Tom Ley: Hello Patrick. Thank you for joining me to talk about Elden Ring, a video game which I have only been playing for a little over a week now, but which I fear may ruin my life. I understand that you are now becoming fully Elden-pilled, so tell me how that’s going.
Patrick Redford: The real problem with this game is that there’s so much of it, not strictly in the sense that the map is big, which it is, but rather that there is what appears to me to be an infinite skill ceiling. I don’t really think this is a game I will ever master in any real sense, and the sheer amount of ways you can kill enemies and build your character and, essentially, Git Gud is staggering. I have never played a FromSoftware game before, and taking my first plunge has been pleasantly overwhelming.
TL: Yeah I suppose we should make it clear that we are both FromSoft beginners, which may make a lot of what we have to say here obvious or trite for people who have been playing these games for years, but that’s not our problem!
Like you, I have also been sort of awestruck by how many different ways there are to play this game. After trying it out it for a few hours on the day I downloaded it, I realized that over the last few years I have become conditioned to expect all open world games to be inherently boring when it comes to actual gameplay mechanics. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a good example of what I mean, in that each installment brings with it an even bigger world with even more freedom and even more tasks to complete, but the actual gameplay never grows along with the world. So you end up playing 80 hours and never once doing anything more interesting than running up to a group of bad guys, pressing the circle button three or four times, and killing those bad guys.
I thought those were the kind of games I preferred, especially after trying to play Sekiro, another FromSoft game, and getting so nude and red and mad about how difficult it was that I never picked it up again after playing for about 10 hours. But Elden Ring has sort of blown up all of my old ideas about what I thought I liked about video games.
PR: There really is something to be said for a game so actively hostile to the player. The Ubisoft-ification of open world games that you mentioned is, I think, defined by pandering to what developers think players want, which is clear visual cues, a series of core gameplay loops replicated in three-dimensional space, and a sense that as your understanding of the world develops, so does your mastery of it. My favorite game of all time, The Witcher III, even falls into this trap, and while that game’s combat is multilayered and its landscapes are beautiful, there is none of the active infliction of pain that, strangely enough, is at the core of what makes Elden Ring so special.
If you are sympathetic to the argument that all single-player AAA, RPG-style video games are about power fantasies, Elden Ring is a pretty smart inversion of this formula. By the logic of modern gaming, dying all the time, in hilarious and excruciating ways, to even little scrub-ass gargoyles and rats and shit should be infuriating, but it kind of rules?
TL: Yeah I think the point I was kind of circling around above is that Elden Ring has made me realize that I was lying to myself every time I sat down to play Assassin’s Creed for two hours and acted like I was having fun killing hundreds of weak-ass enemies just for the sake of exploring a richly populated world advancing the story. Because video game storytelling is stupid! What Elden Ring has done is come along and said, “You idiot. You fool. Why do you care about this stupid plot and these stupid characters?” And then it threw me into an open world game that has basically no real plot or NPCs to speak of, and demanded that I find my own ways to have fun while also routinely getting my ass kicked. And not only am I having fun trying to come up with new ways to not get my ass kicked, I am finding that I am actually way more invested in the totally under-explained lore and story than I was in all of the B-movie plots that so many other big-budget games have thrown at me.
Anyway, I feel like maybe we got into the weeds too quickly here, and should back up a bit. How many hours have you played so far, and how much of that time has been spent getting absolutely owned?
PR: I have played for 10 or so hours, and have not beaten the first boss, or really made much serious progress in getting good enough to beat said first boss. I started the game out as a Confessor, and I’m pursuing a Faith build so I can use this sick scythe and also do cool spells. Of those 10 hours, two of them were spent farming runes to get enough currency to use the cool scythe, which I thought would help me get owned less. That hasn’t worked, and so here I remain, getting my ass kicked. You are also confessing right?
TL: Yeah it sounds like we are basically playing the game in the exact same way. But this is what’s so interesting to me about the game: If I had never played it before and you had just said to me, “Well I’ve played for 10 hours, made basically zero progress, and spent a big chunk of that time grinding up my stats so that I could use a cool weapon,” I’d probably be like, “Wow, that sounds awful!” But since I’ve also played it I know that what you have described was somehow a blast. What do you think has made it fun so far?
PR: There is an axiom of game design that posits a stealth game is only as good as the combat the player has to engage in when the stealth breaks down, or an open world game is only as good as the dense, level-designy aspects of that open world. I think the real animating factor here is the constant danger of dying, at any time, to any enemy. It forces you to take the open world seriously in a way no other game does, because there are incredible rewards for exploring the nooks and crannies of the map, and also because you could die any time. This makes beating a tough enemy, or finding a cool spell, way more rewarding than it would be in any other game.
I would say the two things that got me hooked came before I farmed my scythe (or, rather, the use of my scythe). One was taking down the demon chihuahua dungeon boss that it seems most people fight fairly early. After lucking into almost beating him on my first try, it then took me probably 20 tries to actually take him down, a process that demanded pattern recognition, mechanical skill, and planning in equal measures. I saw the FromSoft loop to completion for the first time, and it rocked. The second memorable encounter was a similar dungeon boss fight, only this time, I died 10 or so times before I realized I could use some spell thing called an Ash of War to summon a bunch of cool ghost wolves. I rang my bell, summoned forth my hounds, and they ate the boss without me really having to swing my sword. If the first fight showed the intoxicating satisfaction of Getting Good, the second showed the range of possibility on offer. Also, because I had been charmed by the game’s inscrutability by that point, I found it quite amusing that Elden Ring did such a poor job of explaining how to use its tools. Was there a specific moment that drew you in?
