for the architecture community to learn about the cutting edge of the immersive digital space. At first, it doesn’t seem like a game that many would enjoy: you’re a miserable creature with little proficiency and you must make your way through a massive open world full of horrific monsters, all without rest. There are few directions, hints or clues about what to do, how to learn powers, where to find safety, or how to gain levels. If that wasn’t enough, you’re unmarried celebrity. The Elden Ring environment fits Hobbes’ description of life before the social contract better than anything else I’ve experienced; A scientist famous for being “reclusive, poor, hateful, brutish, and short.” However, it has surpassed popular titles such as Call of Duty and is locking in Game of the Year in 2022. So how can this doom be so well received?

Firstly, it has a complex and rewarding combat system with a large variety of gameplay mechanics for melee. But more importantly, there is a tone to it that does not abide by the tendency of contemporary games to constantly subject the player to incomplete tasks and alerts. Instead, Elden Ring presents an environment of indifference. This allows the landscape itself to dominate, and the landscape is gorgeous – filled to the brim with incomparable architecture.

A look at the starting area called the Limgrave should have you in awe of the merciless doom below. (Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicki)

Elden Ring is an open world game presented as a struggle for space and land. As with other video games I’ve reviewed ANLike Control, the environment can be considered the main protagonist, the hero that challenges our understanding of the real world. The demands on architecture here turn to include three things in particular: the ability to project itself as a symbol, to create meaningful relationships with the surrounding environment, and to organize in a self-referential manner that allows discovery and exploration. We can see how this works in three of the game’s built environments: Shacks, Elphael, and Raya Lucaria Academy.

The humble hut provides a morsel of solace from barbarian barbarism. Unlike most of the game’s architecture, no matter where in the world it is – a sweltering swamp in Caelid, a frozen river near Castle Sol, or on a windy slope in Limgrave – every hut is almost the same. It’s a simple stone box with a large, dilapidated hole on one side, complete with a shoddy wood frame inlaid into it and a smaller “don’t talk to me or build again” shed on the side. When a 3D model is used frequently in digital space, it is referred to as a reused asset, creating a theoretical relationship between asset design and a preference for architecture over typology rather than direct software. This allows the player to read the structure, which indicates safety amidst a distressing environment. Architecture, or digital buildings, provide a more subtle, symbolic alternative to the flickering and buzzing navigational instruments commonly encountered in digital space.

Video game screenshots of wooden huts
These four shacks start at the top left and move in a clockwise direction: Warmasters Shack, Isolated Merchant Shack (Dragonbarrow), Village of the Albinaurics Site of Grace, and Hermit Merchant’s Shack. (Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicki)

The devastation is not limited to cottages. All buildings on the Elden Ring show destruction, age, or otherwise planned relationship with their particular environments, whether economic, natural, or political. Fort Faroth was located near a stinking swamp with toxic gases that evaporated, but it was set up high and dry, far from the poison below. What about Lyndell, the city seat of power in a ruthlessly oppressive world? Filled with details and shimmering gold, it is outrageously scaled that it would have been a project for a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in the mid-1800s. You can imagine each of these areas as simple storytelling, or you can open the case for the particular need for immersive digital architecture to master the relationship with the environment. It helps solidify the place when it is clear that time has passed in the context around it so that it is natural, reciprocal and alive.

Elphael, an entire city built within the root system of a massive tree called Haligtree, is an example of this kind of success. The area begins on your own, thousands of feet in the air along giant branches speckled with rust-colored fungi. Moving through the limbs, leaping perilously from one to the other, the misty horizon of the land below extends as far as the eye can see. As you progress along the massive forked limbs, you encounter enemies, including giant ants that make me feel like I’m in Baby I shrunk the boys. Closer to the trunk, branches and roots intertwine through an ornate array of warm, glowing Rivendellesque buildings forming a treacherous path to the root center.

Covered character video game show and rocky landscape
The Haligtree area begins with this amazing view. To advance, we descend from the stinky branches pictured and through Elphael, the city at the bottom left. (Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicki)

In the center of Haligtree is a remarkably cool algae expanse that is captured by the sun’s rays finding their way into your shield through creases in the walls made of giant curved roots. The room’s fungus spores float through the light to form a surreal location and synergy for the adventure’s toughest boss fight: Malenia. She is a terrifying and powerful warrior who eventually grows wings to infect her prey cochineal rot, confirming that it is the source of the fungal infection that affects the entire tree. The battle synergizes space, space, character and architecture to create a truly perfect boss room. Haligtree’s roots enrich the story of narrative research and the complex origins of Malinia itself, the details of which I’ll spare in case you, dear reader, fantasize about going.

Gray toned view of a building disintegrating
After this boss fight zone is cleared in Crumbling Farum Azula, the visuals seep in with flavor and fulfillment. (Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicki)

Digitally immersive environments are well suited for urbanism that rewards exploration. Raya Lucarya Academy is a treacherous and dense city of interlocking libraries and churches filled with enemies of magical scholars. The dramatic verticality and interrelationships between spaces remind me of exploring l’Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel. These relationships help steer through an environment with little or no navigational assistance. I was constantly peeking in and out of windows and through damaged walls to catch a glimpse of the adjoining spaces, which are only recognizable if I looked at them from my new angle. This navigational geometry is typical of Souls games, where often the delightful end result is that you’ll be right back where you started.

If you consider the entire game environment as one architectural experience, Crumbling Farum Azula is the latest escalation. This is the end of the world. It is a collapsed architectural space remarkably connected with wind, light and gravity. There are endless dangers and resplendent treasure swirling around large portions of the ancient building that has lost its meaning and purpose over time. The mystery of the place is deep, and the environment reflects this mystery. One must climb seemingly without a directional path or target under, over, and around. The game even requires the player to jump off a cliff on the edge of the segmented arches just to keep going. Crumbling Farum Azula combines all of the successful space attributes we’ve discussed so far into a complete package that’s amazing, charming, and unparalleled.

Covered character video game show in front of a domed building
A daunting spatial experience exemplified by the collapse of Farum Azula. (Courtesy of Ryan Scavnicki)

Although it is a single player game, Elden Ring connects you with other players. Bloodstains on the floor activate a ghost window in another player’s game, which plays a clip of that person’s death which can serve as a warning. White glowing stones reveal small notes left by other players, and provide clues to aid the journey: “Beware of the left” or “The hidden path ahead.” Some include group jokes within the community, such as the remark “try to jump” along the edge of a steep cliff, or the infamous “try fingers but hole” remark that left nearby characters bowing.

This is the most important aspect of the game: while Elden Ring is a single player game, it is a collective spatial experience. There are hundreds of forums, websites, streams, and videos to catalog and personalize your specific journey, share in the success of others, and uncover hidden secrets. This masterpiece of digital architecture provides a powerful answer to a burning question of contemporary design: What digital space will people choose to occupy? Currently, many metaverses and 3D social and cultural environments are being formed online with the goal of forcing microtransactions, further monitoring of social life, or mining of personal data. Companies like Meta (Facebook) are sinking $1 billion a month to keep the investment alive. Instead of rebuilding our current world’s awful shopping malls, tennis courts, or, God forbid, Elden Ring asks us to explore, turn on our imaginations, and take our time to do so. Not only do we want to escape, we want to remind ourselves that new worlds are possible.

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