Elden Ring Analytically Journalized -- NIGHT ONE
A night-by-night account of my first playthrough of the instantly legendary From Software classic, Elden Ring.
(This post was written as a script for the edited video above, which provides a more complete experience of the post’s subject. This video also contains unscripted interview sections notated in the text below. This text version is just for easier reference and comprehension for anyone in need.)
NIGHT ONE (2.5 hours)
Back in 2009 my best friend was an early adopter of the Souls series, having been hyped watching Japanese player videos prior to its US release from Atlas, buying it on launch day and ensuring that my brother Victor and others of ours friends did the same. The Souls series became an addiction in my household for years, while I mostly maintained a fascinated view from a distance because I couldn’t wrap my head around the mechanics enough to be good at it. Every aspect of the game’s design and aesthetic floored me, though; and when we got to Bloodborne, I was simply too drawn to the game not to try and play it. I ended up watching my brother beat each of the games on our let’s play show, which he now continues with his wife Hope, and In the process picked up a lot of pointers on how to make the games easier—namely, farming healing items in the early game of Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, putting all of my souls into Strength and Vitality, and keeping some sort of huge ax, club, or zweihander as upgraded as possible at all times, so that it can one-shot most fodder enemies. I cleared thru Bloodborne, Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls in about 25 hours each on-average in the lead-up to Dark Souls 3 dropping, and then I applied all I’d learned from the other games to mop through that one just as quickly.
Dark Souls 3 was probably my favorite game of all time for its sheer aesthetic spectacle and refined take on the Souls formula post-Bloodborne; but Sekiro was even more impressive to me for taking the branching nature of Miyazaki’s games to a whole new level, while also offering a more traditional action game as compared to the Souls games with some really exciting movements mechanics. I played Sekiro for like thirty hours and got stuck in seven different places at once, never even getting more than halfway through the game yet.
Elden Ring’s longer development cycle let it become the single most hyped piece of media that I’ve ever looked forward to. The thought of an open-world Souls game was actually terrifying to me, given how much the exquisite level design has contributed to my love of the franchise. Early trailers were described by viewers as “Dark Souls meets Breath of the Wild,” and to be honest, I barely peaked at them. What glimpses I saw looked pretty much just like Dark Souls 3 but yellow and with a horse, and I didn’t want to learn anything about the game that might undercut my feeling of hype for the thing, as I had let pre-release information do to me for Sekiro to some extent until I played it enough to feel its magic. I won’t be saying much else about those other games except to make comparisons here and there, because Elden Ring so thoroughly lives up to the hype I had for it and takes so much of what was great about Miyazaki’s previous games in a new direction and to new heights. For me, within the early hours of the game I was richly instilled with the feeling that this was, in fact, the game that I’ve been waiting for all along.
Elden Ring is to Dark Souls as Breath of the Wild is to Ocarina of Time, and there is no question that each of those Zelda games paved the way for the possibility of each of those Miyazaki Hidetaka-san games. I think there are many gamers for whom Breath of the Wild will stand still as the superior adventure for its sheer breadth in possibility and angle of approach to its sandbox world. Elden Ring’s world doesn’t try to make a microcosmic scale model of a realistic environment--it is wholly developed around controlling the player experience in as many nooks and crannies as possible so that the world is way more dense than it is just large. This was the trait I valued in the Souls games which I most feared could be lost in switching to an open-world format, and am most relieved to find in-tact, and to see how the world of Elden Ring managed to constantly excite and inspire in a way that takes more effort on the part of the player to milk from the aforementioned Zelda game. I suppose it could be said that the appeal of Elden Ring is more direct and immediate, and that it front-loads you with tons of crazy stuff on the expectation that you might never make it very far into this increasingly extremely difficult adventure.
The opening cinematic doesn’t prepare you at all for the madness of what is contained in this game. I’d been a little concerned that the characters shown in this cinematic with their pointedly particular names and descriptions didn’t seem as instantly interesting as the guys we saw in the iconic Dark Souls intro, but I think part if that was the nature of the delivery. FromSoft games historically tend to feature these ludicrous intro cinematics with bleeding-edge graphics that look nothing like the base game, and I have to wonder if one of these was originally planned here, as the over-the-top music doesn’t quite feel justified by the concept art scrolls we get beneath it, as awesomely gruesome and evocative as a few of them are, like the sword in the back or the snake biting the severed head. Mostly, I took this intro as something to return to later once I have some context into who the hell any of the people are that it’s talking about.
I decided to start off as a deprived this round, since they have pretty solid all-around stats and the easiest growth potential in any direction thanks to starting at soul level one. Based on my playstyle in previous games, wearing hardly anything and carrying a huge club might’ve ended up being my build for most of the adventure anyways--but I wanted to approach Elden Ring with an open mind and the expectation that I might find a more nuanced playstyle as compared to my old approach.
