Learning to Love Challenge with Elden Ring
I’ve seen games like Elden Ring tens of times before, but FromSoftware’s latest is making me rethink the games I play
On the surface, there are so many games like Elden Ring — the gothic world rife with grotesque creatures, allegories about life and death, and a horse that appears at your every beck and call. More broadly, it’s the open environment set to the review quotable “stunning vistas,” the hidden dungeons, and the unrelenting challenge that is not for everyone. It’s the Dark Souls series, the Darksiders series, the Devil May Cry series, and so many others that occupy a niche space.
Despite being so familiar with games like Elden Ring and how they dominate a segment of gamers, I’ve never played a FromSoftware title until now. The challenge was enough to scare me away, and when taken with the visibly archaic game play that relies more on timing and dodging than combos, my interest never took off.
As gamers, we’re conditioned to seek out the dopamine hits that arrive upon slaying a boss or discovering some high-powered equipment, and Elden Ring is masterful at eliciting that response. About 12 hours in I managed to beat Margit, the Fell Omen, the first story required boss of the game, and the victory was pure elation.
Like most of the other enemies I faced up to that point, Margit is misleading — his enormous stature belies his agility. He can conjure magical weapons to attack you from a distance, and then close that distance with massive leaps and multi-hit combos from his hammer. In games like Bayonetta, in which players have a reliable parry and lengthy combos of their own, bosses like Margit present a manageable song and dance. He strikes, I guard. I parry, then attack. Repeat.
But when Margit can seemingly delay his attacks to ever so slightly disrupt your rhythm, the battle becomes less choreographed and more freestyle, with assault options quickly morphing into dodge roll exits, and chances to heal replacing stray hits.
I died at least 10 times to Margit, but truthfully I wasn’t counting closely. The beauty of Elden Ring is its open world design, allowing me to back out of any currently unwinnable fight to explore in the completely opposite direction for spirit summons, upgraded weapons, or just a confidence boost from beating some overworld enemies. Eventually I bested Margit with a pair of Godrick solider summons, an enhanced Greatsword with blood loss buildup, and of course, the assistance of Sorcerer Rogier.
The moment I saw the Fell Omen fall I exclaimed, “I did it!”
Besting Margit revealed to me an experience I’ve been searching for more and more frequently: playing difficult games.
In spring 2021, around the time folks were rife with optimism about a waning coronavirus pandemic (how wrong we were), Housemarque released Returnal. The game, a rougelike that offered punishing boss fights and random enemy encounters, became the game I’d binge for the next few months. Returnal was frequently reviewed as (positively) nightmarish, challenging players through bullet storms while slowly building their confidence with new equipment and weapons. The game only boasted six levels at release, but the unrelenting challenge and random order of rooms and item drops meant every step forward could result in a two step reset.
In my experience, the first couple bosses, Phirke and Ixion were trivial enough. Their patterns impressed upon me after a few fights. Dodge away from Phirke’s slash here, weave through Ixion’s projectiles there. Through the first two levels, Returnal felt like the right amount of challenge, with level shortcuts and new equipment (a grappling hook!) pulling me deeper into the game.
It wasn’t until the third boss, Nemesis, and its Derelict Citadel level, that I had to rethink whether I’d ever finish Returnal. Drone enemies that kamikaze towards players on platforms suspended over bottomless pits left little room for dodging, and the massive chunks of health they took on impact left little in the tank at the boss door. Derelict Citadel was hard, and for about a month, was reason for me to put Returnal on the backburner.
I can’t tell you exactly how I persevered — it might have been a lucky roll with fewer drones, or it could have been a fortunate weapon draw — but my excitement at felling Nemesis was an exclamatory boost through the rest of the game. I’d beat Hyperion on my first try, and Ophion on my second. There were plenty of deaths along the way, sure, but beating Nemesis helped me enter Returnal’s flow state, in which deaths and setbacks were learning experiences, and not reasons to quit.
Currently, I’m experiencing the same sort of flow with Cuphead, which I intersperse with runs in Elden Ring. Victory in either game, however feels less like pure elation as it once did, and more like steady progression. I’m embracing the challenge as the experience itself, rather than as a barricade that impedes progression. In my estimation, I’ve boiled this rationale down to two acceptances: length of gameplay and open endedness.
The former encapsulates the length of a gameplay session. In Cuphead’s case, a single run through a boss might only take two minutes. In an hour’s time after work, I could manage 30 attempts, 30 chances to learn patterns and try new weapons and strategies. And at any point I can put the game down, without having to keep track of a questline or story beat.
The latter focuses on how much the game guides players towards a predetermined path. In Returnal’s case, progression is rooted around unchanging bosses, but the pathways through each biome vary. If I felt like I was dealt a bad hand with enemy placement or weapon options I’d simply retry and hope for a better deck. Hades featured this to a lesser extent — being locked into a weapon each run provided less variation, but meeting Sisyphus and receiving an upgrade, or facing Megaera or Tisiphone instead of Alecto can change the shape of runs.
Elden Ring, however, benefits from both of these design choices. Ample checkpoints allow for short spurts through enemy-infested castle rooms and quick walks back to boss evergaols. The ability to halt on a challenge and explore the rest of the sprawling Lands Between means big bads like Margit or Godrick the Grafted don’t end my play sessions on a bad note.
For all the benefits that games like Elden Ring offer, I won’t stop playing linear, less challenging games. I recently finished Life is Strange: True Colors, and while the veneer of choice leaves much to be desired (particularly regarding the game’s endings), Alex’s journey through the mountainside town of Haven Springs, Colorado is reward enough.
Still, Elden Ring deserves the praise it’s receiving, from FromSoftware fans and newcomers alike. After generations of Grand Theft Auto III-inspired titles, it’s high time for a new open world design, and approach to challenge, to take center stage.