To play Elden Ring is to grapple with decades. FromSoft first released Dark Souls in 2011, a spiritual successor to the then PS3 exclusive Demon’s Souls in 2009. But, as I’m sure someone is already thinking to message me, they’ve been making games in this style for far longer than that. The King’s Field series, with its oblique atmosphere, instant death traps, and Silky Smooth™ animation (also, did you know the Moonlight Greatsword comes from here, did you?), set the groundwork for the franchise we pretend is niche despite each instalment since Demon’s Souls doing gangbusters. The point is that whatever your starting point was, we’re far removed enough for nostalgia to be a factor. Demon’s Souls was my first, but not in an impressive way. I played it because I’d previously bounced off Dark Souls but remained curious enough to try Demon’s when it came to PS Plus. I loved it and its world, a bizarre hodgepodge of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and grungy horror paired with a more free-form structure that made it all click- Oh, that’s why people like these games, huh. And so, since then, I’ve played Dark Souls (my favourite), Dark Souls 2 ([REDACTED]), Bloodborne (great theming, pretty unfinished), Dark Souls 3 (Rogue One: A Dark Souls Story) and Sekiro (my second favourite). Hell, I’ve even played a few “souls-likes”, though granted, the only ones I like are Nioh 1 and 2, which I only ended up enjoying when I realised how not all that similar to Souls they are.
I don’t expect you to respect my opinions because I did the requisite Gamer Homework- it’s more a disclaimer that I do, in fact, Get These Games. I’ve enjoyed most of them. And yes, I enjoyed Elden Ring. It is a well made Triple-A game in a landscape of nightmarish monetisation machines. It has made the formula click for a bunch of new players who now have an expansive back catalogue to trawl through. If it seems like a game you’d like, well, you’ve probably already played it, but if you haven’t, why not? I had a good time.
A good time.
(A good, long time)
(A very, very long time)
(Almost two hundred hours)
TARNISHED: My Elden Ring Existential Crisis
How long is too long? I suppose everything is too long for the moment we live in. To play or read or watch something “long” is to acknowledge everything else you could be doing. I enjoyed The Batman, and I wasn’t bored at any point, but it sure did take three hours (not including travel) out of an off day since I knew I’d be too exhausted to watch it before or after a shift. That limited number of hours to rest, clean, get things ready for work and look after my rabbit and aaaaa. I’m not going to go into that endlessly irritating millennial screed about how hard it is to adult, but I feel even post-capitalism, your time with art will be a luxury. And as the years tick on, you become more selective. I remember watching Justice League in the cinema and feeling the grains of sand slip into death’s hourglass with each quip and interminable CGI brawl out. It changed me from a person who would watch most “big” movies for the Cinema Experience to someone who goes a couple of times a year, even before Covid.
Ok, but a game is different than that. Games can be segmented- even the short ones. Edgar Allen Poe wanted his short stories to be enjoyed in totality, but what does he know? Even Oneshot allowed for multiple chances in its Steam version, despite the initial premise referred to in the title. It shouldn’t matter how long Elden Ring is. You can take as long as you want to beat it!
Can you? Well, yes, obviously, with two caveats. The first applies only if you’re exceptionally online- if you don’t engage with the inordinate hour video game quickly, prepare for your algorithmically-generated feeds to spoil every aspect. I had various terms related to Elden Ring muted on Twitter and YouTube, but that did not save me. Endless memes. Fanart. Clips. Until we can mute concepts and not just words, such a function is useless. I’m just fortunate that From had the foresight to label the final boss theme as just “The Final Battle”. If you’re less online, you still have to contend with the nature of these games- filled with oblique side quests and labyrinthine “dungeons”, each boss requiring a bunch of muscle memory. All of those things are dependent on keeping it in your memory, lest you waste more time scrambling back to where you were. Fair enough in Demon’s Souls, which you can beat in a little over 20 hours, but more questionable the longer and longer these games ended up.
Ok, if it’s so long, why is the average clear time on “HowLongToBeat” a mere 49 hours? That’s only enough time to read Dune, Gravity’s Rainbow and War and Peace! Well…
METAL GEAR DARK SOULS GOES OPEN WORLD!
