How Elden Ring Taught me to Love Games Again
Overcoming Perfectionism in Play
Not since I was a teenager playing Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn has any computer game obsessed me as much as Elden Ring. I have enjoyed other games, especially the astonishingly thoughtful Disco Elysium (that comes closer than any other to replicating the magic of a pen and paper role playing experience in this medium), but Elden Ring has captured my imagination and allowed me to lose myself in both its lore and game style like no other title.
FromSoft games are all excellent, and cooping the Dark Souls games with my brother has been a pleasure too. (Often, I rely on his far superior game playing skills to overcome the challenges of this series.) Nonetheless, this game’s uniquely well-realised open world dynamics and its mythical contours, its mix of aesthetic features from across FromSoft’s related library (not only Dark Souls, but Bloodborne, Sekiro, even Demon Souls) is something else.
I have been thinking a lot about why it clicks so well for me. And I have come down to an explanation about how it encourages engagement with its story. Its open world makes good on the style of ambient and world-based myth building that is a core and compelling feature of the FromSoft souls titles, and this combined with its sheer but consistently engaging scale taught me to renounce a bad gaming habit.
My problem as a gamer has often been a certain completionism drive. I now recognise that this slightly limited even my enjoyment of the aforementioned Disco Elysium. There is a feeling I cannot shake that I have to play a game in the right way; that is, not a slavish adherence to the game’s intended play style (I will take any and all advantages over challenges, being not an especially talented gamer), but to the game’s intended narrative sequence. The problem is that many of the best games today do not have an intended narrative sequence.
Disco Elysium, for example, essentially integrates character creation into the entire game itself. The choices you make, the very narrow and particular paths you pick, shape the person you are playing in very absolute ways. And, importantly, foreclose other paths that remain tantalizingly apparent. It gives the game a unique replayability, since no encounter with it will be like any other. Unless, that is, you become tempted to game its mechanics and create a kind of superhero protagonist character, one who does not fail as much as he should to make a satisfying Disco Elysium story. (Two guesses what I did.)
A reason I enjoy walking simulators (such as Dear Esther, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Layers of Fear) is that they are narrative based (I love story in game), but excise the anxiety of not doing the story right. Elden Ring does the same in exactly the opposite way. The walking simulator (a genre I will defend against its many detractors) gives you one linear but interactive path. It has much in common with cinematic styles of narrative enjoyment. In Elden Ring, however, the story as the world is just too vast to remain anxious about. It forces the player to either give up or just take its huge world as it comes. It does not narrow you down to one approach like Disco Elysium, but overwhelms any attempt at perfection.
A Fractured Story
Elden Ring also rewards (with its elliptical mythology) the most speculative engagements with its ideas, which augments its size as counter to perfectionism. Not only does it force you to take it as it comes in world exploration, but it defies the kinds of definite accounts of its mythos that such perfectionism aims to generate. It rewards, in contrast, a kind of free-associative approach, where much of the world has to be imagined and hypothesized without certainty. (For this reason, a canonical approach to what is going on misses the point, in my estimation.)
For instance, I was recently watching a friend play online. He was wondering aloud about an enemy type called Vulgar Militiamen who are small people in dark garbs who ambush you in various places. I had wondered the same but it transpires that the only information that really exists on them is that they banded together because they were rejected for their small statures.
However, this becomes interesting when fitted into the broader world mythology of the game. At no point are you really bluntly told the politics of this world, but throughout you encounter various groups of outcasts. There are the artificial beings called the Albinaurics, the half-beast demi-humans, the cursed Omens (essentially ogres), those who live in death (basically undead), and various non-human species (giants, serpents, dragons, bat people) all of whom feel like they could have been rendered by the fairy-tale art of Arthur Rackham and all of whom have a touch of melancholic sadness about them.
This wistfulness is less surprising as you learn (through bits of vague dialogue, ambient cues and item descriptions) that the human order in whose ruins you stand violently rejected them all. Marika’s Golden Order and even more Radagon’s Golden Order fundamentalism had a human supremacism at their heart, which would later be rejected by their son Miquella and his tragically failed attempt to create an Unalloyed Golden Order for the oppressed (especially the heinously mistreated and for some reason Welsh accented Albinaurics). One of the Omens of royal blood, Morg, even attempts to create a kind of perverse version of Miquella’s utopian vision, and it finds echoes in the sentiments of other stray characters such as the noble Kenneth Haight.
This just skims a small part of the mythology (or even anti-mythology) of this game. It reaches wonderful moments of narrative poignancy in actual game terms. For example, in your relationship with the self-hating but lovable demi-human Boc the Seamster, whose path will either lead to death after transforming himself into a human, or self-acceptance if you use an item to tell him that he is beautiful in his mother’s voice.
But my chief point is that this is just a fraction of the game, and that my interpretation of it depends on my particular reading of sketchy information. Different interpretations are not only possible, but highly likely. And that openness allows me to throw myself into this world without a characteristic obsessiveness that, in other games might pull me out of the world into which I am attempting to become invested. In short, Elden Ring reminded me that I do not exist for the game, but the game exists for me. It reminded me that the point of a game is to extract whatever you want from it.
This game is a wealth of reference points, ideas, aesthetics, bound together with enough cohesiveness to feel coherent, but sufficiently loose that nobody can walk away from it with an identical experience. It is a play arena in a wonderfully childish sense, it is about play itself. Play in the sense of game play, but also in playing with the ideas and encounters and how these are taken and absorbed. Play in exploration that can feel limitless. It is a game that wants to be a game, to be experienced fully as its own medium.