The Elden Ring Letters: An In-Depth Discussion of the Biggest Game of the Year

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The Elden Ring Letters: An In-Depth Discussion of the Biggest Game of the Year

Editor’s note: Elden Ring came out over a month ago, but people can’t stop playing it. They can’t stop talking or writing about it, either. From Software’s latest game is massive in every sense of the word, and with its outsized critical and commercial success it could wind up being one of the most influential games of its era. It’s no surprise that critics and journalists are still digging deep into its themes, design, and mechanics weeks after the window for discussion for a new game would have typically closed. Two of today’s smartest critics and best writers on the subject of games, Dia Lacina and Cameron Kunzelman, chewed over Elden Ring at length via email over the last week, discussing how it fits into From’s larger oeuvre, why it’s resonated with the public more than previous From games, where it stands in relation to the larger world of fantasy media, and more. Here’s their conversation. There are probably spoilers aplenty below, so if you’re still plowing through the Lands Between and don’t want any hints of where the story goes, you might want to come back to this one. For anybody who wants to see Elden Ring in a new light, read on.

Cameron Kunzelman: It seems to me like Elden Ring is basically From Software’s greatest hits. It has all of the highlights, in the way that any other greatest hits album does, but it also pares back some of the rougher stuff. There are very few album deep cuts here, mostly because it seems so dead set on giving us a massive world with some traditional Dark Souls dungeons crammed into it sporadically. Is that your experience with the game as well, or have you been approaching it differently?

Dia Lacina: Cameron, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve restarted Elden Ring. Sometimes I get past Godrick and his many borrowed limbs, sometimes I don’t even make it to Kalé, who I will forever call after the cruciferous leafy vegetable. In the past three days, I’ve rerolled three different Confessors (Derby the Just, Derby the Cruel, and finally just BLOOD NUN). Not one of them is still standing.

Presently I have a wastrel former aristocrat who I guess is some sort of debauchée lesbian vampire who dabbles in magic and bdsm named Anactoria after that miserable Swinburne poem. She’s made it the farthest. Raya Lucaria, where since my Review playthrough I keep losing steam, logging out, and starting a new character.

This morning’s was “Himbo Derby” (not the first). A vagabond who I rushed to the Great White Rune Piñata in Caelid so she could cosplay as a frosted blonde Venice Beach version of Guts. Maybe she’ll stick around long enough to be able to one-hand the Greatsword. But between then and now I need to do everything in Limgrave. And then the Weeping Peninsula. And then the entirety of Stormveil Castle. Somehow in my dotage I’ve become an intractable completionist.

I actually like Stormveil. A lot. It reminds me of King’s Field, of the best dungeon-y parts of Dark Souls, and Castle Cainhurst. When I wrote my review I was ready to burst apart like a Land Squirt with a driving urge to talk about how much Stormveil rips. Or the myriad little pocket dungeons—the kind that AD&D writers loved to socket into adventure modules from ages past. Here’s a five-room mine your tabletop group can clear in a Saturday night, a three-floor watchtower at the edge of a once beautiful island nation now beset by a dark wizard-king (who the party will assuredly deal with in 7-10 levels, many weeks from now, providing Derek doesn’t get that weekend job at Little Caesar’s, or Calvin and Kira don’t have a messy break up). You know, the campaign padding for budding grade school DMs to throw at parties so they can gain a mathematical advantage of beating the campaign’s big bad on an initiative roll. But it’s fun, or we wouldn’t do it, right?

Here’s the thing: I’ve fought Margit so many times now that I don’t need numerical advantage. It’s a reflex at this point. Like the scene where Keanu Reeves’ Neo dispassionately blocks every one of Smith’s punches before smoothly wrecking him in one swift move. It’s not quite boredom, but it doesn’t feel all that dissimilar. Godrick is a fight I likely still have to pay attention to, simply because I often bounce before I get there, opting to start a new character in the same condition. Hoping this time the narrative, thematic, and mechanical calculus of Elden Ring will be different.

Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying, my approach is different this time, after a fashion. I’ve known to restart builds in Dark Souls but never with this intensity, frequency, or repetitiveness. Whereas Dark Souls lets me jump in and establish my end game build fairly early if I want, Elden Ring burns me out along the way. But I refused to allow myself to skip helping Kenneth Haight with his dinky, occupied keep on the coastline, even though I knew his quest went nowhere.