TL: I think I was hooked the first time I got eaten by a big dragon. That moment drove home the thing you mentioned about the threat of death being ever-present, no matter where you go. Before running into the dragon I had spent a few hours screwing around in the opening section (I also kicked the ass of the chihuahua dungeon boss), and was starting to feel like I had a good handle on the game was surely on my way to dominating all enemies I would encounter. Then I went a little too far east and a dragon landed on my head.
That’s a moment that should have been incredibly frustrating to me, but it actually ended up having a kind of soothing effect. I realized then that what’s often so frustrating about dying and failing in other video games is that it feels like a temporary problem. Sure, you are dying a lot now, but that’s just because you haven’t played enough or gotten enough cool gear, and once you do that you’ll be unstoppable. But what I’m starting to figure out about Elden Ring is that there’s always going to be something new around the corner that is ready to kick my ass, no matter how much time I’ve spent mastering a particular area. And so dying a lot isn’t something that really makes me mad or frustrates me. It just lets me know that I need to come up with some new solutions to the particular problem I am facing, and that I can go searching for those solutions anywhere else in the vast open world.
How have you found playing an open world game that has so little in the way of plot and exposition? I went into this thinking that I would feel totally alienated by the lack of a coherent narrative arc, but I have actually enjoyed that aspect of the game quite a bit. Like, do you have any idea what’s going on and what your weird little guy or what he’s supposed to be doing?
PR: I don’t mind it at all, really. While there is somehow even less traditional storytelling than Breath Of The Wild, the world building on display here is impressive as hell. I tend to like opaque, muddled stories anyway, and I actually quite enjoy slowly piecing together an idea of what the world is based on enemy types, lore fragments in item descriptions, and what I now know to be FromSoft’s signature blend of ultra-spookified Northern European mythology and Japanese horror. In a larger sense, it is somewhat coherent for a little worm character who is getting killed every 10 minutes by skeletons to have a fragmented understanding of the world. That said, I think it will be fun to watch a 45-minute video in three months explaining what was going on the whole time.
The most fun I have with any narrative stuff has basically nothing to do with cut scenes or dialogue, but rather the meta-narrative of my fellow Tarnished morons also trying to get that Elden Ring (I think this is what the goal is?) and leaving messages in my game. I recently tried to sneak around the castle where the first boss lives, and I kept reading all these messages on the narrow path around a cliff. “Strong foe ahead!” and “be wary of up” they warned, so I crept slowly, kept my guard up, and snuck around every corner … only to arrive safely at a checkpoint having never faced any real enemies. Delightful.
TL: Yeah I also love all the messages! When I first started I thought they were just going to be annoying and that I would end up ignoring most of them, but I’ve found them to be extremely comforting in certain situations. Like when I am inching my way through a particularly difficult dungeon and there’s a dark tunnel ahead of me, it’s really nice to read a message at the beginning of the tunnel that’s like, “Watch right,” and then be ready for a monster to jump out at me from around the right corner. It’s like having a friendly, semi-stoned friend on the couch next to you, pointing at the screen and saying stuff like, “Dude, watch out for that guy there.”
One thing I’ve wondered about is whether my enjoyment of this game will convince me to go back and give Sekiro another chance, or to take a shot at any of the Dark Souls games. I think the answer to that question is “Hell no!” because I think all the stuff I have talked about here about repeatedly dying being fun and invigorating totally falls apart without the open world aspect. Getting eaten by a dragon is fun when I can just leave the dragon at any time in search of a spell to better fight him with, but I think that becomes a lot less fun if I am stuck in a hallway with him and there’s nowhere else to go. What about you?
PR: Absolutely same. I sense this tension within the game, since there really are so many ways to get through the world and some of those deviate from the standard Souls formula of grinding until you are a sword freak who knows every frame of a boss’s three phases and five separate attacks, which offer you tiny windows to get one or two slashes in, and which require you to repeat the same grueling action 40 times to avoid getting one-shotted. In no way is this game easy, but the de facto existence of a difficulty spectrum is necessary for me to actually have any fun here. I’ve come across some traditionalists who are upset that there are workable cheese strategies and hilariously overtuned spells available to players, but I am here to have fun, so, yeah, this has not Sekiro-pilled me.
Perhaps the best praise I can give Elden Ring is that it defies so many conventions of genre that I am not tempted to try out Bloodborne, but rather, I simply want to keep Eldening that Ring.
TL: Yeah, like I said at the top, this game is so good that I think it might ruin not only my entire life but also all other video games. Like I can’t imagine going back to an Ubisoft open world game now, and dealing with a big stupid map with 700 different icons on it and a quest log full of 240 tasks I need to complete. I know there was a lot of Discourse around the fact that this game doesn’t have a detailed map or quest log, and at first I was on the side of the people who thought this would make the game inaccessible to all but the most hardcore gamers. But I’ve found that the total opposite is true. The lack of hand-holding actually makes the experience of playing the game less stressful, because I’m never thinking about how much I have to get done or how I should be allocating my time. I just start the game up, decide that there’s a place I want to look at or a boss I want to try and kill, and I go do it. Whether I succeed or not doesn’t really matter, because there’s always something else for me to go look at or some other big freak to try and kill if I get bored or frustrated. It’s a real testament to the quality of this game that it can be both the hardest and most relaxing video game I’ve ever played.
PR: Weak foe ahead. Therefore praise the message!
TL: The last thing I want to say is that, in addition to everything else that is great about this game, it has the best main menu music I have ever heard. No video game soundtrack has any right to go this hard.