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  • Writer's picturePablo Cidade

Elden Ring armor sets, structuralist analysis of narrative potential

(A 9 minutes reading, aprox)

The Academic framework for this Analysis is taken from:

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse in Fiction and Film. 2nd print. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Structuralist Theory argues that each narrative has two distinctive parts: a story and a discourse.

The story is the what in a narrative. The discourse, the how, the expression, the means by which the content is communicated.

Inside the story you also have sub-components like the Events (Actions and Happenings) and the Existents (Characters and Settings).

I think most of us can agree that video games, despite being quite different from movies, usually tell their stories with a strong focus on the Events, with a minor support of the Existents for worldbuilding and such. 

Souls-like are a different beast altogether. Putting a strong emphasis on  Discourse throw Existents, giving us characters and settings that are the lifeblood of their narratives.

Events of course still play a role on the story, however a lot of lore (aka past events and worldbuilding) is given thow the discourse of item descriptions and interactions from the player with characters, a narrative resource unique to the videogame medium.

This focus on the Existents is being such an integral part of souls like narrative format that people have come to expect it and any subversion of that is usually done for two reasons, comedical effect or to troll players (more comedical effect). 

My Favourites two examples of that:

The legendary Big Hat Logan Meme.

People: Dark Souls lore is so mysterious and evocative

Dark Souls: They call him Big Hat Logan because he wears a big hat.

And then there is this infamous pendant.

Added with the DLC of Dark Souls 1 the description of this initial gift sent players into madness, quite fitting taking into consideration the themes of the DLC.

The pendant says it does nothing, players were not convinced so they searched far and wide for their function.

Miyazaki finally admitted in an interview “When it comes to the pendant, I actually had a little bit of an intention to play a prank.”

The pendant actually does nothing.Let's consider that this is an initial gift, one of the items the player can choose to start a new game with. All of those items have pretty useful functions so it was not a stretch to think this was a special secret thing.

But the fact that people went to such lengths to find meaning shows how much of a reputation the Discourse throw  Existents has had in the Souls-like formula for storytelling.

And of course…there is Elden Ring. The Game of the Year souls-like, the cream of the cream, but for me it was a little bit disappointing, at least in what the evolution of the souls-like formula for storytelling concerns.

Elden Rings does so much right, the open world evolution of the Souls Like format feels natural and is a breath of fresh air. The increased accessibility for new players that don't need to feel stuck anymore helps opening the door for a bigger audience (proof of that is its status as GOTY). All those things are good, and Elden Ring is a great game, I can't stress that enough. However is a huge step back from what we were getting in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and what many other games have done to advance the Discourse throw Existents. Allow me to explain.

Elden Ring seems to want to give special narrative attention to armor, with a new system that lets the user modify clothes, and even has a quest-line tied to a character (Boc the Seamster) that activates that function.

To even start modifying clothes you need to follow Boc`s quest and have several encounters.

First you need to encounter Boc for the first time, disguised as a tree, asking for help. Upon revealing his true form, he says that he will go retrieve his belongings to give the player a better reward for helping him.

After that you find Boc beaten up in a cave, he needs help recovering his possessions from Demi-Human enemies. You will need to defeat a relatively easy boss encounter and give Boc his Sewing Needle, an item he mentions belonged to his mother, who was a seamster and the only person that loved Boc in his whole life.

You also get Tailoring Tools that let you alter your clothes for a small fee (I guess the player character is a master seamster as well).

Boc offers to alter player garments for free later when you meet him again at the Lake-Facing Cliffs Site of Grace at Liurnia of the Lakes. There is no difference on the alteration that the player can make, only that Boc does it for free.

Later on, when you find Boc you can give him The Gold Sewing Needle in order to be able to alter demigod armor pieces. The Gold Needle is found in a chest at the right of the main entrance to Church of Vows, not so far from where Boc was this time, so it maintains the theme of Boc being unable to advance his personal growth without the player`s help.

His quest ultimately led to Boc accepting himself with a little help from the player and a special item that tells him “I love you”, a great example of player intervention in the narrative, thematically appropriate and as we talk about before, with a focus on Discourse throw Existents.

Alternatively he can end up dead while trying to be reborn as a human, again thanks to the player and the use of another item, the Larval Tear. Contrary to the previous item that is pretty much useless in game the Larval Tear is an extremely valuable and limited item, allowing the player to respec their build. Sacrificing one for an end to a quest (a bad ending mind you) with no reward is again a great example of From Software putting the design focus of the game in the narrative, the lore and especially in the Discourse throw Existents.

Ok, all that is well and dandy, and I like that the player is the narrative moving force behind Boc quest, as it should be in any video game.

But what exactly modifying clothes entails? It must be good if you need to jump through so many hoops just to get to do that. Well…not really.