If you’ve seen comparisons made to Breath of the Wild, this is why. Like that game, Elden Ring features a vast open-world of mostly optional content. Leyndell capital will deny you access unless you collect two great runes, but most players will get their first after clearing the tutorial area. Then they’ll have the choice of Rykard or Radahn (not to be confused with Ranni, Renalla, Radagon or Roderika) for their second, the others Shardbearers being (technically) optional, despite each having large areas and quests associated with them. After that, the path to the ending is pretty linear, with a couple of large optional zones to explore. That’s not mentioning sidequests, with Ranni’s, in particular, taking you through hours of additional areas and boss fights. Honestly, kind of cool! I always liked the Dark Souls onward tradition of having one or more high-effort areas hidden behind cryptic clues- I’m not sure if courage is the right word, but it takes a lot of something to include all those enemies and assets and quests knowing a fair number of players will never see them. Elden Ring carries on this tradition large and small and recaptures a sense of wondrous adventure I hadn’t felt in a while. The windmill village is not a vast area, but it stands out as a memorable one- the colourful flowers and dancing women are a striking contrast with the hanging bodies and gore-soaked grass. Even though I’ve tried to experience all the main areas of the game, I’ve probably missed a lot since I wasn’t checking a Wiki or whatever.
Probably. Or maybe I missed more of the Night Cavalry, Deathbirds, Godskin, Burial Watchdogs, Erdtree Avatars, Demi-Human Queens or the THIRTEEN SEPARATE DRAGON BOSS FIGHTS DISTINGUISHED SOLELY BY WHATEVER WACKY STATUS EFFECT THE FLAMES DO THIS TIME and yes, I will die mad about it. I’m not requesting more content or that each of the over one hundred bosses should be unique. Perhaps I just had bad luck seeing as many repeats as I did. There might be a way through the game in which you never see too much of anything. With each repetition I encountered, an intrusive thought grew louder- “I would rather have nothing than have this”.
I’m playing the game on PS4, much like I first played MGSV on PS3. It’s not designed for this console, though thankfully, it runs OK enough. The load times are the main issue, although they have some benefits. One is that they gave me enough time to write/tidy/swear in between runs at late-game bosses. The other was that it let me soak in a lot of the incredible concept art. One depicts a colossal statue of a man sitting atop a throne beneath an unnaturally starry sky. It’s evocative and weird, and I never expected it to be in the game. Imagine my amazement that, yes, it was in the game, and yes, it looked exactly as weird and cool as the art implied. That amazement lasted all of 30 seconds before the game decided to drop a boss from the sky, one that I had so happened to fight a version of a half-hour earlier. Or how about venturing into the Mountaintops of the Giants, blinded by a blizzard and hearing a howl in the distance. What could it be? Some spirit haunting the snowfields? How about just some creepy ambience- after all, at that point, I am on a quest to burn down something I probably shouldn’t. How about another FUCKING DRAGON? That’ll sell the solemn vibe of this area!
Breath of the Wild gets a lot of not entirely unwarranted criticism for its endless reliance on shrines and korok seeds to give meaning to an otherwise empty world. Elden Ring in some ways addresses that criticism with bonkers enemy variety, actual dungeons and more varied aesthetics- but they share the same core issue. They are both seemingly deathly afraid of letting their worlds speak for themselves. Each cool view must be integrated into the sticky gameplay loop of endless gradual improvement. The cool labyrinth you found on your map in Breath of the Wild must have a shrine at the end, just like the cool dude on a throne cannot just be a cool dude on a throne. Both experiences are tainted by being so nakedly artificial, experiences of strangeness and wonder rendered into “progression”. Sure, I prefer the boss fight to the shrine since at least it’s integrated into the world and not a warp point into a glorified VR mission, but in both cases, I’d prefer there to be nothing at all. You can argue it’s necessary for game balance, but considering how stingy Elden Ring is with runes (made worse by how expensive smithing stones were pre-patch), spreading them less thinly might have other benefits. I suppose having so many bosses etc., at least gives people more chances to level up, but as you get closer to the end game, you’ll no doubt have found an area better for rune (I have almost called them souls so many times I swear) farming than smashing your head against another dragon. If it was intended to make the game more accessible, I suppose it worked, but the balance gets worse and worse. You’ll get flattened by Margit in the opening area and explore the world and come back. After Stormveil, you can pinball between a bunch of different areas, like a more organic rendition of Demon’s Souls Mega Man-esque structure. As mentioned, things get more linear later, which is better for narrative pacing but considering how long you’ll probably spend in Crumbling Farum Azula and Haligtree; it’s sort of easy to forget there even is an open world.