Delayed gratification is a core aspect of appreciating Miyazaki Hidetaka-san’s games, as each of them is incredibly difficult and likely to stick you in frustrating places for periods of time until you can experience the catharsis of victory--assuming that you have the will to develop the skill. The restraint the game shows in trying to blow the player’s mind can be felt right away when you spawn with the camera facing the wall in a pretty average-looking cathedral, particularly familiar to anyone that’s played any of the prior Miyazaki games. This is a space for you to figure out the controls, get used to the movement, and sort of mentally synchronize yourself with your character so that you’ll be kinetically immersed before it starts trying to blow your mind visually.
Traipsing around, reading the messages from other players and getting used to what basically felt like being able to jump in Dark Souls 3, I quickly felt a warm sense of nostalgia and return to community just by seeing how the tendencies of the playerbase have remained true. Usually I could predict what a message might say before even clicking on it, though I am often entertained by the choices of phrasing some players have. If you see text in front of a cliff, or a flat wall, it will probably imply a secret ahead. Text leading up to that will inform you that there is a liar ahead. Lots of messages point out bugs, celebrate the presence of mushrooms, insist that every animal is a dog and then ask why it’s always dog, and sometimes give you fair warning or advice about how to approach a coming situation. Eventually I passively got used to these messages just being everywhere and only really think about them when I’m wondering about the safety or consequences of a coming situation, and want to get a sense of what to expect from the messages. Sure, lots of them are trolls, and the voting system is less helpful to identifying those than other people leaving counter-messages nearby are (though some of these can be trolls too), but there’s usually enough context between what seems to be happening and the collective sentiment of nearby messages to be somewhat helpful.
I managed to die for the first time just trying to climb the level geography, which it was edifying to realize is, yes, often unexpectedly climbable, but usually leads only to rough spots to be. My next death was to the first boss, which appears almost immediately upon rushing down from the starting chapel, and is surely beatable, but not by me on my first try with no armor and a club, as I went down just about instantly. In retrospect I don’t really know what the hell that opening stage was about yet, beyond the mechanical purpose it serves in getting the player used to the fact of death in this game, and also to the idea that death is less so the end than it is the beginning for a player in this game.
Much ado has been made about the difficulty of From Software games over the years, even though their games were actually way the hell harder before they started up the comparably accessible Souls series that eventually brought them universal acclaim. If you know the Souls games then you know that most of the initial difficulty comes from the game’s esotericism more so than the skill required to beat its challenges. People who play with too much armor not realizing how much harder it is to try and tank hits than it is to dodge them, or people who end up heading into a difficult area without realizing that there’s somewhere else they can go that’s easier at their level, or anyone who doesn’t realize how absolutely crucial is to keep your weapons fully upgraded is going to have way more of a struggle than someone who’s come to grips with the game’s mechanics.
Elden Ring has an optional, and funnily quite missable tutorial stage that introduces you to all of the games controls, which is familiar to first levels in previous Souls games (that usually end in a boss you’re expected to die on, rather than coming after one.) Most edifying to me about this tutorial was the stealth section, which encourages you to crawl through the grass in a slightly-open area and backstab a bunch of enemies, and felt all of a sudden like I was playing Sekiro. Technically all of the Souls series has featured stealth mechanics on some level, and those are heavily incorporated into Sekiro’s more straightforward action mechanics, but Elden Ring has an entirely different approach to stealth, in that it’s even less so about sneaking up to an enemy in order to dispatch them, and more so about circumventing enemies that are too tough for you to handle at your current level.
Gamers have increasingly gotten used to the idea of challenges being accessible early into games which they aren’t expected to be able to conquer immediately, but which exist so that the best players can test their skills and plot their own unique course through the adventure. Tera Online, Xenoblade Chronicles and most famously, Breath of the Wild, from which Elden Ring unquestionably takes a lot of design ideas, featured huge open worlds with gigantic enemies roaming around daring you to come close and die, or find another way around. When I first arrived in Limgrave and left the church onto the first epic vista showcasing an already insanely big-looking game world, and then saw this huge, armored-up guy on horseback intimidatingly stalking the immediate path forward, the message was extremely clear: you are not expected to fight this dude. The only way to go in the direction that the game is telling you to go, is to circumvent the obvious path forward.
Elden Ring as a turn of phrase means a lot of things to me as a player. Limgrave’s soundtrack for instance consists mostly of this low violin drone which itself almost feels like a ringing in my ears or some kind of siren that keeps me alert and tense almost all the time. I remember how in Breath of the Wild there was this distinct contrast between the peace and tranquility of adventuring around open stretches of landscape, and the tense freneticism of battle. Elden Ring seeks to narrow this gap by focusing on combat as the primary gameplay experience, and packs the landscape much more densely with threats. The level architecture is jagged, layered and intricate in such a way that even though you can always see a vast distance around you, often the next ridge over still feels like a complete mystery. This might be the biggest design difference between this game’s world and that of Zelda’s; that game tries to simulate a realistic environment which sometimes turns into a linear level so that it can present specific challenges, and hides secrets all over the place so that players can experience the magic of happening upon something unexpectedly in the wilderness.
