Sam Bodrojan on Elden Ring
“I dreamt for so long. My flesh was dull gold, and my blood rotted. Corpse after corpse left in my wake as I awaited his return. Heed my words: I am Malenia, Blade of Miquella. And I have never known defeat.”
Her boss arena is a field of white flowers. Sword Saint Isshin from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice had one of these too. So did Soul of Cinder from Dark Souls III, and Bloodborne’s Gerhman, the First Hunter. The hardest fights in every title developed by FromSoftware for the past seven years have taken place in a meadow just like this. The words she utters are the same as they have been for over a decade: dream, blood, rot. By the time any player reaches her fog gate, two-thirds of the way through 2022’s open-world magnum opus Elden Ring, deep into optional content, the player has succumbed to the ebb and flow of the game. Countless challenges have been mastered. To even reach Malenia’s resting place has likely taken more than two full days of playtime. Conquering her will take hours—anywhere from two to four on average. The player has probably heard stories from others about this fight. They expect what’s coming. This is the game.
Elden Ring is big. Anybody could tell you that. It has a world that would take a hundred hours to fully explore. There are, by my count, seven biomes; twelve major dungeons; about 40 smaller catacombs, graves, and caves; six possible endings; at least two dozen sidequests; 250 weapons; 200 spells; more than 300 craftable items; and over 500 checkpoints. It is a fabled “forever game”—one so massive, so all-consuming, that it extends beyond a single playthrough. Like Skyrim and similarly distinct open-world titles, it is not just a single-player game but a sandbox, a hobby, a lifestyle. It sold 12 million copies in a single month. It is, bar-none, the event game of the year.
It is also a work of genuine developer auteurism, where the allocation of resources in its production, its narrative, its failings, its successes, its unmistakable atmosphere, are all a direct result of a collaborative artistic practice in continued pursuit of a specific ideal, yet another variation on a theme. FromSoft had been building Elden Ring long before preproduction, long before even creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki saved the development of Demon’s Souls over a decade ago. Ever since the labyrinthine hallways of King’s Field initiated a cult following on PlayStation in 1994, the developer has been iterating on the same concepts that appear in what has become 2022’s mass-proclaimed Game of the Year. With the exception of Housemarque and Remedy, there are startlingly few big-budget studios strictly devoted to projects that share the same aesthetic and ludic questions and preoccupations. It is a game that wants to be everything it has already been.
Elden Ring is a comprehensive experience, a Frankenstein’s monster of every idea FromSoft has put into one of its projects. For the first time, there’s not a single new concept, not even down to a boss attack or the texture of an asset. As the player character races across the Lands Between, the game’s setting, atop horse Torrent, the déjà vu lends a sense of heightened delirium. To walk down any hallway, to die in any trap, to cycle through any menu, is to traverse an amalgamation built on past hardware generations, past engines, creative ghosts that wander alongside you like the spectral recordings of other players that are etched on the floor throughout. The prolific Japanese studio, powered by an unusually contiguous workforce for a video game company, has been producing titles for almost three decades. From the ambiently lit stealth of Tenchu to the calibrated demolition of Armored Core, from Shadow Tower’s boldly material approach to the numbers game of JRPGs, FromSoft has spent its entire existence developing the specific brand of obtuse yet customizable experimentations in embodiment through interaction for which they are beloved. Elden Ring has the density of a collapsing star, not just in incident but also ideological depth. This is the game you would make if you spent 30 years figuring out what a single game could do.
The obvious resuscitations from previous titles come to mind first: the Berserk references, the You Died screen, the Moonlight Greatsword that’s been a mainstay since the King’s Field games. The devious Patches, a recurring NPC who first appeared in Demon’s Souls, shows up again and knocks you down a cliff, same as it ever was. Elden Ring is obviously a redux of Dark Souls III combat, built on the same development engine with many of the same models and toolkits. There’s a revised Weapon Arts system, an expanded move set (including jumping and horseback attacks), and an increased focus on a stagger meter reminiscent Sekiro’s posture bar, where hits deal not just readable damage but also an invisible secondary value that stacks with longer, harder-to-time attacks and culminates in a high-damage, satisfying riposte.
The psychic resonance with past projects deepens as you progress. Animations and model skeletons are pulled from other games. Even unique enemies ring with uncanny familiarity. The Erdtree Avatars are revamped Stray Demons from Dark Souls, Volcano Manor houses enemies that screech like the research patients of Bloodborne. As with Dark Souls II, the game unfolds via a large, spoked map of fallen kingdoms, where employing a multifaceted approach, from ranged weapons to summons, is necessary to overcome both dungeons and bosses. The presence of these callbacks situates their lore within the metanarrative of the developer’s oeuvre.