This is a shame because that world is something to be commended despite repeated content. I am one of those annoying people who never got over the lift that looped back to Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls. That first spark of realisation that this world didn’t just expand ever outwards but was connected in surprising yet logical ways. It cheats a bit to get you to places like Anor Londo, but even that stresses the unexpected verticality of the world, something easier to see when looking at maps pulled from the game. Elden Ring isn’t quite as dense as that and indeed cheats far more often with its teleporters and waterfall coffins, but it does enough to feel honest. When promoting The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Todd Howard (in)famously yelled, “See that mountain? You can climb it!” when the truth was more that you could awkwardly jump up it if you didn’t slip and ragdoll into oblivion. Everything you can see in Elden Ring is genuinely explorable, not to mention what you can’t. The world design does a great job obfuscating large parts of itself to retain that sense of weird discovery. There are no Ubisoft (or indeed, Breath of the Wild) towers to give you the lay of the land. Even your map remains barren until you find totems in the field, colouring in the blanks with a painted (and sometimes deliberately inaccurate) world, filled with scribbles that make sense to the cartographer but that you as a player have to interpret. Unfortunately, grace icons and other junk will cover up that lovely art by the end game, a weird reversal of the usual open-world clear the map simulator, but that’s a minor complaint.
I don’t like to write about things I purely dislike. I tried to write a review of Ghosts of Tsushima a while back, but I found the game so exhaustingly bland that each word felt like drawing blood. I said all I wanted to say about it by focusing on the positives of the opposite approach in my article on “friction” in games. I am as critical as I am about Elden Ring because I generally like it. As a product, that’s enough.
BUT THE NEXUS TRAPS YOU
Time moves on, but nothing about Elden Ring feels futuristic, for good and ill. Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3, Sekiro (christ, how much time of my life has been in these worlds- even DaS2?) and now Elden Ring, which while a leap forward in terms of graphics and scale, is still One of These Games. More of the same is fine, and it was fine enough for me to buy Elden Ring sight unseen. I had been burnt out by this series before- Dark Souls 3 may have been an improvement over 2, but it left me cold. Many of its highest movements are mere references to Dark Souls 1, which, yes, yes, is thematically relevant, but Dark Souls 2 had already had annoying fanservice references in the form of still being able to PRAISE THE SUN xD despite that making no sense. 3 seems to be a favourite with fans who love the epic bosses of “Soulsborne” more than any other aspects. False King Allant, Ornstein and Smough, Artorias, Lady Maria, Ludwig, Sister Friede, Slave Knight Gael- memorable, bastard hard fights that push your builds to the limit. I like those too- but they’re a part of what I like, and Dark Souls 3 pushed way too hard into that direction. Sure, it’s the conclusion to the series, but so many bosses being grand multi-phase affairs becomes exhausting, especially when the game is so highly linear that you can set your watch to their next appearance. That’s probably where Dark Souls’ reputation for samey epic chanting comes from- Dancer of the Boreal Valley aside, even minor bosses in Dark Souls 3 have to break out the choir. So when Sekiro was announced, I figured I wouldn’t bother- it didn’t help that it shared the same stage at E3 with Ghosts of Tsushima and Nioh 2, not so much slaking the thirst for a big-budget samurai game as drowning it.
