Tarnished in Elden Ring

I love the Souls games. When I’d stopped by a friend’s house many years ago and briefly tried to fight a skeleton in DS3 before getting utterly crushed, I had no idea how much these games would dig their claws into me. Only perhaps in childhood have I ever found myself so intently absorbed and focused on a game that demands everything from you and offers such intrinsically rewarding experiences.

While the Souls games are known for their obfuscated storylines, the semi-linear paths of progress meant that milestones always felt like milestones. Usually you had some idea of why you were fighting a giant horned intestine. Or at least, what you’d achieved once you’d defeated it.

Elden Ring is a tremendous game. Open-world Dark Souls. What could be better for fans of the franchise and for new players alike, to let us off the guard rails of linear pathways, to truly go anywhere?

For me, the experience was, as the game might say, one of losing the path of grace.

From the start I found myself in a game-breaking situation that was plainly unfair and unintended: trapped in a high-level zone without the basic ability to level up. I thought I was a Souls veteran and that this must be the intended experience, because my past encounters with From Software games had informed me that they were carefully crafted to be difficult experiences from which you were expected to learn and grow stronger.

This trap situation didn’t really fit that category. It was poor game design to let the player go anywhere before they’d even unlocked the basic mechanics of the game. Like being let out of the tutorial section of a Mario game without the ability to jump. There’s nothing to be learned from this experience other than “don’t go everywhere in this world” which is directly at odds with every message the game sends you.

That sour taste in my mouth didn’t last, however, as I eventually unlocked the ability to level up and the incredibly satisfying rewards of “gitting gud” trundled in. The fights were intense and riveting, and I lapped them up.

However, as I progressed and put close to 200 hours into the game, I found my victories a bit hollow. Tarnished, you might say.

The plot in Elden Ring seems even more obfuscated than the Souls games, which is hard to believe after From Software has had so many years to iterate on the formula. A friend says this creates a game culture that transcends the game, causing communities to form and gamers to reach out to one another to share advice and stories on what worked and what didn’t.

There’s some truth to this — From’s obtuse and utterly baffling quest layouts do indeed require players to reach out to other forums, wikis and elsewhere to get answers to the game’s trickiest puzzles. However, this creation of community comes as a direct cost of player immersion.

This loss of immersion is a great shame, because Elden Ring is otherwise so good. The world is immense, with secrets in every nook and cranny and inventive dungeons that make you laugh even as you die for the 100th time.

However, as I reached some of the end bosses, they lacked the luster and impact that many of the Dark Souls bosses had had for me. I struggled to figure out why.

They were often quite challenging. They had interesting move sets. The set pieces and music were tremendous. By all rights, I should have been moved by these grandiose spectacles.

But there was the key for me. It was spectacle, without the substance. In the Souls games, I’d usually pieced together enough of the storyline that I knew, even if vaguely, the importance of what it was that I was fighting, and if not that then what they were guarding. The importance of either/both was enough to make me feel invested, and From Software’s trademark atmospheric storytelling worked well enough that the pace of highs and lows of the bosses and challenges rose to a satisfying crescendo.

In Elden Ring, although I’d read countless item descriptions and watched videos on its lore, I was still baffled as to some of the reasons and motivations of who I was fighting. One of the last boss fights in the game just felt crowbarred in — a character I was clearly meant to feel strongly about, but just completely lacking in any significant contribution or motivating reason as to why they were there or why I should care about them.

This is part of the problem with Elden Ring’s open world, of which I glimpsed a hint at the outset of my Tarnished journey. From Software has spent many years mastering maze-like metroidvania environments in such a way that the cadence of your experience and overall journey can more than make up for any uncertainties you may have in the storyline. Usually, the Dark Souls mazes would all come to a head in a semi-linear fashion, meaning much of the experience and some of the fundamental reveals along the way could be carefully honed for greater effect.

With an open world, much of that careful craftsmanship is lost. Because there are so very many ways to go, the path a player might take to the final boss might bear some similarities to others, but key beats in the story might have been missed or short-circuited. One might argue this gives players greater agency, and while this is true, this agency comes at the cost of a coherent narrative.