Elden Ring has plenty of the unexpected, but more of it is on the conceptual level or surprising in the suddenness of its discovery, rather than being surprising that you found something in the place you’re looking. Big as it is, Elden Ring feels like it expects you to actually comb over every single inch of it, and is designed around leading you deliberately to every single thing that there is inside of it--there’s just so god damn much of it, and so much of it is scary in the early game especially that you’re not likely to even be willing to engage with everything, much less find it all.
When I played the first Boletaria Palace stage in Demon’s Souls for the first time, my friend who introduced the game to me was sure to instruct me to turn around right at the start of the stage and investigate the space behind me, whereupon I picked up an item, and my friend exclaimed that this was how you knew you could trust the developers. Because the game started you off with a suspicious amount of space and some destructible architecture behind you, it only stood to reason that some players would be curious about it and go to investigate, and then to be rewarded for their curiosity, immediately suggesting that you can be rewarded for approaching the world in this hyper-investigative way. I’ve been approaching pretty much every game I play like this at least at the start, just to find out if the developers are equally, as he put it, trustworthy.
There are certain players who probably have little interest in combing over every single inch of the game world and just want to get to the cool boss fights; but for me, the ability to explore these richly realized game worlds and discover all the secrets they have to offer has always been the driving appeal of Miyazaki’s games, which is why I’ve always taken the approach of trying to make the combat as easy for myself as possible, whereas some hardcore players are going out of their way to make it harder. Perhaps this speaks to my mild agoraphobia, but when I see a big open space I immediately feel this drive to see it from a higher perspective and try to get a lay of the land so that I really understand my placement within my surroundings. As someone who spends a lot of time with maps in real life and enjoys traveling equally for the chance to see insanely epic vistas like the mountains of Utah or the salt lakes of Colorado, and also because I like to find the weird little details of the nooks, crannies, and alleys of America. I can never likely see as much of the world in as much detail as would satisfy my completionist craving for mentally mapping it, but at least Elden Ring presents a world that, while challenging to understand in its entirety, is at least possible--it’s only a matter of maintaining determination.
To me, then, one of the meanings of Elden Ring is the perimeter that I found myself making around each area as soon as I entered it--and by the way the game is designed, I am sure that this was an expected gameplay style, as I have found it more satisfying than I’ve ever found this approach in playing any other games. For clarity, I am the weirdo who finds incidental paths of level geometry slopes in the mountains of MMO games and climbs outside of the game world borders, and who spent and alarming amount of my Breath of the Wild climbing mountains thanks to my determination to find my way to all of the sentinel towers as quickly as possible.
Upon exiting the Stranded Graveyard, talking to the NPC, resting at the Lost Grace, and seeing the Tree Sentinel, I decided to break South-West and start heading down the cliffs toward the mysterious coastline below. (Just to be clear we’re on the same page, I’m not talking about the easily-accessible beach to the East which we will be visiting shortly). Hugging the edge of the map as I moved West from the church, I was immediately impressed with just how extensively the landscape is folded in on itself, ensuring you can only really see and concern yourself with so much area at a time, which also makes each individual strip of land more memorable and easier to chart categorically, just because less of the landscape consists of lengthy nondescript sections of emptiness than what you’d find in most games bearing the open-world monicker.
If you’ve looked at basically any footage of Elden Ring at all, then you’ve probably seen that there is a gigantic floating golden tree visible in the sky practically anywhere at all times, and it’s a testament to the sheer height of the damn thing that you have to make an effort to look at it, and it isn’t just constantly blinding your peripheral view like the sun. Considering that the world tree Yggdrasil from Norse mythology is literally the namesake and symbol of my channel, I felt an immediate and extremely deep sense of understanding my goals in this game as soon as I saw the Erd tree looming on the horizon--but we will be able to explore that a lot more as we get further in. Also instantly visible are several of the Minor Erdrtees, which initially gives a similar impression to Breath of the Wild’s towers as something you immediately want to target for exploration--but since they don’t reveal the map or serve as much significant purpose in this game as in that one, they quickly took a back seat to my intrigue facing all these distant cliffside castles, mysterious beaches, and huge enemies with indeterminate power levels.
I think I was probably less immediately impressed with being able to see all this chaotically brilliant imagery than a lot of Elden Ring players who aren’t so familiar with the From Software back catalog. For all the obvious structural comparisons to Breath of the Wild, the aesthetic sensibility of the game is really not super far off from Dark Souls 3. That game presented a world twisted in ruin and bizarre with quirks even moreso than previous games, and while it achieved a lot of its psychedelic properties by remixing elements of the other Souls games, Elden Ring has the opportunity to start off a new property every bit as ridiculously torqued as the later half of Bloodborne or the majority of Dark Souls 3, but right from the beginning. I still have a hard time not accidentally calling Limgrave Lothric instead, thanks to some of its similarities in feel to Dark Souls 2, even. It might be for that reason that it was only when I started moving around that world an descending the folds of continent looming over the coastline far below and I could feel how much that difference in scale meant on a gameplay level that I started to understand what would make this game impressive.
