At times, Elden Ring is a desperately lonely game. When I’m traversing the desolate plains of the Lands Between, or navigating a stony crevasse while dodging the slings and arrows of giants, I very much feel I’m the only person I can rely on.
But Elden Ring’s message system has made the game feel, at other times, more like a conversation between me and other players. These short dispatches are everywhere; they’re near enemy camps, scattered along terrain, and work as a breadcrumb trail through dungeons. They turn the isolating and deadly experience of Elden Ring into something much more friendly — and at times, even collaborative.
This is my first FromSoftware title; thanks to repetitive stress injuries in my hands, I was always hesitant to dive into these games, which rely on the player downing a series of powerful foes through third-person action RPG combat. Elden Ring is the first game to convince me to take the plunge, and while I take regular breaks, I’m actually quite pleased with my progress. I’ve killed the bulky Tree Sentinel and used his glaive to down Margit, the Fell Omen. It certainly feels good to see the Enemy Felled message and pick up new weapons or trinkets. But I truly relish the glowing white runes that signify a message from another player, or the spectral image of a friend from another dimension running ahead in a dungeon or clambering through rocky terrain.
Yes, there are many messages that are a little … redundant. We get it, guys. Visions of rump. Try finger but hole. Fort, night. These are all done to death. But there are other times I’ve been genuinely surprised or pleased by these messages. Some of them are funny; a message reads “Try jumping” at the edge of a cliff, and it’s surrounded by the bloodstains of trusting players. Other times, they’re weirdly Zen.
Elden Ring is an epistolary comedy because for 50+ hours you find hundreds of messages next to various animals that read “dog” or “dog!” (the animals are never dogs) and then, when you finally find an NPC who has a wolf companion, the message next to it reads “…horse?”
— Axel حسن T. | Rap Game Derrida (@axel_hexed) March 12, 2022
FromSoftware games have earned an intimidating reputation when it comes to difficulty. As I left the starting cave and beheld the majesty of Limgrave, the game’s starting zone, I saw a few messages. One read, “Don’t give up.” Another: “First off, don’t think.” Weirdly, this was relaxing, and while my early hours were frustrating, I kept those messages in mind. While losing a thousand runes or getting murdered at the Gatefront was frustrating at times, I realized that it didn’t really matter. Don’t think. Don’t give up. Just keep trying.
This philosophy served me well as I took out the Tree Sentinel with the help of my trusty jellyfish and Torrent, and then rolled up to Stormveil Castle to kick Margit, the Fell Omen’s ass. After his big barnacle body fell and disintegrated, a series of messages lit up ahead. One just read, “I did it!!” Another was an elaborate congratulations message, encouraging me to keep going but to stay wary. I ignored the latter half of that message, and was promptly murdered by birds with knives strapped to their feet. (Who gave them knives??)
A lot of Elden Ring feels like the developers are intentionally fucking with the player. I advance past one tough gauntlet, and then a pack of wolves dive-bomb me from the sky. I hug a lady, and she saps my health points. I visit Roundtable Hold and check out a room, and a guy with two scythes invades my game and wrecks me. The message system only adds to this. Sometimes, the players who have gone through that torment are in on the joke, and will urge you onward. “No enemy ahead,” they promise, or “treasure chest here.” Sometimes there’s a treasure chest; sometimes there’s a giant armored knight who’s here to ruin your day.
Even the silly jokes make things feel less frustrating and depressing. It’s like having a tiny, not-terrible Twitch chat cheering you on sometimes.
Other times, it’s weirdly gentle. There’ll be appropriate advice — like “try stealth,” or “Fire ahead.” Or “Fight these guys one by one.” FromSoftware games are notoriously punishing, and the collected zeitgeist of their titles is that they’re very exacting. Not only will the player need to invest in practice and repetition, many new fans worry that the game’s most devoted fans will simply tell them to get good.
That’s certainly true in some places, for some people, but the messages in Elden Ring are revealing a much more sympathetic, helpful fan base. The people who know the FromSoftware tricks and traps are helping new players navigate not just the individual challenges, but the mindset of learning to laugh those failures off. For now, I’m enjoying my journey, and despite my countless deaths I’m not intimidated. I now get the way communities form around these games to pick them apart and decipher the secrets; there’s always someone there to lend a hand up. Or, if you’re unlucky, urge you off the edge of a cliff. Either way, it’s just another way to play in these worlds.