Mythology meets Horror in Elden Ring
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
an amateur gamer’s initial impressions
It has been over a decade since Hidetaka Miyazaki took over the Demon’s Soul game and laid the foundation of the soulslike subgenre of ARPG (action role-playing games) characterised by steep learning curves and ambient storytelling. (As well as, albeit more inconsistently, features of another video game subgenre, the Metroidvanias and their gated style of level progression.) With the Dark Souls franchise, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and now Elden Ring, Miyazaki has remained the uncontested genius of this subgenre.
That is not to say that all of his releases have been equally well received or that FromSoft, for whom he works, should be free of criticism, but that his creative output has largely remained at a high level. And Elden Ring is not an exception, despite (in stark contrast to the more RPG light approach of Sekiro) its taking on a more RPG bent than is typical.
My own introduction to soulslikes in general and Miyazaki in particular has been quite recent. As I mentioned in a relatively new essay, I have for some short time been cooperatively gaming with my brother. And it is his greater gaming skills that have largely been pulling me through the first, and some of the second, of Dark Souls. (Sadly these have stalled, while FromSoft deals/dealt with serious problems on their servers, to cite one criticism of the company.) I have also enjoyed Enigmatic Elegy’s wonderful Let’s Plays of Bloodborne. Elden Ring is my first solo escapade, however.
When I first heard of its open world mechanics, I worried most that this dynamic would harm FromSoft's particularly astute penchant for enemy placements and highly thought through level design. (There are some notable exceptions to this quality in Dark Souls one and two, but they are definitely rightly characterised as exceptions.) Far from this worry proving warranted, the openness is sufficiently held back, at least so far in my adventures, that more linear authorial choices can still be made. Miyazaki is a rare and genuine gaming auteur, besides additionally being talented, and he generally knows when to exercise controls over his games.
Early on I tripped my way into a dungeon that was far too overpowered for my Astrologer character, who had gone wandering a bit too much for her own wellbeing. This place was full of fast-moving gargoyles consistently poised to ambush. Still, I got quite a long way by carefully scouting before the loss of Runes (which, like Souls and Blood Echoes in previous titles, are used to purchase items and character levels) forced my retreat. It was a lot like facing off against skeletons too early in Dark Souls, taking a wrong turn for the Catacombs.
The game’s controls are highly familiar to anyone who has played a previous FromSoft production, but here refined and polished enough to make it as fluid as any souls game yet. (Another Soulslike I have played with my brother, Hellpoint, comes closest to Elden Ring for its sheer ease of controls, but this outing has a lot more going for it in terms of worldbuilding, character creation, aesthetics.)
I would be remiss to call Miyazaki a game-making auteur and to praise worldbuilding and aesthetics without explaining what I mean. And as you may have gathered, it is not difficulty that attracts me to these games, but rather the difficulty is only one (if nonetheless still essential) part of how these stories are conveyed so aptly. At the start I noted the centrality of ambient storytelling, and that is perhaps the biggest factor in what elevates these games and how they show appreciation for a medium that thrives on such conceits.
In a Miyazaki game, if you encounter exposition, it will likely have most or all of the following features: it will be an outright lie or serious distortion of the truth; will be in a mythological register, stressing creation and primordial beginnings like something from Gilgamesh, The Poetic Edda or The Mabinogi; it will come with a macabre fantasy aesthetic that blends traces of Tolkien, Wagner, Gygax, Lovecraft, et al; it will be explicitly dialogic in Bakhtin terms, that is, conveyed from a single and biased point-of-view in conversation with other points-of-view.
This is in stark contrast to most other games of this type. For example, compare the opening of Dragon Age Origins, with the opening of Dark Souls. In the former, we have an objective narrator telling a fairy-tale in a monological mode. The only similarity is the set of fantasy influences that play on both openings, but here Dark Souls, in its maturity, represents the best of those influences. (I am not decrying Dragon Age, it should also be noted; it fulfils a different itch and was a great advancement in its own moment.)
Would I recommend Elden Ring? It currently comes with a £50.00 price tag, which is absurd for any game but now fairly standard. (It must be said that FromSoft do not engage in loot boxes, patently unfair downloadable content additions, and other nefarious anti-consumer practices that have become de rigueur corporate practices in gaming; although whether this really merits praise is another subject.) But on the game’s own accomplishments, yes I would recommend it, and unhesitatingly. Although maybe start with an earlier title first to get a handle on the gameplay itself.
There are moments in this game, even right at its start, that can stun an attentive player. The hostility of the world is matched only by its beauty, as great golden trees and windswept landscapes punish and reward play equally. And the whole comes together to tell you of a universe in tumult, a raw coming into being redolent of the earliest human stories. It is full of grotesques and life and everything between. Particularly everything in between. All the delightful horrors of birth and death and an indifferent, cosmic, sublime Nature.
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