Had I not seen an oddly cheap copy in a local game shop, I may never have tried it. I’m glad I did- Sekiro is fantastic, a hyper-focused adventure that takes a hammer (or katana) to the established FromSoft formula. Bloodborne set the groundwork for a more fast-paced, aggressive playstyle, but it still relies on separating all your atoms midroll to phase through a sword/claw/fleshy tentacle. Sekiro technically still has I-frames, but barely- you’re encouraged to jump, dodge and block for different attacks, with none of them being outright “better” like the roll is in Soulsborne. That and the lack of traditional RPG mechanics made for a difficult learning curve but a more satisfying pure action game. It was different, not without flaws (having a dedicated button to turn Wolf into a human vacuum for trinkets, having to use consumables for prosthetics/combat arts etc.), but refreshing enough that Elden Ring’s promise of a new dark fantasy world, unburdened by lore limitations and combat conventions, intrigued me. I watched and read nothing about it after that initial teaser trailer. I wanted this to be the first of these games I’d play at launch, as blind as possible, working things out at pace with the community.
Is it as radical a shift as Sekiro? No. Did I expect it to be? Also no, but it does make the steps forward they did take frustratingly tentative. I’ve already talked about the open world, the grandest and most successful additions, but the others aren’t without merit. We will have to get into the mechanical weeds a bit here, so feel free to skip to the next section if you’re not super interested. Including Sekiro’s jump makes that world navigable and adds combat options in jump attacks and dodges, even if the latter is still mostly trumped by the regular roll. Spirit Ashes allow you to summon spectral NPCs to fight alongside you, albeit in select locations. The limitation is a bit of a shame and one that perhaps could have been rejigged into a cooldown, but they’re a good way to preserve the multiplayer experience after the servers go down (or are hacked into unusability). Weapon Arts return from Dark Souls 3, except they’re called Ashes of War now, and they’re tied with changing your weapon’s element. They’re easier to swap and actually encouraged me to use them, unlike in Dark Souls 3, so that’s another point in its favour. Crafting adds next to nothing, but I guess it allows marginally more flexibility in using your inventory junk. More questionable is the return of my favourite feature from 2, “power-stancing”. In 2, this allowed you to embrace your inner edgelord and dual-wield any two weapons of a similar class. Those classes seem more strict now in Elden Ring, and though the use case for wanting to switch between regular and power stance is limited, it’s annoying that Elden Ring restricts it to an always-on feature. Two-handing is annoyingly fiddly (steady on), taking two inputs when it only used to require one. I’d also like a word with whichever brain genius at From thought summoning your horse after it dies should be accompanied by a YES/NO textbox that defaults to NO, despite this being an action you’ll most often do in battle.
Oh right. The horse, “Torrent”. We’re like 3000 words in, and I haven’t had to mention it. It should show how important he ends up being. Horseback combat is a chore, limiting you to two types of swings, and it’s most commonly utilised against the Night Cavalry, Tree Sentinels, and yes, the fucking dragons. Try not to get motion sickness circling around and around your target, the aggressive motion blur turning the Lands Between into clothes spun around a washer-dryer. It’s at its most fun when you are dragging your sword along the ground before yeeting a mook into the stratosphere. Horsing around itself is fine enough. The bizarre ability to double jump helps when navigating down cliffs or up towers, if not with fall damage. It’s more than a bit artificial to give you a double jumping horse, consumable items and a talisman that negate fall damage while also having arbitrary kill planes that ignore all that. It doesn’t help that Torrent basically disappears in the end game, not even a Shadow of the Colossus-esque last hurrah. The game seems to want you to build a relationship with Torrent and Melina, but it never really worked for me. The pacing of that is one of the few real missteps in the game’s story, but a narrative analysis is beyond the scope of this article. I’ll say for now that it’s pretty good, and whether it’s Martin’s influence or not, the characters overall felt stronger and more interesting than typical Souls fare. The usual vaguery wouldn’t work at the scale of Elden Ring, so I’m glad they took advantage of the more concrete setting.
So, with all those good (and bad) changes, were they enough to differentiate this from a hypothetical Dark Souls 4? I mean, I don’t know? Kind of? If it wasn’t at least a bit different, I wouldn’t have finished it. But the weight of reputation looms larger the further you get in. Even if this was your first of these games, there must be the sense that this could never have been a debut. The DNA of Demon’s Souls still exists here, and as great as that game is, its mechanics started to feel long in the tooth games ago. I have theories about the number of breathless “tenouttaten best game ever’’ reviews for Elden Ring, but there’s no sense casting aspersions. I can square that level of positivity as sincere. Not everyone has a neurotic compulsion to write essays to convert Fun Times into Internet Content™. But there’s one issue that Elden Ring has that’s significant enough that those scores start to pose a bigger question.
