What did George RR Martin do for Elden Ring anyway?

So far, Elden Ring has been great. I roam the Inbetween Lands with a merry, faded horse, driving pretty aimlessly around whatever dead ends I like, and spend a lot of time doing it. However, one of the things that have surprised me and surprised me since the game was presented properly is that this world seems to be so thematically one with the Souls games. It’s almost a distant memory now, but for a long time, all we had from Elden Ring was a CG trailer and the promise of this collaboration between Miyazaki-led FromSoftware and Game of Thrones creator and writer George R.R. Martin. At the time, the HBO show had reached its divisive climax but was arguably the world’s biggest entertainment venue. Meanwhile, the Souls series has built a reputation for quality, artistry, and intricate worldbuilding. It was a union made in heaven.
The bottom line is that it wasn’t always clear that this would be the Souls game that it definitely is. To be fair, Miyazaki said it would be something similar, calling it “a more natural evolution of Dark Souls” in 2019, but no one at the time expected it to be so closely tied to mechanics and spirit. This is by no means a bad thing because these games are some of my favorite games ever made. But as I explore the In-between lands and stumble upon Souls reference after Souls reference, in a world that clearly has some sort of narrative relevance to what happened before, it makes me wonder where exactly is George R.R.’s hand. Martin?
Miyazaki says the pair had “many free and creative conversations… which Mr. Martin would later use as the basis for writing overarching myths for the gaming world itself.” Thus, he is responsible for fundamental knowledge of the world. “This myth turned out to be full of interesting characters and drama, as well as many mystical and mysterious elements,” Miyazaki added. “It was a great source of inspiration for the development team and me. The world of Elden Ring was built using these myths and incentives as a foundation.”
Martin himself, celebrating the game’s success a few days ago, downplays his part, which may just be a courtesy. “Of course, almost all the credit goes to Hidetaka Miyazaki and his amazing team of game designers who have been working on this game for half a century or more, determined to create the best video game ever,” writes Martin. “I’m honored to meet and work with them and play my part, however small, in creating this fantasy world and making Elden Ring the iconic mega-hit it is.”
When I think of Martin’s books, I think of jubilant descriptions of banquets and luscious capons coexisting with violent, unexpected action; threads of intrigue woven together, suddenly torn and rearranged, and incoherent, witty digressions from experience. The A Song of Ice and Fire series is one where, after reading the first one, I immediately went out and bought the next four volumes (and pre-ordered Dances with Dragons!). The question of whether he ever finishes them doesn’t really bother me: I just loved being in this place, with its heroic, doomed characters and fantastic merciless villainy.
In some ways, it sounds a bit like what the Souls games do, but there’s a huge difference in tone. It is only fitting that Martin’s books oscillate between extremes: the warmth of kinship and unity, the indifferent lethality of the surrounding world. Souls games are much more subdued in their expressiveness and much less warm: the atmosphere and worlds are filled with sadness and futility, their own actions and their consequences are morally ambiguous. Miyazaki is not inclined to dwell on the joys of life, on the moments that we all snatch from the continuous flow of time to be with others, relax and have fun, while for Martin, this is an important topic.
This enthusiasm is not part of Elden Ring, which is not a criticism, and the manner and tone in which its story is told are no different from past Souls games. One of the reasons this surprised me so much is that Dark Souls 3 pulled off a rather narrative trick, twisting the loops of previous games into its own seemingly final, doomed iteration: the only hint of redemption coming in the artist. Who, having received the Blood of the Dark Soul in the last moments of the game will complete the drawing of a new and better world.
Elden Ring is littered with similar paintings. Not only that, the world reuses certain and significant assets from the Souls games in key places: I stumbled across Lordvessel, layouts that are remixed homages to areas of the past, oblique references to characters from previous games, and more. More explicit. There is a character named Irina who asks you to take the letter to Morne Castle, a reference to two Dark Souls 3 NPCs, while the Slave Knight Gael lends his name to two places in Calida.
I try not to spoil the element of the lore by going too deep into it for now, but the presence of a certain merchant behaving in a certain way is almost the hallmark of the Souls series: and in Elden Ring, here he is, exactly the same, a constant between these broken worlds.
The world of the game doesn’t feel as much narrative or thematically different from what it used to be, and yet Martin is one of the most revered fantasy writers of our time and has such a distinct style (at least to me). In another interview, Miyazaki mentioned that Martin’s contribution was used as “a dungeon master’s guide to a tabletop RPG,” which is one of those explanations that are insanely ambiguous: Did Martin come up with concepts that were just reworked a bit? Come to think of it, the way he builds these huge character arches is almost impossible within the structure of Elden Ring, which, like in the Souls games, has characters appear and disappear on your journey and say a few short phrases.
Not that it bothers me too much: heck, I love FromSoft knowledge, and it’s another huge help, so keep my plate full. I’m more surprised that Martin’s contributions are hard to pin down, which you might argue shows how good this collaboration was. However, it’s hard to shake off this feeling that the narrative structure that FromSoft employs, and in particular the extreme economy of character interactions, has made much of its worldbuilding invisible, or at least underground. Not that I doubt Martin’s involvement or his hard work. It’s just weird that when this game was so heavily promoted through collaboration, it’s hard to feel it in the final product.

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