Game of Souls: Miyazaki and GRRM Are a Match Made in Heaven
One of the biggest announcements at this year’s E3 was the new FromSoftware game Elden Ring, which promises to be From’s largest game yet, and also very much what we’d expect from the studio behind Dark Souls. But even more intriguing is the studio’s collaboration with George RR Martin of Game of Thrones fame.
At first glance, it might seem like George RR Martin and Hidetaka Miyazaki are strange bedfellows. Linear vs branching narratives. Expansive novels and soul-crushingly difficult video games. But dig a little deeper, and the two storytellers have more in common than you might think.
For starters, both love the occult and HP Lovecraft, both revere Tolkien’s take on superior forerunner civilisations, and when they first shared the same room, they undoubtedly argued over which came first, the Onion Knight or the Onion Knight.
But like these noble vegetable warriors, like so many knights onion, the similarities between these storytelling veterans have layers. And like those pungent potables, both of them will undoubtedly make you cry.
No Small Parts
The sideshow is often as intriguing as the main show in the worlds of Martin and Miyazaki. Modern stories usually focus on a small number of characters, each taking on the combined personalities of several different characters in order to make one multi-layered onion of a person, if you will. But it rings hollow (pardon the pun) if you craft a world where all the interesting stuff conveniently happens to one person.
It’s not a complaint that can be levelled against Martin. In A Song Of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), there are heaps of characters nuanced enough to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Characters like Jaqen H’ghar, Lyanna Mormont, Oberyn Martell, or Olenna Tyrell, for example, could never be accused of existing purely to serve a protagonist. They evoke just as much emotion and could easily have their own book.
Miyazaki similarly spares no expense when fleshing out the story and art of “side” characters like Havel, Eileen the Crow, or Slave Knight Gael. In fact, it’s these compelling ancillary storylines that Soulsborne lore obsessives mainly spend their time on.
Often you’ll become more attached to these detours than the main attraction, and in each of these universes, there are plenty of loveable rogues to choose from.
No One is Safe
Character craft isn’t just about the beginning and middle of their journey. A fitting end is perhaps one of the hardest things to get right, and due to the high killcount of both these storytellers, they have to get it right more often than others.
With absolutely no care given to what you think “should” happen, or what will make you feel good, both Miyazaki and GRRM will send your favourite characters to horrible fates and you’ll love them for it.
In Miyazaki’s case, sometimes this is your own doing. We’re honestly not sure which option is more merciful.
Dark Magic and the Occult
The darkest parts of Game of Thrones were very human. What Sansa endured at the hands of Joffrey and Ramsay can’t be blamed on anything other than a human lack of empathy. But we still had a zombie king, magicians’ rituals, an undead Mountain, and a smokey wraith assassin ready for regicide straight out of the womb. Even moreso than ASOIAF, the short stories of GRRM delve into eldritch and cosmic horror.
Highly original Japanese horror has always been one of the unsung accomplishments of the Souls series. The main talking points are always the difficulty, the troll moments, and in knowledgeable circles, the lore. Sometimes, as in the case of Saint Aldrich, the horror is hidden — only those who investigate know that the boss fight isn’t the white figure but the sludge, in the process of slowly consuming the white god, using its body as a puppet to attack you.
That’s before we even get to the Lovecraftian space tentacles of Bloodborne. These two gentlemen are into some creepy business. There is some twisted activity in both of their brains, and the occult symbols already on display for Elden Ring shows that they aren’t going to play nice.
At the rate that GRRM cuts major characters from his lineup, he has no choice but to be exceptional at fleshing out backstories, motivations, and fitting ends to their arcs. The many pieces to his Westeros-sized puzzle raises it to at least be in the same galaxy as Tolkein (to say it’s on the same level would simply be sacrilege), and he cycles through them at an unprecedented rate.
So, too, does Miyazaki create unfathomably deep worlds for which it takes entire communities to put all the puzzle pieces together. Though not delivered in linear fashion, the worlds of Souls games, Bloodborne, and Sekiro have similarly intertwined threads of NPC intrigues.
It’s like diving into a bowl of spaghetti, and it’s no wonder you need a wiki on your second screen if you want to know what’s truly going on.
The Journey is Your Power-Up
Elden Ring involves travelling through distant lands, challenging their leaders, and gaining their abilities after you slay them. In the gaming world, this idea has been common since Mega Man, and perhaps even prior. It’s been a staple of the Soulsborne games, too.
Since Demon’s Souls, a boss’ soul was special — you could consume it for currency if you wanted, or you could use its essence to create a weapon, spell, or shield. True to form, these were never overpowered or even a clear step up. Some of them served little purpose other than lore dumps. But they were niche items that served a purpose and in some cases, a cornerstone of a novelty character build.
GRRM is known for his amazing, in-depth character arcs. You don’t go through a change like that without some kind of journey per se, but in many cases Martin takes his characters on a journey in the literal sense — through foreign lands, picking up powers, abilities, or followers as they go. Think of Arya’s journey through Tywin Lannister’s tutelage, through captivity, all the way to the House of Black and White, to come back with the stealth, speed, and disguise ability of an unrivalled assassin.
Think of Jon Snow’s epic path through Castle Black, the lands of the Free Folk, and his post-Death galvanising of the North. His journey not only brought him fighting ability and confidence, but he gained follower factions as though they were powers themselves, massing enough to take on his final challenges.
But most of all, think of Daenerys’ epic odyssey. Through the Dothraki, through the lands of the slavers, picking up the Unsullied and the Second Sons along the way, not to mention a few dragons. That’s perhaps the most similar to the plot of Elden Ring, which will be about visiting foreign lands, defeating their leaders, and taking their powers as your own.
The Final Tragedy
There’s a quote from Ramsay Bolton that we believe epitomises Game of Thrones. “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
Similarly, Miyazaki is completely disinterested in stroking your happy feels at the end of a story. Far more important that the ending fits with the world he’s created. There’s choice involved in Miyazaki’s Souls endings, but it’s not the usual case of obtaining a “better” ending through better play. The most you could say is there’s a little more truth involved in his hidden endings for those who seek it.
But happy? Nope. There’s no happy ending here, no matter how well you play or how you spin the lore. Unavoidably there are characters and factions central to the world’s history being shafted by your actions, and it’s arguable whether your “win” state is even a better state of affairs for the protagonist.
Wildly Experimental and Rule-Breaking Ideas
It takes a master of the craft to know when to break its rules. GRRM made a statement of intent when Ned Stark’s head went flying. The expected protagonist was out in the first round. He wasn’t playing by the rules. No one expected that so early, even considering Sean Bean dies in everything.
We’ve lost count of how many game design lecturers and experts we’ve seen butt their heads against Dark Souls. They take to Twitter and decry the game as “bad design,” only to resurface weeks later having “got it.”
The truth is, you can break the rules of game design if you give the player something they can’t get anywhere else. Counter-Strike made players wait over a minute after death, unheard of in the age of rocket jump FPS — but it was also the only game in which you could clutch defuse with a whole server watching.
The Souls series has had far too many experimental hits and misses to list. Some, like World Tendency, people forget about. Others, like PvP invaders, go on to be copied in many triple-A games. Even Sekiro, despite being published by the risk-averse Activision, innovated a brand new swordfighting system based on posture.
That’s perhaps what we’re most excited for. Souls games have changed the gaming landscape almost to the same degree of Ocarina of Time. Game of Thrones changed how we thought about weekly TV — and is almost singlehandedly responsible for our current internet etiquette around spoilers.
What happens when two highly experimental masterminds come together? Elden Ring is apparently From’s “largest game yet,” but we suspect these two have more than enough ideas to fill it.