Hidetaka Miyazaki grew up in an impoverished family in Shizuoka, Japan. Although he didn’t fully understand English, he borrowed many English fantasy and science fiction books from his local library. The boy let his imagination fly and fill the language barrier gaps by creating stories from the books’ illustrations, a skill that would prove helpful in a few decades. Later, he would say about his childhood:
Unlike most kids in Japan, I didn’t have a dream… I wasn’t ambitious.
After pursuing a degree in social science, he joined Oracle as an account manager to pay for his sister’s college tuition fees. At the recommendation of a friend, Miyazaki started playing Ico, an action-adventure video game.
“That game awoke me to the possibilities of the medium,” says Miyazaki. “I wanted to make one myself.”
But he was 29, had no relevant work experience, and lived in Japan, where, in the early 2000s, it was still a fact of life for an employee to stay with one company until retirement (Shūshin koyō or permanent employment).
He started as a developer for the FromSoftware video game development company. There, Miyazaki heard about an internal high fantasy role-playing game project considered a failure, and he decided to take over that project:
I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game, I could turn it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure.
He rewrote the game so that when a player is killed during a level, they are sent back to its level beginning, with health diminished, resources lost and enemies respawned. This project also featured multiplayer mechanics inspired by Miyazaki’s experience of driving on a hillside after heavy snow. Cars ahead that started slipping back were deliberately pushed up the hill by the drivers behind. Miyazaki wanted to re-create that sense of silent collaboration in times of hardship. The resulting multiplayer experience was meant only to complement the single-player one. So when they are struggling, players can summon the temporary help of others.
Released in 2009, Demon’s Soul didn’t capture the public initially. However, word-of-mouth proved to be a reliable marketing strategy. Gothic design, complex armour and weapons system, insightful social mechanics earned Demon’s Soul high critical acclaim. Dark Souls followed in 2011, becoming a video game sensation. These games established a new subgenre of action role-playing games, Soulslike, known for their high difficulty levels, dark fantasy setting, lack of explicit storytelling, and exquisite world settings inviting the player to exploration.
As a result of these commercial successes, Miyazaki was appointed FromSoftware’s president in 2014. Per Wikipedia notes:
It was considered unprecedented for a person to change careers in Japan and become company president within 10 years.
This year, FromSoftware, under the guidance of Miyazaki, released another game, Elden Ring (which we believe is one of the best games of the decade), that follows the same pattern of Soulslike.
There’s a lot to be said about this game. From its enormous, gorgeous world – created under the guidance of George R. R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, to its “unforgiving” difficulty, reviewers have praised it as the culmination of FromSoftware’s previous work.
In his blog, Martin wrote about Miyazaki’s initial pitch:
… this offer [to work with Miyazaki] was too exciting to refuse. Miyazaki and his team from FromSoftware were doing groundbreaking stuff with gorgeous art, and what they wanted from me was just a bit of worldbuilding: a deep, dark, resonant world to serve as a foundation for the game they planned to create. And as it happens, I love creating worlds and writing imaginary history.
So I did my bit, and handed off to my new friends in Japan, and they took it from there. And years passed. Videogames are as big as movies these days (bigger, actually)… and take just as long to create.
But the day of ELDEN RING is finally at hand.
And I’ve got to say, it looks incredible.
A mention here: Martin was to write the game’s backstory (setting, characters, mythology) and not the actual script:
“In our games, the story must always serve the player experience,” he [Miyazaki] said. “If [Martin] had written the game’s story, I would have worried that we might have to drift from that. I wanted him to be able to write freely and not to feel restrained by some obscure mechanic that might have to change in development.”
Elden Ring takes place in the Lands Between. Once ruled by Queen Marika, the Lands Between are thrown into chaos after the shattering of the titular Elden Ring and the scattering of its shards, the Great Runes. The realm is now ruled by the demigod children of Queen Marika, each possessing a shard of the Ring that corrupts them. The player is the Tarnished, exiled from the Lands Between, who is summoned back after the Ring’s destruction and must find all the Great Runes, restore the Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord.
Elden Ring might seem difficult at times, but the game’s complex combat system ensures that players can overcome seemingly impossible situations or struggle with comparatively weak enemies depending on the play style and skill.
To successfully deal with increasingly stronger enemies, the player has to improve their in-game character’s attributes, arsenal or tools. The absence of a conventional difficulty slider forces the player into a cycle of try – fail – learn – try again, or if they’re not paying attention, try – fail – try – fail again. In other words, the game demands experimentation and learning and doesn’t provide an obvious hand-holding experience like most mainstream ones.
Learning is not only about finding, gathering and committing information to memory, but also using that information in practice, with a high enough success rate. As such, a cycle of trial and error is expected and fundamental to the underlying learning process.
As with everything, failure in this game is about perspective.
“I’ve never been a very skilled player,” Miyazaki told me recently, via Zoom. He was sitting in his office, a book-lined room in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. “I die a lot. So, in my work, I want to answer the question: If death is to be more than a mark of failure, how do I give it meaning? How do I make death enjoyable?”
In most games, dying ten times in 30 minutes would be nerve-wracking, but in Elden Ring, it might mean you’ve failed the test. The game evaluated your knowledge, training and arsenal, and it found them lacking. Or it might be that you are just trying different things, and those deaths are really only markers for the end of those failed experiments.
“I do feel apologetic toward anyone who feels there’s just too much to overcome in my games,” Miyazaki told me. He held his head in his hands, then smiled. “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”
When a particular encounter proves to be too much, you have to stop and ask yourself: “maybe I need to explore another part of the game?”. And yes, exploring new areas could bring giant monsters or gorgeous landscapes, eery creatures, fantastic weapons, odd characters, epic side quests that otherwise could have been easily missed. Is it any wonder a player can clock hundreds of hours absorbed in this masterpiece?
The community plays a significant role in learning through the tremendous multiplayer system that started with Demon’s Soul. It is a wholesome experience to notice small notes on the ground from other players that warn you of traps or tell you about hidden treasures. However, as with (dis)information nowadays, some messages might prove treacherous.
Elden Ring is not comfortable. It is not fast-food entertainment. It will throw you, hurl you, and toss you until you see those bloody letters: YOU DIED. Many times over. You either learn to deal and exploit that to your advantage, or it will nag and sap at your confidence. Or, in the words of Samuel Beckett:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/how-elden-ring-tests-the-players-learning-ability/