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Elden Ring: Dare To Be Different

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Elden Ring

With Bloodborne turning seven years old this week, Dark Souls 3 turning six, and the series as a whole in its 13th year, this seems like the perfect time to take a step back and marvel at the unlikely success of a franchise seemingly hell-bent on doing the opposite of what we have been conditioned to expect from a modern AAA franchise. There’s very little hand holding, scant explanation on what’s happening, where to go, or what to expect and every single inch of ground you take in the game is a challenge and reward in its own right. The game never gives anything to the player and each and every success players achieve in the game, big or small is a hard-fought victory. 

In a world in which each release seems to be slowly coagulating into one amorphous mass of huge mapped icon-ridden Ubisoft Live Service-ness, the “Souls Series” for want of a better term is content to be entirely its own thing. I was once told while studying at University that you should never try to please everyone because you will always fail… instead, know your target demographic and cater to them specifically. To me, the Souls games are this personified in the gaming industry. They know their target niche and they are more than happy to cater to them specifically and the rest be damned. “What’s that? You can’t get past this boss? Tough luck. You better keep trying”. If sales figures are to be believed, however, with the latest game in the series Elden Ring being reported to have sold over ten million copies in the first month following release, perhaps niche is a slightly misleading term, raising the question: Are the Souls games a lightning strike in the right place at the right time, or is this a rejection of the now well familiar AAA game from the gaming public. Games that have been focus tested to within an inch of their lives, to the point that any personality or differentiating feature they once had has been stripped away, leaving a husk of a game that is as shiny and polished as it is dull, bland and devoid of character.

Image: FromSoftware

Trying to boil the Souls series down into its component parts is nigh on impossible. The minute you pull at one thread of thought, about five others come loose. These games are an interesting and fascinating ball of ideas and techniques, each augmenting and relying on one another to create something much greater than the sum of its parts and unlike anything else on the market today. That’s not to say people haven’t tried. Over the last decade, we have seen the steady rise of a cottage industry of “Souls-Like” games sprouting up (Nioh, The Surge, Rise of the Fallen to name a few) and although many of these have a lot to offer, none of them have yet been able to recreate the foreboding yet undeniable magic this series brings with it. As a result, many games seeking to emulate the Souls experience tend to cherry pick features of the game rather than attempt to wholesale copy. Whether that’s the difficulty, pace of play, XP harvesting or even the secretive construction of the world, what these wide and varied approaches developers take to emulate the Souls Series tell us is that these games mean very different things to different people and very few people will come to these titles for entirely the same reasons. With that in mind, rather than try to dissect everything, here are four of the reasons that have helped me fall in love with the Souls franchise over the years.

Image: FromSoftware

The Anti-Modern Game

Trying to be all things to all people eventually means that you are doomed to blandness, ultimately standing for nothing other than the bog standard middle of the road averageness. Over the last decade or so we have seen much of the AAA industry begin to converge to the same point on the gaming compass. Open world, massive map, littered with samey unimaginative side quests and if a developer can shoehorn some kind of live service model into the game, all the better. As I get older, I find that I’m appreciating games more and more that respect my time. Quality over quantity if you will, but unfortunately in the modern games space we have much more of a focus on quantity over quality. In the same way, social media is designed to turn us all into drug addicts coming back again and again for our micro dopamine hit, the AAA space is intent on having us log in on a daily basis in the hope that they will convert a certain percentage of us into the much-coveted “Whales” that will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars of our hard-earned cash for an in-game hat or worse still paying the developers for boosts that mean you have to play their games less “please take my money so I don’t have to keep coming back here”. It’s like they know what they are doing isn’t fun, so they allow us to buy our way out of it! 

The Souls games don’t do any of this. There are no dailies, no microtransactions and any DLC they do release feels substantial and worth your time. I keep reading that Elden Ring feels ‘fresh’ and ‘new’, but in many ways, the Souls series are a return to what gaming once was. Before all games wanted to be always online with every path clearly laid out for the player alongside all their options for added paid content, games were just games, allowing players to get caught up and lost in a world, encouraging discovery and rewarding the player for curiosity. The Souls games aren’t fresh or new. They are as old school as it gets. It’s a shame that much of what makes these games feel so fresh is that it has confidence in their world. We play it because we want to, not because we are being artificially drawn back by a psychological need to check off some boxes. These games are long and at times punishing, but what they do fantastically is respect your time. Each part of these games is important and lovingly crafted, which is something sadly lacking from many AAA overpriced, overly shiny games on the market today.

Image: FromSoftware

The Sense Of Wonder

One of the many interesting things about Souls games and none more so than the most recent outing Elden Ring is the way in which the player is encouraged and rewarded for exploring the environments. A few years ago The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received plaudits for returning the wonder to open world games and encouraging the sense of exploration in a way that had been lost over the years. While this is true in many ways, I can’t help but feel the Souls series of games have been doing this for the last thirteen years. Don’t get me wrong, Breath of the Wild is a wonderful game, but for me, the Souls games and more specifically Elden Ring brings the wonder of exploring environments to a level that I’ve never seen before. You never know what you are going to find around the next corner… it may be a dungeon, it may be a dragon, it may be a castle or even a massive bear scratching a tree and although lacking in the open world that Elden Ring has now brought to the series, this has always been true in the Souls universe. The foggy obtuseness of the series means that you never really know what you are going to find next and I’ve seen the series run from the terrifying and mundane to the grotesque, eerie and even extraterrestrial. It really is unlike anything out there and the at times brutal difficulty only serves to augment this. The danger is real and the risk you might lose your progress is at times a paralyzing danger the player must find the courage within themselves to overcome. Yes it’s frustrating and yes it can leave you feeling demoralized at times, but the lows mean that the highs are just that much higher. A feeling I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced in another series.