The first enemy I ran into was this huge bat, threatening by way of being as big as I am and able to fly. I would’ve been upset and afraid to have to take on a flying enemy in a previous Souls game, especially with just a club, but Elden Ring’s most important distinguishing control feature as compared to Souls is that you can jump--and jumping rules. I walloped this big dumb bat to death in a few hits, and very quickly felt a sense of where I stand and what I can handle at this early point in the game, as well as just how differently exploration and combat would be taken on in this game.
My next encounter would involve three of these bats, but sitting about in an arrangement that allowed me to take each one on individually without the other two noticing, so I never got ganged up on by two at once. In-between these fights I tried to identify any way down to the little patch of beach below, but didn’t see it. As I kept tracing along the bottom of the continent, actually thinking that I was closer to the Western edge rather than the Southern since I didn’t have the detailed area map yet, I eventually spotted a bridge leading off to another area. I figured something so obviously segmented was likely going to also represent a spike in enemy strength, and I was also afraid of the tough-looking enemies patrolling the roads nearby on horseback, so I snuck my way back to the starting area and started heading East instead.
Cutting as widely as I could around the Tree Sentinel again, I soon discovered the little packs of wild animals that are always frollicking over the surface of Elden Ring. Passively killable enemies have always existed in the Souls games, especially in early areas, but never to anywhere near the extent that they pepper the landscape in Elden Ring. Most will run or fly or roll away when you start attacking, and so I quickly realized that the main challenge they pose is either tricking you into running yourself into a dangerous situation giving chase, or to throw yourself off a cliff trying to claim the prize after felling some eagles on the cliffside. More so than posing a challenge, though, I think these animals are more like a way for players to practice and gain their bearings, as well as to be drawn to the nooks, crannies and edges of the map in their exploration, and to have something easily killable to satisfy your anger towards getting stuck on the actual enemies with. Because these creatures drop crafting items, and I didn’t know what crafting in this game might entail yet, I spent a while just clubbing large animals to death as I scoped out the aforementioned longer Eastern shoreline of the continent.
I would assume that most players felt comfortable descending to the beach by way of the sloped ruins reachable from the edge of the map only after having gotten the horse, which happens after you’ve sat at your third Site of Grace. Because the tutorial at the start requires you to drop into a pit from a height that definitely would’ve damaged your character in the previous Souls games, but doesn’t in this one, I was immediately curious to test the limits of just how much fall can be absorbed by your avatar alone. The structure of the landscape is constantly tempting you, asking yourself if that ledge looks reachable as you search for another, safer-looking path to the thing you want to see. I was eager to descend the ruins because it looked really cool, running over the ridges, thwacking penguins and collecting mysterious Ruin Fragments on my way to the ground floor.
Underneath another nearby ruin, I nervously approached a man seated by a fire with his own horse. Worried that it looked like a boss arena, I read messaged nearby advising things like “try backstab” and thought, that sounds like a trick to get me to kill an NPC--and while there are certain NPCs that it’s better to kill early in these games before they go and start murking other NPCs, I figured even if this guy was one of those, I probably wouldn’t be strong enough to kill him at this point and should probably just talk to him. He turned out to be a merchant, and from him I picked up a crafting recipe and the three smithing stones he carried. Up the North side of the beach, I avoided the larger enemies out of fear to discover how strong this area is supposed to be, and found the entrance to a cave with a Lost Grace inside it. I activated that, then headed in just a bit until an enemy attacked. After killing it, I decided to save this cave for later as it seemed a bit spooky.
Further up the beach, I found this streak of white glowing footprint-like marks on the ground moving in a pattern around a bunch of items. Careful not to cross paths with the glowing tracks, I quickly looted all the items I could find, saw the Northern tip of the shoreline and started heading back the way I’d come. Down the South end of the shore stood about a bunch of big blobby enemies with messages advising to kill them with fire, not unlike the Phalanx blobs from Dark Souls, and also a bunch of lower-level humanoid enemies that I was sure I couldn’t take on all at once just yet. Mostly I was curious about the gigantic vertical shaft of swirling wind looking like an obvious jump pad up to another platform of risen Earth. I made a beeline for it, bypassing all the enemies, only to find that the wind tunnel only works if you approach it on horseback. Figuring it was about time I went and got the horse, I teleported myself back up to the starting church using the map, and then finally headed over to meet the maiden and get torrented.
Arriving at the Church of Elleh, I was even more excited to find a crafting table, and a merchant selling even more smithing stones, as well as the materials necessary to make crafting possible. I quickly upgraded my club to a +2, and was kind of disappointed on picking up crafting recipes to realize that it didn’t seem to be possible to craft original pieces of armor or weapon modifications, but rather mostly items with temporary status effects, which aren’t very exciting at the start. Realizing this would cause me to lay back on annihilating every single animal in sight from that point forward, which is for the best as there are quite a lot of them. I can’t remember if it was my frist or second communication with the merchant in which he revealed that the people of his wandering, mercantile race are quite defensive of their own, implying that if you were to kill one of them then every single one would become hostile from that point forward, and it sank it just how deep of a save-ruining mistake it could’ve been to actually backstab the first one.
