To play through Elden Ring is to take on a grave and foolish challenge. It took 135 hours of my life to finish the admired action role-playing video game directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki with narrative content from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. I didn’t beat it just for the bragging rights, but for the architecture community to learn about the vanguard of immersive digital space. At first, it doesn’t sound like a game many would enjoy: you are a wretched creature with little aptitude who must work your way through an immense open world filled with horrifying monsters, all without respite. There are few directions, hints, or clues as to what to do, how to learn powers, where to find safety, or how to gain levels. If that wasn’t enough, you are famously maidenless. Elden Ring’s environment fits Hobbes’ description of life before the social contract better than anything else I’ve endured; a world famously illustrated as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And yet, it has outsold popular titles like Call of Duty and is a lock for Game of the Year in 2022. So how could this torment be so well received?
For one, it has a complex and rewarding combat system with a large variety of gameplay mechanics to engage. But more importantly, there is a tone to it which doesn’t adhere to contemporary gaming’s tendency to constantly barrage the player with incomplete tasks and alerts. Instead, Elden Ring presents an environment of indifference. This allows the landscape itself to take over, and the landscape is gorgeous—filled to the brim with architecture that is beyond dope.
Elden Ring is an open world game presented as a struggle for space and territory. As with other video games I’ve reviewed for AN, such as Control, the environment can be thought of as the main protagonist, a protagonist which defies our understanding of the real-world. The demands on architecture here shift to include three things in particular: The ability to project itself as a symbol, create meaningful relationships with the surrounding ecology, and be organized in a self-referential way that affords discovery and exploration. We can see how this functions in three of the game’s built environments: Shacks, Elphael, and Raya Lucaria Academy.
The humble shack provides a morsel of solace from the barbarous wilds. Unlike most of the game’s architecture, no matter where it is in the world—a sweltering bog in Caelid, a frozen river near Castle Sol, or on a windy cliffside in Limgrave—each shack is approximately the same. It is a simple stone box with a large crumbling hole on one side completed by a poorly crafted wooden structure grafted into it and an even smaller “don’t talk to me or my son ever again” shed on the side. When a 3D model is used repeatedly in digital space it is referred to as a reused asset, establishing a theoretical relationship between asset design and architecture’s preference to typology rather than direct programs. This allows the player to read the architecture, which signals safety amid a distressed environment. Architecture, or digital buildings, provide a more refined symbolic alternative to the otherwise cantankerous whizzing and blinking navigational tools typically encountered in digital space.
Dilapidation is not limited to the shacks. All buildings in Elden Ring show devastation, age, or an otherwise planned relationship to their particular ecologies whether economic, natural, or political. Fort Faroth is near a fetid swamp with steaming toxic gas, but set up high and dry, far from the poison below. What of Leyndell, the city holding the seat of power in an oppressive and remorseless world? It is filled with detail, shimmering gold, and so outrageously scaled it could be a graduate project from the mid-19th century Ecole des Beaux Arts. You can imagine each of these areas as simple storytelling, or you can open the case for immersive digital architecture’s particular need to master a relationship with an environment. It helps ground the place when it is obvious time has passed in the context surrounding it so that it is natural, reciprocal, and alive.
Elphael, an entire city built within the root system of a massive tree called the Haligtree, is an example of this kind of success. You begin the area alone, thousands of feet in the air along gargantuan branches spotted with rust-colored fungi. Through the limbs you move, jumping dangerously from one to the other, while the misty horizon of the ground below stretches as far as the eye can see. As you progress along the massive bifurcating limbs, you are confronted by enemies, including giant ants which made me feel like I was in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Closer to the trunk, there are branches and roots intertwined through an ornately decorated set of warm, glowing, Rivendellesque buildings forming a treacherous path to the center of the rootstock.
At the center of the Haligtree is a noticeably cool, mossy space shot through with beams of sunlight which find their way to your armor through creases in the walls made of giant bent roots. Fungus spores in the room float through the light to form a surreal and synergistic site for the adventure’s most difficult boss fight: Malenia. She is a terrifying and powerful warrior who eventually sprouts wings that infect her prey with scarlet rot, confirming her as the source of the mycelium infection that plagues the entire tree. The fight synergizes space, place, character, and architecture to create a truly exemplary boss chamber. The Haligtree roots enrich the narrative quest storyline and the complex origins of Malenia herself, the details of which I shall spare in case you, dear reader, fancy a go.
Digitally immersive environments are well suited to urbanism that rewards exploration. The Academy of Raya Lucaria is a treacherous and dense city of interwoven libraries and churches filled with magical scholarly foes. The dramatic verticality and inter-relationships between spaces remind me of exploring l’Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel. These relationships help to steer through an environment with little to no navigational aid. I was constantly peeking in and out of windows and through damaged walls to catch a glimpse of the adjacent spaces, recognizable only if I consider them from my new angle. This navigational architecture is typical of Souls games, with the cheeky final result often being that you end up making your way back to where you started.
If you consider the entire game’s environment a single architectural experience, Crumbling Farum Azula is the final crescendo. This is the end of the world. It is a collapsing architectural space remarkably held together by wind, lighting, and gravity. There are untold dangers and resplendent treasure swirling around big chunks of ancient construction whose meaning and purpose are lost to time. The mystery of the place is deep, and the environment reflects that mystery. Under, over, and around one must climb seemingly without a directional path or goal. The game even requires a player to jump off a cliff onto the edge of fragmented pediments just to keep going. Crumbling Farum Azula combines all of the successful qualities of space we’ve discussed so far into a complete package that is arresting, bewitching, and without equal.
While it is a single-player game, Elden Ring connects you with other players. Bloodstains on the ground activate a ghostly window into another player’s game, playing you a clip of that person’s demise which can serve as a warning. White glowing stones reveal small notes left by other players, offering clues to aid the journey: “Beware of left” or, “Hidden path ahead.” Some include crass community inside jokes, like a “Try Jumping” note left along the edge of a steep cliff, or the infamous “Try fingers but hole” notes left nearby characters who are bending over.
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 customize your specific journey, share in the success of others, and uncover hidden secrets. This masterpiece of digital architecture provides a solid answer to a burning question of contemporary design: What digital space will people choose to occupy? Currently, multiple Metaverses and online sociocultural 3D environments are formed with the goal of coercing microtransactions, further surveilling social life, or mining personal data. Companies like Meta (Facebook) are sinking a billion dollars a month to keep the investment alive. Instead of reconstructing our current world’s awful shopping malls, tennis courts, or, heaven forbid, Walmart, Elden Ring asks us to explore, engage our imagination, and to take our time doing so. We don’t just want escape, we want to remind ourselves that new worlds are possible.