Elden Ring Is Fair and Just, Except When It Isn't
Making good rules for how to make good rules.
Elden Ring, by From Software, is a pretty big deal, so I had to play it. I just can’t sit back while everyone else grabs all the good Hot Takes.
My Scorching Hot, Muy Caliente Take: It’s good.
I beat it in 100 hours, killing all major bosses. I relied on Google to learn how to do things well. I used every possible advantage the game gave me. I used the most overpowered weapons and was helped by the most powerful summons.
I had to do it this way. I am old and slow. Thanks to all the help, I managed to drag my carcass across the finish line. It was very, very fun.
This game is a phenomenon, with the wild sales, huge engagement, and memes to prove it. It's also hard to criticize, since From Software games tend to be mean and confusing and sadistic on purpose, so anything that makes you mad was probably put there intentionally.
But since I can't resist writing about the thing, I want to start with the key question: Why do people love these games so much, despite the sadism.
Let's start with the obvious. These games are tricky for anyone with normal skills. The bosses get very hard to beat, requiring lots of practice to learn their moves and how to respond. The trash in the halls is also nasty, and even weenie pests can kill you quickly if you aren't paying attention.
The storyline is abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. I completed several quest lines, and I still don't know who I was helping, why I was helping them, what they wanted, or what the results of my efforts were.
Die too quickly, and you can lose all your unspent experience/money. Only one difficulty setting.
THERE IS NO PAUSE BUTTON.
Almost none of the game systems are explained. This is intentional. It is explicitly to force a community to form outside your game. However, this is a real risk for a developer to take. If said community doesn't form to write online guides and wikis, all you have is an incomprehensible game that scares players off forever.
There are many ambushes and insta-death traps. To help, players can leave comments for each other, written on the floor. (To get the full experience, you need to play these games in online mode.) Sometimes, these comments warn you about upcoming dangers. Sometimes, they lie to you to get you killed. There is a voting system for comments, but a really good troll is guaranteed to get lots of upvotes.
My single favorite example of how nuts this game is: At the beginning, you get a choice. Walk through a door out into the sunlight, of throw yourself off a cliff. You have to throw yourself off the cliff to get the TUTORIAL. (In my house, 3 out of 3 players missed the tutorial. I understand this has been patched to make things clearer.)
I mean, seriously. I've been trying to get good at game design for almost 30 years. I'm bloated with lessons about usability and empathy for the player, and then the biggest megahit of the year trolls you with the tutorial. What have I even been doing with my life?
From Software knows what they are doing. They write beloved hits, one after another. How do they keep getting away with it?
Whenever someone writes about these games, the inevitable response is, "Why would I play a game that is mean to me?" It's hard to explain. Yet, once you get into the headspace and learn to roll with it, these titles are insanely fun. Sales figures and the insanely high engagement don't lie.
Some might say that gamers just like abuse. Yet, this is not true. Gamers, like all humans, hate being annoyed, hate being jerked around, and hate having their time wasted.
I don't think the millions who play these games like all the mean elements. They may be OK with having to go to a wiki to learn what their stats do, but EVERYONE wants a pause button.
So why does From Software get away with it? If we define things that leave a player angry and frustrated are "wrong", what do the games do "right"?
The Rule That Makes It All Work
When designing these games, there is one overall rule the designers must obey. One rules that ties everything together and makes everything work and keeps people coming back. From Software doesn't always succeed in following the rule, but lapses are rare. The rule:
Whenever an enemy attacks you, no matter what your character build, you have a reasonable chance of being able to evade the attack.
In other words, yes, the game will troll you. The game will trick you and hide things and be confusing and unfair. Yet, when it matters, when you're in the fights, the meat of the game, you always have a fair chance.
If you are naked, you can still win. If you are level 1000 with all the best gear, you can still lose. Gaining power just increases your safety margin.
One of the jokes about these games is that, when someone complains about difficulty, the inevitable response is "Get good." (or "git gud") This is not an insult. This is the only answer! When you are dying, a solution ALWAYS exists. It just takes observation and practice.
This is why Elden Ring, in the end, is fair. It is why you died to Margit, the Fell Omen 50 times, and yet Twitch streamers are speedrunning the game with a level 1 naked dude armed with a stick.
So that's the golden rule, that makes the whole system work. And Elden Ring totally follows it. Until it totally doesn't.
It's Your Game. You Can Break Your Own Rules.
Of course, a game this big and full of so much mischief has room to break its own rules. The difference between craft and art is learning when the rules should be broken.
In Elden Ring, there is a boss called Malenia, Blade of Miquella.
She is the hardest to reach, most difficult, more memed boss in the game. She is at the far end of a very difficult secret dungeon that is almost impossible to find without a walkthrough. One guy became an internet celebrity just by being able to beat her reliably.
It is a very cool fight with very cool design. It's so pretty! That so much craft and care went into content this far in shows admirable dedication on the part of the developers.
This is the best known, most-feared fight in the game because it breaks the rules. In the video I linked, jump to 2:40 and check out the insane anime sword combo she uses (called waterfowl dance).
This attack has five phases. It does an insane amount of damage. Most importantly, the first two waves are very, VERY difficult to dodge. In other words, if the ability goes off when you are next to her (like most melee characters) and you don’t have godly speedrunner reflexes, you are dead.
There are ways around it. If you rely on distance attacks (like me), you have to be extra-cautious. If you are a melee player, you have to keep as much distance as possible to bait out the attack so that you can safely close in on her for a while. Still, it is pretty bullshit. I've watched very good streamers with good builds spend hours dying to her.
Not fair. Breaks the rules.
And yet, by breaking them, it became the game's trademark fight. It lets you, as a player, say, "I am so good at this game that I can even beat it when it cheats." These games love to troll you. You get used to it. Then you find a way to win.
Maybe Every Game Should Have Three "Bad" Design Choices
One of my main problems with game design these days (which I too often fall victim to) is a design to shave off the rough edges. To make everything precise and perfectly balanced and meticulously explained. To make sure the numbers line up perfectly and nothing is broken. To always be fair and never be frustrating.
This flaw can be taken to comical extremes. Like games that tell you the solution to a puzzle a few seconds after you reach it. Or World of Warcraft, where your equipment is reduced to nothing but a clot of numbers. ("I had a 351 point sword. But now I upgraded to a 356 point sword. yay") I tried Horizon Zero Dawn after Elden Ring, and I had to quit. It just felt like a Disney ride.
These are games! Playthings, meant to provide fun, surprise, and the ability to challenge your wits and reflexes. They should have mischief! You should troll your players every once in a while, to keep them on their toes.
In my earliest games, I included a spell called Quickfire that made magic fire that spread uncontrollably. You could enter a dungeon, throw quickfire to kill everyone, and just leave. It was terrible design, and I could never bring myself to do this again. Players loved it. There is a reason why my old games will always be more popular than my new games.
I think just about every game would be better if the designers added three rough edges. A plot or design element that is never explained. An encounter that is a bit too hard. An item or ability that is way too good. Something that's just silly or with a completely different tone than the rest of the game. Most importantly, something that gives a surprise.
It’s a game. Be playful. Maybe it’s OK to troll your players, as long as they can sense your joy in it. Joy is contagious.
We have announced our next game, Queen’s Wish 2: The Conqueror. Wishlist it to find out when it is released.