Games

The fantasy world of FromSoftware’s Elden Ring is challenging but it richly rewards curiosity and patience. By Jini Maxwell.

Elden Ring

A still from the fantasy game Elden Ring.
A still from the fantasy game Elden Ring.
Credit: Bandai Namco Entertainment

I have just made my way through another set of ruins. This one was a struggle: a vertical slog up a cliff-face where aggressive giant bats seemed to descend from nowhere and swarm my character. The curved greatsword that I wielded for the first part of the game is a touch too slow for enemies that can move up and out of reach. As one mob disperses, another bat swoops in from the cavernous ceiling, catching me off guard.

At my housemate’s recommendation, I switch to a pair of wearable claws that I use with an enchantment that imbues them with a life-draining special attack. The improvement is immediate: the faster weapon allows me to respond more accurately to the bats’ erratic movement patterns, and I start to progress again. Suffusing the bleak environment of the ruin is a lone voice, singing: I don’t know where it comes from, but the tone is rich and lovely. I ramble around an abandoned encampment looking for the source, imagining a quest-giver might be nearby, but find nothing. As I progress further, the singing eventually stops.

Elden Ring is the latest title from FromSoftware, the studio best known for producing the Dark Souls series. You play as a Tarnished, an exile called back to The Lands Between to attempt to restore the Elden Ring and become an Elden Lord.

If you feel I haven’t introduced these terms with enough context to make them explicable, then I have given you an accurate sense of the feeling of starting the game: the player is dropped into Elden Ring’s narrative-rich open world with little sense of its history. The tropes that a fantasy game might rely on to convey this narrative are entirely upended – non-player characters who might offer guidance in a different game here give only obscure, mournful commentary on a world they know better than you. Map markings are minimal, and questlines are your responsibility to follow.

FromSoftware’s games are known for their challenging boss designs, but it is these ruins that define my experience of their games: long, carefully plotted gauntlets that require careful attention to enemies and the environment itself. In previous titles these gauntlets often ended with a boss encounter, but Elden Ring is, while obscure, also surprisingly forgiving: sites of grace – checkpoints where the player automatically heals and restarts after each death – are more plentiful. These sites also offer the Guidance of Grace, little streams of light that direct players towards significant plot objectives.

Elden Ring richly rewards watchfulness, curiosity and patience. For players who are willing to stay curious, the fragmentary approach to its world’s ancient mythology gives the game a sense of genuine scale – the history of The Lands Between is not told but lived. This is compounded by the game’s passive social elements, which guide the player’s experience as much, if not more, than the questlines, or even the Guidance of Grace.

Elden Ring has an online mode – its intended mode – that hosts a series of passive interactions between players. There are options to invade and duel other players, or to play co-operatively with friends and strangers. In online mode, cryptic notes from other players will appear in your world, indicating a hidden passageway, a strong foe or even a beautiful view. Within Elden Ring’s fragmentary world-building, these messages encourage a sense of being part of a collective experience of discovery. The lexicon that has arisen from the limited system creates a series of inside jokes across the player base – a merchant’s horse will inevitably be accompanied by a message reading “visions of dog”, and by a guillotine: “first off, try noble”. This vernacular seeps out into social media, where replies of “liar ahead” or “maidenless” are now pervasive, creating a sense that being an Elden Ring player grants access to a persistent community within and outside of the game.

Unsurprisingly, Elden Ring has spawned a massive network on social media – primarily Reddit, Discord and YouTube – where avid player–critics decipher clues to the game’s sprawling mythology by separating out individual voice lines, datamining or dedicating hundreds of hours to play. As a result, the game generates an atmospheric sense of excitement that follows me even when I’m not playing. Playing Elden Ring as a recent release, in a period when so many of its secrets are still being discovered, is thrilling – though I am not a particularly skilful or daring player, my sense of pleasure when a new lore connection is uncovered feels no less significant than if I had made the discovery myself.

These social elements reframe the potential frustration of Elden Ring’s obscurities and challenges as something to be approached through communication and play. FromSoftware’s games have a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, and while Elden Ring has made negligible improvements to accessibility, the open world, community and more forgiving spread of checkpoints actively invite a wider range of players.

Elden Ring capitalises on its ability to produce serendipity on all levels of design. Rather than levelling up your weapons through repeated use, players must explore the world itself to find the smithing stones required to upgrade them. Similarly, “ashes of war”, which enchant weapons with new abilities and affinities, are found scattered throughout the environment, rather than being purchased en masse at a merchant or won in battle. At every turn, the player is taught that the solution to “feeling stuck” is to explore and try something new. The first main story boss, Margit the Fell Omen, has a reputation for his challenging, unpredictable movement pattern – but rather than posing a barrier to progress, the fight encourages players to explore further afield, and learn through experience how they want to engage with the playful platform Elden Ring offers.

And what a platform it is: Elden Ring is, in a word, meticulous. The world is so rich, baroque and emotionally charged that it is satisfying to play for tens of hours without engaging deeply with the main plot. The trajectory of the game feels meaningfully driven by curiosity – following the story to any of its outcomes is anything but inevitable, so the decision to engage feels significant.

Eventually I discovered the identity of my cliffside singer. A Reddit thread identifies the voice as coming from one of the larger bats and the language as Latin. One Redditor offers the following amateur translation:

Alas, that land, once blessed, now has diminished

We, destined to be mothers, now become tarnished.

We have lamented and shed tears yet no one consoles us,

Oh Golden One, at whom you were angry? 

Elden Ring is available on Microsoft Windows, Playstation and XBox.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Fantasy high".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.

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