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‘I have always felt the world was a harsh place’: Elden Ring’s Hidetaka Miyazaki on why he may never stop making games
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‘I have always felt the world was a harsh place’: Elden Ring’s Hidetaka Miyazaki on why he may never stop making games

Much has changed for Hidetaka Miyazaki in the past 10 years. In May 2014, he was made president of FromSoftware – the Japanese game developer known for its breakout dark fantasy hits Demon’s Souls (2009), Dark Souls (2011) and Bloodborne (2015), all games he himself directed. Back then, FromSoftware’s games were critical darlings with devoted followings, but they were not enormous bestsellers, shifting a few million copies each. But in 2022, the company released the splendid, imperious Elden Ring, a collaboration with fantasy writer George RR Martin that is not only Miyazaki’s masterpiece but also by far his most popular work: to date it has sold 25m copies. FromSoftware is no longer a niche maker of cult hits. It is now the home of a genuine blockbuster.

Has this changed Miyazaki’s outlook? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how unforgiving and cold his games’ worlds are, he is not the most optimistic person you’ll ever meet. “Elden Ring was in a league of its own in terms of the success and critical acclaim that it has seen, but what we try to do as a company is never assume that will happen again with our future games,” he tells me in an interview in Los Angeles. “No decision is based on any assumption that, hey, we did it once, it’s going to happen again. Allowing for this rather conservative forecast gives us room to fail – and that in turn results in better games and better decisions. In a roundabout way, I think that assumption of not making another hit, that conservative outlook, is fuelling and aiding our game design.”

Perhaps it’s just as well that neither Miyazaki nor his team at FromSoftware is getting too comfortable. It’s difficult to imagine them creating such powerfully demanding, ambitious and occasionally cruel games if they did.

A major expansion for Elden Ring, entitled Shadow of the Erdtree, releases today: it takes players to the forbidding Lands of Shadow, whose amber skies and assortment of awe-inspiringly grotesque monsters and vengeful, forgotten warriors are like an forlorn echo of the original game’s Lands Between. All of FromSoftware’s games are notoriously challenging, requiring uncommon reserves of grit, determination and willingness from their players – and Shadow of the Erdtree may well be the most difficult yet, putting even those with 100 hours of experience in the Lands Between on the back foot. But it rewards persistence beautifully, with its intricate, fascinatingly opaque story and memorable fights against formidable beings, from dragons embellished in ghostly fronds to giant walking baskets of human cinders. The sense of achievement that you feel when you finally conquer the unconquerable in a Miyazaki game is still unmatched elsewhere.

Erdtree’s punishing nature feels like being doused in cold water for me, because – and maybe this is just because I’ve been playing these games for 15 years – Elden Ring actually felt that little bit more approachable than other FromSoftware games. If you’re stuck somewhere, you can ride off somewhere else rather than flinging yourself at the same near-impossible boss over and over again; you have more options, and there’s always a different approach to try. As I put it to Miyazaki, it doesn’t feel like you’re having your face pushing into the dirt all the time. Does he think this is part of why Elden Ring found a bigger audience than Dark Souls, or 2019’s shinobi fantasy Sekiro?

Portrait of MiyazakiView image in fullscreen

“It’s certainly part of the intention. Elden Ring, by its open world nature and game design, lends the player more freedom,” he muses. “At no point during the game did we want players to feel claustrophobic or overly limited in the scope of what they’re able to do and experience in that world. Instead of the very grim, dark fantasy that you may be used to from past FromSoftware games … it still has that same harshness and coldness, but we wanted to have these moments of beauty. That’s where a little bit of high fantasy comes in, conceptually. Both in terms of the difficulty and the learning curve, as well as the world setting, you feel that you can come up for air.”

Every new FromSoftware release spawns a mini-discourse about difficulty and accessibility in modern games. Some developers choose to offer less challenging modes for inexperienced or time-poor players, even occasionally going so far as to remove enemies from a game entirely. This is not something that would work for a game such as Elden Ring, however; the challenge is the entire point, and dialling it down would compromise it creatively.

“If we really wanted the whole world to play the game, we could just crank the difficulty down more and more. But that wasn’t the right approach,” says Miyazaki. “Had we taken that approach, I don’t think the game would have done what it did, because the sense of achievement that players gain from overcoming these hurdles is such a fundamental part of the experience. Turning down difficulty would strip the game of that joy – which, in my eyes, would break the game itself.”

Improvement through failure is not just a game design principle for Miyazaki: it’s something of a personal philosophy. As company president, he creates a work environment that allows for developers to experiment, for ideas to go nowhere; no one project carries the developer’s entire future. His own big break came when he was handed control of a struggling fantasy project at FromSoftware back in 2006: the game that eventually became Demon’s Souls. “I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game, I could turn it into anything I wanted,” he told the Guardian’s Simon Parkin back in 2015. “Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure.”

