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Here Be Dragons: The Beauty and Terror of Exploring ‘Elden Ring’

FromSoftware’s expansive and stunning new take on a tried-and-true template challenges players and the conventions of open-world games

Bandai Namco Entertainment/Ringer illustration

It was around the time I searched, in vain, to locate the hidden city of Nokron, or the time I found myself hopelessly lost in the fetid, crimson swamps of the Caelid region, or the time I got swarmed to death by a mob of psychotic perfumers in the royal capital Leyndell, or the time I met Gideon Ofnir the All-Knowing, Ranni the Witch, Alexander the Iron Fist, D, Hunter of the Dead, Gurranq Beast Clergyman, Blyndon Blyghtstone, Favreau the Fire Eater, the dreaded pirate Xynnx, Red Lion Ritrempertine, and several other characters whose fantastical names blended into a glossolalic and indistinguishable slurry of Germanic history, Norse mythology, and Japanese anime (and in fact, several of those names I just made up altogether), or most literally, when I reached the 30-hour mark with several chunks of the world map yet unrevealed, that I accepted that I was not going to finish Elden Ring anytime soon. Not that I was expecting to. The editors at The Ringer are kind, but more importantly, they lack the perverse instinct to demand that a writer choke down the entirety of a game that casuals, committed aficionados, and outright nerds will probably spend years trying to perceive in full, in just a week’s time. An Elden Ring reviewer for IGN logged 87 hours in nine days, and while he turned in a lovely piece of copy, my heart aches for his sleep schedule and social life.

To back up a bit: Elden Ring is the brand-new video game by Japanese developer FromSoftware, previously known as the architects of the notoriously punishing Dark Souls franchise. Like many video games, the studio’s offerings—including Elden Ring—are set in an unreal and unsettling fantasy world, in which you navigate hostile terrain and fight all sorts of frightening beasts and bosses using a series of increasingly powerful weapons and skills. (You play as cover versions of the typical D&D/video game classes—a knight, a bandit, a mage, etc., each with their own tweaks—and fight with physical armaments like swords and axes, or spells.) But the games are calibrated to prioritize patience and mastery of your surroundings. The ethos of a FromSoftware game can be roughly summarized as “finding joy through pain”—“I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship,” FromSoftware head honcho Hidetaka Miyazaki recently told The New Yorker. Even with a high-level character, a common enemy is capable of killing you if you don’t take it seriously; a tight corridor might trap you between two of those common enemies, who then pin you down and definitely kill you. The more you play the more you will feel you are strong and wizened enough to weather the challenges, at which point you’ll inevitably be humbled by an unexpectedly tough boss. You die a lot, and every time you die the unspent experience points you’ve collected are lost. Returning to the spot of death allows you to regain them, but if you die again before that happens, they’re lost forever.

This forces the gamer to play especially thoughtfully, to be conscientious of where the next threat might be and how a particular level is constructed. With enough skill and enough repetition, progress is possible—and the triumph of finally overcoming a particularly difficult boss has, on multiple occasions, evoked physical joy for me. This is a silly thing to admit, because gaming culture is so frequently goofy and off-putting in a way that makes me hesitant to identify as a “gamer,” but it is true. For me, the feeling is almost never encountered; I’ve never trembled when mopping up the homies at Super Smash Bros., or executing a kickflip in Tony Hawk, or playing out some sentimental plot line in a Final Fantasy. Since I beat my first FromSoftware title, 2015’s Bloodborne, chasing this sensation is what’s pulled me to each of the studio’s games, all of which (even the allegedly lesser entries) have been memorably and immersively fun. And I am not alone in this, which is why Elden Ring—the studio’s first game for the “next generation” of video game consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, though it’s also available via PS4, Xbox One, and Windows—had built up so much anticipation since it was announced in 2019. (It also received writing contributions from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, but if I’m being honest, whatever he added is impossible to separate from FromSoftware’s preexisting aesthetic preoccupations; Martin himself has admitted to playing only a “small” role in the game’s gestation, so one shouldn’t overinterpret his input or blame FromSoftware for denying you The Winds of Winter.)

