Elden Ring and Creating a New Loop
When somebody hugged my character in Elden Ring, that’s when I knew this was different. The open world, the mount-based gameplay, the map, the jumping, that was all easy enough to adjust to. But watching my armored knight drop to a knee and damn near fall into another woman’s arms for a genuine embrace, that was when it started to click in my head. This was FromSoftware continuing in a loop, pursuing its own brand of design in the style of gameplay it’s had a chokehold on for years. This felt like their best attempt so far. The gameplay is different, but familiar. The world, however, feels familiar, but different.
In Dark Souls, everything feels hostile from the get-go. It is contained, narrow, claustrophobic. You begin in a prison and, depending on the ending you choose, end in a prison. The world is indifferent to you, but will battle you if you get too close. Exploration is nerve-wracking; each corner could hold traps, or enemies in wait, and there never seems to be enough room to maneuver. The world feels hopeless, even as you ascend into the sky to explore cloudscraping castles. The few cognizant occupants are forlorn, laid low, or otherwise cruel in their outlook. I look back on it and think, why would anyone want to reignite the flame when only more of this awaits?
Dark Souls III feels similar: a derelict, dying world split into chunks and pieces, those same pieces seemingly animated to foil your every move. The world is trying to prevent you for doing anything about it, anything for it. Exploration is depressing, all branching off from a main hub that spell desolation, downfall, and ruin. World occupants need no invitation to draw blood. The remaining denizens have sealed themselves away inside an ashen fortress, assisting as best they can against a seemingly hopeless fight. Everything is stacked again you: the world stands at its end, everything wants to stop you, and it seems the forces in control are already too far in control. And the closer you get to the end of your quest, you may wonder, is it even possible to drag back a world that’s teetering so close to non-human? To inhuman?
Then there’s Elden Ring. A world blown wide open, teeming with life, even as swathes of it attack you on sight, and others simply defend against you. The Lands Between feel different, but there’s an underlying sense of hope. Maybe you can change it, or change it back, or triumph over it. It feels like there’s still potential. Even as entire swathes of the world are wrought with destruction, disease, and legacies of violence, the new dynamics give it new life. You find yourself on-guard, but not necessarily on-edge. With an open-world concept comes a new sensation in the FromSoftware universe: the ability to leave. You can deviate. You can explore, both for game’s sake and your sake. You’re never stuck on one boss, or locked into one path, when you can always just leave and explore elsewhere.
To that end, exploration feels exciting, open, and encouraged. Not in the same way that other open-world games do, with myriad side quests and radio towers to gaze out from, but from genuine discovery. I can gallop my way into a disease-ridden swamp, or through a battalion of marching demi-humans, or through a desolate town of sorcerers, and if I want to, I can leave. My progress won’t be locked out because I was too cautious or cowardly to press on. Most notably, I can encounter massive bosses well outside my capabilities and just run away. It’s not a hurdle to overcome right now, it’s a point of interest for me to return to later.
Unlike previous games, both FromSoftware and older RPGs alike, it’s not a matter of backtracking on a line to grind. Ready or not, I can come back whenever I feel like it. In Elden Ring, I can just explore elsewhere in the world for a while, hone my skills, and come back later when I’m ready to face that challenge. It all comes together in a liberating feeling throughout play, and it’s kept me coming back several times already. And when I reach a point where I can return and triumph over a particular boss, it’s not a matter of the Line of Progression extending further. It’s part of spiderweb, expanding outward, just one thread spreading out at a time, giving me ever-more ways to approach the wide, wide world of runes.
Even musically, the entire tone is different. Where I only recall music in other Souls adventures swelling during a boss battle or during the safety of a bonfire, in Elden Ring, it is far more present. It floats over the player-Tarnished as they travel the Lands Between, peaceful or unnerving or rapturous, all sliding in and out of intensity depending on foe’s awareness. It’s even in the boss music: once the stuff of horrid nightmares and damned choirs, now it’s…beautiful. It’s empowering, it’s pushing you to defeat them, not sounding the drums of them defeating you. It’s reverent, taking another approach to respecting the creatures that stand in your way, even as you square off against each other. It’s humanizing, showing enemies who would no sooner try to gut you inside-out as they play instruments, or sing in naturally-acoustic areas; truly lovely, even if it is just a way to drop players’ guards (and it does). Perhaps, in this world, music holds more sway, as it is wont to do with people as a whole. But at the end of the day, it’s just beautiful, not just compositionally, but thematically.
Lastly, there are bastions and pockets of what it means to be alive. Friends and allies, be they huddled in a grand keep to assist and guide, or scattered throughout the world to teach and pass on what they know, they are there to empower you to press on. They are dynamic, moving around and adapting to the world, appearing in battle when called upon, or transitioning to a new location, more alive than any characters have felt in a FromSoftware experience to date. Whether offering their craft, teaching what they know, summoning scores of allies for a single battle, or sharing a genuine embrace, there are reminders of what the Tarnished are fighting for scattered throughout the world. There is something human in the Lands Between that all other Dark Souls-style entries have lacked. There is hope.
FromSoftware has taken what worked about its previous games and spread it out in such a way as to make it all more accessible, all without diluting the sense of understanding and triumph that define their experiences: this is a world worth saving that you can explore at will and are not punished for going outside the lines.
Maybe FromSoftware’s entire library is designed to, as more and more time goes on, make the impossible more accessible. To truly learn through failure. Make hostile worlds seem, if not utopian, at least more livable. To help find beauty, not in graphics, but in the worlds we traverse, small or large.
All that, from a single hug in an unexpected place.
All images courtesy of writer.