Elden Ring: The Opposite of Self-Care

Elden Ring is a terrible, ugly, weird, unpleasant, wonderful, sublime, addictive game, and I am not very good at it and I love it.

If you need a capsule review from me, that’s it.

Let’s rewind:

My PS5 died on me in the middle of playing Horizon Forbidden West. This was a very good game and I loved it a lot, and I was literally in the middle of tweeting how I loved it a whole lot when the console shit the bed and bricked itself. I have heard stories of HFW bricking other consoles, some fixable, some not, though I assume it’s less the game and more that the console has some problems. My problem with those problems is, I’m just out of fucking warranty, which means Sony is like, “lol, pay us $199 to fix it, you dickhead,” and so now I’m very salty at them because they have little interest in supporting the console. (I’m paying it, of course, because I am just that dickhead. But I shouldn’t have to. I’m going to yell at my credit card company to see if they can help me, but who knows.)

I’d been hearing how fucking hard this game was, and I am the farthest thing these days from a GIT GUD gamer. I maybe could’ve been once, but my video game reflexes have turned to sponge cake, and the best I can do is button-mash wildly until a goal is achieved. I have withered.

As such, I committed, ha ha, I will never play this very mean game.

But all these people were like NO NO IT’S GREAT AND BEAUTIFUL and I was like, ha ha, not today, Satan, but I was bored and it did look pretty and some friends convinced me to try it on Xbox. So, apparently yes, today, Satan.

So, as a person very new to the Souls-like games, let me share with you my experience and my tips for this game, none of which will be revelatory or interesting to actual gamers, who are free to log off now and go do something better with their time.

My first realization with this game is it doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t love you, it actually doesn’t care about you at all. Meaning, it exists separate from you and your interests in it, or your interactions with it.

What I mean is this: it’s going to tell you almost nothing about how to play it. What clues it gives are tantalizingly spare. You are a baby in this world. You don’t know shit and your parents are gone and the only elder you have is Elden Ring, and Elden Ring doesn’t have time to show you how to walk or eat, you shitty fucking baby. Elden Ring has things to do, and hand-holding your way through its ugly-beautiful world and its Byzantine rules is not anywhere on that list.

I’ve been playing for… I dunno, fifteen, twenty hours at least, and I still don’t know what the fuck is actually going on. Not in the story. Not in the stats. Not with half the items. Here is what I do in the game, and this constitutes a tip in the sense that I am alerting to you that this play-style works and can actually be quite rewarding:

I began life as the Prisoner, who enters the game with what I believe is some kind of IRON BEDPAN SUBMERSIBLE helmet on their head. This character is ugly because I could not not create a hideously ugly character, a character who looks like some grungy dirt-farmer stitched from naughahyde. (Here I note this article: Elden Ring’s character creator fails Black players.) I have a stick that shoots slow magic swords at people. I have an estoc thrusting blade.

I run around. Aimlessly.

I kill the things I am able to kill, I run from the things I am unable to kill, at least in theory. Just as often, I am killed by fucking rats, or I manage to kill some pumpkin-headed hell-boss without thinking. You can count on no outcome.

I collect shit everywhere I go. I have zero idea what this shit actually is, or does, for the most part. YOU HAVE COLLECTED A FOUL EMBERSEED. YOU HAVE (1) GNARLED CRAB PHALLUS. YOU PICK UP THE CORRUPTED SHARDSCROLL OF BEARSCAT ACADEMY. I try to learn what these things do, and that only becomes more inscrutable. THE SHARDSCROLL MUST BE TURNED INTO THE BLIND KLEPTOCRAT ON THE RUINS OF DREAD JAPERY AND THEN FROM HIM YOU CAN BUY VENOMOUS TAINTFLOWERS WHICH ARE USED TO UPGRADE THE ASTROLOGER’S METEOR CODPIECE. I decide I don’t know what any of this means, so I continue on.

I get on my horse. I love my horse.

I ride to the furthest flung locales of the map.

I fight. I win. I fight. I die. I go back and recollect my runes. I die again recollecting my runes but at least I recollected them, so I can grab them again without dying the next time. Witness me.

I am killing zombie coal-miners and a giant fucking hell bear falls on my head.

I enter a cave and rats chase me into a chamber with a chest but then the floor collapses and this time, I fall onto a fucking hell bear’s head.

When I fight, I have the grace and aplomb of one of those magical dung beetles you have to kill in the game. I watch some videos and other players are elegantly side-stepping monstrous boss attacks. Meanwhile, I’m over here somersaulting into the wall like a mule-kicked fourth-grader; trapped there, I am given a broadsword colonic and hurriedly guzzle potions so I don’t expire three seconds into the fight. I swing a variety of bladed instruments and I run around and it feels like I’m trying to do parkour with a dump truck.

I find scenes of staggering beauty and brain-curdling ruin.

I love my spirit wolves.

I have killed almost no bosses. The ones I have killed are probably mini-bosses. I tried to kill Margit or Magrit a few times, and I got him about halfway down and haven’t gone back. I will. But I don’t have to yet. I’ve gotten distracted and am happy about the distraction. There are no real side missions, so I make my own, and my side missions are nearly always: “I dunno, let’s ride that way, and see what’s in that ruined tower.”

Everything is ruined and in ruins. The world is ruined. The enemies are ruined. You are ruined. You use runes found in ruins. It’s a thing.

The enemy AI is boldfacedly plain. Sometimes a dude will talk ten feet and turn around and walk back the other ten feet. They’re not even on looping paths like in Horizon, they’re just… set pieces, wobbling about.

