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Elden Ring is almost impossible to explain, but so worth playing

It’s wildly difficult, ridiculously complicated, and could be the best video game of the year.

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A scene from the video game Elden Ring showing two characters outdoors by a campfire on a night with a bright moon.
Actual picture of me talking to anyone who will listen about Elden Ring.
Courtesy of IGDB

My once-peaceful home has been torn asunder, and it’s all Elden Ring’s fault.

Elden Ring is a video game, and an extremely popular one — the NPD Group, which tracks monthly game sales, issued a report noting that it’s the bestselling game of the year so far, selling over 12 million copies in the month it has been available and already in serious contention as one of the best games of the year, if not recent memory.

It is also extremely popular with my partner and me, who share a television and a PlayStation and are therefore unable to both play at the same time. So far, I would say that is the game’s greatest flaw, and it is hardly its fault.

Because Elden Ring is good. Like, cancel-your-plans, ignore-your-chores, glance-up-and-realize-it’s-three-in-the-morning good. It’s good in the kind of way you want to evangelize to practically everyone, which marks it as something of a departure from its immediate predecessors. A mostly solo role-playing game made by the studio FromSoftware (colloquially called FromSoft) under the direction of auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki, it’s the successor to games like the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, and Sekiro, all of which are legendary for their difficulty, their precision, and their intricately layered, often hard-to-parse lore. They’re beloved for good reason (Bloodborne might be my partner’s all-time favorite game), but certainly not for everyone. I play a ton of video games and yet I’d always been intimidated by these, assuming they were too dark and frustrating for my more lackadaisical, button-mashing play style.

Elden Ring takes the fundamental DNA of those games — the sensitive mechanics, the creepy yet compelling aesthetic, and, yes, the difficulty — and suffuses it throughout a third-person open-world setting (in layman’s terms, that means you’re a little guy running around fighting enemies). As the main character, an individual known as a “Tarnished,” you roam an ever-unfolding map to seek out enemies and questlines and eventually, hopefully, become the Elden Lord. (More on the plot, such as it is, later.)

The world is stunning and bizarre in its vastness, and provides the player with what I consider the game’s crucial element: It gives you a seemingly infinite number of places to go and things to do when you don’t feel like slamming your head against the wall confronting a difficult enemy.

It’s still wildly tough — I died around two dozen times in my first hour of the game, and a further couple dozen while attempting to take on a fight that I later learned wasn’t even against a major boss, just, like, some dude — but the game provides you with a heady sense of exploration and wonder, and a multitude of tools to improve your character build until you’re ready to go back and try again. And when you do, and you win, and Margit the Fell Omen (literally all of the names sound like this) is a pile of dust at your feet, holy fucking hell does it feel good.

Still, this game is enormous and complicated, and I’d argue that there’s still a significant barrier to entry. That shouldn’t dissuade you if you’re interested in checking it out or just learning more, but it’s good to go in armed with some basics if you’re new to the franchise like I am. Here are answers to questions you might have, as spoiler-free as is possible in a game where basically every new thing you discover could be regarded as a spoiler, but also where there isn’t really a traditional “story” to speak of. Arise now, ye Tarnished!

You can ride Torrent, your faithful ghost-horse, across the wide, wide world of the Lands Between.
Courtesy of IGDB

What’s the plot?

“Plot” is sort of a strong word when it comes to FromSoft games. There’s certainly a critical path here — you’re seeking out big bads in order to kill them and collect pieces of, you guessed it, a really old ring — but you could spend dozens if not hundreds of hours playing without any real sense of what’s going on or why things happen, and still have a satisfying experience with this game. Information is parceled out in often easy-to-miss dribs and drabs; you primarily learn tidbits about the world by reading item descriptions, or by talking multiple times to the same NPC (gamer speak for “non-playable character,” like a merchant), and even then it doesn’t necessarily add up to a single neat whole. The world you inhabit has suffered tremendously, has fractured beyond memory, and that sense is prevalent as you are dropped in without foresight or plan and begin to collect breadcrumbs.

I thought I’d be frustrated by the lack of direction or narrative propulsion, but haven’t found that to be the case at all; in fact, it’s liberating to feel like there’s nothing I’m really “supposed” to be doing and therefore can spend my time riding my ghost-horse halfway across the map to a location that just looks kind of cool. And when something does snap into place — when an NPC shows up in a location you never expected, or you realize why it was so important you picked up that seemingly useless item 10 hours back — it bears a strong resemblance to the satisfaction you feel after winning a hard battle. Above all, the game is generous; it rewards puttering around unearthing whatever seems interesting to you.

If you’re looking for more concrete-ish backstory to the FromSoft games, there are countless streamers and YouTubers recording their playthroughs, tips, and interpretations of lore, and quite honestly part of the fun of the game right now is seeing all of that sweet, sweet content get created. As a starting point, VaatiVidya is a popular YouTuber who explains everything from the series’ more missable plot points to how to find important items early on, and my friends over at Into the Aether (a lowkey video game podcast) have been streaming their runs on Twitch.

How long is it?

Really quite long, unless you’re a speedrunner who’s managed to complete it in under 30 minutes, which, go with God. The average playtime on Steam thus far is around 48 hours, but anecdotally I’d say that the overall game runs longer if you’re exploring and poking around (and getting absolutely stomped by gigantic evil bears); most people I know who have already rolled credits have put in at least 60 hours, and many folks have reported putting in well over 100. Considering the game came out less than a month ago, that’s a lot.

Why do people enjoy it if it’s so hard?