In a way, in less than a month, Elden Ring has become the Temple of Elemental Evil boxed set for me. Something I returned to over and over with a half-dozen would-be DMs over the last twenty-five years. Something I’m not sure I’ll ever fully, properly finish. But not because I’m unhappy to try. Is this a manifestation of Pandemic Brain? Or is it simply that what I want out of Elden Ring is the same thing I want out of Temple of Elemental Evil, and that both are just not capable of delivering? I guess in a way this world feels disconnected and I’m having trouble committing to its existence as a “real” virtual world. But I didn’t have this problem with previous Souls games. Even as I admit those often feel more like sequences of connected puzzle boxes to be solved than anything else.

Cameron: That makes a lot of sense to me as a way of engaging with Elden Ring because it does, at the end of the day, feel like a lot of disparate geographical pieces stapled together by a lot of talented designers. FromSoft has really done a sneaky thing with how they put this world together that ties up a lot of threads that have been running through the games since Dark Souls. That game has this beautiful kind of consistency that people love to talk about, and there’s this infinite number of YouTube videos you can watch where people are like “damn, did you know that you can see X location from Y place!” Elden Ring gamifies that to an extreme level, and uses it as a way of pulling the player through a lot of random stuff.

It’s not just that, though, since Elden Ring is also trying to fold in all the strange stuff that the From games have been doing to break from that geographic consistency in the games since DS. Dark Souls II has the famous elevator transition to the Iron Keep, which is just miraculous in how strange it is and how well it works (and how little I care about the logic there, despite that definitely not being where everyone landed on it). Bloodborne and Dark Souls III wanted to play with space in their own ways, and they learned the clear lesson that they had to “thematize” it appropriately, which is why we’re bouncing around nightmares and timelines in the former and why space seems to have crunched up for no reason in the latter. it’s clear to me that Elden Ring is the team having it both ways, making it so that all of this works from beat to beat but also just hounding the player with weird maneuvers and alien landscapes and dark fantasy creatures who work precisely because this whole world is that module-ish, Legofied patchwork creature that you’re talking about.

I think it works across the board, but I am curious about where you’ve landed on the stuff beyond Godrick, and even in the endgame if we want to go there. I think it definitely does work like Temple of Elemental Evil, but unlike that boxed set, I’ve actually gotten to the end of this one! And I’m curious where you land on some of the more interesting shardbearers and if any of them really resonate with you: Rykard, Radahn, Rennala, and the rest.

Dia: I need to confess something. When I play Morrowind, I almost always join House Telvanni. I know, I know. Politically they’re the absolute worst, and even if they’re radically anti-Empire, they’re definitely not the Best Choice for Vvardenfell’s future. But they’re also batshit wizards who live in giant mushroom spires and farm the best bugs in Tamriel. Do you remember what their motto is? “The Forceful expression of will gives true honor to the Ancestors.” They use murder for career advancement. What if the Sith were so much worse and even more untenable?

Which is to say, I like fucked up people and their horrible factions. So when I met Rya in her stone gazebo in the middle of that godforsaken, ankle-deep “lake” and she invited me to join her death cult family of European swingers at Volcano Manor? How could I say no? They’re terrible, even their posture is wrong. But I love Tanith. When I killed Rykard (who is great in and of himself) and later found her eating his corpse (because in Volcano Manor we eat the gods), I was like, “Why is it always monstrosity? Except Could this be a lover?” Sure, it helps that Tanith Lee remains one of my favorite writers decades later, and the first name association is unavoidable for me here.

Sure, in the end, as with House Telvanni (and the Sith of KOTOR) they’re all getting murdered. By me. Because ultimately the jockeying for power and bloodlust just gets a bit tedious. You can’t build a personality around being terrible. Plus, in Souls games, if you want a lovely white dress and matching hat you always have to do A Murder. But it doesn’t change my love for my Volcano Manor family.

Even the name. “Volcano Manor.” It’s like something you’d find in Adventure Time. Which I think to your point earlier about how From Software folds all this together into one coherent and consistent batter makes sense. This is a world that asks us to take it at face value, that like Ooo, all of this is internally consistent because no one acknowledges it as inconsistent.

When I think about Rennala it’s hard to think more than, “Sad Egg Girl is Sad Egg Girl.” We meet her briefly and even though she’s pivotal to the world’s current state of affairs, I wish there was more of her than a continuation of Miyazaki watching Angel’s Egg and thinking “hot damn.” I love her though. There’s a giant testudo summus pontifex, who has gossip and weak legs. Half the game pivots around asking myself, “Can I trust the Giant Literal Fingers that look like they’ve been slammed in a car door a couple of times? Or should I go with the Constantly Finger-steepled Blue Witch Ranni.” All of which is treated with the same normalcy as the grass that sometimes pops in a few seconds too late thus giving us a glimpse of if all the world was Caelid—which is what Bloodborne’s Nightmare Frontier could have been if a 1970s cover artist for anthologized Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories had been tasked with art directing it.

