“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde
As I watched the download bar sloth its way across the flicker of my screen, I thought this purchase would be a waste of my hard earned dollars. A victim to the hype and marketing, my doubts whirled around the premise of my aging hands no longer possessing the dexterity needed to meet the challenge of a FromSoftware game. For the uninitiated, FromSoftware is notorious for producing some of the most agonizingly difficult video games you can play. It’s a fair question to ponder their success with such an obtuse formula, but I liken it to mountaineering. We climb the soaring heights into the lifeless and thinning air simply because the peak is there; for the sole sake of mastery. And so, having yet to try an ascent myself and beckoned by curiosity, I clicked the play button on Elden Ring with a skeptic’s gulp.You’re faced with the overwhelming dread of figuring out how this will be an adventure instead of a penance as the red hued “You Died” fades onto your monitor …
My journey into the Lands Between began in a manner I suspect similar to most fellow Tarnished—awestruck by the beautiful first vista in this new world, talking to the white-masked man, then assuming a safe trek to the ruins of a nearby church. Within the span of meters your fresh and lowly character is mercilessly cut down by a giant mounted golden knight guarding the outskirts of said church. You’re faced with the overwhelming dread of figuring out how this will be an adventure instead of a penance as the red hued “You Died” fades onto your monitor and you respawn at the nearest Site of Grace, right back in front of the white-masked man … and you’re also now broke. That’s right, the little currency given at the start now lies at the scene of the crime; meaning there’s no going around the golden sentinel if you wish to retrieve it. At this moment, playing the game felt more of a chore than a reprieve from an ever darker, ever connected, reality. The initial appeal of the game was as an escape from headlines of war in Ukraine, rising inflation, and the looming threat of recession, and dozens of other stressors of life in a hyper connected world; but as my patience wore thin I began to differ.
Yet, some subliminal charm kept me bewitched. As I sulked overlooking the valley my nemesis patrolled, I began to observe his pattern. He took a different route around a jut in the rock face as he made his way back uphill towards my target—the landscape would provide me cover at this moment. Alas, there was the opening to exploit. If I acted in haste, I could retrieve my loot and bolt to the dilapidated church. Sure enough, this was a solution and the ecstasy of triumph set in and never fully subsided.
After a solid six hours of being trampled by knights, ambushed by dragons, meandering into noxious swamps, and being tag teamed by nimble stone goblins it all finally clicked. In the Lands Between, death hath no sting; or so, one must learn. Setbacks are for the cynical, and with Sites of Grace a plenty (the game’s mechanism for points of respite as well as mild guidance), you’re never far off from redeeming the last failure. It’s a loop of well earned small victories building into larger and larger ones with, by my measure, an immaculate pace. Elden Ring is more than a game about learning from mistakes under punishing circumstances; that’s absolutely an element but it would be a reduction to leave it there. You’re playing as a broken vessel in a world defined by its grandeur intermingled with desolation and oppressiveness. In the aftermath of a great war between the Queen’s feuding children, the populace is adrift from one another and seeking some sense of re-ordering. It is something you’d expect to find in a Greek tragedy. The throne is vacant, the heretical and the grotesque have seized some localized power, and the very fabric of death is missing from this fantasy realm—hence the explanation for your innate ability to always respawn. Your quest as the protagonist in this dark tale is to set things right how you see fit, to become Elden Lord.Life inside and outside of Elden Ring beg the participant to not seek virtue but to imbue it—to fill the world with it.
The gameplay, ambiance, and narrative operate uniformly and ingeniously. It’s an experience akin to listening to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony for the first time when you realize the sum of the game’s parts transcend actively teaching you and are passively changing you through play. A eureka moment: I had started as a pessimist and ended as an optimist. Through all the horror, wonder, loss, and conquest the journey never ceased to impart a sense of discovery and above all … counterintuitively … hope. Woven between the painterly gothic allure of this violent world in decay is a through-line of hope. I say it with pause, and twice, in emphasis of the phenomenon that the game doesn’t overtly place it there; rather it tricks you into placing it there yourself! It is designed to change your perspective.
It is easy to become crestfallen in modernity. Our societal problems are perhaps not at an all time high, but at an all time exposure. With 24/7 news networks and the proliferation of social media, our ability to see the dysfunction in our world is unprecedented. Moreover, we’re able to tell and be told how we should and should not respond to all of it before we can process anything in a spirit of prudence and compassion. It’s a tall order with high stakes. But to fall into the pit of despair would mean letting the brokenness change us, enter us. I propose that the antidote is analogous to our journeys across the Lands Between: we put hope, charity, and love where it needs to be. We bring it with us, we sew it back into the fabric where there are holes, we act not as harbinger but as undertaker.
Life inside and outside of Elden Ring beg the participant to not seek virtue but to imbue it—to fill the world with it. And there is a forward momentum to this change in perspective resulting in a call to action; overcoming our inclination towards cynicism requires us to realize that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. So dear reader, I will close in a thematically appropriate fashion: enter the accord, let grace guide you on your quest, fell one enemy at a time, and lowly Tarnished shall sit the throne as Elden Lord. If I can manage it, you can too.