Elden Ring — FromSoftware’s epic fantasy role-playing game — was crowned Game of the Year at The Game Awards 2022 earlier today, warding 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 in the fray for gaming’s top honour this year, but really, it came down to the 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 best that modern video games have to offer. But only one of them truly embodies the essence of the medium.
There was a hot minute, where it did feel like God of War Ragnarök — the most nominated title at The Game Awards 2022 — would sweep the awards. Before the proceedings winded down to the main course, Ragnarök had already triumphed in six categories, including Best Narrative and Best Performance. And as is the case with all awards shows, recency bias is always in play. (There’s a reason we’ve a thing called the Oscar season.) Ragnarök released last month, while Elden Ring came out in February. And despite its sustained brilliance, 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 a remarkable year for the Japanese developers.
Elden Ring vs God of War Ragnarök: open-world approach
Between Ragnarök and Elden Ring, the latter is the one that pushes games into new territory. The open world genre has been much-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 did away with objective markers, endless map icons, meaningless map activities and side quests, and really blew open 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 upon it. Where Breath of the Wild rewarded exploration, the exploration is the reward in Elden Ring.
Take for instance Elden Ring’s map. In most open world games, maps aren’t really a cartographic representation of the lands the player wanders in. They are just a checklist. All they communicate is “Go here, do that. Now this way, do that again.” But Elden Ring’s map encourages, no, demands players to look at it. Really look at the rock formation north of your location, or those ruins to your west. There are no icons telling the player what they will find there, but there is a feeling that it will be something good.
That is rare in video games. Very few games are brave enough to invite you to your own personal adventure, without feeling the need to become your guide. Just look at fellow Game of the Year nominee, Horizon Forbidden West, an open world adventure that is consistently scared to hand control over to the player. Its innumerous map icons handhold you in your every excursion, diminishing the wonder of an otherwise good game. (Not to be pulled astray — but Ragnarök, while not fully open world, has a map, too. That said, throughout my playthrough, I never really needed it and it felt purely aesthetical.)
Elden Ring vs God of War Ragnarök: storytelling
Elden Ring and Ragnarök also stand at opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum in video games. Ragnarök, winner of Best Narrative at The Game Awards, indeed tells a compelling story, one that is personal and visceral. It takes on complex themes of fatherhood and coming of age, and grapples with prophecy and fate, delivering a Hollywood blockbuster-style ending for its Norse saga. It is a good story. But it is also traditional.
Ragnarök features some of the best writing in video games all year, but its narrative is not too dissimilar to a film or a novel. It takes players on a ride, but never hands them the reigns. That is where the true power of video game storytelling lies. Player agency distinguishes the medium from other forms of art. Elden Ring excels there. It lets you write your own story. There is, of course, an intended narrative in the game told through arcane item descriptions and scattered lore. And curious minds can always head over to YouTube to find what they missed. But the tales you make up, as you trawl the Lands Between, 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 a fellow Game of the Year nominee. These games tell unforgettable stories — but games that present a blank page, for players to fill in what they like, represent the true potential of the medium as a completely unique artform that films and books cannot replicate.
Acting out the wasteland mercenary fantasy in Fallout: New Vegas and mythologising my actions and decisions in the Mass Effect trilogy are some of my favourite gaming memories. In Elden Ring, you could be a chivalrous knight helping maidens across its perilous landscape, or a debonair renegade conquering beasts and beauties. Or, if you’re really good, you could just be a naked dude with a gigantic club and go around boinking the game’s deadly bosses in the head. The choice is yours.
Elden Ring vs God of War Ragnarök: the true Game of the Year
To be fair, that’s partly the nature of role-playing games such as Elden Ring. I won’t hold the fact that God of War Ragnarök is not an RPG against it. It is, like I said, a different game. It offers a curated experience that blends visceral gameplay with emotional depth. And within the margins of its impressive combat sandbox, it is surprisingly flexible. But Elden Ring takes the road less travelled — and allows players to find their own treasure. Where Ragnarök excels in bombastic moments, Elden Ring exercises restraint, almost as a game mechanic, and stands as a true champion of the medium.