But before going into the negative let's analyze a couple of good examples on how this system is used in a cool way that reinforces the narrative of the game.

The Black Knife Armor can be altered to remove the cape, which makes the armor no longer able to muffle the sound of the wearer's footsteps. Making it worse gameplay wise but reinforcing the narrative of the item`s lore of the cape having stealth-enhancing materials, presumably part of the reason the Black Knife are so deadly on the lore, being the ones responsible for the event known as The Night of Black Knives, that involves several major characters and kickstarts a lot of the conflicts inside the game.

The Duelist Set (and its rotten variant) can be modified to remove the cloak that hides the snakes of the helmet, which makes the enemies focus their aggression on you instead of other NPC or Player Summons. This is useful when playing alongside fragile builds so is not useless like the previous example.

The snake motif may symbolize heresy and rebellion against the Golden Order, expanding on the narrative themes in Elden Ring. Overall this one is an amazing application of the new cloth alteration system.

An even stranger armor interaction can happen after D Hunter of the Dead dies, usually because the player hands him a dagger that is actually cursed. After a while you can find D’s brother and if you looted his disease brothers, you can hand him his armor.

The reward for this is mostly advancing his questline and getting his summon for a not so difficult fight. D’s armor actually is pretty decent and has a great design so it would be understandable that many players would prefer not to hand it over.

The only reward after getting to the end of his quest is getting the Inseparable Sword, a nice sword, but you can also get that if you just kill D at the beginning of the game, so the quest reward is purely narrative in nature.

In all of the instances I just mentioned the developers choose to place more value in the lore and narrative than in the gameplay itself. Dedicated players can get a worse piece of armor, or even get nothing at all but be rewarded on the worldbuilding side. Even the description on the clothes change when being altered. That is the type of design philosophy that From Software is known about with their Discourse throw Existents approach.

Sadly these examples are outliers in Elden Ring and the vast majority of cases usually just makes the clothes lighter by removing a cape or extra piece of clothing.

And don't even get me started on how the NPC´s almost never react to the armor you are wearing aside from the aforementioned examples. I can be using the Elden Lord Set, taken from the corpse of Godfrey the First Elden Lord itself and no one even acknowledges it. 

The cloth alteration system and gear related interaction are a nice idea but not a new one. We got similar interaction on Bloodborne in 2015 (by the same developer).

In Bloodborne you can open entire questlines just with the armor sets you are wearing.

Adella the Nun for instance, is inconsolable when found unless the Hunter speaks to her while wearing a chest piece representing the Healing Church.

If this is done, she will calm down, offer some lore, and ask if there is any place safe where she can go. The hunter can then choose to send her to the Cathedral Ward, where she will be relatively safe or to Iosefka's Clinic where she will be experimented on and transformed into a monster.

There are at least 6 sets that can have this effect so it´s not an obscure effect either and fits the narrative and Discourse throw Existents of the game perfectly, at the same time providing meaningful choices to the player.

Other games like Fallout New Vegas (2010) have pushed the concept of equipment tied narrative much further making it a fundamental gameplay strategy that the player must know and not only a narrative tool.

In Fallout New Vegas players can use complete armor sets to disguise themself as different faction members, being able to enter restricted locations and, furthermore murder people without that bad karma and loss of reputation falling into the player character.

In Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) the Corpse Camo, rewarded by dying 51 or more times, makes robot enemies think that you are a corpse if you stay still in the battlefield. I would love to have something like this in Elden Ring where you could use complete armor sets to avoid fighting some enemies and make some areas easier to move through. It’s also very reminiscent of the Ghoul Skin Mask in Fallout 3 that made Ghouls ignore you.

Some gear equipment like the Raikov mask in Metal Gear Solid 3 (2005) provoke some important narrative interactions, receiving different comments by different members of the enemy troops, including sexual advances by Raikov.

The mask can be used to distract Volgin during his boss fight, allowing the player an opportunity to attack, due to Volgin's and Raikov's relationship.

Imagine the more talkative bosses in Elden Ring spouting different lines if specific armor is worn, or even having different introductions all together. Similar to how Great Grey Wolf Sif on Dark Souls (2016) will be sad to fight the player if you do the time travel DLC and meet him when he is a pup, before fighting him in the present.

As we saw in all of these examples the Discourse throw Existents is a specially effective tool that only videogames can take full advantage of.

From Software has gained a reputation for its use and appears to be on the right track on the evolution of this form of narrative structure from what we could see in Elden Ring.

One can only hope that the upcoming DLC provides more meaningful narrative interactions, but that is for time to tell.

A little bit of social interaction?

Now, I'm asking you, dear reader.

  1. What other great examples of Discourse throw Existents are you aware of?

  2. Are there any games that take full advantage of this narrative structure? Please let me know in the comments below.

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