This insistence on reconstructing every past game helps to make this the most approachable title FromSoft has ever produced. Despite its harshness and playful sadism, a lengthy playthrough is gradually paced and generous in its rewards; even as its difficulty surpasses any modern title of similar scope, the tools and time devoted to the player’s progress make it feel surmountable. Enemies that were once challenging bosses become normal fodder for the player upon mastery, attack patterns that would require extensive study upon first blush feel manageable after encountering similarly gentle attacks early on. The catacombs of the first area, Limgrave, are setups for the punchline of devilishly complex side content in the late game. There is a kind and sturdy incremental instruction here that makes it all feel—subconsciously—doable.
This frees up plenty of space for the game’s bread-and-butter: a profound religious awe. Elden Ring persists on the deep thrill of witnessing a world that has entwined its precisely calibrated encounters with its environmental storytelling. This is why players buy into FromSoft and give their wandering thoughts over to its landscapes. There is an urge, when writing about Elden Ring, to be as far-reaching as the game itself, to wax poetic on every boss fight, every tangent of the lore, every class, and every vista. It is impossible to finish Elden Ring without believing in its game philosophy, without internalizing every frame of a character’s bespoke move set. Its uniquely kinetic role-playing, in which every attack and damage number is obtained and chosen by the player through action gameplay, charts a war with cosmic Gods that mirrors those that have for centuries guided Christian imperialism. By the time a player has reached every possible ending, only to discover that there is no real choice, no real path forward, it is too late. They are just a pawn in a narrative that started long before the player ever began their journey. This is auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki’s world; we’re just dying in it.
Like the Lands Between itself, Elden Ring is built on literal and figurative meteors from other worlds, old design corrupted by the single word that has repeated itself over and over: rot. The rot is everywhere. It subsumed the painted world of Ariandel, the blood vials of Yharnam, the eponymous curse that debilitates the people of Ashina. Elden Ring is the game of a developer that has reached the end of what they can do and has decided to do it all over again, rehash every mechanic in miniature, reconstructing the arc of dozens of games’ growth at once. At the end of it all, she awaits the player, the Goddess of Rot.
It has been ages since such a rapturously massive game was released, the first of its caliber since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Why write about a game like this if not to write about all of it? Why write about a game like this if only to wish for something different?
Malenia, Blade of Miquella, is emblematic of not just FromSoft’s ethos, principles, and limitations but also the communal experience that comes with interacting with their art. Elden Ring is a game that wants to live into perpetuity on its own yet could never survive without its community. Malenia is Elden Ring is FromSoft is us, and to write about her is to write about what makes this series of games so compelling and so frustrating. The choice to even engage with her is entirely the player’s own.
Malenia has been central to the game’s marketing since its reveal in 2019, Bandai-Namco going so far as to include a statuette of her with the collector’s edition. She’s the final piece of one of two large sidequests, and one of the bosses that rewards the player with a Remembrance, marking a major set piece in the game. A vicious swordswoman taught by dancers, charged with guarding a perpetually youthful boy as she is stricken with an illness from the gods, Malenia has a lore that is taken directly from Tomoe, an unseen character from FromSoft’s previous game, Sekiro. Her mythology outstrips her true narrative importance, but the animation work is some of FromSoft’s most striking to date. Her sword moves swiftly, its trajectory subtly telegraphed. The petals that form her wings extend from her veins out to the corners of the screen. There’s less strict beauty than a data-moshed swirl of particle effects you must read as an enemy and not a force of processing power.
It’s also a terrible fight. She is the only boss FromSoft has ever made that’s genuinely too hard. Her attack requires the frame-perfect timing of a fighting game, a far higher skill floor than any other bout. The battle’s gimmick, in which Malenia recovers health with every attack landed, is so intimidating that it makes early attempts to learn the fight futile. She has the ability to cancel out of her attacks mid-animation, something the player’s toolkit is not built to handle. She cannot be staggered, and the majority of her attacks cannot be countered, leaving very narrow windows for dealing damage. The infamous Waterfowl dance, a deadly area-of-effect attack, can only be avoided with a jarringly awkward series of dodges. Malenia’s design gives into the ethos that the truest players are the ones who seek pure skill challenges, the game’s own instruction and design be damned.
