Elden Ring, best I can tell, is a video game about running around in any direction until you are savagely owned to hell by malevolent skeletons of varying sizes. Sometimes you ride a horse across a sunlit field and are owned by a large skeleton. Other times you creep along a precipice and are owned by a normal skeleton. Sometimes you defeat one small skeleton and then are instantly owned from out of nowhere by a huge skeleton. Other times you run away from a large skeleton and are suddenly owned by an ambush of several small skeletons. On the rare occasions that you are not owned by any skeletons at all, usually it’s because you wandered off a cliff or were eaten by a bear.
If this impression of Elden Ring is wrong in any way, I absolutely do not want to know about it. I would like as little information as possible about the substance of this game. I have found that following Elden Ring from afar—watching random clips on social media or absorbing deranged late-night Twitter threads—is roughly one thousand times more fun than I ever had playing its predecessors in the FromSoftware collection of video games. If I were playing Elden Ring and thus subjecting myself to dozens of hours of being owned mercilessly by skeletons, I would need the plot and characterizations and lore to sustain my attention, which after all would be occupied for dozens of hours. But since I am not playing Elden Ring, information and context can only ruin the delightfully surreal experience of happening utterly at random upon an image of what appears to be the Turtle Pope.
Turtle Pope suggests the existence in the Elden Ring universe of a whole turtle catholic hierarchy; Turtle Pope’s sober bearing while discussing the fidelity of his religious belief with a wanderer in a wildflower meadow suggests a possible Turtle Pope–in-exile situation. However interesting Turtle Pope might be to a knower of the lore of Elden Ring, he is supremely interesting as an incomprehensible artifact of a world I absolutely do not understand at all.
A very cool thing about the FromSoftware games, and specifically the so-called “Soulsborne” series of games, is that they are not at all constructed to be manageable, or even approachable, for casual gamers. They’re insanely challenging, for one thing, and their worlds are dark and gloomy and overwhelmingly hostile, and the stories are minimal and obscured. This is not due to shortcomings in game design or world-building or storytelling. The games are expertly, meticulously crafted to be exactly what they are. This can be perplexing and even infuriating to a person who is looking for something else—mondo kill streaks, bright colors, a bumpin’ soundtrack, endearing characters, a breezy playing experience—like you have been duped into paying money for something that is overtly hostile to the very idea that you might expect to have a good time while playing a game.
I once tried to get into FromSoftware’s Dark Souls game, back in 2011, on the recommendations of several trusted video game pals. The setting of Dark Souls is unrelentingly bleak, which in general is not something I love, but I was assured that I would find the challenges of the game rewarding, even exhilarating. Approximately 20 playing-hours later, I had been killed by the same pair of skeleton archers roughly 300 times, and had respawned in the same exact small room 300 times, and had advanced maybe four percent of the way into the game, and absolutely no part of it had been anything that I would ever dare to describe as “fun.” I progressed through several entire and intense emotional stages while trying and failing for hours at a time to defeat the two completely anonymous skeleton archers, sometimes cackling in disbelief, sometimes spiking my controller in a rage into a nearby sofa, often coming jarringly close to actual sobs of frustration. To this day I could not tell you what comes after those two skeleton archers. One day I simply removed the Dark Souls disc from my console, pressed it back into its box, and set the box gently in my kitchen trash can.
That should’ve been enough to tell me that this style of video game is extremely not for me, but the game was so well-reviewed and so obviously carefully made that I came to view this episode as a personal failure, rather than a simple incompatibility. I tried again with Sekiro, in 2019. This time I didn’t get anywhere close to 20 hours in. There is a part very early in the game where three guards defend a gate that your character must pass through, and at least one of them is carrying a gun of some sort. These are not high-level enemies by any stretch, and yet they owned me up one side and down the other, so thoroughly that by the end of one extended play-session I knew that I would never have the perseverance or attention span to get anywhere in the game. I simply deleted it from my hard drive and never looked back.
I will not be making that mistake a third time, with Elden Ring. It appears to be a breathtakingly beautiful game—especially on PC and next-gen consoles, none of which can be found inside my home—with an enormous open-world play area full of spectacular environments and many fascinating skeletons. It also appears to present the same relentless, punishing challenges as its FromSoftware predecessors. For players who are into that sort of thing—and there are many of them—I’m sure it’s an absolute blast. I no longer possess the true heart of a gamer, and so I will have to pass on this opportunity to burn whole days of my life trying to enter one single door in a video game. Thankfully, the very challenges that would be driving me to midnight tears of despair as a player make for something genuinely excellent and amazing to follow at the weird angled distance of a social media lurker.
Beyond that a character is attempting to survive, and failing, I really could not tell you what the hell is happening in any of the clips in this video. Why are the inanimate hanging skeletons screaming? Why is the statue sneaking around the dungeon? Why is the orange sword man ambushing the red scythe man? Does blood usually float around the room in a semi-sentient blob? And yet I find that the the essential character of this game comes through delightfully: that it is enormously challenging to progress in any direction in Elden Ring, but also somehow worth the effort. The gigantic winged skeleton-goblin that teabags the player upon the event of her death is undeniably bitchin’; I feel reasonably certain that smiting this beast and returning the salute would be immensely gratifying. Watching it makes me want to watch more. Every video of someone getting comprehensively wrecked by a bizarre opponent rewards my attention in some new way. The clip of the guy getting booted off a plank gangway and then nailed with a flaming arrow (?) and then screaming and falling to his fiery death is possibly the funniest video game thing I have ever seen.
I can’t remember ever having had so much fun watching other people play a video game. To me it’s very cool that video games can work this way. The same remove isn’t really possible with other media. A book that is not for you is not any more interesting when you watch someone else read it. A movie that drives you crazy will still drive you crazy; a song that brings you to the brink of a rage meltdown will not suddenly become good and fun while it is enjoyed by some anonymous stranger. Elden Ring is unapologetically Not For Everyone, in the best tradition of FromSoftware games. The solution, for me, is to simply not play it, whereupon it ceases to be a game that is driving me insane and becomes a thoughtfully crafted and beautifully rendered fantasy television show about other people going insane due to conflicts with overpowered skeletons. It’s great!