Do you remember the scene in John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, where Sam Neill’s character begins cutting up all of Sutter Cane’s book covers and piecing them together to produce a map of New England? I’ve been thinking of Elden Ring as that, except instead of one author, it’s a scattering of covers. It reminds me of going to the used bookstore as a child and grabbing an armful of fifty-cent paperbacks based purely on the covers, taking them home and spreading them out all over my bed, not knowing which to read first. The hodgepodge of sci-fi, horror, and high fantasy imagery colliding into one coherently chaotic world. And it kind of rules? I don’t know how much responsibility George R. R. Martin had in naming and conceiving of the shardbearers, but it’s one of the few places where, to me, this game feels like classic genre fiction.

Starscourge Radahn. What a name! Eaten by rot himself; devouring corpses instinctively! What a concept! It’s incredible how unwilling Elden Ring is to play any cards early. Limgrave, Liurnia and the bosses there generally don’t interest me, and in some ways it’s such a long slog to get through. But my god, when it opens up, we get some of the most compelling Dark Souls Bullshit since the Adjudicator and the golden bird that maybe controls him.

Which leads me to my question: what do you make of GRRM’s involvement here? Do you think it adds anything to the From Software formula? Or does it even matter?

Cameron: I have no idea what to do with GRRM’s involvement here. I have to confess that, despite my being a Genre Person, that I have always found his work like two steps too tedious to get into. There is nothing less interesting to me than War of the Roses in a dark fantasy world. What I find the most fascinating about his involvement is really the fact that he was involved period; in the whole wide world, of all the fantasy writers who do or have existed, why this guy? The man who is famous for starting a thing that he cannot finish, whose keynote work is something that is associated with a multi-million dollar letdown broadcast for an audience whose disappointment was audible from the moon?

I know that there’s been talk of FromSoft approaching GRRM related to other novels of his, but there is something really quite odd about going for this laboring creature who has been cast into the spotlight against all reason and rationality. Or maybe not, since he’s sort of isomorphic to the whole project of Elden Ring and the other soulsborne games: a man who keeps climbing up that mountain, pushing that boulder, posting about football, who we must imagine is happy. This striving subject is the thing that everyone celebrates about these FromSoft games, and it is the thing that everyone is always hooting and hollering about being turned into. Elden Ring has you power through the ranks, repeating your mistakes over and over again, looking for the edge case solution that will let you kill Godskin Duo or the Fire Giant. GRRM is this weird mirror of someone who is always working, always making progress, with the expectation that there is some kind of output down the line. That’s the same thing we’re doing when we play these games.

If this is on purpose, which I doubt it is, it would be some Patches-level shit. FromSoft probably just wanted the sweet cross-promo and, really, anyone can write an epic backstory. Which I really like in Elden Ring, by the way. I enjoy learning about all of these assholes of the Shattering and their quadrants of the world and how basically no one is willing to make a single move toward each other so a Protagonist has to come along to shake things up. From a zoomed out perspective, there’s a real rudeness to being a Tarnished; you’re basically going and beating up a bunch of people who are not really in the right headspace to have a battle or you’re invading someone’s home to kick their ass for no real reason. It’s more stark here in this game than it ever has been, and I wonder how you feel about the big, broad strokes of how the player interacts with this giant world story. I guess I am asking what you think about Outer Gods and fantasy aliens and all this shit.

Dia: The Outer Gods are fucking sick, Cam.

For the longest time I didn’t really think of The Greater Will as a cosmic horror/weird fiction ancient alien. Which is silly on my part because Miyazaki has proven time and time again that writers like Blackwood, Machen, and Dunsany are very obvious influences. A woman who looked more like a carved out block of contortionist wood said “Greater Will” and I was just like “Oh like some big Christian God…sure.”

I’m glad I was wrong. I’ve played enough JRPGs and killed enough Evil Popes for one lifetime.

The Formless Mother is just a sick as hell name and concept. The Frenzied Flame is pretty good too, but I’m also extremely over that status ailment after climbing Frenzy Fuck Off Mountain. I even like the unnamed gods—the alien that brought the rot, the force of the moon. This is a good game for lovers of status ailments, because alien pestilence “blessing” is just conceptually rad.