FromSoftware broke with studio tradition by making Elden Ringopen world,” industry shorthand for “a game where you explore a big map in whatever manner you see fit.” The Dark Souls games were, essentially, linear—you had a few options for where to go at any given point, and experienced gamers could attempt challenging areas ahead of time, but everything tended to point you in one direction. Elden Ring, meanwhile, is set in a sprawling, readily explored world that, on its surface, resembles the sprawling, readily explored worlds found in numerous franchises (Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Horizon Zero Dawn, etc). But Elden Ring’s innovation is twofold: First, despite how gigantic the map is, the developers have woven unique secrets, surprises, and mysteries into nearly every nook and cranny. At the 30-hour mark, I’m still regularly stumbling across unbelievable shit that would be a defining moment in any other game but here is just “another incredible thing to enjoy.” (I’m thinking of one area I glimpsed only a fraction of, after entering a transporting portal that I stumbled across; when the screen loaded, and I looked around for 30 seconds at a landscape of crumbling buildings suspended in midair, surrounded by whirling tornados and criss-crossing dragons, I muttered out loud to my fiancée, “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a video game,” which she very patiently absorbed.) And second, the in-game world map, a new addition, retains FromSoftware’s general commitment to respecting the gamer’s curiosity and time (provided you’re willing to invest a lot of the latter). Unlike other open-world games, there are almost none of the glowing map icons imploring you to check them out, which over time turns a recreational activity into a series of obligations. None of the unrealistically accurate distance markers calculating exactly how far you have to go until you hit the next stage of a quest, either. No quest log, even—players must remember every supporting character they meet, and every location where they might appear, if they want to see a series of side stories to fruition. (Alternately, you can keep a physical log of such encounters, as I have.) “Elden Ring = Dark Souls + The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” has become a minor meme in the past week, but an easy comparison can still be the truest one.

Here’s one example. Early on, I was riding my horse (another new addition) around Limgrave, the game’s opening area. I knew, theoretically, that I needed to head north in the direction of Stormveil Castle, an imposing fortress containing what I assumed would be a challenging boss. But for now, I just wanted to look around—so instead, I went east where I came across a misty forest that turned out to house several terrifying and powerful bears, and I ran the hell away. Not far beyond the bears, I found an elevator nestled inside a well that, when I stepped on it, plunged me hundreds of feet underground into a physics-defying area: I was beneath the earth, but when I looked up I saw a starry night sky. Faced with a decrepit series of temples demanding my exploration, I ran around for a while, fought some burly spectral Norsemen, died a lot, and decided to head back above ground. Near the forest, I saw a man in a regal cape standing on top of a collapsed building lodged in the ground. When I approached him, he introduced himself as Kenneth Haight, informed me he was the true ruler of Limgrave, and asked for my help taking back his ancestral fort, which was somewhere farther to the east. So I went farther east. Eventually I made my way to a fort that seemed like what Kenneth was talking about and spent a half-hour clearing its enemies until I was pretty sure he would be able to return home. I galloped back on my horse, told Kenneth I’d taken care of the problem, and was rewarded with a fancy dagger. Eventually I decided to warp back to the fort to see if conditions had improved, and I found a dejected Kenneth surrounded by zombified humans. He informed me that despite my efforts, he was unable to restore the fort to its former glory. But eventually he might find someone who could, in which case he hoped I might pledge myself into the fort’s service.

Whether that’s the end of old Kenneth remains to be seen. But I would’ve missed all this had I just committed to Stormveil the moment it revealed itself, rather than running around to see what was going on. The more impressive feat is that none of this is mandatory: You can power through and beat the game without having completed even one of the narratives branching off the main story. But the more you scratch, the more you reveal, and then all of a sudden you’re at the 30-hour mark with just a fraction completed. This doesn’t necessarily feel like an obligation or an imposition but something almost overwhelming, in the sense that I personally felt overwhelmed. Seriously: Around my fourth day playing, I realized that I had too many threads to pull on, and too many potential places to go, and while none of this felt meaningfully stressful because I was, after all, just playing a video game, it was momentarily dizzying to consider that all the fun I’d had in the past four days was about to multiply into more fun. There’s something intoxicating about consuming too much frictionless entertainment, even if one is writing on a deadline, so I just had to turn it off and do something else. The difference here, compared with other open-world games, is that nothing on the map was explicitly demanding my attention; there was no interface reminding me of all I had yet to complete in the game, thus depressing me with a visual representation of how much more I had to play. Subtly, the game had created the illusion that I didn’t have that much to do and could play however I felt. A few hours later, all these potential threads had narrowed into one direction I definitely wanted to explore the more I allowed myself to think about it, and so I resumed my exploration at my own pace.

There is a plot in Elden Ring, technically. Eventually I will care enough about the lore to unpack it in Reddit threads and online encyclopedia entries, and even to describe it myself without the benefit of a user-created summary, but my brief engagement with it thus far only follows the game’s own roundabout approach to storytelling. An opening cinematic lays out the strands of the narrative, but it’s all “choose your own adventure” once the action begins. Character motivations hide in item descriptions; a stray line of dialogue might unlock a mystery but only if you’re paying attention; a landscape pockmarked with signs of war and ruin invites you to guess what’s going on in any given location, but rarely states it out loud. I know that I’m playing as one of the Tarnished, in search of a series of magical talismans that will restore the broken land, which I may only obtain by defeating a series of comically dramatic bosses, but it’s no more a compelling reason to keep playing than wondering, “Hey, what’s over there?” And so far, “Hey, what’s over there?” has been profoundly rewarding.