Difficulty is arguably the hallmark of FromSoft games, but it’s not meant to be frustrating for the sake of frustration; rather, it serves a narrative function, and provides the rhythm underpinning the entire game. You’re supposed to try again and again to overcome a challenge; you’re supposed to learn an enemy’s unique cadences and timing and battle techniques in order to gain just an inch more of an edge from attempt to attempt.

“If death is to be more than a mark of failure, how do I give it meaning? How do I make death enjoyable?” Miyazaki told the New Yorker upon the game’s release. In the same interview, he said, “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”

This is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, nor should it be. If it sounds like the opposite of how you’d like to spend your leisure hours, that’s deeply reasonable. But I will say that as someone who has often been attracted to gentler games, where sometimes there isn’t even a hint of a reanimated skeletal warlock who can one-shot you from an in-game mile away, I’ve found it far more accessible than I’d anticipated, and frustration isn’t even in the top five of my emotions most of the time I’m playing.

I want to be clear here that I’m not very good, at this game or really even these types of games; I tend to prefer turn-based over real-time combat, which basically means that I like to agonize over making a move for a plethora of seconds that is absolutely not available in a game this fast-paced. But I can figure it out; I can use the tools at my disposal, memorize the movements of enemies, and hack and cast my way through most hardships eventually. If I can, you probably can too.

Isn’t George R.R. Martin somehow involved?

He sure is. According to the New Yorker, Martin and Miyazaki were mutual fans of one another’s work, and the Game of Thrones author “provided snatches of text about [the world]’s setting, its characters, and its mythology” rather than writing the actual script of the game. See if you can spot the somewhat unexpected place where his initials show up.

Do I need a (still notoriously hard-to-find) PlayStation 5 in order to play?

Nope. If you have one of the older consoles, like a PS4 or an Xbox One, it runs there, as well as the newer PS5 and Xbox Series X and S (it is not and likely never will be on Nintendo platforms like the Switch). It’s also on PC, and if you are one of the lucky few people who have managed to snag Valve’s new SteamDeck, which is essentially a handheld PC, it apparently runs pretty well there too. Just know that it is a massive, massive game, and as such there have been a variety of bugs reported, particularly among PC users.

This is not even close to the most unpleasant enemy you’ll encounter on a minute-to-minute basis.
Courtesy of IGDB

Is there discourse about it?

You bet there is. The question of difficulty is sort of perennially central, among other somewhat related topics like user interface — there’s a corner of the hardcore FromSoft fandom that apparently believes the only way to “properly” play Elden Ring is by ignoring any element that might make battle easier (long-range magic, summoning ghostly creatures to provide backup, playing online co-op with other players to take down bosses), in a way that can veer into snobbery and dismissiveness when it comes to less-seasoned players. There’s a sort of meme-mantra in the community known as “git gud,” which, as Jade King writes over at the Gamer, is “shorthand for hardcore players laughing in the faces of newcomers who found themselves struggling with tough enemies and obtuse systems when learning the ropes of FromSoftware’s masterful vision.”

If you spend time on Twitter and Reddit reading about or discussing the game (which is, IMO, one of the more enjoyable parts of playing it at the same time as so many other people), you’re bound to encounter this attitude, although at this point you’re probably more likely to see its vocal opposite, decrying the above as elitist gatekeeping.

I tend to fall closer to that end of the spectrum: All those in-game elements are there for a reason, after all, and essentially serve as difficulty modulators (although the recent patch update might have defanged some previously overpowered items and skills). Above all, though, anyone who disagrees with your play style did not pay $59.99 in order to have access to your personal game file, so truly who cares what they think.

Any tips for someone just getting started?

The Resties, a sub-brand of gaming podcast The Besties, is co-hosted by Polygon’s Russ Frushtick and Chris Plante, and one of their recent episodes has an excellent list of tips for beginners, many of which I found naturally over the course of my own gameplay.

They recommend choosing a starting class that has some facility with magic if you’re new — I wound up going with the Astrologer, a mostly magic-and-occasional-melee unit that can project bolts of power from far away, which means I don’t have to go directly toe-to-toe with many of the stronger enemies. I’d add that it’s totally fine and even fun to start the game over a couple of times if you want to experiment with different characters; I’d originally chosen the Ranger, a class that focuses on bows, and while I wound up bouncing off in the first couple of hours because it was just too hard for me to do any real damage, I’m really glad I got a feel for such a dissimilar unit. I’m already planning to do future runs with a variety of builds. (See, this is how you get to 100 hours without blinking).

Another piece of advice they offer, and I heartily cosign, is to get comfortable just straight-up running away from situations you find you can’t handle. You get a horse early on (his name is Torrent, which some players speculate is so if you Google “Elden Ring torrent” you’ll get a bunch of pictures of the horse) and he can go faster than virtually any enemy I’ve encountered; it might feel cowardly or unnatural at first, but there’s a certain glee and even humor in the moment when you realize you’re absolutely in over your head and need to frickin’ book it.

That’s probably my last and best piece of advice: Let yourself find the humor in Elden Ring. It’s a serious game, to be sure, full of darkness and terror and unanswerable questions about the nature of life and death and legacy, but it’s also fairly hilarious. I don’t often laugh out loud at games, yet there have been more than a few moments when I’ve been absolutely ganked by an enemy in such an unceremonious way that I can’t help but burst into giggles. The writing, though spare, is often dry and arcane to the point of self-aware absurdity, and the character and level design is capable of evoking simultaneous paroxysms of terror and a hefty dose of WTF.

Really, my overall hesitation before playing this game was fear: fear of the dark and of vastness and of monsters with heads grafted onto their elbows, sure, but mostly fear that I would suck, and that it would not be at all fun to suck. I’m here to report that I do, and that it absolutely, totally is. Now the greatest challenge is snagging the PlayStation controller before my partner gets to it first.