Elden Ring has been out for nearly two weeks now—or, if you’ve been actively following the discourse surrounding From Software’s new spin on the Dark Souls formula on Twitter, enough time for your body to do that “turn to dust” thing that happens to the Old Bad White Guy from Last Crusade when he drinks from the wrong cup, about five times over.
Which is to say that the conversation surrounding the game has been, let’s say, fractious. Everyone—games journalists, veteran Souls players, newcomers to the franchise, and, perhaps most foolhardily, other game developers—have all begun trying to cram Twitter’s inexhaustible maw with takes on what From has accomplished here, and the deforming effect it’s had on the gaming landscape.
The arguments have ranged from the familiar (Souls games are comfortable teaching players by killing them; they also lack a host of critical accessibility options; the intersection between those two points could power a flame war strong enough to keep us all warm and toasty for years) to the outright petty (deep, fulminating anger at not being able to close your in-game map with the same button that opens it, rage at a lack of quest log to keep track of its deliberately inscrutable character stories and questlines). Many of these arguments stem, though, from the single thing that ensures that Elden Ring will dominate gaming conversations for the rest of 2022, and possibly until we’re all dead and buried in a haunted tomb: a dedicated indifference to following established gaming “best practices.”
Because while Elden Ring scrupulously follows many of the guidelines From has established for itself across a decade of Souls games—most notably in the rhythms of its combat, which rely on observation and planning as much as twitch-y thumbs, and in the various semi-scrutable systems it uses to guide players through its big, weird worlds—it rejects many more conventional ideas about what makes for “good” or “fun” gameplay. (Which is just another way the game parallels Nintendo’s Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, along with the open-world expansion of an established dungeon-crawling franchise, and an eager willingness to shove whatever Horizon game has just come out into a locker so it can suck up all the critical oxygen in the room.)
It would be wrong to call Elden Ring uncompromising—it compromises in ways both large and small, overt and subtle. (The addition of summonable monsters to take the edge off encounters is genius, from both a storytelling and gameplay perspective.) But it does so with a confidence that many modern “map games” decidedly lack, and which can seem off-putting on first blush. It’s difficult to imagine another a more focus-group-friendly developer hiding huge levels, highly hyped boss battles, and universe-establishing lore behind the sorts of hoops Elden Ring expects you to jump through as a matter of course. It’s unthinkable to imagine anyone pulling the perverse shit these devs do with traps and deliberately aimed jokes/cruelties. But it all tracks: A game that’s all about kicking over rocks and diving down the rabbit holes you find there wouldn’t work if you’re following a trail of breadcrumbs to get to them. (After all, the rabbits would eat the crumbs! This metaphor has become confused.)
On a personal level, my experiences with the game have vacillated periodically between overawed, and overwhelmed. When I signed off on my review of the game (posted just six days after codes were distributed to reviewers) I did so with a seemingly massive 40 hours of galloping across The Lands Between under my fashionable plate armor belt. I stand by that review—any critical perspective that says you can’t review the first two full days of your time with a game is basically discounting the importance of the moment-to-moment (to moment, to moment…) experience. But as my play clock now edges toward 100 hours—with the end in sight, but only in a very “Well, how the fuck am I supposed to get over there?” sort of way—I find myself jumping between exhausted and elated. There’s just so much here. It’s like someone asked, “Hey, what if Skyrim was actually good?”
Which is a cheap shot, but I sort of mean it: What if someone took one of these massive, bloated open worlds, filled as they are with with procedurally generated, algorithm-shat content, and instead filled it with authored, beautiful strangeness? Filled it with wonder and secrets, where finding a single hidden passage can open whole new vistas to explore? Filled it with strange, sad little stories, that come to dark and twisted ends? (Ah, my poor Irina/Hyetta; we’ll always have the time you puked because I told you that you were eating insane people’s eyeballs, instead of grapes.) It’s ugly and messy and there’s so goddamn much of it that just thinking about the game’s map—which, cunningly, expands and expands and expands from an initial manageable presentation as you push further at its edges—can leave me feeling bone tired. But I keep coming back to it, because it rewards my obsession with its beautiful ugliness—not with a leveled bow, or a few extra experience points. But with a deeper glimpse at its sickly gorgeous world.
You may bounce off of Elden Ring. If so, you probably already have. (God knows I bounced off Dark Souls, the first time I took the wrong path out of its opening level and was murdered by the invincible ghosts lurking in the terrifying New Londo ruins.) But here’s my official verdict, 1/100th of the way through putting in my 10,000 Gladwell hours with the game: If it was worth 20 hours of your time, it’ll be worth 40; if it’s worth 40, it’ll keep you hooked through 100. It is a game that defies neutrality: You either spit it out, or let it consume you like just another delicious, juicy “grape” sliding down its throat. It is, to put none too fine a point on it, a masterpiece, and where it occasionally missteps, it does so in the confident, idiosyncratic way that renders its flaws bold instead of foolish.
Which is all to say, as my final formal word on the topic, and with 100 hours of my actual human life gladly given over to it: Praise the Elden Ring.