ENDGAME BLUES AND LOST SOUL ARTS
Most of the Soulsborne games have a drop off in quality towards the end. The only two that buck that trend are Sekiro and Dark Souls 3 (maybe 2 if I’m being generous), Sekiro being reasonably consistent in quality and 3 getting better as it goes (despite the exhausting bosses), front-loaded as it is with castles and swamps. Demon’s Souls has a level structure that makes it harder to measure in the same way, but Dark Souls starts to feel rough post Anor Londo, Bloodborne shatters the logic of its world for narrative ends, which would be admirable if the levels after Rom weren’t mostly annoying, and Elden Ring. Oh, Elden Ring.
I doubt you could even imagine it.
First, we need to define the turning point. Leyndell is roughly analogous to Dark Soul’s Anor Londo, a grand city of complex design with a boss fight that is more difficult than any you’ve encountered beforehand. Elden Ring’s Morgott is perhaps an unfair comparison to dynamic duo Ornstein and Smough, seeing how there are far grander bosses to come. However, I think the trick of “what if the first main boss but much harder” would’ve worked better if they hadn’t already used that first boss as a regular enemy in the same area. Post Leyndell, as with Anor Londo, the narrative objective changes, and things get considerably more difficult. The drop off in level design isn’t quite as severe. Ephael and Farum Azula are visually spectacular mazes of bullshit, but mostly the good kind of bullshit. The open-world regions fare less well. Mountaintops of the Giants doesn’t do too much different than other mountainous areas in the game and is home to some of the more obnoxious overworld bosses, including the blizzard dragon. Consecrated Snowfield gets points as the only area besides Caelid to feel hostile, even if it’s home to the town of semi-auto archers and invisible assassins. So what’s the problem?
In 2017, YouTube videogame critic and president of the Hideki Kamiya Fanclub Matthewmatosis released a video entitled “The Lost Soul Art’s of Demon’s Souls”. The argument is a straightforward one- as the Soulsborne games have become more and more action-focused, they have lost some of what made Demon’s Souls special in the first place. It’s an interesting revisit, and not just because it has a 24-minute run-time (somewhat quaint in the era of multi-hour video essays on the most niche topics imaginable), but in which of his critiques do and don’t apply to Elden Ring. At the time, I remember mostly agreeing with it- I am One of Those People who started with Demon’s Souls, so of course, I’d eat up a video that presents it as the best of the series. There’s perhaps a whiff of gatekeeping in that argument- the best one is the least accessible, only on PS3, horrendously challenging to emulate, you just had to be there etc. I think he manages to (mostly) dodge that, but I take issue in other places. Aside from praising the improvement Dark Souls made over it, he does put Demon’s Souls on a bit of a pedestal as some iconoclastic work of art, neglecting to acknowledge that its innovations were not made in a vacuum and, on occasion, might not be as innovative as they appear. While Bloodborne isn’t my favourite in the series, I disagree with his assertion that its combat has less depth because it doesn’t have a shield or a kick. Sure, Trick Weapons aren’t the be-all and end-all, but they’re part of why I ended up power stancing in Elden Ring- a vain attempt to reach a similar level of moveset flexibility. Ignoring the Rally System is the bigger crime- Bloodborne allows you to heal after taking damage if you attack right away, rewarding aggressive play. It’s not a true evolution, sure, but it’s certainly better than Dark Souls 3, which expects the same fast reactions and aggression without those systems to back it up. I’d also love to agree with his nuclear take that Micolash is the best boss for how unique he is in always running away, but he neglects to mention that when you do catch up to him, he has the same problem every NPC fight in Bloodborne has- he can spam his magic infinitely, and the same spells you have access to are much less powerful. Those quibbles aside, it’s a measured and thoughtful video, which makes the negative kneejerk reaction from some of the Souls community even more baffling. With all the qualifiers he gives, he surely wanted to avoid the reaction his “Dark Souls 2 Critique” spawned. That inspired a totally not mad forty-minute subtweet of a video In Defense of Dark Souls 2 (“the critics were always right”) and an even less mad NINE HOUR takedown of that video. It didn’t work, alas- if you search for Lost Soul Arts on YouTube, you’ll find a two-hour response because no matter how delicate you are, the capital-F Fans of the series will find a way to be very mad online.
