Elden Ring and Closing the Loop
In all my gaming, sometimes I drag myself a little too harshly into an ending. Maybe it doesn’t hit me that I’m not enjoying it until the last acts, or maybe I’m just invested enough to where I want to see the ending, even if I don’t relish getting there. Maybe I’ve sunk in just enough time into the experience that calling it quits before the end would feel like a betrayal against myself. And then there’s FromSoftware’s library, which always seems to bring me back for more…to a point.
In all the games they’ve released, I have the Dark Souls trilogy, Sekiro, Bloodborne, and Elden Ring on my shelves. I crapped out real quick with Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne; just couldn’t get the hang for them, didn’t make it much further than the first couple areas. I made decent progress on Sekiro, and then just put it down one day. My save file for Dark Souls 3 has me at the doorstep of the final boss. Dark Souls is my shining grace: the only FromSoftware game I can say I’ve beaten.
In all my time playing Elden Ring, I really thought it would join the likes of Dark Souls. Nearly ninety hours sunk in. Level 150+. Fantastic elements that set it aside from other FromSoftware games, while still being certifiably FromSoftware. I dragged myself to the threshold of the final boss. And now, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t drag myself into ensuring final victory. So last night, I put it down. Ejected it from my Xbox, put it on my shelf. Maybe I’ll pick it back up again, but right now, I need time. I have to be done with it. I have to close the loop.
Vague spoilers for Elden Ring follow.
If it does not spark joy…
I’ve gone off about how much I love difficulty settings, sliders, and accessibility in games. But I can also respect the likes of FromSoftware and other developers for making a game by their design: one difficulty for all players, get good, Enemy Felled, rinse and repeat. Not all games appeal to all players, just as different TV series, movies, or books vibe with different people, but not all people. At this point, FromSoftware is creating for their audience, and their audience (myself somehow included) is always game for it.
That brings me to the many FromSoftware games I haven’t completed. What’s the line between “damn, this is hard, but it’s starting to click,” and “damn, this is hard, and I feel like I’m not making any progress, no matter what I do.” When do we cross that line? Is that bad design? Personal skill? Subjective perspective? When even grinding your way into victory seems insurmountable (or, worse, boring), where does that leave the audience? To me, a story is only as strong as its pacing, and there was a good while where Elden Ring nailed it. And then it just started to drag. It started to feel too grindy. It started to get boring, even as the world was undergoing some proper endgame changes and shifts.
Games can be challenging. Some of them are best when they are. But at a certain point, the challenge just feels truly insurmountable. Elden Ring, to its credit, sidestepped this for a good, long while; the first two acts made anything feel conquerable, because you didn’t have to conquer it to progress. Once the path got narrow, more railroaded, more that you had to overcome something to progress…it stopped feeling like a challenge I could return to, and more a wall that I had to smash into and see how much of a dent I could make. And then adjust. Smash again. Repeat, until eventually dragging my way onward. When the open world started to shrink down and become more of a single road, that was when my experience suffered the most. That was when it stopped bringing me joy.
Here’s the thing: I literally just wrote about how much a step away Elden Ring is from other FromSoftware games. The beauty and wonder, yes, but also mechanically. How much of a welcome change of pace everything was, balancing the developer’s core identity with a newfound sense of accessibility and openness yet unseen in FromSoftware games. But then it shifted into those familiar grounds for the final act: linearity, grinding, punishing levels of seeming cruelty.
It’s not that I’m looking for a triumphant romp across the Lands Between, or any setting FromSoftware cooks up. I just don’t want to get whiplash in the last acts. Everything, and I genuinely mean everything, was beautiful in the first two-thirds of the game. The aesthetic. The world-design. The Lands Between, the music, the combat, the enemies, the themes, the progress, the pacing, everything. And then it all just slammed to a stop. It stopped being everything that I loved about it, and it quickly devolved into just another punisher of a game.
The difficulty is one thing, but when the tone of the experience suddenly shifts away from what it’s already established, it’s more dissonant than any difficulty hike. When a world brimming with hope suddenly, and I mean suddenly, feels like the hope has gone out, then it just hurts to go on. Again, I don’t necessarily want an easy adventure when I hook up FromSoftware’s games, but I do expect some level of consistency, or gradual tonal shifts when the narrative calls for it. Otherwise, it just makes for a lacking, dragging experience.
Players spend the entire game in the shadow of the Erdtree: a city-sized tree spanning into the clouds themselves, glowing a brilliant gold all hours of the day. It also serves as a main focal point; no matter where you are on the map, you can probably see the Erdtree, and you know in the back of your head, “Yeah, I’m gonna touch that tree.” And you will, in time.
If the game ended when I first reached the Erdtree and triumphed at its base, Elden Ring would have become one of my favorite games of all time, held up on the merit of what it carried over and what it created anew.
But instead, it blocked me off. Elden Ring told me, at the threshold of the victory I’d fought so hard for, that I needed to keep going. That there was only one way to get to where I needed to go. That the open world was now a path up a mountain, through a desolate city, and then back to the Erdtree. Some games, I’d be thrilled that there was more to play. But this time, it just felt cruel.
Thinking back, I think this is why I love Hollow Knight so much. Once upon a time, I technically “beat” the game. The little Knight had triumphed, but at a terrible cost. Credits rolled. I nodded and was satisfied, despite an empty swathe of my map yet unexplored. Months later, I revisited it again to delve deeper, to challenge myself further, and to ultimately fight harder, to triumph over the true final challenge. And again, the little Knight triumphed, and again, at a terrible (but more peaceful) cost. Credits rolled. I was satisfied again.
There’s a lot to be said for recognizing when an experience can be “too much,” especially in the interactive form. Chunking a story out in such a way as to “end” multiple times, and multiple ways, can maintain an audience more effectively than more, more, and more before you can say you’re done. The first trip to the Erdtree was that threshold for me, and maybe I should have stopped playing right then and there.
Closing the Loop on My Terms
I imagine that, in time, I will remember two things about Elden Ring: one, that I stopped playing at the final boss, as I have once before. Two, that the things that made me happiest about the experience truly made me happy. The last part tripped up, by my count, but that does not do away with all the beauty it gave me, or all the joy the first two acts gave me. The accomplishment. The progress. The aesthetic. The old FromSoftware tricks, and the old FromSoftware sense of triumph. Like so many other stories and series I love, I may just choose to ignore certain elements when I look back on it. And that’s okay. Rather than wallow in what dragged an experience down, I’d much rather bask in what I cherish from it, even knowing I might have tried to cut my losses a little too late.
The loop is closed, and I define what that loop meant to me.
All images courtesy of Elden Ring’s Steam page.