You’re introduced to this feature promptly.
After choosing your character, you’re plopped into a castle wondering Why is there no onboarding training? You walk through dark hallways reading warnings on the floor from other players. Suddenly, a boss. Yeah, a boss shows up, and you die quickly. Years of video gaming instinctively warn you, “I am extremely under-leveled for this encounter.”
This voice then says, “But, I don’t even have a level yet. I don’t know how to play this game. How could I possibly….”
But new game? Right? It’s a learning process. Sure. Embrace it. You’re in a cave now and walking through the barest of onboarding experiences. Here we go. Ok, this does a sword something. This is a heavy attack. Why do I have to figure this out? A richer training mode is coming up, right?
Up an elevator, and you’re introduced to the Lands Between. You see your first enemy, and you’re dead again. And again. And again. The rage builds with each empty death. You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and reflect.
What important lessons did I learn during game onboarding?
Very little. You were allowed to pick a character type with no context save for a picture of the character type. Wizard, I guess. You were then asked to pick Type A or Type B without any visual clue what you were picking. Gender, I think. You were given options to change your appearance, and when you went to change your eyes, you discovered the options were endless. The voice in your head was alarmed.
“If this is the level of detail they put into the look of my eyes, how much complexity is hidden elsewhere, and why do I have no clue about the attributes of this Vagabond character I picked entirely based on a picture?”
Back the Land Between. A Tree Sentinel stands in front of you. This majestic knight on his steed is, wait for it, another boss. You’re fighting another boss sporting an unexplained set of attributes combined with no experience in battle, so, of course, you are dead.
Welcome to Elden Ring. You’re dead.
Yeah, I’ve Played Souls Games Before
The soul-crushing difficulty of FromSoftware’s games — “Souls” game is not news. The boy had me play Bloodborne years back and warned me, “You’re going to die. A lot.”
The consistent themes and attributes of a Souls game are:
- It’s hard.
- You die. A lot.
- It’s a dark gothic world full of increasingly bizarre enemies. Horror.
- They really don’t like showing the faces of their characters.
- Figuring out the game takes real work.
- Figuring out the plot is a fool’s errand.
- You die. A lot.
I never finished Bloodborne, but I enjoyed it. You’re in a dark gothic city, and you’re on a narrative rail. You are not wandering hither and fro; there are one or two directions you need to go, and in your way are enemies that crush you repeatedly. The goal is to understand a particular enemy attack and build your counter-attack to work around their attack patterns. There is no button mashing in Souls games. That’s how you die fast.
Adding insult to injury, when you die, all the enemies you previously killed reappear, which means you have ample opportunity to learn how these enemies work whilst also dying a bunch more. Additionally, all of your runes (the in-game currency) are dropped at the spot you die, and if you don’t pick them up before dying again, they’re gone. There are save points you’ll discover as you make your way through the game, but the game is not about forwarding the narrative; it’s about mastery and precision of the moment.
Finally, there are bosses. Massive, often grotesque, one-hit killing machines. Bosses are why I stopped Bloodborne. Was it the werewolf? I don’t know, but I was fifty hours into the game, feeling shakily confident, when I walked into that graveyard and died. Instantly. He leaped across the room and crushed me. Four hours and two dozen deaths later, I had him down to half health on my best run, and he leaped across the room and crushed me.
Yeah, no. Just say no to Souls games.
Are You Having Fun Yet?
I’ve deliberately written this piece leaving you wondering if I am enjoying Elden Ring or not. Rereading what I’ve written so far, I think most of you believe I am about to tear into FromSoftware.
Elden Ring is one of my finest gaming experiences in the past decade. Yes, it is punishingly hard. Yes, I am mostly lost regarding the plot. Something about fingers, I think? It’s not important. What’s important is a question: Is it a better experience for the player when the game is punishingly hard to learn?
Before I answer that, I’ll explain the key differences between Elden Ring and its predecessors. First, it’s an open world. When you arrive on the main continent, you can head in any direction and explore. There are hints of a direction you could run, but unlike Bloodborne, there are no rails. Want to go west and check out the dragon? Go for it. He’ll crush you. Say hi for me.
