Elden Ring keeps blowing my mind
Yes, it’s another story about how good Elden Ring is. Sue me.
My wife was going out for the day one Saturday. It was rainy and cold (summer is fickle here) so I decided to stay in. I had just beaten the Fire Giant. She asked what I was going to do while she was gone. I confidently declared: “I think I’m finally going to finish Elden Ring.”
That was three weeks ago.
This weekend I made it halfway (?) down Miquella’s Haligtree. The week before, I finally explored Consecrated Snowfield. I discovered a massive underground area, capped with a lore-heavy boss fight. The week before that, I wrapped up some character side-quests (incl. stuffing guts up a dude’s butt?). All throughout, I’ve been getting my ass stomped in Crumbling Farum Azula.
After Breath of the Wild came out, I saw a lot of people making the same mistake: that BotW was astonishing because there was so much stuff to do . It was the same annoying quantifier that sunk No Man’s Sky before release. Even when Zelda showed us all a different way to make an open world, the wrong lessons were learned. It was stuffed with content, but it made exploration for exploration’s sake enjoyable,
Let’s ignore the well-trodded slag heap of the Ubisoft Open World and focus on Ghost of Tsushima. Even Ghost, with its lack of minimap and in-world guides, wants us to see everything. It’s organic but there is still a feeling of unease the player will miss out on content.
The Father of the Souls games, Miyazaki, doesn’t think of his games as content. Not even the narrative is handed to you or, if it is, it’s only a part of the story. In Dark Souls, if you follow the story in a linear fashion, the outcome is actually not great for the world. You perpetuate an oppressive cycle and you don’t even realize it. Your incuriousness damns you. But the storytelling is so obtuse that you don’t even realize you’re being played. It’s the BioShock twist without the villain’s helpful explanation of the plot.
Elden Ring is what I thought World of Warcraft was going to be before the tenets of the MMORPG was canonized. It’s a place that existed long before you entered it and there are many, many spaces that are not for you. The world is hostile the way the real world can be. When you are welcomed somewhere, it’s worth being skeptical about why.
This density is a hallmark of Miyazaki’s storytelling. To create the “Open World Dark Souls”, Miyazaki turned to the reigning king of dense fiction: George R. R. Martin.
The specifics of Martin’s involvement in writing Elden Ring were much discussed before release. Disgruntled readers, and viewers burned by Game of Thrones, were quick to assume he had nothing to do with Elden Ring at all. (The ending of Game of Thrones is about as good as the rest of the show and if that makes you angry it’s time to move on.)
But the truth of Martin’s involvement is fascinating and should open up a whole new world of artistic collaboration.
Basically, Martin created the history of the world of Elden Ring. All its kingdoms, kings, queens, lands, wars, struggles, secret societies, religions, and armies. He did what he does best: he created a world and imagined the people who live in it.
And Miyazaki blew it all up!
Elden Ring takes place after the apocalypse. The Gods Martin created have destroyed the world he so carefully constructed. You stumble through a broken world, like an outsider in the ashes of King’s Landing after Dany’s war, or frost-bitten Westeros in the wake of a successful White Walker invasion.
It’s the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies of video games.
Ghost of Tsushima tells a pretty good videogame story in a beautiful world that is fun to explore. It is vast, but not overwhelming — like a solid prestige tv series.
Elden Ring barely tells a story at all. Instead, it presents a text. It is wide like Ghost, but it is also deep (literally: there’s an entire underground landmass). Elden Ring is overwhelming, but not in the traditional way we think of video games as being overwhelming. It doesn’t feel like content because the people who made it don’t think of it as content. It’s a space, a very video game-y space, that feels like it will continue to exist without the player.
There are parts of the world that are optional to the point of being repulsive. I didn’t find Miquella’s Haligtree because I was looking for it, I didn’t follow a walkthrough. Instead, I discovered it. I have been aging my character as I play because, after 85 hours, I feel like I’ve been lost in this world for decades.
Ghost of Tsushima is being developed into a feature film, a hilarious misunderstanding of what connects people to that story. Elden Ring is a video game, it could never be anything else. It exists to be discovered, to be engaged with, to be probed and, even after dozens of hours, to surprise.
My wife saw me playing this weekend and asked didn’t I already finish this? I shrugged. I won’t give an estimate anymore. I truly have no idea how much is left. I don’t care. I’m in it for the ride.