“Hello, good hunter. I am a doll, here in this dream to look after you. Honourable hunter, pursue the echoes of blood and I will channel them into your strength. You will hunt beasts and I will be here for you, to embolden your sickly spirit.”
Weird, right? Any FromSoftware fan worth their salt will know the above quote comes from Bloodborne’s Plain Doll, who allows you to channel blood echoes into skills in the Hunter’s Dream, your place of respite in the death preceding new life.
This whole dynamic, from the quote to the act, to the repetition of both over and over again, is indicative of FromSoftware’s keen interest in the obscure, opaque, and obscene. The main thing Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, and Sekiro all have in common – aside from the traditional FromSoft aesthetic – is ambiguity. Exposition is resisted to the point of near nonsense, with lore necessary for proper comprehension of each game’s world interspersed throughout dialogue, item descriptions, and the placement of objects. Sure, lots of games invest in environmental storytelling, but the fragmented narratives of Souls rely on it.
I remember being told, long before I started writing about games back at the end of 2018, that Miyazaki-san’s storytelling technique is inspired by the fact he used to read books in English without being able to properly understand the context. He’d fill in the gaps with his imagination, often ending up with a radically different idea of what had happened in a given story due to his own creative imposition on it. I think this, more so than anything else and whether or not it’s actually true, is the best way to consider a FromSoft narrative. When I hear “fear the old blood” or “grant us eyes,” I probably have a fairly similar idea to you in terms of what they mean and refer to – but what about the mysterious connection between Byrgenwerth and Moonside Lake? What about Seath the Scaleless, betrayer of dragons, and the retreat of Gough? I reckon Sif fights you purely to stop you from following in Artorias’ footsteps towards the Abyss as opposed to doing so out of malevolence, but is it emphatically stated? Nope. It’s a perceived, almost self-actualized story beat designed to bridge two disparate fragments.
So what’s the craic with Elden Ring? Personally I expected more of the same, although with extra badly written sex scenes given that GRRM is on board this time around. Sure enough, we finally got our long-coveted Elden Ring trailer at E3 2021 and were witness to the massive expanses of The Lands Between. A lot of people reckon it looks like Dark Souls, which is fair enough when you look at the enormous bosses, unwieldy weapons, castles, cathedrals, and piss-yellow, ate-too-much-asparagus hues of Dark Souls 3. I’d like to think the introduction of red this time around is fairly distinct given how tonally consistent each game is, and the fact that aside from the first Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, the thematic color schemes are all fairly independent of each other. Still, I’m not here to argue about whether a two-minute trailer is enough to decide if one game looks too much like another one. As evidenced by the first three paragraphs, I’m here to talk about storytelling.
We recently learned that Martin and Miyazaki-san are planning on expanding Elden Ring’s universe beyond games. At present, it’s not completely clear what this means. I personally think experimenting with manga could allow for the same kind of minimalistic lore dumps as the games, where imagery can be used to much greater effect than loads of exposition and noise. But we don’t know if it’s manga. I mean, Martin is involved to the point where he invented the universe and FromSoft iterated on it for the sake of the game. It would be fairly reasonable to assume that we could get an Elden Ring novel, but The Winds of Winter has been in publication hell for so many centuries – nay, millennia – that I reckon that’s probably out of the question. So what are we getting – TV? Films? Anime? Your guess is as good as mine.
You can obviously do minimalism and practice exposition resistance in any artform, but the methodology is different by design. I’d watch a Bloodborne anime with no more dialogue than the game if the art was sick and the music slapped, but I can’t imagine it would surpass the game given how important gameplay loops are to FromSoft. As far as combat, mechanically complexity, and level design go, Bloodborne is irrefutably one of the most perfect games ever made. I haven’t even finished Dark Souls 3 or Sekiro because I got sick of playing them, but I’ve watched both right up to the credits rolling – for what it’s worth, I’ve Platinumed Bloodborne and played up until around NG+6.
But the question remains whether or not Elden Ring being a multimedia product as opposed to being designed exclusively as a video game carries much weight in terms of how it will approach storytelling. The language in the trailer was arcane and ambiguous as ever, but there was a lot of it, wasn’t there? Loads of talking – again, probably Martin’s call. I’m curious whether we’ll get the likes of “Pebble: Small pebbles found throughout Yharnam. Can be thrown at foes. Quite thrilling” though, or if the fact this is being tied into other media necessitates more blunt and regular dialogue or text. The pebble is a good example, because the eye-collecting witches at Hemwick Charnel Lane carry them and, upon further inspection, you’ll notice that they look like petrified versions of the Bloodshot Eyeball used to access certain Chalice Dungeons. It’s a case of classic FromSoft subtlety that doesn’t say “here’s the story” – you’ve got to pay attention and, as mentioned previously, use your own imagination, intuition, and insight (eh? eh?) to bridge the fragments.
Again, though, Elden Ring is going to have a manga series, or some novels, or a television show, or a film, or something else. It’s a universe that has been constructed with the core premise of expanding outside of just video games, and so it has the potential to either apply FromSoft storytelling to other media, or use more conventional modes of narrative to inform the FromSoft formula. Either way, this single fact is enough to reasonably expect a change in pace here. With FromSoft’s track record, I’m sure the revered studio will pull it off – I just hope there’s still some mystery and intrigue there, as opposed to there being pages upon pages of Sam trying to figure out how to surgically remove Greyscale. Imagine how grim a disease would come from the joint effort of GRRM and Hidetaka Miyazaki – eugh, more like Ill-den Ring.
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