Has FromSoft made improvements since this video? Absolutely. His assertion that the base combat of the Souls series is “nothing remarkable” is one I agree with, and though Sekiro doesn’t have any complex combo strings or even multiple weapons, the bosses and enemies fully make use of your moveset and play by the same rules you do.
I really wish I could say the same about Elden Ring. Yes, you can jump attack now. There are spirits. But no matter how grand and epic the bosses are, they all require the exact same strategy- memorise their attacks, roll through each one, punish (but not too much!), repeat. I only encountered two fights that deviated from that routine in the entire game, and both are riffs on previous entries. Spirit-Caller Snail is a puzzle boss- the giant spectral figure in the centre of the room is not the real boss. It’s an invisible snail. Cute, but extremely similar to the Witch of Hemwick from Bloodborne, which in turn took its “weak puppet master behind the scenes” shtick from Demon’s Souls Fool’s Idol. Rykard is really cool, but with his special weapon to take him down left in the boss room, he’s just a more spectacular form of Yhorm the Giant, which was a more spectacular form of the Storm King. Radahn and Renalla are at least intensely weird in theming, but that’s a mere spectacle. A spectacle that has not had a hundred hours to get old yet.
Perhaps you feel I’m being unfair. You can boil a boss fight in any game to base mechanics and make it sound boring. Truthfully I would generally agree. I was annoyed as any other fighting game fan when Peter “Combofiend” Rosas defended the lack of inclusion of fan favourites in Marvel vs Capcom Infinite because “characters are just functions”. All the endgame bosses (except Fire Giant, whose stunningly bland name you can most charitably consider a reference to Dark Souls’ Iron Golem) have interesting stories and aesthetics to differentiate themselves from each other. They only start to feel functional in their sheer number. If Matthew was exhausted by the number of infinite stamina, multiphase, input reading dodge and poke fights in Dark Souls 3, Elden Ring would destroy him. If he was annoyed by Dark Souls 2’s attempts to redo Ornstein and Smough, I think the Godskin Duo, two reused bosses shoved together with a lazy regeneration mechanic, would make him burst a blood vessel.
Fans jokingly refer to Sekiro as a rhythm game for its emphasis on deflecting timing. I’d argue the mainline Souls games fit the definition far better- yes, you can block and parry, but that is so often useless in a boss fight that rolling is undoubtedly the best option. That there are multiple videos dedicated to dodging one of Melania’s attacks shows the game encourages set responses with perfect execution, not think on your feet experimentation. That she’d almost certainly be more fun to fight in Sekiro is honestly just a bit sad. At least Melania, Placidusax and the Lord of Blood are wholly optional. Still, there’s no way to avoid the ending back to back gauntlet of the final three bosses, which are really six bosses, considering how different their second phases are. It’s exhausting, and while open-world exploration can help the pacing, at that point, you’re unlikely to find optional content that matches your level unless you want to butt your head against a slightly different infinite stamina, multiphase, input reading dodge and poke fight and therefore forego the muscle memory you built up. I hardly rushed this game- I picked it up at launch, with the only person in my friend group yet to finish it having picked it up a fair bit later, everyone else finished long before I did. With all the breaks I took, it shouldn’t have been this exhausting to finish. Yes, it’s the end of a long game. Convention dictates that the ending be dramatic and fulfilling. But these were games that once went against best practices to serve a narrative. Gwyn, at the end of the world, holding onto a flicker. The true King Allant, a defenceless wriggling mass in the belly of an unknowable beast that might be God. Even Gehrman and the Moon Presence, while traditional, are far from the most challenging fights in Bloodborne. I will never forget them, just like I’ll never forget Elden Ring’s genuinely great final boss and the sinking feeling I had when its health bar lingered on screen.
