WARNING: contains spoilers.
This conversation took place on Wed 13 April and since then, we have all progressed further in the game.
Dilan Gunawardana: So, where do we start with this behemoth? Over the last couple of months, I’ve been on a 170-hour emotional rollercoaster. Playing Elden Ring has been incredible experience but also a frustrating one at times. I think it’s a work of art – an intriguing story taking place in a world rich with lore, made with a jaw-dropping level of artistry – but I’ve been hacking away at a Fire Giant’s ankles for an eternity and I’m getting a little tired. What are your overall impressions of the game?
Jini Maxwell: I think I'm about 60 hours in. I've just beaten the Moon Queen Rennala and now I'm in the dank depths of Caelid, having a terrible time but kind of loving it.
I love this game. I'm having the time of my life. I've played Dark Souls Remastered, and I've played quite a lot of Dark Souls III. I've actually never finished a FromSoftware game though because I'm thirty and I don't have time to hit my head against a difficulty wall like that. But I am having so much fun in Elden Ring. There are times I find it frustrating, but it's one of the most curiosity-provoking, communal, invigorating game experiences I've had in a really long time. Seb, how are you doing?
Seb Chan: I'm only about 30 to 35 hours in. I'm the oldest person here, so I have the least amount of time and I have teenagers who, bizarrely, encouraged me to get this and I think they were trying to torture me. But my 14-year-old hasn't actually played it yet; they’re waiting for me to give up on it, I think, and then come in and crush it, which is kind of the pattern that we're going through here in this house at the moment. I think they are doing their fifth speed run of Celeste, so, they're really into games where you die a lot, over and over again.
I hadn't played any of the other FromSoftware games at all because by the time I got around to them, I was not wanting to play a game where pain was a part of the fun of it. I have other things for that, like going to noise gigs and other ways of enjoying that sort of harsh experience.
Look, I think playing Elden Ring has been really interesting. I found it quite a beautiful game and once I got into the frustration of it, I've come to appreciate that its difficulty is like learning a martial art. I'm learning Kendo at the moment, so my first character was a Samurai. I was like, this should be all right, and it totally wasn’t. So, I’m now an Astrologer. I’m doing the magic build run, which I think is probably even harder, but it seems to be a little bit more forgiving on my ageing reflexes.
SC: I would say the game does have that sense of mastery that I appreciate having grown up on similarly punishing games. So, I’m really interested in how that plays out against other games where the difficulty level can be tweaked a lot; that sense of coming into a game where you can’t tweak it. And that’s part of the point. It feels anachronistic, but once you master those things, very rewarding. So, when I’m learning to practice my kendo moves in the physical world, coming back and trying to master some new spells and take out a boss is kind of the same kind of vibe, except I’m using less muscles.
I’m also interested in how Elden Ring has subverted some of those AAA tropes – all the side quest stuff – and how it’s all so un-explanatory to the player, but part of the mythology of the game. And it pushes you out into other worlds – the wikis and YouTube videos, and all those things. It feels like a game that engages with that player community in a way that is explicit with the in-game messages and all that, of course, but then implicit with all this other stuff. I think it’s really interesting when games do that – and it’s not without its problems when it does that because big games are kind of awful at times [laughs].
DG: You mentioned the lore and the game's community; there has been so much Elden Ring chatter since its release – on social media, in articles, in endless explainer and analysis videos, memes etc. Have you been approaching game’s story afresh and trying to piece it together as you go along, Jini? Or are you delving into the Elden Ring lore on wikis and on YouTube?
JM: Oh, I’m all over the lore videos. I like every VaatiVidya episode that comes out – I’m on it, day one. But I love that those answers aren’t forthcoming.
JM: I think it's interesting that the game was marketed as having the involvement of George R.R. Martin because I would say I don't feel that influence at all, having read but quite a bit of A Song of Ice and Fire and having watched the train wreck that was the Game of Thrones HBO series. I was expecting something that had more of that kind of interest in the sociopolitical scale that Martin's books do, and what I got was something I like so much more.
It really feels like your character has this remarkable Tolkien-esque journey where you start as nobody and then just kind of get swept up in these huge mythological machinations you don't fully understand, but still play a crucial role in. I'm really enjoying how easy it is to miss things or how much of the story you piece together if you choose to. I'm loving it.
DG: Yeah, I think the non-linear way you can approach the story keeps you hooked. It’s just a delight when you’re walking around, and you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and takes you down a rabbit hole.
