The Traveling Soulsman

So, I’ve been playing Elden Ring lately, and taking some notes. In the process of drafting up my thoughts on it, I ended up with a long tangent about non-linear interconnected maps in Metroidvania style games, and how the souls series tackled this precisely once with Dark Souls, and never again, because they made every bonfire warpable. I decided this tangent was long enough to deserve its own article.

The open world of Elden Ring creates a level of non-linearity and interconnectedness that hasn’t been seen in the series since Dark Souls 1. Ordinarily, fast travel to every bonfire would ruin this, but I think it works fairly well in Elden Ring’s case. Areas aren’t connected by corridors like the Soulsborne games, so you end up doing a lot of exploration anyway, instead of just teleporting to the level you want to go through. Given the distance between locations, going without fast travel wouldn’t really have been viable, because you might end up needing to travel a really REALLY far distance.

The benefit of nonlinear games (like Demon’s Souls) is that you can complete content in differing orders, making it so that no two playthroughs repeat content in the same order, adding a degree of depth. Nonlinear interconnected games (like Dark Souls) expand on this by having you traverse mixed portions of content forwards and backwards, even after you’ve beaten it, meaning you don’t just experience content out of order, but in a varied stitched together order many times over, while also having to engage in pathfinding challenges. In a nonlinear game, you might simply select the content you want to complete as need arises (eg. figure out what level has the thing you’re after, warp to it, progress through the level until you get it).

Checkpoints are implicitly a form of warping, since you return to them when you die. In the Souls games, since items are retained on death, this is even more true. If you’re capable of warping between checkpoints, then a nonlinear interconnected game can effectively become just a nonlinear game, since you can simply warp to the level that contains your point of interest.

Interconnectedness means you can figure out a path between multiple levels that connects multiple points of interest. It’s a challenge known in graph theory as the Traveling Salesman Problem. Rather than simply warping to a bunch of levels, you are forced to route a path consisting of portions of each of these levels that hits all the points of interest you’re currently looking at or you’re forced to route a path that delivers you to a point of interest in the shortest amount of travel time, which is a Pathfinding problem.

Having no warps available has its limitations however, because points of interest on opposite sides of the map might be very far away from one another. This is why Dark Souls initially doesn’t allow you to warp, but unlocks warps for the end of the game, because the second half of the game has you tracking down bosses on opposite sides of the world, which has expanded to be very big by that point. In an open world game, given space is oriented on a large plane, the distance from one end of that plane to the other can be very far indeed. Hollow Knight has one of the game’s toughest challenges involve traveling from one end of the map to the other without using any warps, without taking any hits.

In graph theory terms, we can say that a nonlinear interconnected space is more interesting as each node has more edges with other nodes and objectives force us to traverse the graph in different patterns. Ideally, objectives have us go from any starting node to any other arbitrary node, without repeating themselves.

Nonlinear interconnected maps are also more interesting as they avoid having clear Steiner points, (nodes that sit between the other nodes, acting as a hub between them) because then traversal for minimum distance involves repeatedly traveling to the Steiner point node before visiting another node in the graph. The Nexus of Demon’s Souls, Majula of Dark Souls 2, Hunter’s Dream of Bloodborne, and Firelink Shrine of Dark Souls 3 all serve as implicit Steiner points relative to those games, due to the ability to warp to them from anywhere, and warp anywhere from them. Every single site of grace in Elden Ring is effectively a Steiner point. Having Steiner points (especially warpable ones) avoids the problem of 2 given nodes being too far away, but it nullifies the pathfinding challenge in nonlinear interconnected maps.

The Steiner point marked as S, the point with the minimum distance between multiple points, sits between all the other points of interest, and minimizes travel time between them. In real life we see college common areas designed like this, because they simplify navigation, but in an exploration game, we typically want navigation to be more complex.

As a map gets larger in real space, it approaches a breaking point where 2 points will inevitably be really really far away from each other, even with the minimum travel distance. This is uninteresting as a large part of the fun is routing, more than actually traversing that space. A way to fix this for future metroidvania or open world games could be to simply have the map loop around, have the corners of the map connect, so the furthest points on the map in real space are actually right next to each other, but a big enough map will still have the problem of eventually having the furthest points be really far from one another.

A more thorough solution is to have warps or portal connections between different arbitrary points on the map to create a non-spatial connection between nodes. Elden Ring has some 1-way and 2-way warps to specific locations.

Some Castlevania and other metroidvania games feature this, by having warp rooms that are different than save rooms, and which are limited in the locations that can be traveled to, so the physical map has one set of edge/node connections, and the warps create new edge/node connections to make traversal more complicated, while keeping the far corners of the physical map effectively close together.

Every orange square is a warp room, every red room is a save room. Notice how there are a lot more red rooms than orange ones.

It’s worth noting that this type of warping is also frequently a Steiner point, such as the warp rooms in Castlevania Symphony of Night, the Stagway tunnels in Hollow Knight, or the Souls examples listed before. Future games could ideally limit these warps to a 1:1 relationship, or not having every warp point connect to every other warp point in order to make traversal more complicated. The 1-way and 2-way warps in Elden Ring somewhat serve this purpose, but there aren’t enough of them to make much of a difference, and they aren’t marked on the map, making it difficult to plan your pathfinding around them.

I believe that Elden Ring somewhat avoids the problems that warping to every single checkpoint would normally create for a metroidvania game, due to its open world structure rather than metroidvania structure, IE. the levels are open fields, rather than one-way corridors. So you might warp to the same point many times, but your direction of travel and your path across the overworld still might be very different each time you warp to a location, creating a lot of variance between play sessions, instead of boiling down to repeating linear levels you’ve played before.

It’s also a major help that Elden Ring is the most dense open world game I’ve ever played. I’ve been saying that open world games should focus on density instead of size for a while now, and Elden Ring really delivered. The map is crammed with unique NPCs, Items, and other landmarks. I’ve repeatedly gone back to old areas to pick up stuff I’ve missed, or trigger events I didn’t know about. It’s not quite appealing in the same pathfinding-heavy way as Hollow Knight or Dark Souls 1 before warping, but it’s really close!

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