I like deeply lived-in feeling fantasy worlds, even if they have that paint by numbers, socketable hexcrawl feeling—there’s both a gravity and patina to Elden Ring that I genuinely appreciate. Taking GRRM’s world building (and I think what interests me is how unimportant and unobvious it is where his work ends and the From Software team’s begins) and then giving it the Dwarf Fortress business results in a sunken and sodden world that needs to be tilled, aggressively. And in order to have a world that psychically deflated and historically pummeled, well, you just gotta have really old gods and fantasy aliens. Even if every time I see the Crystallarians I get the Steven Universe theme song stuck in my head.

I think the Tarnished is fantastic precisely for the reason you identified here. In all these games, we’re an outsider. The Chosen Undead who goes to Lordran because of a weirdo knight’s memorized bedtime story. The amnesiac Bearer of the Curse who drops down a whirlpool to Things Betwixt (ha-ha). The Hunter who wandered into the last chaotic gasp of Yharnam. Here we feel not just like someone who doesn’t belong, but a genuine foreign body, an opportunistic infection. Like you said, we’re “beating up people who are not really in the right headspace.” The Rennala fight was the first real instance where I thought about this. Battering a completely maxed out divorcee in the middle of her yoga class, just trying to hold on to the dignity she’s already had taken from her.

I just waltzed in and smashed her over the head with a Berserk reference until she was alone and could only ask, “Do you want to go inside my egg and change your stats?” Not even pantsing the Moonlight Butterfly or the noble guard dog Sif felt that rough. I think I like Starscourge Radahn because he reminds me of Ceaseless Discharge. Absolutely emptied out by trauma, only capable of reacting, you could say it was a mercy killing, but whose right is it to even say that? I definitely felt more conflicted about my role as a brutal interloper in Elden Ring than I had in previous From Software games. The number of Demi-Humans I summarily executed in their sleep alone gives me pause. But I won’t say I also didn’t enjoy bleeding and magic missiling my way through every ancient earthwork, fort, and barrow.

Hey Cameron, you once wrote a really tremendous piece about Dark Souls II and its awareness of being a sequel, and how it engages with that. And today I was reading lots of tweets and articles already speculating on Elden Ring 2. In a matter of weeks this game sold an unthinkable 12 million copies. By the end of 2015, Bloodborne (which came out in March of that year) had sold two million. What the hell does a sequel to Elden Ring look like to you? Do you think we just shuffle the hexes around, grab some new random encounter and location tables and roll dice? What does Elden Ring have to say about its own existence, do you think?

Cameron: I have to be honest that I am deeply worried about any attempt at sequelizing Elden Ring because I am unsure that lightning can strike twice like this. We’re not very far into this game’s life and I am already seeing a huge number of people saying, essentially, that 30 hours in Limgrave is quite enough time to put into this, thank you. Because at the end of the day, this is a soulsborne game; it’s a FromSoft thing that puts you into the same subject position as all the other games. It crams you into boss fights and creates mechanical pinch points that you have to battle your way through, and at a certain point the fun of the open world resolves into this tried-and-true formula. How many people have you seen say that they’re basically uninterested in playing the game after smashing into Margit enough times? I’ve seen quite a few.

And that makes me worry about what any kind of Elden Ring 2 could possibly be. You can’t just make this game again. They’ve put every FromSoft game in the catalog into this one, with only a little bit of real novelty for those of us who have put a lot of time into these things, and we know exactly what happens when this team starts feeling like they’re running out of ideas and steam: they make Dark Souls III, one of the most bleakly “I can’t believe we’re still doing this shit” games ever made. And it’s interesting for how much it knows it is running out the clock, precisely because it elevates that fear to the heights of an all-consuming narrative, but god I find that game just joyless to play. That game was about getting fed up with cycles and replication. All of history was happening all at once. Is it going to be interesting, even as an exercise, to see FromSoft make that same metamove when it comes to open world games and mechanics? Vast spaces disconnected, or connected too much, without much coherent connection other than the insatiable fan drive to make it all make sense? We know how these devs address this kind of maneuver at this point. I am not eager for another go at that.

I would be so much more interested in FromSoft taking a step back into discrete linearity from here. Give me Bloodborne II, maybe, or even another Sekiro, even if I did not enjoy that game. I would so much rather this team show me what they have learned from an open world in another context, in the same way that linear action games informed how they made an open world. I’d love to see the same density of characters and quests in Elden Ring placed into a game of the same scope as Dark Souls II. I’d love a FromSoft RPG-ass RPG, a Nier deployed from another perspective. Elden Ring is an awesome greatest hits album. Has any band ever created a truly worthy Greatest Hits vol 2?

