Elden Ring Is Still a Mystery

I have spent a little portion of every night in the Lands Between, swinging a giant flail and riding my horse to misty cliffsides as I meander my way through Elden Ring. I spend much more time there when I’m not playing.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/k7wygz/elden-ring-is-still-a-mystery
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Back in the days we were used to think that “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”…

…if you do the same in the age of algorithmly weighted social content production, people simply loses his mind overthinking that there is going to be SOMETHING behind what’s simply cool visual design and arcane sounding words.

This is the fifth time that they pull the same trick and people keep falling for it so good for them I guess.

This is the most cynical take possible about using implication and mystery in storytelling. Ambiguity is a fundamental element of stories.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of games with explicit, character and plot driven stories. I just played through Horizon FW (and enjoyed it quite a bit), but Elden Ring is a wonderful change of pace where instead of being along for a carefully authored ride, I’m left to my own devices to make sense of what’s going on. It’s making a story into a jigsaw puzzle. And people love jigsaw puzzles for a good reason.

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The porn comparison is so tired and such a narrow view of games, even in the 80s context. Text adventures existed, RPGs too. Just because the gamer magazine bros only cared about Doom does not make the sentiment true for everyone that comes to gaming.

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Also, I am not sure even in the space of FPSen if this was ever entirely true - Marathon and System Shock are also both products of overlapping design space to Doom, and manage to have more narrative.
(And Carmack’s Doom quote is always ironic given that there was, famously, a whole bunch of plot planned for the original Doom by Tom Hall - who left id because Carmack didn’t see the point in all of this.)

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A story is an idea transmitted via whatever medium you choose. So excluding Sekiro and Bloodbourne (that work in a less “your definition of ambiguous” way).what’s the “story”, ie. the core idea, in Souls games? Those games are not built to “tell a story” in a classical sense, they work instead like old D&D adventures (think Tomb of Horror or Eye of the Beholder) the implied objective is to overcome all the challenges they throw at you, but in doing so, they show you with lore so vague and obtuse that make you feel you are doing something more complex than that.

Or, to say it like @ThatSamWinkler: Dark Souls revolutionized games, in the sense that instead of a story now you can just have some guy with a big sword named Myrmidon of Loss who gasps “Zanzibart… forgive me” when he dies and then twenty YouTubers will make an hour long video about how deep your lore is.

Thing is, in these games Myrmidon is asking for Zanzibart’s forgiveness for a reason and somewhere in the game are references, NPC dialogue and item descriptions that tell you why.

Also, I’ve liked a Sam Winkler tweet or two in my day, he jokes and memes a lot so maybe he wasn’t being as critical as you think.

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The only way this point makes sense is if “story” to you is synonymous with “plot.” Because what you’re talking about is plot, not story. You could make that argument, but it’s such a reductive and frankly boring way to look at storytelling.

Most video games are extremely plot-driven. They have clear events and progressions and reveals and reach for absolute clarity so that no players miss out on those events and progressions and reveals. This, in part, is a symptom of gaming being a really young medium, and not having developed a) the courage in a highly commercialized marketplace and b) the medium-specific language to try and tell stories that are less focused on the moment-to-moment beats of a plot. (E.g., how do you tell a character driven story when characters are partially player-defined.)

Dark Souls is just a video game trying to maintain the kind of ambiguity that happens basically every day in other media. Go read some Borges or Pynchon or Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino or [insert mid-to-late-20th-century modernist or postmodernist writer here]. Or for god’s sakes just watch Blade Runner lol. The only difference between those pieces of media and a Souls game is that in a Souls game it takes a lot more effort to find all the “pages” that build into the overall work. I get being cynical about lore videos (I don’t watch them much myself) but this is just a really intellectually lazy to approach storytelling.

Edit: to add to @Navster’s comment — if we want to define story a little more broadly than just plot (and approach something like theme), all of these games are about the fall of empire and the slow decay of once-powerful states. They’re about systems that no longer function, or function in ways that are actively deleterious to the few people still surviving in them. They are about looking at societies that have existed for so long and propagated themselves onward for so long by agonizing means because their rulers aren’t willing to let go of power. You are instructed to link the flame in each Souls game in service of a god that doesn’t want to die. Dark Souls 3 is a body-horror hell because the flame has been linked so many times that the world around it can no longer hold its shape. None of this is particularly hard to pick up from just playing the game. It’s not like you’re being asked to read Ulysses. It’s just mildly more impressionistic than the games most AAA studios feel safe making.

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Dark Souls 1 is about getting to and reigniting a dwindling flame that maintains the status quo of a world that achieved immortality at a terrible cost of sapping everybody’s sense of self.