Miyazaki Hidetaka-san’s games have always been reputationally convoluted in communicating the literal story of their worlds, but I think thematically and emotionally, the games have always been extremely clear communicators, which is what has allowed them to connect with millions of people around the world who mostly couldn’t tell you what the hell the plot of these games is in the slightest--but might be able to name characters like Solaire of Astora from Dark Souls or Mikolash from Bloodborne, because even with just a few lines of dialog, a few gestures, and some very particular design peculiarities they become instantly memorable and lovable for how they fit contextually into the story surrounding them.
If anything has connected me to FromSoft’s game worlds the most, it’s the very out-there sense of humor subtly brimming underneath the surface of the game’s horror. Madness is a core theme of Miyazaki’s games, with it being nearly guaranteed that everyone you meet in the course of your adventure will eventually either die, or go insane and then die, and that the only way you can beat the game is by managing not to do the same. Your own ability to struggle and continue braving the game’s harshness is usually writ directly into the game’s narrative, and this remains true and presented in hilarious fashion in Elden Ring.
“You are maidenless,” was the first line that stuck out to me from this game’s script for how bluntly it seems to be teasing the player. It felt like a pre-packaged meme in a good way; the way that the writers of these games have a clear sense of what the audience is going to cling to, and they have an amazing knack for finding new twists on the format of surprise. It’s hard for me to really explain exactly what is so goddamn funny about this line and the presentation of the player character’s relationship to Melina without going into a deep rabbit hole about otaku culture, so I hope you’re ready to head down into a well with me.
In Japanese media, the state of the young girl can often be seen as representative of the state of society. You could say that the success of society in itself is framed through its ability to bring a smile to a young girl’s face. The smile of a young girl is the young boy’s inspiration to become a man and protect that smile--and once the girl becomes a mother, then the spark of her smile is sort of passed forth into the next generation of young girls. However you might feel about this way of almost idolizing the preciousness of a girls’ youth as some kind of social pinnacle, you can feel the bleed-through of this feeling into all kinds of Japanese culture; from the fixation on teen idols and models, to the presentation of Japan’s indomitable spirit in stories like Japan Sinks always by way of a young woman, or even the insane extent to which the concept of moe completely permeates the core of anime and manga culture.
Moe is often regarded as an emergent stylistic trend of the 2000s, when cuteness technology reached a point that shows about cute girls became their own genre dedicated just to basking in the character designs and their specific fetishistic traits, rather than just being the default protagonists of any kind of genre fiction looking for an audience. Animation legend Miyazaki Hayao-sama got started after his waifu-level obsession with the main girl from Hakujaden, and his obsession with his own conception of a perfect young girl has clearly compelled the development of a majority of his protagonists. Each of Miyazaki’s young girl protagonists becomes the vessel for the values which he wishes to impart onto the coming generations.
There is a definite sexual connotation underneath this all, but it’s mistaken to look at it just as men leering towards suspiciously-aged girls. Women, too, admire the beauty and cuteness and draw energy from the inspiration of other women, and aren’t necessarily any more likely to project themselves onto a moe girl than they are onto the male characters who desire to protect them; in fact, I think women are generally more willing to project onto male characters than men are to project onto women, which contributes as well to anime’s fixation on male protagonists and plentiful feminine love interests. Interestingly, a lot of stories which explore the life of the young girl from edgier, more sexually complicated angles are written by female authors.
From Software games have always been pretty sexually distant, which only makes sense given the cold, dark and grueling experience of their game worlds. The thought of sexual satisfaction is just way too decadent to sit within the story of a Souls game. At most, you sometimes get to see a gorgeous, breasty feminine upper body attached to some kind of horrible monster on the bottom, or monsters that look like evil vaginas trying to eat you, etc.--and even still this stuff comes up extremely rarely. Where games like Silent Hill 2, Dante’s Inferno and Shadows of the Damned pull heavily from sexual imagery in their horror, Souls games only touch on it as something to be acknowledged, but never focused on. Most often, the experience of sexuality in the Souls games ends up being humorous--through messages instructing you to use goggles to get a closer look at Gwynyvere’s massive rack, or referring to things that look like rump, or giggling about the hilariously-titled sticky white stuff item.
