Not Everything is For Everyone
not every thing that gets made will be for you, and that is not injustice
A brief post on the video game site Polygon advises that players of the recently-released (and hotly anticipated) Elden Ring should keep a journal, a notion that several early reviews of the game suggested as well. Seems like a handy little piece of advice, to better enjoy a bit of digital entertainment! But of course this is the internet, and we can enjoy nothing.
You might keep a journal while playing the open-world Elden Ring, to fill you in, because the game does not have a “quest log” that automatically tracks what various tasks the game has handed you and expects you to hand out. These have become ubiquitous in modern games, but especially so in open-world games like Elden Ring, games that shun traditional linear story structure for a user-directed style where the player has significant control over what they do next. This style means that you will often be tasked with doing something that you don’t want to do right away. Quest logs keep all of your various tasks conveniently listed for you. So if you run into a beggar in the forest who has lost his favorite comb and he asks you to fetch it for him, modern games allow you to blow him off for a few hours of gameplay while you romance the princess or whatever, and then you can go through your quest log and be reminded that you have to go on a pixel hunt for a fucking comb so you can get 5xp and a rusty short sword.
Elden Ring doesn’t have one of those. I haven’t played it so I can’t really comment intelligently about why that might be, but the game was made by From Software, a developer famous for creating games of punishing difficulty and a resistance to many of the minor amenities that have cropped up in video games in the past decade or two. That the developer’s ways are well-known (indeed, notorious) did nothing to tamp down the volume of complaints about the missing quest log issue. Note that I choose these out of a veritable ocean of identical complaints.
There are many, many, many comments of this type, on Twitter, on Reddit, on forums, and in comments on articles - about the lack of a quest log specifically or more generally about the lack of guidance and signposting. It appears to have deeply offended many gamers. But as luck would have it, there is a solution, and that guy there has it! The answer to this dilemma is not to play the game. There are, after all, very many games out there. So many, in fact, that the constant complaint of the modern video game enthusiast is that there’s just not enough time to play all the games out there. So if Elden Ring or any other game doesn’t have a feature that you prefer, the sensible thing to do is to play a different game. And if you try it and you don’t like it, you can register your critique and move on. Ah, but of course no one can accept the simple wisdom that not everything is for them. Not in 2022, baby! Everything that can be consumed is owed to us, and it’s owed to us because all we are is that which we consume.
Here you have the inevitable medicalization of tastes, the use of disability rhetoric to enforce a particular vision of what a creator simply must do. Again, there are many, many repetitions of this sentiment out there, that the lack of a quest log and associated handholding are not merely annoying or bad design choices, but a form of bigotry, that they fail to accommodate the disabled and thus are morally wrong rather than merely artistically wrong. I don’t quite understand the particulars here, how these attentional or memory difficulties assert themselves in a way that would be solved by a quest log but otherwise leaves the experience untouched. More to the point, it’s a situation where I think of the elegant legal standard that we operate under (at least in the United States), which is to extend every reasonable accommodation to those with disabilities - every reasonable accommodation, which is to say not every conceivable accommodation. I find that core definition of our duty to the disabled extends usefully outside of legal circumstances, and it’s a topic I’ve turned over in my head again and again, out of necessity.
It seems to me that the advice to keep your own journal is in fact an example of an offered accommodation, a compassionate workaround. (Indeed, we need to write things down because none of us has limitless memory or patience.) That any given player’s journal would evolve differently than another's would be part of the fun. It must also be said that playing a video game is not like navigating a public building; video games are by their very nature inessential. To radically change the experience of any particular game thanks to the claimed difficulties of some small percentage of potential players does not seem like a standard that we can reasonably maintain. Again, “reasonable” should reign.