Early in the game, I remember walking around the Weeping Peninsula and hearing the faint sound of a woman singing this beautiful, mournful song in Latin. When I eventually found the source, I was stunned to see that it came from a grotesque monster with the head of old woman. It was transfixing. And of course, someone on YouTube translated her song, and it turned out to be a lament for the state of the world after the shattering of the Elden Ring – this big, cataclysmic event that kicks off the main story. It was so poignant.
DG: Another time, near the end of the game, I got bored of being killed over and over again in the Consecrated Snowfield, so I got on my horse and just rode around. Somehow, I stumbled on this portal covered in blood. I went in, and it took me to this whole other world where Margit The Fell Omen’s twin brother Moghwyn (Mogh) is running some sort of blood worshipping Mesopotamian death cult thing that ties into the greater machinations of the gods and demigods of this world. And the music that plays during the Mogh boss fight is incredible; this led me to the Elden Ring OST, which I can't stop listening to.
These sorts of surprises are what I find engaging about all these FromSoftware games: they don't hold your hand as far as the storytelling goes. They trust you to be smart and curious enough to piece things together – or go to the community to learn more.
Just going back to George R.R. Martin, what I see in this game is his love of English history and literature which is evident in Game of Thrones – the Wars of the Roses, nods to Tolkien. I see a lot of references to Irish and Welsh folklore too, especially the names of locations and the characters: Caelid, Moghwyn, Niall.
But speaking of Tolkien-esque, that was something that made me feel a bit cold towards the game when I first saw the marketing for it – the cover font is Lord of the Rings, basically. And it’s got this ring mythology and the tree… it all felt very cynical. I thought, oh god, do we need another western Nordic fantasy game? So, I went in with that mindset, but that changed as the story unfolded and morphed into something wondrous in its own right, and I realised that it, in fact, cherrypicked from a lot of different cultures’ mythologies and artworks.
Jini, have you come across any influences or references from the world of art or screen culture?
JM: I think that Martin drawing on English Welsh, Irish mythology is bang on. In some of the boss designs, there's a real golden era illustrative style to them. I really felt that way with Radahn and Melania, with their incredible manes of red hair. The ruins, churches and castles of Limgrave, in particular, look like they could be straight out of an Arthur Rackham illustration.
JM: I think the influence of Kentaro Miura and Berserk is certainly felt. I just learned this from my teenage brother who is much better at Elden Ring than I am, but apparently, you can actually get one of the swords from Berserk later on. The starting character of the Prisoner really looks very similar to one of the Berserk characters [Griffith] with his bucket helmet.
JM: Seb, have you picked up on anything?
SC: It’s that 'reflected Europeanism from a Japanese perspective' I find really fascinating; it’s like a funhouse mirror to European or Northern European mythology. I really enjoy the way it refracts in that weird, sort of broken way. It's something that comes through in JRPGs, the way those fantasy stories get interpreted through an East Asian lens. It makes it something greater.
I mean, the art style and the typography – the in-game fonts – feel so... 1990s. It's unslick. I'm playing it on a PS5, and the jankiness of some of that is kind of sweet in a way. I like the aesthetics of the game feeling different to what a polished AAA game would be like, but then in doing that, is still a super polished AAA game.
JM: Oh, yeah. I think that weird balance between incredible levels of polish and detail, and janky, almost retro decisions are an unsung but consistent feature of FromSoftware games – like the rag doll physics for the dead bodies; how they just flop around ridiculously, totally removing any gravitas.
SC: Yeah, totally.
DG: I think Elden Ring taps into so many different layers of nostalgia – art and mythology – but also the games we've all played in the past. It’s almost like a perfectly engineered fantasy game, from a creative standpoint.
Seb, you mentioned art through a Japanese lens. Just thinking about the game’s co-creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, I spotted quite a few loving nods to works of his namesake – Hayao Miyazaki – as well. Your horse Torrent, with the little horns, looks like Ashitaka’s steed from Princess Mononoke. There are ruins of a floating city strewn across the landscape, which could be interpreted as a reference to Laputa: Castle in the Sky. There are walking mausoleums that make me think of Howl's Moving Castle...
DG ... and there are nods to western films too. The Land Octopus vaguely resembles the Ohmu from Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, but also its beak reminds me of the creatures from Tremors (1993). Later, you come across these things called Kindred of the Rot, which remind me of xenomorphs from Alien.
SC: Yes, that sort of cross-media fandom-ness feels like something only a non-North American, non-European game company could pull off – mashing Aliens with Tremors with Miyazaki. Pulling that off is a really hard thing to do. I can't really think of anything else that does that.
