Video Games

The Game That Finally Figured Out How to Make Playing With Strangers Bearable

Elden Ring lets everyone be together alone.

A man on a horse jumps off over a large crevasse.
FromSoftware/Bandai Namco Entertainment

In the wind-tossed badlands of southern Limgrave, an infernal giant put my feeble knight in his crosshairs. He appeared to be about 50 feet tall and wielded a colossal bow tautly wound to the exact dimensions of his imposing frame. The projectiles pounded into the dirt like tomahawk missiles. The only available approach? Weave between the ballista until I was close enough to strike, then hope for the best.

Thankfully, the giant put up shockingly little resistance once I got between his feet. With just a few swings of the greatsword, he was toast — mercifully more bark than bite. His corpse disintegrated into the aether, leaving behind nothing more than a message scribbled by a fellow Elden Ring player somewhere in the void. “Why is it always Weak Enemy?” it read. I laughed and saluted the inscription, like two ships passing in the night. For a fleeting moment, Limgrave was a little less lonely.

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Elden Ring is the latest game developed by From Software, a Japanese studio responsible for abstruse hack-and-slash RPGs like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. The studio’s catalog, which is highly acclaimed by gaming critics and treated like papal relics by the company’s fans, shares the same basic calling cards. There is usually a vast, interconnected world map pockmarked with bloodthirsty creatures, elliptical storytelling, and an overwhelming sense of ruinous, long-gone societal collapse. The difficulty curve is famously relentless and unyielding, routinely keeping players hardstuck on bosses for hours at a time. But most pertinently, the studio’s games possess a peculiar, one-of-a-kind take on multiplayer. Elden Ring can be completed all by yourself, but players can also engrave short, diacritical missives anywhere in the game’s geometry. These messages are shared between everyone playing the game, which means that a note I leave can be read by Elden Ring dungeoneers all over the globe. It’s a philosophy that engineers a distinct vibe native to FromSoftware games; we’re all independently navigating a grim wasteland alone in our bedrooms, and yet, a warm paper trail seems to emanate out in every direction.

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Elden Ring limits players’ chat options to a short dictionary of templates and keywords — you are unable to import tweets into Limgrave, nor can you rely on rote gamer slang — but there is still ample opportunity to wrestle out meaning from the lexicon. Sometimes you’ll find a warning, (“be wary of Left;” “strong foe ahead,”) or an exaltation (“Ah, revenge …), or a variety of crude memes. (Several times I’ve found the words “Fort night,” a reference to the popular and juvenile shooter of the same phonetic name.) This might seem like a facile distraction, but after 30 hours of Elden Ring, I’ve been completely won over by the inscrutable rhythmic language that has surfaced from its constrained vocabulary. It’s as if we are all speaking in strange haikus, patiently decoding each other, because there is no other method available to caution against the halberd-wielding dragon around the corner.

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“Tears ahead,” I read, as I sidle up alongside a marooned woman looking for any help she can find on the side of the cobblestone highways. (It was a prescient clue; her story ends badly.) Later on, I encounter a massive wooden door that seems to be barred from the inside. A message at my feet screams, “O you don’t have the right!” A man replete with steely regalia crosses his arms in the last bastion of civilization. He doesn’t even acknowledge me when I beckon for his attention. There’s a note at his feet: “Edge lord.” On a peaceful cliffside alcove that is mercifully bereft of any vengeful forces, a player suggests that it is “time for reflection.”

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I get into the authorial action myself when I stumble through the ramparts of a silvery wizard’s college. The luminous full moon melts into the misty lowlands below. It’s one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen in a video game, so I pull out my pen, trawl through the templates, and come up with, “Why is it always something amazing?” A few minutes later, I receive a notification: Somebody saw and appreciated my message. The awe is mutual, apparently. Elden Ring is an experience built around exhausting ascetic solitude — it’s just you and your horse at the end of the world — but every once in a while you’re interrupted by a flash of incredible intimacy. Maybe there is something worth fighting for.

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FromSoftware are dogmatic about preserving the immersion of their games. Elden Ring carries all the trappings of a dark Medieval fantasy, imbued with the essence of marathon-length Dungeons & Dragons role-playing sessions. (There are no guiding waypoints, nor are there guardrails to protect you from enemies capable of one-shotting your character and their lowly level threshold.) In that sense, I’m not surprised that FromSoftware has restricted our verbiage to the proper worldbuilding touchstones — it simply wouldn’t feel right to stumble upon a message that says “LFG” or “Git Gud” or whatever. But I’ve also come to realize that playing Elden Ring is one of the first times I’ve actually enjoyed conversing with my fellow strangers in a video game. I’m the sort of person that immediately mutes my teammates whenever I join a Halo match; coordinating World of Warcraft pick-up groups was one of the many reasons I eventually hung up my MMO career. I do not need to remind you that gamer chat is often toxic enough to render the hobby untenable, but FromSoftware has forced players to get in touch with our poetic side, and my beloved community of grognards and dead-enders has been shockingly receptive.

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I am not saying every memorandum in Elden Ring has an iambic verve. The diehards have squeezed whatever crudeness there is to be found in From’s narrow glossary, and I will admit that the degenerate imagination of my cohorts continues to make me laugh. (For instance, whenever you come upon a corpse dangling over a balcony, you can be sure to find the words “Try fingers but hole” nearby.) Still, I can’t help but consider how much more mundane Elden Ring would be if the game didn’t encourage, if not require, us to frame our language within the spirit of the setting. It takes about five minutes for the magic of something like World of Warcraft to burn off; you explore the verdant forests of Elwynn and Northshire and soak in the ensorcelling aura, before being blasted by the flagrant name-calling and interminable Chuck Norris jokes of that dastardly, omnipresent General Chat. FromSoftware, however, removes our keyboards from the picture, and asks us to be haughty, funny, or wistful on its own terms. Elden Ring is an incredible game, but its greatest triumph might be the way it proves, once and for all, that gamers can be literate. I always knew we had it in us.

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