And, well, I see enough of this rhetoric on the internet to know that some people out there use references to disability in ways that are too convenient, insisting that art and creators they already didn’t like are bad because of how they interact with disability. For example, some seem to argue that violent scenes in a given movie are triggering for those with PTSD almost exclusively when they also didn’t like the movie or its creators for other reasons. I makes me wonder which really rules, the disability or the dislike. When Polish developer CD Projekt Red failed to include an epilepsy warning at the beginning of their game Cyberpunk 2077 (a practice that was totally unknown as recently as three or four years ago), they were attacked for it almost exclusively by those who already had complaints about the developer.
The question of a quest log and associated systems isn’t just about convenience, but of the artistic potential of video games. From Software is very much a developer that thinks a lot about what games can and should be, and they try to make their game design elements (like the notorious difficulty) ways of doing art rather than just the fun stuff that’s attached to the story. And there’s a strong argument to be made that the open-world model, often associated with immense French developer Ubisoft but now ubiquitous across the industry, has led to a lot of shitty game design. Behold this monstrosity, from one of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games, recent examples of which are prototypical open-world games.
Each of those icons is a Thing You Can Do; having a dizzying number of distractions is often seen as a core element of the genre. Video game companies frequently seem obsessed with making players feel like they’re getting an unreal amount of entertainment for their $59.95. (And they really are.) But of course more isn’t always more, and when I look at an image like this I see a developer who thinks that the only way to please players is to keep shoveling more and more shit at them so that they don’t have time to be still for awhile and think about whether the game is actually good. And the quest log is a prime culprit here too: because quest logs tell you where to go and what to do, often including literal flashing lines that direct you to every last element of your current task, open-world games essentially mechanize the playing experience. This is a particularly unfortunate and weird problem to have in a genre of game that’s meant to exemplify player freedom. So you can understand why a developer might want to do away with the quest log crutch. I have no idea why From Software ultimately made the decision in this instance, but I can see the appeal in general.
I can also certainly see preferring the option to have a quest log as a player. Tastes differ. What I can’t see is declaring the artistic choice simply unforgivable, inherently illegitimate, as many people are, sometimes using a tendentious appeal to disability to do so. Variety is at the heart of what we should want as consumers of any artform, and given how open-world concepts have found their way into more and more games, deviation from the norm should be celebrated, even if that deviation is not for you. If we militate a particular set of design rules for open-world games or any other kind, we’re robbing an enjoyable experience from those who might appreciate breaking from those conventions
On the question of ADHD and attention specifically…. You are aware that I take some serious medications. The list of side effects is long and discouraging. One particularly unappealing aspect, the cognitive problems with focus and memory, make listening to podcasts or lectures really hard for me. To really listen to an hour-long podcast can take me three hours, given all the endless rewinding I have to do to figure out what I just missed. (Including, inevitably, multiple tries to listen to the same 10-second snippet.) Movies can be hard too. And you know what? It just sucks, and it’s nobody’s fault. There are things I have to deal with stemming from both my disorder and the drugs I take to control it, and none of those things are the fault of any human villain. That’s a part of disability nobody wants to talk about, these days, where everyone is ready to insist that any problem for those with disabilities is the result of some coldhearted person’s choice. But nobody is choosing for my brain to be like a camera with a broken autofocus. It’s just the way that it has to be. Yes, podcasts are hard for me, and I sometimes lament that fact. But it would be bizarre for me to think that because I struggle to enjoy them there’s something wrong with anyone else enjoying them or with the creators who make them. Podcasts are not for me. It’s not a sin, it’s just life.
And, look: if you play Elden Ring and you think that its lack of a quest log hampers it and was the wrong artistic choice, by all means, say so publicly. Write a nasty review! You are the absolute monarch of your own taste, and if quest logs are important to you, state that taste. But that’s what it is - taste. What you’d be complaining about would be an artistic failure, not a crime, not a violation of the ADA, not some terrible betrayal of disabled gamers. And while taste is all there is, and thus your own individual sense of good and bad hangs the moon and stars when it comes to artistic quality, not everyone’s taste is your taste, and other people get a say too. It’s OK for you to believe that Elden Ring (or anything else) is a colossal artistic failure and also just not for you. Indeed, that’s pretty much the only option available to you, to any of us.