Over my five playthroughs of Elden Ring, I have obsessed over every piece of Malenia’s design. I have watched hours of footage of other players’ encounters with her on YouTube and Reddit. I know her weaknesses, how to dodge her Waterfowl Dance, what exploits can stagger her out of it, any minuscule tells in her animation, which weapon classes work the best, the most expeditious way of trivializing the fight. I have embellished the game’s storytelling with my own reenactments in strict accordance with her lore. I have given myself over to her as she is, and it is still not enough. Malenia embodies the very worst qualities of FromSoft, a pointlessly obtuse challenge boss built out of extraneous thematic tissue and the worst impulses of combat design. It could not exist without an ethos that prioritizes auteurist vision over the player, the community. In a vacuum, she is an abject failure of the developer’s hubris and marketing.
Discourse around FromSoft and the lack of easy modes is as well-trod as dismissal of the discussion itself. Of course, these games are hard, and, of course, they are not impossible. Elden Ring provides and actively encourages a multifaceted playstyle of your choosing. The game can be fought in a God Run, as the community likes to call it, with a basic, non-upgraded weapon and level 1 character never receiving a single hit. But it is an easier, and arguably richer, experience to plan, craft, summon creatures and other players as allies, follow every bit of wanderlust. Behind every encounter is the promise of finding a new talisman, or spell, or weapon upgrade, or consumable item. Every interaction feels meaningful, every enemy layout encourages experimentation. To go a step further: it’s easier than ever to break the game entirely with cracks in the game’s various power-ups. YouTube is flush with guides for locating overpowered weapons, creating synergies, farming runes to level up, and discovering exploits that trivialize any part of the game. It is easier than it has ever been to make the game, as a closed system, easy, without any cheats or difficulty sliders. The community has figured out a way to share the game with others without compromising the elegant vision. These games are built on overcoming adversity through any ratio of ingenuity and skill, and the community, which is far more welcoming than its sneering “Git Gud” reputation suggests, is happy to help anyone discover that rhythm on its own terms. These games just move differently, and internet strangers are illustrating this in force to the unconverted.
Despite such an alluring and correct line of logic, the game falls victim to its own ethos. Elden Ring is still too hard for many players, involved in a way that can be janky or confusing to the uninitiated, a game that, despite all the aforementioned aids, still requires hundreds of hours of concentrated practice and study to meaningfully understand. This is to say nothing of the lack of disability options, an area where games are, generally, the most progressive of all artistic practices. This wanton, arrogant implicit ableism severely complicates the use of amputees and prosthetics as metaphor throughout FromSoft’s lore, this idea of harnessing a supernatural power within a deformed body. I am not the one to assert whether this is ripe for a camp reading, but, given the lack of options for physically disabled players, it rings as thoughtless. For all this, Malenia cannot be overcome without wicked fast reaction times and hours of practice.
For devotees of these games and their goals, it is easy to engage with these shortcomings on their own terms. Fandom, especially around something so singular, ostensibly preaches the sanctity of its source. Yet it is worth breaking from this habit, seeing beyond what is presented by the developers, modifying and destroying the game to build a parallel experience of different beauty. If a player wants to completely ignore all combat in favor of absorbing every tableau and studying every texture in intimate detail, this is a fine and worthy endeavor. The photo mode mod created by Otis_INF works in just this way, altering the game’s code so that no enemy sees you as hostile. Playing Elden Ring this way is wondrous and allows meditative attention to a world where, in the past, the gaze had moved solely between pathmaking and enemies. We are lucky to receive a game that offers plenty beyond mere tactile pleasure.
Engaging with a deep love for Elden Ring inevitably leads to data-mining the game’s code to peek at the detritus left behind by the creative process. There’s an alternative form for Malenia’s Waterfowl dance hidden there. There’s also a lost mechanic where the player can access dreams of creatures, scrapped decision trees, and vague hints at cut quests that hint at further lore. YouTubers like Zullie the Witch have made a name for themselves by compiling such information accompanied by hacked footage of unused assets and animations, an uncanny look at what Elden Ring could have been. The game is shockingly unfinished, and even as players devote themselves to it their love extends to delving further than what has been actualized. Loving a FromSoft game is about imagining a better one, no matter how much you like what’s there.
Elden Ring is a game of near-infinite possibility, with a persuasive vastness, yet FromSoft’s vision has not meaningfully evolved. It’s stuck in the allure of its past ventures’ reputation—challenging, self-referential, obsessed with the allure of decay. I have touched every inch of the game. I have read through the lore descriptions of every item in my inventory. I have the damage scaling for several weapons and bosses memorized. The Lands Between have shown up in my dreams, not impossibly reconfigured but exactly as they are. My mind has granted them a physicality that it has only ever previously given my childhood home. Elden Ring, as it exists, is a massive, major work of collaborative art, yet the community has already begun reconfiguring it into something even more beautiful. In the end, what remains most enticing to consider is how a text can be pushed against its original intentions toward lovingly sacrilegious visions of interactive art. I love Elden Ring so much I want to see it shattered.