While I’m not saying that Elden Ring should have spelled everything out to an extreme degree like many other AAA games do, there was definitely opportunity for some middle ground.

Some quests result in NPCs appearing at random sacred sites (checkpoints) throughout the map. There is no way to know where they’ll appear next. Apparently with one of the game’s early patches they added the ability to see NPC locations on the map, but this is a weak fix for a game that should (and in almost every other respect, does) rest on the robustness of the self-consistent world it’s created. A hint, however small, as to where I might go next for the next part of the quest, would keep me hooked and immersed in the world.

In Souls games this lack of direction in quests was less problematic because there were far less possible paths one could take to reach the end, so the chances of a random encounter with a familiar face were high, and this often worked to good effect.

In Elden Ring, having an NPC disappear and randomly appear at another site of grace means that you’ll likely never see them again (unless you’ve read a walkthrough and are following it, clicking on teleports to fill out a quest). The robustness of the world breaks down, and you see the strings of arbitrary spawning/despawning at play, rather than the sense of a character actually going on a separate journey independent of you.

One might argue that these NPC quests are sidelines, off the beaten path, and so might be expected to be more obtuse and less obvious than the main quest. That might be true, but unfortunately the same sense of arbitrariness pervades many of the main quests as well.

Because Elden Ring intends to let players complete the open-world in whatever way they see fit, some of the moments that would otherwise be high points ultimately lack satisfying resolution. The first few main bosses felt incredible to overcome. However, I didn’t learn much of anything new after pushing past these obstacles. The world wasn’t changed, and the reward was often mismatched to my character build or simply not that useful.

Here again, Elden Ring faced a fundamental problem of too much choice, too many options, so that the reward options they present on the game’s biggest challenges have some shine, but not quite as much as they should compared to the mountains of possible gear and treasure in the game.

Ultimately, I was left with the recurring experience of overcoming a tremendous foe, getting rewards that were middling, and not having a strong enough motivation story-wise to feel strongly about what I’d just done. While there was some inherent satisfaction in having bested some of From Software’s most devious enemies, I felt disconnected from this world that no longer felt rich and self-consistent, but more and more like a Diablo-esque sea of looting and killing.

The game left a deep impression on me of being hollow. Whereas the other Souls games had felt like there was more behind the curtains, Elden Ring seemed like it was obtuse out of laziness; in other words, there wasn’t much behind the curtains. In Souls games I always felt compelled to dig deeper to learn the real reasons why a given boss was next on the list, and usually I’d find a good reason. In Elden Ring, perhaps because of the sheer immense amount of content they put in, those reasons were dilute at best.

Who knows, maybe years from now I’ll replay it and find parts of the narrative I didn’t the first time through, and the ending will become satisfying. (Maybe Internet Elden Ring experts will all tell me how I missed it all.) That would be lovely.

What I struggle most with is that I know From Software can do better. They have done better. Sekiro, while it was also plagued by some obfuscated plotting, still had a climactic ending and reasonably satisfying conclusion (spoiler alert: From’s games never really end well). So From Software has the chops to do it. Why didn’t they for Elden Ring?

Perhaps this is again a challenge of trying to take their atmospheric approach to storytelling and apply it to an open world. For me, this approach didn’t work out of the box, and it’s a shame From Software didn’t recognize it and try to make adjustments to bring out more of the richness of the world they created with George R. R. Martin.

If their goal was to make the player feel as dispirited about the world as so many of the Tarnished haunting the Lands Between, then From Software succeeded, but perhaps not for the reasons they wanted. I love so much of Elden Ring, from the incredible combat, breathtaking vistas, and great level design that beckon you to peer around just one more corner. But after nearly 200 hours invested in the game, I needed more out of its conclusion and story delivery than knowing I’d just bested another random video game boss.

Sadly, Elden Ring’s ending left me feeling like I’d beaten a programmed challenge rather than having completed an epic journey. Such a finish does a great disservice to the countless people who’ve worked to make this game as good as it is. I hope, in the future, that From Software’s managers and directors can find a better way of honoring the artistic software warriors who fought in the crucible, and ultimately conclude their games on a path of player grace.

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