I guess I’m curious where you land on it. What do you want to see next? An expansion? A return to the classics? The Elden Ring TV show?

Dia: I keep needing to remind myself that it’s only been little over a month since I’ve been hands on with Elden Ring, and that a week and a half of that was me blitzing through The Land Between as fast as humanly possible in an unreasonable dash to “see credits’’ (which is a ludicrous phrase and practice we’ve adopted as an industry). It’s been too long since Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls for me to remember fully, and I know the landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade, but the barrage for Elden Ring has been so much more aggressive; the number of guides and explainers that outlets both huge and tiny keep writing on a daily basis and pop up in my phone’s news alerts floors me. I was in a small Discord server for people to explore the game together, and while for a few days I had to hold my tongue, they quickly passed by even my end game understanding. The rapaciousness and speed with which Elden Ring has been set upon is incredible to me.

Yes, as you’ve pointed out there are huge swaths of people that did their Limgrave 30 and bounced, but every day I see more and more videos from deep inside Nokron, selfies with the Large Woman (no, not that one, the other one), triumphant tweets announcing “Saw credits on Elden Ring!” It’s a weird feeling, going from the vanguard to, in some ways, feeling left behind. Elden Ring is a game where very few people on my timeline are attempting New Game+ or starting over with a new character to explore the other narrative possibilities. They see credits, and they go on to other games. A few seem to have picked up previous Souls games, and I’m interested to see where they land. Does Souls work going backwards for a more general populace?

I’m often frustrated that the Souls franchise has found itself caught in the state where lore explanations are predicated on identifying external references. “The Greatsword is a reference to Berserk, and from that we can infer…” to etymological excavations producing statements like “This word comes to us from Middle High German…” What will they find when they start spelunking through the From Software catalog? And what will they make of what they find? Will Vaati overtake the popular understanding of how these pieces all fit together? Will we get an Elden Ring version of The Paleblood Hunt? Or is it just going to be Tits-out Ranni Pegging Blaidd on Main for the foreseeable future? As you’ve pointed out, From has brought an entire catalog of references, techniques, and concepts to bear in the creation of Elden Ring. Everything they’ve done before split apart and grafted together (more successfully than Godrick). Where previous games would give us a crestfallen figure, this game gives us Master Hewg explicitly saying “She’s crestfallen.” A line where we can say, confidently, “That’s an Easter Egg.”

There is part of me that’s forever frustrated with how the community has come to try and solve these games. The way all media has become a form of Lost in the years since its broadcast. Fitting pieces together and filing edges to make them fit, bringing those most specious of external references in to make firm judgments on What Happened and What It Means. One of my biggest lamentations with Elden Ring is how From Software has given over to this by having GRRM create a world before setting off on their game making journey rather than the spontaneous generation of necessity. Mysteries have answers here. If you hear about a place, you can rest assured you’ll visit it.

Even the item descriptions have lost their weird editorializing quality. There’s no extra-narrative Herodotus of Elden Ring creating static and uncertainty — we’ve given up that friction for a game world that can be easily licensed by Wizards of the Coast. There is a part of me that’s waiting for the Boxed Sets of editions past returning with the Official Elden Ring Campaign Setting for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe that is the best answer for “What comes after Elden Ring?” at least for Elden Ring. When all of this is picked over and the hundred-thousandth YouTube video has been made about “What’s the difference between Tarnished and Those Who Dwell In Death?” it seems like an awful waste of already generated source material to not make some splatbooks at least. I’m not going to be done with this game for a long time. Pulling myself out of Souls Twitter to conduct my own explorations of The Land Between still has a great deal of value for me.

But as for what I want next? I’ve always put forth that what I truly want is From Software’s take on The Undermountain. You’re a Forgotten Realms person, so of course, you know about the massive Dwarven halls deep below the city of Waterdeep. A mega dungeon large enough to contain forests that every DM dreams about running to the bottom, and few (if any) ever reach. But the more I think about it, Dark Souls already is From’s version of The Undermountain. So, I guess I’m with you. I want a return to the scope of Dark Souls, but with the density that Elden Ring has shown they’re capable of. Not just two or three major character threads to follow to the bottom of The Great Hollow, but a complex ecology of individuals trapped in the bleak, moist corridors that From Software creates so well. It’s either that or the sprawling scale of Elden Ring becomes the basis for the much desired “Armored Souls.”

Hey, Cam. That reminds me… Is Torrent a mech?

Cameron: I refuse to answer this question. I have to try to hold onto the mystery.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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