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Two ‘Elden Ring’ Freaks Reflect On Their Time With The Game Of The Year

The two authors having their discussion.
Screenshot: VaatiVidya/YouTube

Patrick Redford: Hello Tom, I enjoyed going back and re-reading our first discussion, where we’re both clearly farting around the Weeping Peninsula and dying to rats all the time. We’ve both come so far in three months of Eldening that Ring. It is very funny that we were both like, “It’s fun to swing a sword and cast spells, but this is hard!” and then we went on to spend the next few months sending each other notes like, “OK, so I don’t know if you know this, but if you listen to the translated lyrics of the song that plays as you fight the Godskin Duo, it makes their lore implications clear; they seek to defile the bodies of members of the Golden Lineage and wear their skin as clothes so they can absorb their power. This may explain their moveset and why they stalk the church in Crumbling Farum Azula.”

Tom Ley: Yeah dude, I think it’s safe to say that we both completely overdosed on the Elden pill. I was crushing that shit up and snorting it every night! I am curious about how many hours you have spent playing the game at this point. When I finally finished the main storyline I believe I was at about 115 hours, which is definitely the most time I have ever spent with any RPG. And I loved every minute of it! How about you? 

PR: I’m right there with you, 122 hours in. Once I beat the final boss, I immediately respec’d into Intelligence and started a new-game plus so I could try to fight with a completely different moveset. I thought I would be bored by treading the same ground again, and while I am enjoying the challenge of learning how to use different weapons and sorceries, I feel a sense of sadness that I can never explore the world for the first time again. This sounds like I’m writing about, a breakup, not a swords game, but man, Elden Ring got its hooks into me more than any other game I’ve played as an adult. It’s fucked up!

TL: Yeah I have been avoiding starting a second play through because I know I am gonna feel the same sort of emptiness that you are feeling. Maybe if I just wait a few months I’ll get the Elden Itch and fire it up again and have as much fun as I did the first time? That seems unlikely, but the fact that I am even thinking about a stupid video game this way just speaks to how thoroughly it embedded itself in my brain. Even during the hours of the day when I was not playing it, I’d find myself just sort of idly reading item descriptions for various weapons on the internet and being like, “Oh, nice. That’s a cool axe. Maybe I’ll try using that some day.” This is big-time sicko behavior, and I am not sure I even fully understand why the game did this to me. I guess maybe we can try to figure that out here. Now that you’ve finished it and had some time to think, what would you say is like, the Big Thing that you feel this game accomplished?

PR: This is not an answer I would have expected to give when I started this game, but for me it’s storytelling. I thought that the point of these games was the mechanical skill needed to traverse the world, but I didn’t expect the world itself to be as rich as it was. I think somewhere around Raya Lucaria, I started to get good enough to pick my head up and look around at the world of Elden Ring. What I saw wasn’t this dreary horror world I expected, but a rich mythic place, fought over by a series of rival factions, demigods, and other freaks. I’ve never played any game this obtuse with its storytelling style, and I was so overwhelmed at first that I never thought I’d be reading item descriptions and watching insanely long YouTube videos about what Elemer of the Briar did to end up in that castle. What struck you over the head the hardest?

TL: This is pretty funny, because I ended up experiencing the exact same sort of reversal that you did. I went back and read our first discussion and am now kind of embarrassed at the fact that my initial reaction to game was along the lines of, “This game rules because it doesn’t waste time with dopey storytelling and instead focuses on challenging me!” Because like you I very quickly became obsessed with the storytelling, and as the game went on that is what kept me playing way more than any technical aspects, which honestly become a lot less important as your character gets stronger and can use big powerful spells to wipe out enemies. I have no idea if that sort of shift in what I found enjoyable about the game was purposely set up by the designers, but it was extremely effective.