Screengrab of a knight in a castle, sword outView image in fullscreen

“Frankly, I don’t think it’s that different now from when I was making Demon’s Souls 15 years ago,” he says with a laugh when I remind him of this. “What I try to foster in our own environment is making sure these younger directors and game designers have a similar experience to what I did when I was working on Demon’s Souls, where, well, if this game fails, it’s not the end of the world. I think that mental state and attitude is what helps people grow.”

Miyazaki himself is different, though. I first met him in 2011, at the Tokyo Game Show, shortly before the release of Dark Souls, the game that would catapult him into the spotlight. Quiet and soft-spoken, his eyes fixed mostly on the carpet, he was uncomfortable being the centre of attention; he is much more confident now, comfortable talking about both business and game design. When he is thinking, he now looks up at the ceiling, rather than down at the floor. He is father to a young daughter now, as well as heading a company. Like Dark Souls’ and Elden Ring’s players, he has grown into a more capable version of himself.

But he’s still as hands-on a game designer as he ever was. “There is always going to be this enjoyment and satisfaction I get out of making games, regardless of what my title or position in the company is,” he tells me. “I enjoy helping grow and nurture the younger directors whom I see guiding the company in the next stage. But sitting in a management office all day isn’t my style. I really get my hands dirty and continue to make games together, through which I hope I can communicate my process to a different generation of talent. I have had the title of president for almost 10 years now, but I would say about 95% of what I do at the company and how I spend my time is directed towards making games and directing games. Using that ratio, you could say I only actually have about six months’ experience as an executive!”

The world is a different place than it was when Demon’s Souls broke out, too. I have wondered whether more people are connecting with Miyazaki and FromSoftware’s work now because we are somewhat used to a sense of disempowerment. Bleakness is not so unfamiliar a state of being to anyone who has lived through the past 15 years of pandemics, political upheaval and encroaching climate disaster. What Elden Ring offers is a spark of hope that, perhaps, if you are strong and persistent enough, you can triumph regardless.

Screengrab with fighter with sword, knight on horsebackView image in fullscreen

“A lot of FromSoftware games throw players into this barren wasteland, and it’s a very severe, harsh, cold experience … I don’t think what we’ve been doing in our games has changed, but perhaps the world has come closer to that type of feeling,” agrees Miyazaki. “These past few years have been a huge exception to the rule in terms of what’s happening around us. But even before that, I have always felt that the world was quite a harsh place. I’ve always lived my life with that worldview, those values. So this idea of being thrust into a wasteland and planting the seeds of growth is something that, for me, feels almost universal. Perhaps more people are discovering that right now.”

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I think that’s something a lot of people miss about FromSoftware games: the sense of hope. In my first interview with Miyazaki, over email back in 2010, he told me about the origin of Demon’s Souls’ unusual multiplayer, wherein players can summon anonymous helpers to help them through a particularly horrible area or boss encounter. He was in his car in winter, trying to get up a hill, and everyone got stuck; only when they started working together, with everybody behind pushing the car in front to the top of the hill, did anyone make it up. He called it “a connection of mutual assistance between transient people”, and added: “Oddly, that incident will probably linger in my heart for a long time. Simply because it’s fleeting, it stays with you a lot longer.”

Elden Ring, too, is full of moments of fleeting beauty and camaraderie like this – and it’s because they are rare that they feel meaningful. In a harsh world, moments of respite are to be treasured.

“I am sure that there is some experience, if you look deep enough into my history, that has informed my identity, the worldview that drives me to make the games that I do,” says Miyazaki. “I’ve never taken a step back and looked at what may have been the trigger, but I’m sure there is some reason why these are the types of games that I want to see and make. If I were to look in the mirror and reflect on myself … if I go on this soul-searching journey to find out why, I might be disappointed in myself. It would force me to come face to face with how boring and average a person I am. Perhaps I intentionally avoid doing that. It keeps the creative spring flowing.”

I can’t help but smile at this answer. Of course: if he understood it fully, it wouldn’t be as interesting. You could say the exact same thing about any of his games. No matter how much time we spend with them, they retain an air of mystery that keeps them fascinating.

It is rare for FromSoftware to make a sequel (the Dark Souls trilogy is an exception to the rule). Elden Ring will not be getting one: Shadow of the Erdtree is the end of the story. Whatever Miyazaki’s next project is, it will be different. Has he made his dream game yet?

“Let’s just say for the record that I am planning on making that game,” he replies. As to whether or not his next game will be as big a hit as Elden Ring – characteristically, he has no expectations.

“If I were to produce some kind of catastrophic failure, I would say, looking back on my career … well, you know, I’ve had my shot, and I’d be OK with that. Perhaps I’ve done enough in the industry and in this space,” he says, with the hint of a smile. “Looking back, I’ve had many chances, and I think I’ve exercised a lot of them quite well. Maybe that would simply be the end of my chapter.”

  • This interview took place at Summer Game Fest in Los Angeles. Keza MacDonald’s travel and accommodation expenses were met by Amazon Games.

Source: theguardian.com