I don’t think Elden Ring is the “generic blob of a game” Matthew feared it would be. It improves on things he predicted wouldn’t be improved on and finally remembers to incorporate good features once left forgotten in previous entries (except for Bloodborne’s solution to backstab spamming, seriously From, come on now). It is a good game and is still less pandering than it could be. I’m glad it’s weirder than Dark Souls 2 and 3, and it’s the first of these games in a while to not feel hollowed out from something greater. It is a good game, but it’s a much better product. But why does that matter, anyway?
To have time for anything is a luxury. Any art we choose to appreciate is at the expense of something else. Hell, I’ve just wasted some of yours by making the same point I did in the introduction. Pointing that out doesn’t make me clever. I’m just more concerned that those couple sentences might have slipped your mind after all that waffling. It almost did mine, and I’m writing this. Nearly two hundred hours. Why even spend so much time? Aren’t more experiences better? There are so many indie games I could play and not just the “mainstream” indies, but the ones sending their work into the unorganised aether as I do. Hell, I’m finishing writing this instead of playing “Sephonie”, something I’m much more likely to enjoy. What’s the point?
A quote from “thecatamites”, who you might know from Space Funeral and 10 Beautiful Postcards, echoed through my mind while pondering Elden Ring. It comes from “Bogey’s Report,” a surreal and abrasive playable essay on JRPGS.
“The scale of these things is part of them and likewise an attempt to eradicate through abundance the finality of limited and irretrievable consciousness. Like the pyramids these are grandiose mausoleum machines designed for resisting time, as constructed by death-worshipping pagans. I still think about starting a new Secret of Mana save but I put cigarettes out on my thighs until the feeling goes away.”
Now the game has a self-deprecating and humorous tone throughout, but I think there’s something here. Elden Ring has helped me resist time, including some time that’s been pretty rough. I’ve been quiet on this blog for a reason. Concluding my thoughts on this game is an attempt to retrieve or at least re-use some of that time and perhaps draw a line under a rough period. But I’ve done this enough times to know that it doesn’t quite work that way. I suspect this will be the “ultimate” Souls game for some people. I like it better than Dark Souls 2 and 3, but it feels like a win by default. Of course it has everything I like about Dark Souls, but that’s because it has everything. After all, it’s the longest, and the gangs all here- from poison swamps to sewer mazes, epic spectacle bosses to Berserk references (Guts is here, he’s a furry now), tragic waifu quests to horrific body horror. It’s certainly value for money. I’m aware I’m now speaking from the point of privilege, but value for money is not the way I think about games. If you felt I was dismissive in describing Elden Ring as a great product, that’s fair. I didn’t entirely mean it that way. It’s more a philosophical argument about what makes something good. I’ve played a lot of games. I believe they can be artful, as often as they are time-eaters. Sometimes they’re both. Elden Ring probably fits that group; else, again, I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it. I value the weird and different, even if that means it’s short. Yoko Taro does so many interviews that I can’t find the exact quote, but I recall him lamenting that gamers would never accept paying for the most beautiful, technologically advanced and incredible game if it was short. I wish he would at least partially follow his own advice there because I wouldn’t mind if triple-A games could do that. I don’t think they will, but I can always turn to the indie space for that kind of thing.
I’m not swearing off mainstream games just like I’ve not sworn off mainstream movies, but I will adjust my intake. Videogames are part of who I am, so I hope you realise I wasn’t being that melodramatic in describing this as an existential crisis. I can’t see myself playing another one of these games. I’ve gotten enough out of them. Others haven’t, even those who have played all the previous. That’s fine. I can’t do that. It’s not that I’m oh so more enlightened or productive with my time. I just can’t balance these gigantic experiences with the things I want to make, want to experience. Maybe that’s just a me problem- I follow several cool artists and writers who have put out a bunch of stuff while playing it, some managing multiple playthroughs. Maybe that balance will work for me in the future. But not for now.
Thank you, Elden Ring, for giving me the time to see that.