Elden Ring and the Beholder's Share
I've been playing Elden Ring for about 70 hours now. One fascinating thing has stood out so far. It doesn't have an expository narrative like many other games. You're launched into a world with locales & characters that aren't outright explained. But the more you play, a rich world comes to life.
This form of narrative has been unlike any other game I've experienced. It's been jarring for some and revelatory to others. I happen to fall in the latter category, but I've been ignorant of the reason. Why do I like this? Why is a hands-off narrative so compelling?
While playing Elden Ring I read Anil Seth's Being You: A New Science of Consciousness. There's a part in the book that brings up 20th century art historian Ernst Gombrich's concept of the beholder's share (though first brought up by fellow art historian Alois Riegl). Seth describes it as “that part of perceptual experience that is contributed by the perceiver and which is not to be found in the artwork – or the world – itself.” In other words, it's the observer who creatively “completes” the artwork. Impressionist paintings are an example of the beholder's share in action. Seth explains that,
Impressionist landscapes attempt to remove the artist from the act of paintings [...] To do this, the artist must develop and deploy a sophisticated understanding of how the subjective, phenomenological aspects of vision come about. Each work can be understood as an exercise in reverse engineering the human visual system, from sensory input all the way to a coherent subjective experience. The paintings become experiments into predictive perception and into the nature of the conscious experiences that these processes give rise to.
To quote Gombrich: “When we say the blots and brushstrokes of the Impressionist canvas 'suddenly comes to life,' we mean we have been led to project a landscape into these dabs of pigment.”
Could Elden Ring be seen as an example of the beholder's share? An attempt to remove the developer from the act of direct storytelling by giving the player the raw materials to weave together a story through her own experience of the game? In a way I think so, and it could be a part of why it resonates so much with people. Giving narrative power back to the beholder.