Dark Souls 2 is about you becoming afflicted with the immortality curse and coming to a land that promises to cure you. You eventually determine that to be a lie and assume the throne (or not) by killing the despotic leader.

Dark Souls 3 is about the cycle of reigniting the fire leading to diminishing returns, and asks you once again to decide if you want to continue the cycle knowing the misery it caused and its diminished effect.

There you go, story as it is told in the game, through cutscenes and explicit dialog. Whether it’s well told is a matter of opinion, but just because you didn’t pay attention, doesn’t mean that no one else did.

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Please don’t throw the poor Calvino in an argument about Ghouls 'n Goblin 3D: he was one of the most clear and consistent author in both themes and style in the whole westerner literature so please let him sleep in peace.

My point is that if really Souls games are about what you say then they are not only poorly written, but they are also poorly conceived since they don’t express any concept beyond “the world is going crazy and it’s coming for youuuuu”. Take for example another ambiguous, lore heavy, mysteriously plotted game based on the same concept of “status quo in a decaying world” like Bastion. It’s central concept is the same but there it is explored in multiple ways, the plot, while murky and under explained maintain a clear emotional core that’s quite coherent.

My “theory” is that Souls game are the product of a certain Japanese fondness for western literature and, as such, they use concepts of western Sword & Sorcery but with a Japanese point of view. IMHO Souls works like Evangelion or Nier: Automata: they use the aesthetics of western philosophy but they don’t go beyond a surface understanding of it (in the same way as many western authors that throw katanas and samurai to anything “oriental”)

And, I cannot stress enough, that that’s perfectly fine. What I find amusing (and quite annoying) is all this “explainer market” that grow around basically nothing and strangles the discussion spaces because the SEO gods require their pound of flesh.

This would happen to literally any game if it got big enough. Cruelty Squad is a postmodernist cynic’s nyquil nightmare and i guarantee if it got actually big, it’d have that same barrage of Content explaining ankle shit shooters with lore, rather than what the hell point a human being would be compelled to make by writing ankle shit shooters into media.

it also happens to every medium including books do you know how many more people watch thematically incurious youtube book explainers than they do read books let alone interpret them

It’s a systemic issue that spawned a subcultural issue, and as much as it incentivized From to stick to the same path, they’ve both deviated in some ways after their popularity and had been doing the same worldbuilding long before anyone liked them/content farmed them.

There’s a lot of things to criticize pretty vehemently about From, accessibility chief among them, some really eye-rolling fixations and dated gender politics pretty high up there too.

Getting really miffed that people who can access it think they’ve gleaned meaningful narrative from it because it’s not Truly Literary enough with its ‘western’ sword & sorcery pastiche (i guess Berserk suddenly doesn’t exist lmao), and the youtube algo’s annoying you is… maybe a little weird though.

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I agree that Bastion has a strong thematic core but the only standard by which you can call its plot is in any way murky or underexplained is by the standards of a AAA video game lol. It drops a lot of world details in big proper nouns sure but the actual plot of that game is about as clear and obvious as it comes. There’s no work you have to do to piece together what happens to its main character because its main character is at the center of the journey. They literally press the big button labeled “resolve main conflict” at the end lmao.

It sounds like you just need your stories to center around the experience of the character you’re following to connect with them. Which is a fine preference to have. But the shallowness you’re identifying as something innate rather than a product of that preference only works if you flatly ignore a pretty solid majority of everything in the game. I hate to break this to you, but that “explainer market” exists for any work that has a constellation of weird objects and world building that people experience in isolation and want to compare their opinions on. Like… literal children’s literature like Harry Potter has lore explainer videos with millions of views.

In any case, we’ve provided a bunch of counterpoints and you’re just continuing to argue from the negative. It’s fine that this is your personal bugbear but you’re kinda just starting to sound like Holden Caulfield.

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I’m not going to dive too deep into this one. I like media that preserves a sense of mystery. I enjoy doing some of the work, even most of the work, of coming to an understanding of the the story I’m watching or participating in. I love a silent protagonist. I love a laundry list of proper nouns. I love space to inhabit with my own creativity, or puzzle solving. Doing this well is not easy. It takes thoughtfulness to be thematically consistent in presenting a world with space for the viewer/player to fill in. It takes a particular kind of creative restraint to be very specific about some things, without being specific about things that would throw off the experience of finding your own way through a world.

Elden Ring does a great job of providing these tools, and for me it’s a better game for it.