JM: Weirdly, that kind of mélange of influences, including cultural influences, reminded me of Spelunky. I don't know if either of you have played Spelunky, but it has this mythology running through the game. For people who haven’t played it, you start out as a little Indiana Jones-style explorer, and you move through a cave, then through a jungle and slowly, while you're gathering treasure, and slowly this unspoken, but huge mythological narrative unfolds. And it includes references to mythologies from all over the world. In Spelunky 2, there's the Olmec, there's Tiamat, Anubis, King Yama – so many different cultures, all brought together into this quite chaotic... it's not really a narrative so much as it is just a palette of mythological references that guide the game. I kind of got a similar sense, a similar vibe from Elden Ring.
SC: Elden Ring feels like a very Japanese game – that ability to reflect and refract in a way that feels serious. Even though, like Spelunky, it’s probably not as serious as us as Western players interpreted it as. I'd be really curious to know if those are reverential nods or are they humorous nods, or are they both?
JM: There are lots of things about this game that have made me laugh. The biggest one is Torrent the horse and the Spirit Springs – the fact that they solved the issue of uneven terrain by being like, “maybe your horse can just fly sometimes”. And there's no animation for your horse being propelled into the air. You're just standing there. It looks so silly. But another one was the first samurai armour set that I came across. It’s called something like the Land of Reeds Armour. And the item description is like, "an armour set from a mysterious, distant land, the Land of Reeds". There's such a weird self-distancing happening here that I found funny.
DG: I think the best fantasy games are the ones that balance grandeur with moments of absurdity and humour.
DG: I want to talk about FromSoftware’s and the game’s ethos. Elden Ring is an open world game, yet it’s not full of boring, repetitive fetch quests or microtransactions that have plagued many AAA open-world games for the last decade or so. Its interests seem to lie in doing so much more: telling stories, evoking deeper feelings.
Seb, in your review of Death Stranding a few years ago, you wrote about it being a "hope-inducing" game despite its heavy themes, and how it used in-game and physical mechanics (haptic feedback from the controller) to really put you in the protagonist’s shoes. It had an altruistic, enlightening ethos, in some ways. What are your thoughts on what Elden Ring is trying to achieve, compared to other open world AAA games?
SC: It’s not as though they’re not monetising it. I mean, I think the developers have been explicit about this being part of a universe, and they’ll be exploiting that universe in other ways – we don’t know what those are yet. But it certainly is different to the way other game companies have been moving at that scale of game.
I expect there are very different commercial pressures. Obviously, if you are Ubisoft and you’re doing the Assassin’s Creed series, you are trying to platform-etise as much of the game production and the player engagement as you can because that’s how you reduce [future production] costs and build the diversity of things that players want. Elden Ring is already so vast anyway, it seems like it’s actually working on that paratextual level and with the spinoff products, much like Disney Films having merch and all the other things around them as well. So, I think looking from the outside, it feels as if they’re taking a very traditionally late 20th-Century Hollywood approach to – this is going to sound terrible – 'monetising the narrative universe'.
DG: Yeah, it’s certainly ripe for that. I mean, there are so many different strands of the lore you could tease out and spin-off into movies and all sorts of other stuff. I can see an anime version of Elden Ring being made.
I’m not much of an online gamer myself, so I’ve only been playing Elden Ring as a single player. Jini, can you talk about your experiences playing this game online?
JM: I’ve been playing this online the whole time, and I’ve been playing a lot of co-op with my little brothers. Also, my housemate is playing at the same time, and quite often she’ll bring her gaming PC into my room, and we'll play side by side because I'm playing on a PlayStation. So, we can’t co-op but we can play next to each other and swap notes.
The social aspect of this game is what I’m loving so much about it. I think if I was playing it as a single player experience or playing it and none of my friends were playing and lore videos weren’t coming out, and there wasn’t this network of gossip enriching my experience of the game, I wouldn’t be having anywhere near as much fun.
I absolutely love FromSoftware’s approach to the online elements of the game. Getting invaded is annoying but in this game the stakes feel lower than it did in previous FromSoftware games that played around with the idea of dying. It’s frustrating, but it’s fun. I adore the messages players are leaving around; these little in-jokes I have with people all over the world who I have never met, I will never meet, and who I have absolutely no sense of, except that they’ve left ‘dog ahead’ in front of what is obviously a turtle, or ‘behold beautiful view’ on a bridge I’m crossing. I feel like that stuff has just enriched my experience so much.
JM: Seb, have you been playing online?
SC: I mean, I’m connected. I’ve been trying to convince other people to play when I’m playing, but I haven’t been able to play enough to do that in a committed sense. The sense that you can invite people in, or you can invade and things happen but it’s not a PvP situation, is actually really tolerant for time-poor people.