Over the whole of this franchise, the closest thing that the player has to a companion and reason for fighting beyond the sense of accomplishment in itself, is the various maidens who help you to level up in most of the games. First you had the blind and shoeless maiden in black hanging around the hub space of Demon’s Souls, looking all but completely defeated by life except in that her voice is somehow tinged with more hope and sincere desire to believe in you than anyone else in the game. You’re meant to see the fate of this girl and think that since she is willing to do the one thing she can for you and grant you strength that she can’t use herself, it makes a compelling case that if nothing else, this person is worth trying to fight through this hellish world to save. Dark Souls was kind of missing this element, using various mute fire maidens to upgrade your estus flask, but never allowing you to really form a relationship with them--which is probably why Solaire ended up becoming the most iconic symbol of positivity toward your adventure in that game’s story. Each game since has brought back the idea of a maiden that you visit to level you up, though thankfully Elden Ring decided not to force you to teleport to a hub to do it each time, and instead implies that Melina is sort of being spiritually kept on your person, summonable to speak every now and again at certain lost graces.
Even still, it is crucial to note that Melina is not your maiden. She has made a temporary agreement to act as though she were your maiden for the sake of helping you out, but she is the one to note in the first place that you are, fundamentally, maidenless. Each of these games has made a subtle effort to ensure you understand that the maidens assisting you are not your girlfriend, or even your personal servant--these girls always owe their loyalties to a higher power, and their relationship to you can evolve in very different ways depending on how you approach the entire game in earning your ending. To me, the doll from Bloodborne has remained the most interesting of these level-up maidens, as what I consider to be that game’s best ending is the one in which your goals align with hers to the point that she ends up basically raising you as a reincarnated alien god baby.
Melina has all the key factors of other maidens--the implied physical disability of the Maiden in Black and fire maidens from Demon’s and Dark Souls, the same sort of monotone voice that they all have, the allegiance to a higher power, and the subtle sense of mysterious teasing that you got from the Doll. Most importantly of all, though, is the way that you interact with her in order to actually perform the leveling-up ritual--which is by kneeling and taking her hand. The game itself places emphasis on the intimacy of this gesture by suggesting it is something special for you to be allowed access to. It creates this fascinating subtle tension of symbolism, where you have this very chaste but cutely sort of romantic gesture that only means as much as context says it should--but in this context, the maidenless warrior has a chance to feel the warm light from a maiden’s touch, even though she is not the maiden of that warrior.
It’s all meant to create this sensation that this isn’t something you necessarily deserve--it’s almost too rich for the like of you; some tarnished, unfit, undead creature. You, intrepid fighter, are meant to endlessly bat the darkness away with your club on a lonely journey to the heart of your purpose; and yet, even still, you have been given such a blessing; a reward that wasn’t even anticipated for your efforts. Everything in Elden Ring flows from the player’s will to keep taking a chance on their search for satisfaction. Maybe you’ll run into that area to grab that item, and it’ll just be a dung pie and then you’ll get swarmed by enemies and ended. The most zen player will be satisfied that they at least know what’s over there now, and keep trying to get to every single item they find, because they know that sometimes that out-of-the-way trap-springing soft glow is actually an amazing item with an attack that makes it so satisfying to just lay waste to the next boss.
Melina cannot be summoned to give you her touch just whenever you please. Other games with maidens in the series annoyingly forced the player to teleport to a specific place and sit through a bunch of dialog every time they wanted to level up, whereas this game, like Dark Souls, just lets you sit down and do it at any Site of Grace. Maybe we’re meant to assume that the maiden’s presence is making this possible, but you only have the option to make her physically appear before you on your first visit to Sites of Grace where she has something she wants to tell you about the area. If you level up while she’s still there, then she will give you the spiel and take your hand like the maidens from other games.
I’ve gone into all this detail about your relationship to Melina because I think it perfectly encapsulates the game’s absurd comedic horror theming. There is something romantic about the thought of the mere touch of a woman’s hand being enough to strengthen you through the onslaught of pain that is the Elden Ring combat experience; but that romanticism is instantly tinged with irony when the first thing that woman says to you is the meta-textual tease that, “you are maidenless.” It feels like the game is actually making fun of you for the idea that you are so desperate for affection that the mere touch of a woman could have such an effect. It’s all a matter of context to frame your character’s relationship to their environment, and the developers of Elden Ring know that for the overwhelming majority of players, the context with which they are approaching their interactions with the friendliest face in the game is going to be total desperation for any leg-up in strength or knowledge to get them through this brutal experience.
My player character for the first runthrough, Alteria, is designed as a coal-skinned, muscular old woman with a deep-set expression and long white hair in a ponytail. To my character, Melina represents the hope of youth and beauty. Alteria might’ve had youth long ago, but surviving as a warrior for so long has left her leathery and harsh. Feeling the touch of the maiden’s hand doesn’t remind her of anything past--it implies the possibility of a better future for the world to keep going in search of. Or something, I assume she’s also a big lesbian, but much too old and battle-hardened to be having romantic thoughts about the young Melina.