On a gameplay level, Elden Ring is as challenging as the Dark Souls series, but FromSoftware has incorporated several quality of life improvements. There are more checkpoints (or “sites of grace,” as they’re known) in each world area, so you rarely have to spend several minutes traipsing back to where you died. There’s the world map, which allows you to see how each region physically connects and instantaneously travel between the sites of grace you’ve unlocked. That horse I mentioned allows you to move across the map faster, but it also expands the means of combat (several bosses are designed to be fought on horseback, for example). You can jump with a dedicated button, which is true of virtually every game except for most of FromSoftware’s; the horse can double jump when you’re riding it, which is tactically valuable. There are also several new wrinkles to fighting that would’ve made previous games a whole lot easier—to explain just one, successfully blocking an enemy’s attack allows you to unleash a “guard counter,” a powerful counterattack that leaves them ripe for a damaging followup hit.

Despite their difficulty, FromSoftware’s games have been both critically and commercially successful. Something about the pathology of this “if at first you don’t succeed, die, die again” approach has sucked in millions of gamers, which is how a remake of 2009’s Demon’s Souls, rather than something easier, became one of the PlayStation 5’s headlining launch titles. For Elden Ring, FromSoftware had the added bonus of good will accrued over more than a decade of releases: The studio had earned the latitude to build a much bigger game than any of the Souls offerings, with the understanding that it would be aimed at the largest possible audience. Miyazaki has called Elden Ring a culmination of the studio’s previous work, which is why it reuses several enemies, weapons, and spells from prior games—less of a lazy reliance on existing assets than an acknowledgement that it’d gotten it right the first time. So why not let new players catch up?

It was fair to call the Souls games cult pursuits, despite their juicy sales, but Elden Ring is a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Years of hype, combined with a well-received closed beta and generous sharing of game footage in the months leading up to release, had gamers bubbling over with contagious expectation; the Elden Ring subreddit turned nearly feral, and I’m convinced that a slew of new players were persuaded to download it just because they couldn’t understand why so many other people wouldn’t shut the fuck up about it. (This is how I talked at least one of my friends into playing.) This has led to an influx of newcomers brushing up against FromSoftware’s style, which might be dismaying when you consider that nearly every other big-budget game on the market allows one to toggle the difficulty settings from Easy to Normal to Hard. Not everyone is “good” at a video game, and Elden Ring and its forebears require a level of baseline competency that many games simply do not. At the same time, the difficulty is part of the rush. Many games are hard, but everything in Elden Ring is finetuned to fit the game’s mechanical logic—it’s punishing but rarely unfair, as almost every cause of death is something that I could’ve prevented, had I just been a little better or anticipated a threat based on context clues. And when it clicks, or at least when it clicks enough that you can avoid the typical bad luck that might happen in any fight—I accidentally rolled off a platform to my death, because I was frustrated; I forgot to block a devastating magical attack because I thought I’d dodged it—the feeling of accomplishment surpasses anything else I’ve encountered in video games. It just wouldn’t work the same if you could artificially lower the difficulty: I’m happy when I turn out to be stronger than a boss I’m facing, but those encounters aren’t nearly as memorable as the ones that demand mastery.

I could spend another several thousand words detailing everything I’ve seen so far; scrolling the notes I’ve taken only reminds me of how many amazing things I’ve come across, which have already passed into my rearview. (Sample note: “This fucked up looking big sword cat-dog thing guarding a twisted fusillade of bodies.”) I know I’ll continue to play this game in the coming weeks; I’ve already mentally committed to future builds and runs that will tease out more of what it has to offer. If you’ve ever enjoyed an adventure game and are prepared for the process of unlearning long-ingrained habits in order to meet Elden Ring on its own terms, it’s worth checking out. My prediction is that it’ll be so successful—already the reviews are immaculate, with the sales sure to follow—that studios around the world will say, Hey, why don’t we make a game like that? They may try, and they may succeed to a degree, but there’s a reason Dark Souls patented a genre called “Soulslike”—because every attempt to follow in that franchise’s direction, no matter how notable (Nioh, Salt and Sanctuary) or not (Lords of the Fallen), still felt like a pale imitation. An open-world game this full, with this much organic material to explore, isn’t easily replicable—if it were, more studios would’ve succeeded. (Before this, there was really just Breath of the Wild, which adhered to Nintendo’s more accessible and family-friendly standards—but hey, if you want to play an easier Elden Ring, it’s very worth your while.)

The friend I mentioned above, whom I’d convinced to play Elden Ring just by talking about it, was initially put off by the battle mechanics and the mercilessness of the death cycle. After a few more days with the game, he’s figured out which style of play works for him and is now telling his friends why they should check it out, while also texting me videos of game footage and ongoing commentary about the uniquely cool stuff he’s uncovering and the agonies he’s learning to overcome. Elden Ring will stick in your mind if you give it the proper space, and from there you’ll find yourself sucked into a game that’s really like nothing else on the market. That deserves a little (or a lot) of your time, if you’re prepared for the challenge.

Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. He lives in Brooklyn.