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You see: Cruelty Squad, that was cited above, is a vitriolic criticism bomb exploded to the face with a vaporwave discordant aesthetics that, behind the visual noise, maintain coherent, thoughtful and even poignant reflections on the commodification of life in late-stage capitalism.
Bastion is a clear “hero’s journey” that, behind the stated story, incorporates in its themes not so banal thoughts on romantic relationships and the “world” they create when they end.
Explainers for those kind of stories are a useful tool to widen the audience because they use codes that are not easily decoded by general audiences.

Now we can discuss all day about authorial intent, death of the author or the necessity of “meaning” in a commercial product with artistic values like video-games are.

But, and i cannot stress this enough, excluding Sekiro and Bloodbourne that work in a different way, the “explainers” about Souls game are mostly about lore: snippets of world-building that even when they are linked together in the most overreaching way, do not add a single gram of significance to an enjoyable arcade game.

To link back the article: Elden Ring “mystery” works in a similar way of J.J.Abrahams “mystery box” : undeserving information to the audience to make their speculation part of the appeal. It’s a compelling trick that however has already showed up its limitation and shallowness, It’s just puzzling to see it celebrated again 15 years later only because it is used in a different media. Sure this is the same genre press that once amusingly celebrated the “Schindler’s list of videogames” because an arcade shooter dared to say that violent retribution is, you know… Kind of bad. So I think there is a quite skewed view on expectations and perceived audience.

But what I know? Holden out!

Those aren’t really comparable, though. I’m sure you could find people digging through the lore of Bastion, the roles of the gods and why weird creatures exist. Equally, there are people who talk about what Dark Souls has to say about power - the way that some people are free to leave when they see a storm on the horizon and others are compelled to stay (the gods fleeing Lordran even as the undead are imprisoned and fed stories that lead them to Lordran, as an analogue to executives staying home as they force workers to ignore evacuation orders), as one example.

It can be nice to feel like you’ve figured something out by yourself, and people love bestiaries and flavour text. I don’t think it’s surprising that this series gets a lot of praise for leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in an industry that often has guardrails and neon signage. And in gameplay, it helps to create little puzzles in combination with the intentionally-cryptic messages of other players. Little puzzles that feel good to solve.

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I don’t know what this said but I’m sure it was worthy burn so I’m going to bask in what I imagine it might have been

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I mean first, I don’t know how you go from calling a game “murky and underexplained” in one comment to a “clear hero’s journey,” which makes me think you’re either trolling or cherrypicking whatever stretched interpretation supports the point you’re trying to make. Neither is particularly convincing when you’re trying to judge a narrative work’s successfulness.

I went back to reread the article to make sure I didn’t misread it the first time, but, uh, no? You could take a really, really big leap and argue that the mystery box idea and the way Dark Souls plays with ambiguity are responses to similar movements in their media — i.e., eras where TV/film and games were both extremely overt in their storytelling and emphasized clarity for mass appeal at the expense of ambiguity and depth — but that’s not at all what the article is saying, and it’s not the case you’re making either.

Abrams’s whole mystery box concept is about withholding certain essential pieces of information from an audience to engage people in the process of “solving” something that can’t be solved. Meanwhile, all of the information you need to understand what’s happening in a Souls game is already in the game. It’s just in item descriptions, in environmental details, or locked in sidequests that you might not find. It is all there. You pretending that it’s not does not make it so. It’s just put in unconventional places.

Like c’mon, are you really going to say that Dark Souls III isn’t being pretty damn clear about the cycles of ruin its world is going through when the Untended Graves exist? How can you encounter a carbon copy of the game’s starting area — just without any sun, or sky, or light, and with a past, uncorrupted version of the game’s starter boss — and not realize “oh, maybe this game is trying to show that all this shit I’m going through has happened before”?

Anyway, you seem to, essentially, be saying that because you either like to ignore or just can’t engage with the specific ways in which these games construct narrative (sidequests, NPC interactions, item descriptions, etc.) in favor of their good hacky-slashy gameplay, everyone who actually does pay attention to those things and sees some deeper meaning is in fact a poser.

And that just seems sad, because to be true it requires the literal millions of players who play these games, watch these videos, build these wikis and write about these games to have been caught in some shared delusion of grandeur that you alone are smart enough to have avoided. Hence, Holden Caulfield.

…but also, as a coda.

You’re referencing a tweet by an actor who plays bit parts in TV shows and hosts an actual play podcast. Literally a tweet. A tweet that got roasted to hell and back by everyone who writes about video games. If this is all some roundabout way of saying “game journos bad,” you can hopefully do better than that.

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Hey everyone,

The conversation got a little heated and bad faith arguments were in play, so we’ve decided to temporarily lock the thread for a little bit before the conversation continues.

-The Mod Team

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