Melina entrusted me with the horse, Torrent, which I like that the game doesn’t assign a gender to, and so I won’t either. Torrent controls like a dream for me--which is to say, as unrealistically as it can without looking terrible. Lots of games feel the need to capture some extra realism by making their horses feel not-quite-fully in the player’s control. While you can’t quite turn on a dime on your horse in Elden Ring, or come to an immediate full stop from a gallop, the horse otherwise controls very similarly to the player character, and feels way more responsive and maneuverable than any other game horse I can remember controlling. Swapping between on-foot and riding is just a little slower than instantaneous, encouraging players to go back and forth consistently at their leisure--though personally I enjoyed the extra speed and ability to circumvent enemies so much that I often struggle to pull myself from the horse until the enemies can knock it out from under me.
Before leaving the church, I sat at the site of grace and ended up meeting Renna, the big-hatted four-armed witch girl who instantly became the most popular design from the game. The pornography is really out there, folks. Being a witch-themed character with a fascination both with doll-parts bodies and having four arms, I would say she’s high on the list of immediately iconic designs for me as well, although I didn’t get enough from my short conversation with her to have a clear sense of her personality or motivations. She mostly appears for the sake of giving you the spirit summoning bell and your first assistant spirits to summon in the form of a trio of wolves--which I am afraid to admit I think I will only remember to use once in my first four days of the game, which is where I’m at right now as I write this.
Having powered up considerably with my +2 club, my first few levels put into Vigor, and the gifts of the spirit bell and the horse, I figured the game probably expected me at this point to head back down to that Eastern beach, since the level geography was obviously built to tempt you once you understood the horse mechanics, and the enemies down there hadn’t seemed especially tough, especially in that cave. My first time entering that cave, the sudden screech of an enemy in the darkness had shot my lungs up into my headphones, but I ended up killing it easily just by backing into the light.
Knowing what to expect this time, I focused on searching for silhouettes in the darkness as I descended into the cave, and had little trouble dispatching all of the enemies on the way to the boss. I was actually pretty surprised, and would continue to be for a lot of the game, by how short of a level there was between the Site of Grace and the boss, just because previous games had such a tendency to run you through a gauntlet beforehand. I summoned Old Knight Istvan to help me with the battle against the cave’s twin bosses, the Demi-Human Chiefs, which are some gross-ass bloated cave troll things. I think I may have used the wolves on this fight, though I can’t remember for sure--I managed to clear it on my first go without too much trouble, and continued out through the tunnel to the island where stands the Church of Dragon Communion, which felt like a hell of a reward for such a quick excursion.
I was glad that this pseudo-secret came early on, however, simply because the reveal of a dragon covenant was the single biggest surprise in Dark Souls, sitting at the back of Ash Lake underneath Blighttown. It might’ve been lame to use that idea the same way again, but in this game it’s instead the very first suggestion you get that leaving the beaten path to take on side challenges will lead you to unique locations where you can return to for special power-ups later in the game. Everything suggested that you’ll be able to unlock by presenting dragon hearts to the Dragon Communion sounds awesome--and the implication of how many hearts you will be collecting means you’re gonna fight a lot of goddamn dragons in this game.
After taking a couple minutes to thoroughly comb that island, I headed back through the cave to the shoreline, and then went down to use the Spiritsong Jump Point at the end of the beach, only to realize that it leaves you on a pillar with nowhere to go from there. I’m not sure if there’s a point there which I missed or a reason to come back later, but from there I teleported back to the Stranded Graveyard, so that I could continue adventuring further to the SouthWest, feeling more confident that I could circumvent the horseback enemies and complete my perimeter of the starting continent.
As I started along, keeping a bit more inland than my first time going this way, I quickly came upon a huge lake full of items and enemies. At first I was so stuck to the leftmost edge of the lake that I actually didn’t notice the huge party of bad guys all clumped together in the middle until I was toward the back of the lake and turning around. Just as soon as I took in the surprise of how many dudes were over there, I also saw the faint graphic of a dragon soaring in from the distance, and all of my Dark Souls instincts kicked in immediately--I started hauling ass back out of the lake, only barely watching as the dragon rained hellfire over the entire village worth of enemies, roasting them all to death instantly. To say the least, I felt lucky to have made it.
Steering very clear of the lake and continuing my perimeter until the dragon was out of sight, I eventually found this extreme slope down to a ledge overlooking the sea below where stood a handful of items and a huge group of the small feisty humanoid enemies I’d fought down in the caves and on the beach. I was careful to avoid them and just snatch up the nearby items at first as I got a lay of this strange sort of secluded ledge, and then made my way in to start picking off the little ones one at a time until I’d aggro’d the rest of the crowd, and activated the first really surprising combat encounter I had in the game.
