Video Games

George R.R. Martin Helped Make One of the Best Video Games in Years

Elden Ring puts you right inside a brutal fantasy novel.

Still from Elden Ring of a character in armor standing on a cliff overlooking peaks shrouded in mist
Bandai Namco

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I’m not really sure what’s going on in Elden Ring. Thirty hours into the game, I’ve already explored ruins, spelunked caverns, raided catacombs, stormed castles, slayed a dragon, and looted countless corpses—but I still barely know why. The game purposely hides the scale of its map from you, slowly revealing it through fragments encountered while exploring. All I know is that I emerged in a region known as Limgrave, a gorgeous, dusky plain lined with giant tombstones, bathed in the golden light of a massive world tree known as the Erdtree. I’m given directions: to guide my character, a humble, “tarnished” warrior, seeking the Elden Ring in order to claim its power to become “the Elden Lord.” None of these terms is defined for me. Is the Elden Ring a ring for a finger? Is it some kind of grand architectural structure? Some kind of fantasy hula hoop? And why do I want to be the lord of it, anyway? Beats me!

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What I do know is that I keep playing anyway, and I don’t want to stop. That’s because Elden Ring, out Friday on Windows PC and the PlayStation and Xbox family of consoles, is extremely fun, brutishly tough, and the most thrilling video game I’ve played in years. The total lack of exposition here—who am I in this world? What exactly is my mission? Why is this world arranged in such a way?—would be frustrating in most games, but in Elden Ring, the obscurity is the whole point.

Elden Ring is the latest game by FromSoftware, the Japanese studio that has almost exclusively iterated upon a single template since 2009’s catalog-defining Demon’s Souls: a combination of hardcore, action-based role-playing gameplay with high-difficulty challenges, knotty level design, and opaque storytelling. Demon’s Souls threw players into a dense and difficult high fantasy world that felt thrillingly at odds with the tutorial-heavy, hint-filled style that game designers were moving toward at the time. But if its gameplay was a throwback to an earlier era of less forgiving games, its storytelling was something new: a nearly impenetrable puzzle box concerning gods and kings and dragons that was never explained to the player, only shown through environmental details and abstract clues. Critics ate it up.

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Demon’s Souls was followed by Dark Souls in 2011, a spiritual sequel with an unmatched sense of scale and mystery. It refined the FromSoftware ethos: In a world so immersive, Dark Souls felt set in a preexisting, real location rather than an imagined one. Each area flowed and branched into the next in a way that felt naturally occurring rather than just a collection of levels. A dilapidated castle flushes away into a rotten sewer connected to a miserable swamp leading to a giant tree that descends into a pristine beach occupied by a hydra. The result was a game whose world came across as ancient, internally consistent, and even dignified, an extraordinarily rare quality in the cool-chasing world of video games.

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The secrets hidden within the Souls games’ and their spinoffs’ storytelling are central to their allure. Instead of experiencing the story through traditional cut scenes, players wander through highly detailed worlds given only vague objectives, fighting enemies, leveling up, killing massive bosses on the good faith that it’s what you’re supposed to be doing, without establishing why you’re doing it. Only through careful study of the environment does the story become clearer: Those broken statues lining the gallery aren’t just broken because they look cool. Dig deep and enough and you’ll learn that it’s because that statue is of a god who has been exiled, and thus his statues have been torn down. That boss fight you fought wasn’t just there on a designer’s whim, but because the character’s backstory makes it necessary. In the 13 years since Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware has transformed the practice of world-building from a secondary design element into a high art form in itself.

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After Dark Souls, FromSoftware rocketed from cult-favorite developer to one of the most celebrated and influential studios in the industry, with particular praise directed toward director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Now considered one of the few auteurs of the medium, Miyazaki went on to refine the Souls formula across sequels and spinoffs. They all ranged from good to excellent, but none was quite able to match the revolutionary sense of wonder of Dark Souls’ interconnected world.

That is, until Elden Ring. Where the Souls games were dense but ultimately grounded and self-contained, Elden Ring feels cosmic in scope. Perhaps to aid in this endeavor, Miyazaki enlisted a rare collaborator here: fellow fantasy genre auteur George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame. Martin consulted on the game, helping to develop its deep lore. Perhaps it’s because I (purposefully) haven’t watched any of the explainer videos that are already out there yet, but it’s hard to glean exactly what Martin’s story contributions are during a first play-through. The world of Elden Ring is factionalized, with a complex internal politics—aspects that feel vaguely Martin-esque. But whatever the Game of Thrones author’s contributions actually are, they have been fully subsumed by Miyazaki’s powerful, intoxicating aesthetic.

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Where modern classics of the open-world role-playing game genre—like The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, or even the very recent Horizon Forbidden West and its predecessor—recall the experience of reading a great fantasy novel, Elden Ring feels like living through one. Elden Ring, like Dark Souls before it, skews the traditional fantasy trappings. Instead of controlling a hero you are well aware will be anointed the chosen one, the game thrusts you into the position of a schlub just trying to survive for as long as you can against the ever-increasing odds. In the power fantasy world of video games, this twist feels revelatory—especially as Elden Ring makes you struggle for every possible advantage and scrap of power.

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Elden Ring de-prioritizes the classical hero’s journey, instead centering the journey of the world itself. Not since 2017’s landmark The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a game captured the sense of an untamed world so well. While Breath of the Wild abstracted and gamified its environment, Elden Ring instead brings the environment’s every detail into sharp focus. Each region is tied together through environmental circumstances. A red-colored rot consumes the region to the east of Limgrave, sprouting horrifying plant life and giant dogs hunched over like dinosaurs, as the soil turns crimson. The area also houses a now-ruined village of sorcerers, decrepit and falling into the bordering swamp, overrun with statue-headed specters. I assume there’s some explicit connection between these sorcerers and the red rot, but I don’t know what it is yet. But the feeling that the connection does exist gives this world an almost electric charge.

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Right now, I’m not as excited about the textual relationship between these characters and phenomena (which I probably won’t know until I watch one of those lore videos) as I am about the story I’m piecing together in my mind. Knowing that the world of Elden Ring is built upon these implicit connections suffuses the whole world with a sense of purpose and humanity. The absence of knowledge but abundance of imagination is what makes Elden Ring, and all of FromSoftware’s games, so good.

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I still don’t know how big Elden Ring’s world is, but right now it feels limitless. I did get one hint, though, that I can’t stop thinking about: I used a rare key to unlock a portal to the edge of the map, emerging far to the east on a floating piece of ruined architecture. On the horizon, I spied a giant cyclone enveloping a floating city surrounded by winged demons. When I first found this place, I just stood and watched in awe. I don’t know when or how I’ll ever get to that city, but it feels like a revelation, a piece of arcane knowledge. I don’t know what to do with it, but it feels precious all the same.

Elden Ring

By Bandai Namco. Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X.

Editor’s note: Slate reviewed Elden Ring on PlayStation 5 via a prerelease copy provided by Bandai Namco.

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