The messages are fantastic. When I started, I was like, these are so bloody annoying. And then 10 minutes in, I was like, this is hilarious. And it really creates a levity to the whole situation that you’re in and makes a lot of the repetitive deaths very tolerable and very funny.
I’ve also been thinking about HYPER//ECHO in that regard; leaving messages and that sense of how mass-scale communication that the Internet promised has turned out to be a disaster without moderation, and so what people do is create very limited word sets or language sets or icons to communicate with. I think it’s really interesting and it reminds me of those games, like Moshi Monsters (2008) and Club Penguin (2005) where everything is, for little kids, highly controlled, but the kids will always find a way to express actually what they want to express, with the limited character sets or the limited dictionaries or limited icons. And then this other sort of sub-language or pseudo-language emerges from that. I think it’s really kind of cool and points to subcultural kinds of communication styles, which is so much part of internet culture, too. So, it’s sort of almost like a perfect framing of our internet culture and games and working with the need to moderate at global scale kind of plays out – and then these other things get created. I like it a lot. It’s hard to imagine how the game would be without those now, which I find interesting because, again, I’m coming into this game new to FromSoftware. It was something I knew was going to be there and I was very uncertain how I’d feel about it, so it was approachable in that way.
Learn more about HYPER//ECHO
JM: I have two things I wanted to say. The first is there is this huge sense of solidarity that I feel. I remember after I defeated Godrick, I found all of these messages that were like, “Behold, victory”, that clearly other people had left after they had defeated him. Just being like, “Yes, fantastic! We did it!” And it feels so good seeing a message like that and knowing that you are sharing this experience in this parallel way.
On the other point you raised on limited languages, I feel like one of the core rules of the Internet is that people will still find ways to do smut. Regardless, within any parameters that you set, and I think Elden Ring has resulted in some particularly funny examples of smutty messages.
One that I saw the other day was a grave with these stone people on the tops of the graves lying down in some kind of mausoleum, and somebody had left... you can leave gestures that accompany your messages, that show your little ghost doing whatever you set it to do... and they’d left a message that said, 'Time for pickle'. It was a person lying down on top of the statue. Or behind a big, glorious statue you’ll see a message that just says, 'Romp'. It’s just so funny.
DG: Maybe I will start playing online…
JM: I think you should do it.
Dilan, I want to know about your build though. Seb mentioned he’s an Astrologer…
DG: I chose the Prisoner, simply because I liked the look of it. It’s so weird and interesting – and interesting to think about his backstory and how he came into this world, and why he suddenly wants to be a Lord. You know, in the early stages, I created my own story for him as I went along. I even stuck to my trusty magic Estoc all the way up until near the end, then switched to a more powerful weapon (I was getting my arse handed to me by the bosses). I love the fencing-style move set, and the costume set I'm still wearing is the noble garb, so I really leaned into the whole gallivanting French prince vibe.
JM: I can totally see the narrative trajectory of your character: from humble origins, now he's a noble, one day, a lord.
DG: Yeah, totally! That true role-playing aspect is interesting. I remember reading that Martin and Miyazaki approached the writing of the game’s lore in a similar way to writing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
What's your build, Jini? What did you choose?
JM: I started out as a Prisoner as well for the same reasons. I liked the goofy hat. I had a lot of advice from people about which builds would be approachable… and then I just picked based on ‘good hat’, which I think was the right call for me.
I'm doing a bit of a spell blade build at the moment. I started out relying really heavily on magic, but I have the Bloodhound's Fang, which has a special move that I really love. And it induces quite a lot of blood loss. So, I'm switching between ranged attacks and then bleeding melee, which is fun. I found that when I was relying exclusively on magic, even though I was surviving for longer, I was getting bored. I didn't like just hanging back and dodging and shooting spells occasionally. I wanted to get in there even if it meant that I got merked all the time, I wanted to go in there and cause problems, which I am now and I'm loving it.
DG: For some reason, this game seems more flexible or customisable than other open-world games with a character creation system. I don't know if it's just because of the variety of unique weapons and the fact that you can attach different types of buffs (Ashes of War) to them, which produce different combinations of animations and move sets… it really feels like you can create your own play style, if you want, and I don't think I've ever felt like that in a big open-world game before.
JM: I found the level of weapon customisation at the beginning really arduous and annoying, and I felt like there were just all these menus, all this stuff I had to gather and learn, but now I'm a bit further along, I absolutely love it as well. I feel like I have a lot of agency in how I play, in this kind of remarkable way. You can just pick up a big sword and hit people with it, and that's perfect. You don't have to get deep into the weapon strategy stuff, but my God, if you want to, there's so much there.