The best way I can describe the AI pattern of these enemies is like velociraptors. Because you’re fighting anywhere from five to nine of these guys at a time, what they’ll do is move toward you as a pack, and then two of them on the ends will break away and rush to your backside as soon as you get close to the group--so if you attack right away, they’ll get you from behind, and if you dodge the wrong way, you’ll just be running into more of them. The larger enemy’s big swinging attacks are the most likely to take it away from the pack, and so I started by keeping distance and trying to bait enemies to get further away from the others so I could quickly pick them off. My club could dispatch the smaller enemies in three hits and the larger ones in maybe six, and I could get those hits off very quickly when the enemies were isolated, but could only just get one whack off on whoever was closest at a time whenever they started building a formation around me. It was the first battle I had that pushed me to use all of my estus flasks, constantly fret over trying to dodge this frenzy of attacks without backing myself off of a cliff, and deal with an AI pattern not quite like anything I’ve dealt with before thanks to the unique movements of the enemies, and it reminded me that the core of what makes these games special is still the incredibly deep combat mechanics that create uniquely memorable encounters, even in the most nondescript corners of its insanely massive map.
After finishing this battle, I sat still for a minute to start reading through some of the lore descriptions on the items I’d picked up, and as I was doing that, my husband came into the room to make me come to bed, as it was two-thirty in the morning--and so that completed my first day of Elden Ring.
I suspect that some details of this first day will still be further decompressed as later events in the game cause me to reflect on them. At the rate I’ve been able to progress in this ridiculously dense game, as well as in this ridiculously dense script, I imagine it will take me months to actually beat the game and finish talking about my first playthrough--but I feel entirely too passionate about this game’s existence to avoid doing either of those things. Even in these first two hours I could feel the palpable sense of how this game has accounted for exactly the way that I want to play it and built and experience that someone like me is going to probably enjoy more than they could ever appreciate another video game. It’s going to take me a lot of exploration both of this game’s systems and of my own inspirations as a player before I can understand and share with you how that is the case--but I am emboldened by the knowledge that this game is so beloved and successful, and that my experiences will surely resonate with other players, and that we should be able to have some incredibly interesting conversations about the similarities and differences in our experiences. Go as totally crazy with your own adventure stories in the comments, but make sure to mark your spoilers. I’ll be very interested to read everything about your experiences in the parts of the game I’ve shared so far.
NIGHT TWO (3 hours)
When I loaded the game back up, I comically watched all of the corpses left from my previous encounter spawn in and fall to the ground dead. Leaving the dead-end cliffside on which I’d found myself, I continued along the continental perimeter of Limgrave, avoiding the mounted enemies and quickly finding myself climbing up a rainy hillside. At its top, I found all of these strange enemies constructed of little round stones arranged in a line like rock caterpillars, with glowing purple eyes in the front. I found they went down easily to three hits with the club, but their odd movements made me nervous, so I thought it best not to try my luck tempting more of them to gang up on me. This hilltop, the Forlorn Hound Evergoal, in the center features an ornate platform which teleports you into a totally secluded boss fight arena against Bloodhound Knight Darriwill.
Right away, the presentation of this arena reminded me of the optional challenge rooms from Bayonetta, which were usually the hardest stops you could make at those points in the game. Darriwil’s design and attack patterns harkened back to those of Artorius, the first very-hard boss of the Dark Souls DLC, as well as several battles from Sekiro, moving way faster and pushing the player way harder with his suite of attacks than anything else I’d faced in the game so far. Considering how much damage I was taking with each attack, and how clumsy I felt trying to fend him off with just a club, I determined after a second, more mentally-prepared attempt and failure at the boss that it would be best saved for later. I won’t be surprised if some experience players of the Souls series found Darriwill as their first boss and had the determination to take him on until victory right then and there; but the gap in skill between those players and myself is a lot larger than a few hours of throwing myself at this boss at this point was going to close.
I headed down the hill using the regular path this time, watching the horseback enemy I’d been avoiding near the base of the hill at the end of his run before turning and heading away, and thus timing my crossing of the path to the foot of another neighboring hill accordingly. Over here, I found a few enemies mindlessly milling about near some big tombstone-like slabs and items on the ground. I stormed over and mowed three of them down, and then all of a sudden a massive fucking bear exploded out of the ground below me with a bellowing growl, and I immediately summoned my horse and panic-gallopped up the side of the next hill,--nly to find I’d run straight into an elaborate enemy encampment. I didn’t stop steaming past all of the strong-looking knight enemies, and instead continued straight over the back end of the hill, working my way back down toward the bridge I’d spotted earlier to the Weeping Peninsula at the hill’s bottom. Instead of continuing South, however, I decided to head North toward the Minor Erdtree and the mysterious castle on a peninsula I’d noticed in the distance. It’s worth noting that because I still didn’t have a detailed area map and had turned myself around quite a bit at this point, I had the impression I was heading back East, and that the continent was altogether smaller than I’d originally thought. Most of the three hours I played on this second night consisted of trying to regain my bearings and fully understand the layout of Limgrave.
Heading up the Southwestern Coastal side of Limgrave, I came upon my first litter of open graves full of Golden Rune items, guarded by a litter of wolves with a larger grey wolf leading them. I systematically annihilated these and collected all of the items in the area, including one near the Giant Octopus boss that I was too afraid to try and attack yet. I continued up to the For Haight West Site of Grace, but was also intimidated by the number of enemies in the fortress and decided to continue along into the nearby darkened forest toward the Minor Erdtree.