A vast and mysterious world of fantasy, glowing trees, body horror, and birds with knives on their feet awaits for players of Elden Ring, the latest game from cult-fave developer FromSoftware. The studio is known for the brutal difficulty of its biggest series, known as the Souls games. But Elden Ring offers some welcome quality-of-life additions that make it a little more approachable than the typical hair-pulling, controller-throwing FromSoftware fare. Still, the PC, PlayStation, and Xbox game asks you to push yourself to your gamer limits—to endure setbacks, ambushes, and deviously difficult boss fights that will lead you to die over and over again.
It makes sense because if the developer had done anything else, its longtime fans would have openly revolted as soon as Elden Ring arrived on Feb. 25. Players of the Souls series and other FromSoftware games demand steep, punishing learning curves of a type that can drive even the most stouthearted gamers to distraction. Which is why, despite the generous checkpoints, fast travel options, and nonlinear structure that allow players to break away and return to a challenge after they’re strong enough, Elden Ring still offers frustration in spades. Deaths by the dozen to the same boss, lost runes that set back your ability to upgrade, and dungeons with sparse checkpoints forcing the player to fight the same gantlet of difficult enemies over again if they die will stymie even skilled veterans, and may make it hard for newcomers to persevere. This imperative is enough to make me ask: Wait, why is playing these games fun?
There’s no disputing matters of taste, yet it seems indisputable that frustration and failure are unpleasant emotions, and that people primarily play video games for entertainment. To find out how to reconcile these things, I spoke with fans of Dark Souls and similarly hardcore, uber-challenging games, consulted psychological theories on pleasure and perseverance, and got killed by birds with knives on their feet (some of which also dropped exploding barrels on my head) one hell of a lot of times.
The first thing I noticed when exploring Elden Ring’s open world in search of answers was how self-satisfied I was when I made it through some easy early-game overworld ruins—which, in retrospect, only existed to ease me into the game and were not entirely representative of the challenges I would face. This isn’t that hard, I thought. I got this. My smugness wasn’t long for this world, and neither was I when I encountered Margit the Fell Omen, the first main boss, who killed me at least 30 times before I somehow flailed my way into a win. During the Margit fight, I genuinely questioned whether I was the least skilled person to be playing the game in the entire world, a bit of self-pity that I mention only to underscore the genuine discouragement the game can engender.
So I asked Benjamin Frisch, who reviewed Elden Ring in very positive terms for Slate, why he thought Elden Ring and similar Dark Souls–like games were fun. “These bosses will just blast you, and they seem impossible until you slowly start chipping away at them and by the end of the fight it feels super satisfying,” Frisch told me. “The joy of it is just making incremental progress—every time, doing a little bit better.”
This reminded me of the psychological concept of grit, which holds that people differ in their ability to persevere through setbacks and set their sights on longer-term goals. Perhaps some people innately enjoy making incremental gains during repeated failures, and for those who don’t, the pleasures of Elden Ring will remain forever out of reach. Still, grit is generally talked about in real-life contexts, where the end goals are concrete things, like a higher salary or an advanced degree. While I don’t doubt that some people are more likely to persevere in a video game than others, psychological theory didn’t seem to fully explain why someone would find anything as painful as my trial against Margit actually fun.
With Margit behind me, I entered Stormveil Castle. This was where I encountered the birds that dropped exploding barrels on my head, as well as weak little dudes that hid beside doorways to stab me from behind as I entered the room and strong knights that immediately killed me as soon as they saw me without fail. Annoying as this all was at first, it led me to one big conclusion: Elden Ring, like previous FromSoftware games, has a devious sense of humor. Sometimes you get to feel clever for anticipating an ambush, but other times you have to laugh at the ludicrous ways the game finds to throw certain death at you when you aren’t expecting it.
Masochism—defined as taking pleasure (often though not exclusively sexual) from pain or humiliation—could heighten your enjoyment of absurd, over-the-top, or unusual deaths. There’s even evidence that the game’s lead developer, Hidetaka Miyazaki, is among this pain-seeking contingent, having described himself as a “huge masochist” in at least one interview. While it certainly could only enhance your enjoyment of Elden Ring if you genuinely take pleasure in your own humiliation, I don’t think masochism is a sufficient explanation for why so many people keep playing Elden Ring and its ilk. The players I spoke with all talked about the frustration and setbacks they faced during these games as abetting their later, more satisfying feelings of progress and accomplishment. They weren’t playing because they loved to keep dying, but because they loved to stop dying.
At the end of Stormveil comes an epic fight with Godrick the Grafted, a multiple-armed monstrosity who, while fiendishly difficult, telegraphs his moves well. This was when I finally began to experience this pleasure of incremental progress I’d heard about from my colleague. Though it took me an inordinately long time to actually win the battle, it was genuinely satisfying to go from dying within seconds to consistently making it to the fight’s second phase (where Godrick chops off one of his many arms and swaps it for a massive fire-breathing dragon head).
Nothing, however, compared with the feeling I had when I finally beat Godrick, after trying and failing to do so repeatedly over multiple days. That feeling was incandescent, and it’s what many FromSoftware fans I spoke to highlighted as the most fun, compelling attraction of the studio’s games. “There’s a really solid feedback loop of learning and getting better that makes death feel less like a waste and more like gaining experience,” 20-year-old Carson, whom I chatted with in a Twitch stream of Dark Souls 3 filled with expectant fans just before Elden Ring’s launch, told me. “The thrill of finally beating a fight after hours of attempts is unparalleled because you feel like you’ve actually gotten better.”
A couple of days later, I was talking with a friend also playing Elden Ring, who had just reached Stormveil Castle for the first time. I was stuck in an academy where wizards, clockwork soldiers, and giant crabs had been tearing me apart over and over again. “Stormveil Castle?” I said. “That was so badass. I loved that part.” I found myself feeling wistful, wishing I could experience Stormveil Castle again, instead of trudging through the frustrating slog of the area I was currently in. But this sentiment, I remembered, is simply the result of a psychological phenomenon called rosy retrospection. A cognitive distortion, rosy retrospection is what happens when we look back at the past through rose-colored glasses. It describes the tendency of older adults to view their young adulthood as a golden time, as well as the tendency of vacationers to remember the positives of their trip and forget its disappointments or difficulties. It’s also why I currently think of Stormveil Castle as a fun romp with a few minor inconveniences when, in truth, I likely spent more time feeling discouraged than triumphant.
Playing Elden Ring is an experience filled with ups and downs. There are moments of wonder at the gorgeous open world, moments where I laugh aloud at the ridiculous way I just died, moments of pride after anticipating a devious trap, moments of absurd triumph when I surmounted a boss that felt impossible at the start, and many, many moments of feeling frustrated, underpowered, unskilled, or foolish. But as my hours with the game go by, those moments of pride and laughter have risen to the fore while my frustrations sink further and further down, until they faintly appear as nothing but ultimately surmountable ephemera. “Oh, Elden Ring?” I say. “That game is badass. I love that game.” The moments of triumph color your memory and give the setbacks and frustrations a rose-tinted, nostalgic hue.
So: Is a game as tough as Elden Ring actually fun? Of course it is … in retrospect, at least.