To that end, I’ve been thinking about why I felt so taken by the story aspects of the game, and I think it has to do with this being the first game that’s really grabbed me on a vibes level in a long time. Motion capture technology and professional voice acting have done a lot to advance the idea that Games Can Be Movies Too, and you get hit with a lot of that in basically every Triple A game that gets released these days. The problem is that a lot of movies suck, and are much more likely to suck when they are being made under the kind of creative restraints that video game developers have to operate under. 

What I think really works about Elden Ring is that the creators clearly put an absurd amount of time into fleshing out the world and designing the characters and thinking about what motivates everyone in the game, but then they just sort of let all of that hang out and wait for you to discover it. So now I’ve reached a point where I am totally fascinated by the Godskin Apostles, and consider them to be one of the most memorable video game characters I’ve ever come across, and that all happened without there ever being a cutscene in the game where, like, the leader of the Godskin Apostles, rendered in beautiful CG and voiced by a professional actor, delivers a monologue to me about his motivations. That feels like a hard trick for a game to pull off, but it occurred to me that games used to do this to me all the time. I still remember all the enemies I fought in Ocarina Of Time, and they never said a damn word. 

PR: I think the reason, or a reason, why this works so well is that the signature dynamic of video games is interactivity. And a story laid down to you through monologues, etc. is unidirectional. You are not really a part of that story, you are a witness. But by making the player do their own work, you’re a much more active part of the storytelling. This feels especially true when considering the cases of Malenia and Mohg. Both bosses are tucked deep within essentially secret areas of the map, and though they’re hidden from the player at first, I think few people who play Elden Ring all the way through are going to do so without exploring the Haligtree or the Moghwyn Palace. Where the sharp edge of many games is blunted by looking up information, Elden Ring essentially demands that you consult some third parties, and, I think, rewards you for doing so. That it manages to be such a dynamic and rich text while factoring in the existence of Google is so impressive. 

TL: Yeah it’s kind of hilarious how some of the best boss fights and characters in the game are almost impossible to find without looking up how to get to them on the internet, and yet even that dynamic of the game fails to annoy me. My gamer instincts would say that looking things up online is kind of a cop out, or an unwise decision because of the potential it brings for having the game spoiled for me, but I never really felt any of that during this experience. Because Elden Ring is so big, and because it really goes out of its way to obscure things from the player, it all but necessitates Googling stuff like “how find Malenia tree.” When I did stuff like this I never felt like I was spoiling anything for myself or taking a shortcut, but rather like I was cracking open a tourism guide and finding some helpful information. Sometimes I would just go to one of the many websites dedicated to this game and look for stuff on the map that I had missed. Oh, it looks like there’s a catacomb I never found in that one region. Nice! I’ll go check that out tonight when I get off work. It was honestly a very pleasant way to play a video game. 

Speaking of pleasant things, I wanted to get your final verdict on the difficulty. We both came into this as FromSoft beginners and I think we both were a little bit overwhelmed by the difficulty early on, but how did you end up faring overall?

PR: Something I only sort of understood then was that the difficulty of the game is not a fixed position. Through the use of spirit ashes, farming, or summoning some pals, you can modulate the difficulty of the entire game, or even just specific encounters, as much or as little as you want. This was great! By the end of the game, I found myself wishing some things were more difficult. The final run of four bosses was honestly a bit of an anticlimax after I finished the Malenia fight. I’m trying to do my second play through without using spirit ashes, and am enjoying the challenge. But some boss fights were simply too big to do on my own, so I don’t feel like I cheated the game or myself by ringing that bell. The only benefit I could see of an easier game is an incentive or opportunity to use more types of weapons. I basically only used the two scythes and the Rykard sword throughout the entire game.