Elden Ring is a rich open world where exploring is rewarded. Wondering what that rock formation is over there? Could you go check it out? There might be a useful item or perhaps a pack of enemies. Regardless, your curiosity will be rewarded. This leads me to one of the key quality of life learnings within the game: if it’s too hard, do something else.
This addressed my key issue with Bloodborne. The reason I stopped playing was a lack of hope. I was uninterested in killing the prior enemies four thousand times to level my character, and I was tired of exploring the limited set of paths available to me. So I stopped playing.
The act of walking away from a boss that is crushing you is contrary to how many video games are designed. If I am presented with a challenge, I must rise to the challenge. Elden Ring introduces you to this option early twice. First, the unkillable pre-boss that transports you to the Lands Between, and second once you’ve landed, there’s that Tree Sentinel between you and your obvious path. They will crush you. Over and over again.
Stop. Go around them. Do something else. You are not ready. You need to level up your character’s attributes and your understanding of how this game works. Each enemy has a specific set of mechanics you must learn, and you have a clear of actions you can deploy, and until you have a good understanding of both, you’ll be crushed.
Walking away from a fight is not how most video games are built. The design pattern is to teach them and then present appropriately designed challenges. My first of thirteen Elden Ring rage quit involved a knight. Just over the hill from the starting area, there’s a decaying village full of mostly killable guards and one knight. This knight’s attack’s in a, well, very Elden Ring-type fashion. He moves towards you gently until he suddenly leaps across the field and quickly triple jabs you with that halberd. Dead. Crushed. Didn’t even have a chance.
At this point of the game, you’re low level with beginning gear and zero understanding of game mechanics. Instant death. Repeatedly. It’s unfair. I have no idea how to get out of the way. He hits me for all of the hit points. They have not prepared me for this game. I quit.
I ask again, is it a better experience for the player when the game is punishingly hard to learn? Maybe, but there is another lesson.
My definition of a good game is one that teaches me a fundamental truth. A piece of wisdom that doesn’t just illuminate the game; it teaches me a bit about life. World of Warcraft lessons includes, “Look what a group of like-minded players could organize and do together.” It taught me about volunteer leadership and the value of relationships with humans you may never meet. Destiny is my favorite game, primarily because of community lessons I first discovered in Warcraft. It also helps that I can play Destiny for 30 minutes instead of the multi-hour runs of Warcraft’s Molten Core raid that put my marriage in the worst shape of my life.
More important than Elden Ring’s “just walk away” lesson is another regarding remaining calm. The FromSoftware game designers deeply love pissing you off. As a friend says, “They’ve built in a high degree of fuck you.” You walk around a dungeon on eggshells. Checking every corner, every ceiling, and scoping out every nook and cranny because that’s where the bad guys are hiding. Elden Ring delights in tucking the enemy just out of sight and empowering them with an instant swing of a ginormous sword. Crushed.
Add the fact the bosses get bigger, faster, and more bizarre. Last night, I fell from a platform into a boss area where some gothic robot Iron Maiden was rolling around, and when it got close, it opened up; tentacles jumped out and pulled me inside the contraption. Munch. Munch. Munch. Dead.
The fundamental lesson in Elden Ring is a reminder: don’t panic. Yes, the hideous crow-like creature is ten times larger than you, it makes horrific noises designed to terrify you, but this creature in this game is a knowable machine. It acts in an almost predictable manner. Your job in this game is to discover the pattern and to use it against this creature. It is a scenario designed to get your heart rate up, but the winning strategy starts with a lesson that is always useful: you are your worst self when you panic.
Is It a Good Game?
It’s stunning. Many of the notes players leave for other players are a reminder, “Stop for a moment. Check out this view.” They are right.
It’s a wildly successful game. At the time of this writing, it’s the best-selling game of 2022, and this is the year that Horizon Forbidden West landed and, friends, that is a phenomenally great game.
But what I love about Elden Ring is that amongst the beauty, the grotesque horror, and the utter strangeness of the plot is there how it rewards you for being deliberate, planning ahead, and not panicking.
Last time. It’s a better experience for the player when the game is punishingly hard to learn? Yes. It doesn’t feel like it during the punishment, but the personal satisfaction for conquering difficulty grows exponentially with that difficulty.
I’ll see you in the Lands Between. Maybe.