Sometimes bosses randomly happen to you. You run into a clearing and next thing you know, you’re fighting some dude made of wolves and roots and his guts are hanging out and he beats you with his own whirling bowels and his name is like, BORGRAL THE MISBEGOTTEN, PRINCE OF WOLFROOT, KEEPER OF THE SACRED BOWELS. (There’s probably a story there, but the game won’t tell it to you.) You die fighting him, choked by coils of sentient intestine.

I’ve begun really putting my juice into magic, because magic seems like, well, magic. Instead of running up and bluntly headbutting wolves, I can sit back at a distance and pick them off. Most fights seem inelegant up close, which probably mirrors how real fights actually go — two dudes in metal suits clonking each other with more metal. Each fight seems to be its own little puzzle box, and if you want the runes inside that box, you must figure out how to open it.

You can do this, too. You don’t have to GIT GUD or even BE GUD ALREADY, you can just enter the game and fumble around like a dipshit and die a lot and get a tiny bit better every session and learn one small thing here and there, and you find eventually without even realizing it that you’re not dying as often. And that maybe you understand something today you didn’t yesterday. And just as you come to understand something, just as you know which direction the pain is coming from and you know to block it, the game sweeps your leg like Johnny Fucking Lawrence and you fall to the mat again.

Yet despite all this I am surprisingly zen about it all. I expected to hate it. I expected to throw my controller against the wall and break it into a thousand shards. Maybe because I can tell the game doesn’t think about me at all and never ever will, so I don’t have any investment in whether or not it pleases me. Maybe it’s because at this moment in time, in history, I’m not looking for the comfort of Animal Crossing but the soul-flensing punishment of a game whose kink is killing me over and over and over again. Maybe I’m angry enough at the world around me that in that anger, Elden Ring is a game that still looks like peace, like escape. I don’t know why any of this works. I should on paper hate the game, and the game just doesn’t give a fuck whether I like it or not. It’s not going to show me the way. It’s not going to explain itself. Like life, it is boldly unfuckwithable. I play it. I die. I don’t mind. It is what it is. It’s a terrible game. It’s brilliant. I don’t recommend it. Except when I do.

11 responses to “Elden Ring: The Opposite of Self-Care”

  1. This is EXACTLY my Elden Ring experience! And, like you, I’m oddly not bothered by the ineptitude. I sigh, go back and collect my runes, and just try again or try something else or just pick crap (sometimes literally) up off the ground. Seriously, tho – what’s with all the gold tinged dung?

  2. I didn’t play Elden Ring (I have tried one of the Souls game) and I don’t think your experience is too far off the mark for most people of our age bracket. Please, continue to have fun and report on your progress. Or don’t.

  3. So glad to hear that I’m not the only one with this type of experience with this game. Plus I’m trying to play on a PC with the keyboard and mouse since I’m so uncoordinated with a controller. I’m on the verge of contacting the game creators and saying “I’m never playing your game again until you let me set up my keybinds (map key is G?? WTF??) so I can try to GIT GUD instead of dying to the tutorial boss. Please take pity on the 67 year old woman just trying to enjoy a video game!

  4. I haven’t played Elden Ring yet. I have attempted Dark Souls 3. Your experience with ER is exactly my experience with DS3. No answers, no explanations, just beauty, misery and death. Lots of death. There are 2 bosses you run into in the first level. One of them you aren’t even supposed to try and fight so early in the game. Do you they tell you that? Hell no! Do they warn you that “this way lies rage inducing, icy death”? Negative, Ghost Rider! And the boss you can and should fight? Death, die, dead, hey, look, I’m halfway there and WTF, he morphed into some kind of tree monster and you’re dead. I never made it past the first level of that corner of Hell in video game form. DS3 is the only game I’ve ever rage quit and have no intentions of returning to at any point in the foreseeable future.

  5. I rarely comment on your blog (more over on fb) but this one landed in my email and you made me smile. Your entry into this world brought back the memories of my son and when he met this world. The first time. At age 16 and it was Demon’s Souls…….like you the entry to these worlds is as you describe. It was the first time he swore in front of me with the repeated “You Died” and the frustration. It is his favourite game world and he is now diving into Elden Ring and thinking of doing two characters due to the weaponry choices.

  6. thanks for sharing…I am so on the fence on this one that I downloaded 2001’s Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, a CRPG with the graphics of Tetris that I have been thinking about since playing it back in the day. And buggy as hell. Oh wait, was this a post about Elden Ring?

  7. This is kind of my experience with the original Dark Souls on the Switch. My daughter is a huge fan of the series and all of Miyazaki’s works and will hold forth at length if asked on the topic. She’s played Demon Souls, all the Dark Souls, the DLC for same, Bloodbourne, Sekiro and so forth. She’s waiting for spring break next week to finally tackle Elden Ring.

    She assures me that the lore IS there, but it’s a hidden thing in these games. You need to search to find it and then search even more to try and piece a narrative together of any kind. And the Berserk Easter Eggs, of course. I enjoy the games inasmuch as I have no need to complete or even be successful at them…though I enjoy that the game rewards learning it’s patterns and developing skills rather than a straight power progression. Mostly I amaze that the monster design.

    Death Stranding got me through some dark times as the start of 2020, speaking directly to me in a lot of ways (and a game about someone trying to create linkages between fractured and isolated pockets of humanity separated by a plague felt…let’s say prescient…not unlike a certain book by our host). I suspect Elden Ring will do the same for me (though it’ll have to be on a PS4, as I haven’t worked up the need for a PS5, yet).

    • Reading your reply about your daughter, ditto for my son, since the first one on. He warned everyone when it lands he will be scarce as he dives into on the ps5 (he started on ps3 and has kept his PS continuity).

  8. Wanderers 2 – a proposal: An evil genius unleashes nanobots onto the interwebz and kills/turns into zombies/turn into lethal soldiers all online gamers. Of every age/race/whatever. The world goes bananas yet again. (happy to take 10% for the idea and i have paypal… :D)

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