TL: Yeah I went through the same experience of feeling like I beat the last handful of bosses a little bit cheaply, but it also felt like a natural progression for me. Like if I’m a fucked up little guy who goes into an active volcano and manages to kill a demigod who is also fused with a gigantic serpent that swallowed him, I should be rewarded for that with a special sword that can more or less wipe out every other enemy in the game. I think the middle of the game was the hardest for me, just in terms of which bosses had me the most frustrated (the two gargoyles you have to fight in the waterfall place were absolute bullshit!) but I also felt like an unexpectedly hard boss could pop up at any time. I remember feeling kind of bad at how easily I defeated the Fire Giant, and then getting worked for like 45 minutes by a Death Bird who landed on my head out of nowhere while I was riding my horse and minding my own business. It’s fun when a game keeps you on your toes like that! 

PR: The goddamn Fire Giant kicked my ass so many times! Unlike the aforementioned Elemer of the Briar, I found the Fire Giant fight to be a bit tedious, so you are lucky to have beaten him quickly. I do agree that the twinblade gargoyle guys were big-time assholes, though they were a critical part of my absolute favorite part of the game. The run from the Radahn fight (a triumph of Getting The Fellas Together) into Nokron (spooky, perfect) into Deeproot Depths (likely bug ahead) was Elden Ring at its best. A series of exceedingly audacious boss fights that blends in well with multilayered exploration sequences, all of which build into tremendously satisfying yet still reasonably obtuse story and lore payoffs. Also a Crucible Knight fight, those always rocked. What was your favorite section of the game?

TL: Deeproot Depths was definitely my favorite section, because I got there right around the middle of my play through and felt like I had naturally stumbled upon some pretty wild lore (Godwyn the Golden turned into some kind of freaky death squid after he got assassinated and then infected the roots of a big old tree and unleashed the Death Blight on the world??? What???) which then opened up the floodgates for me to start looking stuff up on the internet and watching 45-minute lore videos on YouTube. There was definitely a moment where a switch flipped from, “I am really enjoying this game” to, “Well this is what I am gonna spend a lot of every day thinking about now.” Since you also became a lore sicko, what ended up being your favorite character or bit of world-building or whatever?

PR: Mohg, as his story best highlights the horror and mythic tragedy that Miyazaki and Martin were painting this story with. He was born of the Golden Lineage alongside Morgott, though both were cursed omen babies, who are supposed to be killed. But they were instead shackled in place in the royal sewers, and each reached the opposite conclusion from their fate. Morgott still respected the Erdtree and was like, “OK, you got my ass,” while Mohg was visited by some, uh, force, or being, or transdimensional goddess, and he decided to start an underground dynasty based on blood, fire, and blood-on-fire magic. He needed to steal his half-brother Miquella from under the Haligtree and restore the little empyrean to godhood. It didn’t work out, but he definitely fucked things up for Miquella and made a very spooky home for himself. It’s a tragedy, on several levels, but it also is woven into the gameplay the most deftly. I also like Radahn because he taught himself to use gravity magic just so he could keep riding his beloved yet spindly horse after he became the size of a building. You?

TL: I found myself really taken and even kind of (gulp) moved by Radahn and Malenia. I think they were both perfect examples of how good this game is at telling a story without much in the way of plot or character development. All you really know about these two is that they were at one point the greatest heroes in the world, that they beat the shit out of each other and fought to a stalemate during some big war, and now all they have to show for it is a lonely, haunted existence where they are both basically rotting from the inside out and just kind of sitting around waiting for someone to come along and mercy kill them. That tells a very compelling story about war and ambition and power to me, and it does it despite both of those characters speaking maybe a combined 15 words within the game. Even just the way Malenia wearily drags herself up from her chair to get ready to fight says so much more about who she is and where she’s been than any amount of expository dialogue could have.

OK, this is getting pretty long. Should we do final thoughts? Do you have any actual criticisms of the game?

PR: They moved away from the gag of having animals fall from the sky and one-shot you out of nowhere. Needed even more hilarious tricks and traps. I would have criticized the game’s obtuse level design (it’s so hard to see essential ladders and stuff) and under-tutorializing, but I came to love those, so.

TL: Yeah I really don’t have any meaningful critiques. I guess there were too many dragons? I got tired of the dragons.

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