DG: Speaking of weapons and inventory, there are a lot of weird, quirky decisions; I think it was Zero Punctuation who mentioned this, but when you pick up the Smithing Stones, they have little numbers next to them, like ‘’, and at first I thought I was picking up two stones, but it was actually a level two stone. Why did they do that?
SC: So janky!
DG: Yeah, and part of me kind of loves the jank.
SC: I think that sort of the customisation piece is very off-putting at the beginning, but I think you're right, it's like a management sim in many ways. Later on, you've got so much and then you can make so much from it. It really does reward persistence. It feels to me like a game that you can’t enjoy in the first 20 hours, but once you get past 20 hours it’s kind of amazing. Again, it feels like it requires commitment and persistence. And that's not something I guess in our culture, here in Australia, that we often do. We like instant gratification. And this [Elden Ring] is very much delayed gratification and lots of pain upfront.
JM: I would be really interested to revisit this game in four or five years and play that opening section again because for me, my early experience of the game was so shaped by multiplayer and by playing with other people. Immediately, there was like this huge sense of excitement online. It felt so much like being part of something that it really carried me through any of that frustration or sense of ‘lostness’. And I wonder how those first 20 hours would hold up without that sense of community. I'm not sure.
SC: I mean, I think that's part of the continuing rollout strategy or whatever the future of the [Elden Ring] universe is. It really does need that support structure around it to make it. I guess that's like learning anything though, right? If other people are into it, then you get buoyed. You get carried along by their encouragement and excitement.
We’re at this ‘moment’ of COVID-19 now and we've all been at home, and it’s [the game] coming into an environment where people are both wanting that really heavy social experience, but are also very screen-bound, and that sort of multi… paratextual-ness of it kind of works in a way during COVID, that it might not have prior to… I don't know. It feels like it's a game of the moment in a whole lot of different ways that makes people like us go, “oh yeah, it's actually worth 150 hours of our time”. I can't imagine that from the perspective of 2019, too many other things were going on then, right?
DG: That leads me into my closing question: given the success of Elden Ring's ‘formula’, in what direction do you see subsequent AAA open world games going? Do you think they're going to try and emulate this sort of model of world building and exploration? Seb, you mentioned to me that you bought Horizon Zero Dawn: Forbidden West around the same time as Elden Ring. Horizon almost feels like taking a step back, with its quest markers, expository dialogue etc.
SC: I'll be interested to see what smaller developers take from it [Elden Ring]. I think building an open world at that scale is a massive piece – we saw what happened with No Man's Sky.
I think, in some ways, Elden Ring and No Man's Sky both changed sense of exploratory-ness and open-world-ness, and you bringing your own piece to the narrative within a bigger story world. And I mean, that's been the thing that people have been trying to do for 40–50 plus years now with computer games, now videogames. I do think that Elden Ring is extremely culturally specific; other AAA games try to be more like major Hollywood productions, more globally generic; they don't reflect a very specific geographic origin. I think Elden Ring feels very much a product of a Japanese developer.
Horizon Zero Dawn doesn't feel like a Dutch game. I mean, the Rijksmuseum is in the new one [Forbidden West] and you know, all that stuff is hyper-local to Amsterdam and the Dutch. But it doesn't feel like it's reflective of its Dutch creators. It’s set in the USA in a generic future and draws on lots of cultures – perhaps in quite a Dutch colonial way, actually. But that's another talk. Whereas, going right back to what we were saying at the start, Elden Ring feels like, for me at least, a Japanese reflection of European mythologies and fantasy fiction.
DG: What are your thoughts, Jini?
JM: I think that's very astute. I think I agree.
On that topic of how games and open-world games will respond to Elden Ring, I mean, I don't usually like open-world games because I find them flat and boring and incredibly didactic; they give you this big world and then just put a bunch of dots on the map and say, “go to these in this order”. Like, what is the point? I’ve always really hated them, actually. But Elden Ring… completely different experience.
I've been reflecting on this kind of micro-genre that's emerged lately of Souls-like games. Death’s Door (2021) and Tunic (2022) would be two examples recently that I really loved; these really, really stylish, very carefully designed, little perfect jewels; games with difficult combat, but that you can learn the choreography for, in order to get through. These long gauntlets, beautiful dungeons and big fights at the end – that's kind of the souls-like genre.
And I feel like Elden Ring turns that on its head a bit, it has those elements, but then its approach to open world… I'm very, very much looking forward to see what independent studios in the next few years do with the Elden Ring-like genre because I do think it's going to be quite revolutionary.
I still think that AAA open-world games in general are a lost cause, but I think No Man's Sky is a really interesting reference point too because I think indies are kind of start doing really, really interesting things with this.