Rewarding Challenge

This is the obvious one in which even those who haven’t played the series are aware of… and let’s be honest, this is most likely the primary dividing line between those that love the franchise and those that don’t and if you don’t… hey no judgement here. I get it, lives are hard, we are busy and for a lot of people, gaming is a way to relax and unwind, and the last thing they want is to be kicked in the nuts over and over again before they turn off their machine and hobble off to bed. I’ve even felt the crushing weight of these games myself. 

With all that said, I genuinely feel that if you removed this from the series, it would be a mere shadow of what it’s trying to be. As we’ve discussed, these games are many things to many people, but a central throughline is their apparent impenetrability. Whether that’s in figuring out how to level up your character, or coming up against a difficult enemy, or trying to figure out what on earth is happening in the story, it’s the mystery that’s compelling… and here’s the thing; yes the games are hard, obtuse and refuse to hold your hand, but they all have rules and if you can figure out those rules, a lot of the mystique around these games ebbes away. There are ways to give yourself a leg up and ways to play the game and feel like you are gaming the system in the way it can at times feel the game is gaming you, and figuring out your own little tricks and manoeuvres is part of the joy. 

I hear a lot of frankly redundant discussion about difficulty modes in these games and where I’m not one of those gatekeepers that gets angry at the notion, I do think those claiming to want this, miss the point of what these games are. They are puzzles to be solved. If you find the vagueness of difficulty offputting, then these games aren’t for you and that’s fine. There are plenty of genres I don’t enjoy. I’m ok with that and sincerely hope those that do enjoy them get everything they are hoping for from the experience. There’s still plenty out there for me to enjoy and have fun with.  

Collaborative Gaming

For me, this is the real secret to having fun in the series, and I’ll give you a peek behind the curtain here. As much as I love these games, I’ve never wanted to or enjoyed playing one completely on my own or in isolation. Each time I’ve made my way through a Souls game I’ve played it alongside friends and that isn’t always playing in game with someone. It’s the sense of discovery as a group of friends work with each other to find their way through the game together. Discussing, strategizing and giving each other nods towards things they have found in the world and yes, even having a friend join you to grind for XP. The Souls games are the ultimate “Water Cooler Game”. It’s a discussion point and a journey the community embarks on together to experience and uncover the mystery collaboratively. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that to be a true Souls fan you have to play the game completely alone and without help. These games may be bleak, hard and seemingly impossible to get to grips with, but there are tools in there to help you and it’s completely up to you how you engage with them. If I get stuck I will ask for help and feel no guilt about it. Games are and should be fun. Something both players and developers could do with remembering sometimes.

Elden Ring isn’t for everyone and neither should it be. At times it can feel impenetrable. It’s foreboding, oblique and punishingly hard. Many will hate the games and that’s fine because many will also love them. You cannot be everything to everyone, because what that results in is a dull, bland experience, scared to put itself out there and something that isn’t particularly special to anyone. In a world in which all games want to either be the next big ‘Live Service’ experience or the next sprawling open world game with towers to climb, map for, RPG mechanics and yellow markers telling you exactly where you need to go and when it’s refreshing when games come along and throw all of that out the window. The Souls series remind us that being different is good and if we were all the same, life would be a dull, boring place to be.

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David has been writing, podcasting and making videos about video games for around a decade. He grew up on Halo LAN parties and wiled away summers mastering the final line in Tony Hawk Underground. Today his tastes are somewhat eclectic, but he holds a particular fondness for an immersive RPG he can lose himself in for days.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Sarc83

    April 6, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    I used to think these games are just difficult for the DIFFICULTY’S sake and people love it For the bragging rights or so.. Saw alot of elitism, figured “I Don’t find being frustrated fun, so I Don’t get It”

    But the more I started to look in, the more curious I got…

    Now that I got Elden Ring and Haven’t to my surprise Booted Horizon Forbidden West (which is admittedly also great) ever Since, have found the exploration and Discovery absolutely enthralling, I Realize how wrong I was.
    Yesterday when I beat Malenia after 2 days of trying, I felt so excited I almost puked. No joke. The dopamine rush was like a high, with me smiling like a fool and feeling all light headed while walking into every wrong room in the roundtable hold, forgetting I was going to grab MALENIA’s gear from there. Would I trade the struggle to a fast win Instead? Also to my surprise No, never. The hard bosses and big victories Have been the highlights, even if they offered some frustration.

    Though can’t recommend the game to anyone who breaks stuff when they rage.. That wouldn’t be healthy. To me, it has also been great practice in patience and determination I feel….

    Only Radagon to go. Man, I hate his AOE BS right now. 😉

    • Mrs. Wiggle

      April 7, 2022 at 12:55 pm

      I feel this, a hundred percent! I got into the Soulsborne games a few years back, with Bloodborne being my favorite, but Elden Ring is just so much more than the others. Somehow, they made oppressive environments breathtakingly beautiful! And defeating vexing and frustratingly powerful enemies does give you a SORT of high feeling, because oh my God, did I actually win?!

      Would recommend, again and again and again!

  2. Feng Shui Silverback

    April 7, 2022 at 3:25 am

    Entering its 10th anniversary in 2022 when DEMON’s souls came out 13 years ago?

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