Elden Ring – FromSoftware’s epic fantasy RPG – was crowned Game of the Year at The Game Awards 2022 earlier today, fending off serious competition from Santa Monica Studio’s action-adventure extravaganza, God of War Ragnarök. There were some eye-catching titles like Horizon Forbidden West, A Plague Tale: Requiem, Stray, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 vying for top gaming honor this year, but really, it came down to PlayStation exclusive and, well, Elden Ring. To my delight, the latter won, and deservedly so. The two games, both incredible in their own right, represent the very best that modern video games have to offer. But only one of them really embodies the essence of the medium.
There was a hot minute where it looked like God of War Ragnarök – the most nominated title at The Game Awards 2022 – was going to sweep the awards. Before the suit reached the main course, Ragnarök had already triumphed in six categories, including Best Narrative and Best Performance. And as is the case with all award shows, recency bias is always at play. (There’s a reason we have a thing called Oscar season.) Ragnarök came out last month, while Elden Ring came out in February. And despite its continued glow, memory can play tricks on you. In the end, FromSoftware took home the night’s two biggest awards – Game of the Year and Best Game Direction, capping off a remarkable year for Japanese developers.
Ring of Fire vs God of War Ragnarök: Open World Approach
Between Ragnarök and Elden Ring, the latter is what pushes gaming into new territory. The open world genre has been heavily maligned in recent years – Elden Ring took it apart and then remade it in its own image. It rejected the trappings of the genre and completely eliminated objective markers, endless map icons, mindless map activities and side quests, and really opened up the open world. There are games that have done this before, most notably Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but Elden Ring builds on this. Where Breath of the Wild rewarded exploration, exploration It is the reward in Elden Ring.
Take, for example, the Elden Ring map. In most open world games, maps are not really a cartographic representation of the lands the player roams. They are just a checklist. All they communicate is “Go here, do this. Now, in this way, do it again. But Elden Ring’s map encourages, no, requires players to look at it. Really look out for the rock formation north of your location or the ruins to the west. There are no icons telling the player what they’ll find there, but there’s a sense that it’s going to be a good thing.
This is rare in video games. Very few games are brave enough to invite you on their own personal adventure, without feeling the need to become your guide. Just look at the other Game of the Year nominee, Horizon Forbidden West, an open-world adventure that’s always afraid to hand the controller over to the player. Its myriad map icons accompany you on all your excursions, diminishing the wonder of a good game. (Don’t be fooled – but Ragnarök, while not fully open world, also has a map. That said, throughout my playthrough, I never really needed it and it felt purely aesthetic.)
Ring of Fire vs God of War Ragnarök: Narration
Elden Ring and Ragnarök are also at opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum in video games. Ragnarök, winner of Best Narrative at The Game Awards, truly tells an engaging, personal and visceral story. It tackles complex themes of parenthood and coming of age, and deals with prophecy and destiny, delivering a Hollywood blockbuster-style ending to its Nordic saga. It’s a good story. But it’s also traditional.
Ragnarök features some of the year’s best video game scripts, but its narrative isn’t much different from a movie or novel. It takes players on a ride, but never hands them the reins. Therein lies the true power of video game storytelling. Player agency distinguishes the medium from other art forms. Elden Ring excels there. It lets you write your own story. There is, of course, an intended in-game narrative told through mystery item descriptions and scattered lore. And curious minds can always turn to YouTube to find what they’ve missed. But the tales you make up as you roam the Midlands are the ones that stick with you.
That’s not to say that traditional storytelling always pales in comparison. Just look at narrative-driven games like The Last of Us or A Plague Tale: Requiem, the latter also nominated for Game of the Year. These games tell unforgettable stories – but games that present a blank page, for players to fill in whatever they want, represent the true potential of the medium as a completely unique art form that movies and books cannot replicate.
Acting out the mercenary fantasy of the desert in Fallout: New Vegas and mythologizing my actions and decisions in the Mass Effect trilogy are some of my favorite gaming memories. In Elden Ring, you can be a chivalrous knight helping maidens across its perilous landscape, or an affable renegade conquering beasts and beauties. Or, if you’re really good, you could just be a naked guy with a giant club and go around hitting the game’s deadly bosses in the head. It’s your choice.
Elden Ring vs God of War Ragnarök: The True Game of the Year
To be fair, this is part of the nature of roleplaying games like Elden Ring. I’m not going to hold the fact that God of War Ragnarök is not an RPG against him. It is, like I said, a different game. It offers a curated experience that combines visceral gameplay with emotional depth. And within the confines of its impressive combat sandbox, it’s surprisingly flexible. But Elden Ring takes the path less traveled – and lets players find their own treasure. Where Ragnarök excels in bombastic moments, Elden Ring exerts restraint, almost as a game mechanic, and excels as a true champion of the medium.