My interest in this game was driven primarily by the desire to see and explore its celebrated and vast open world. I’m a big believer in the benefits of discovery as an interactive design mechanic, and there is no easier or more effective way to integrate discovery and interactivity than allowing players to wander through a virtual environment at their own discretion. In a narrative context there are significant obstacles to pulling off such an environment in a compelling way, but I also knew that Elden Ring was billed — correctly — not as a traditional role-playing game, but as an Action RPG. Meaning the emphasis was decidedly on combat and boss fights, and not on story or character development.
Despite consistently high rankings and strong reviews, after playing into the game long enough to take a Wretch (base character) to level 25, I became convinced that although Elden Ring’s virtual world is justifiably lauded, the gameplay is fundamentally flawed. I do not think Elden Ring is a terrible game — objectively it is not, and gamers who enjoy virtual combat have much to celebrate — but the convergence of its spartan and humorless narrative elements with a punitive design mechanic governing character advancement meant the longer I played the less fun I was having. I did enjoy seeing the world of Elden Ring, and I would have liked to see more, but over a relatively short amount of play time the price simply became more than I was willing to pay, on top of paying for the game. And I say that as someone who does not mind playing a hard game as long as any negative effects result from the in-game choices I make, as opposed to being dictated by the design.
Following in the tradition of the original paper-and-pencil role-playing games, in many if not most computer role-playing games the advancement of the player character is facilitated by collecting what are called experience points — usually as a result of completing quests, slaying monsters, and accomplishing other in-game goals. Alongside experience points there is also usually an economy of some kind, often predicated on gold, which allows for the buying and selling of items and equipment. Importantly, not only are experience points usually permanent — meaning once earned you cannot lose them — but most games also provide a banking function which allows in-game currency to be safely stored while taking calculated risks which might lead to the loss of equipment or other items.
In Elden Ring these norms are broken in two important and related ways. First, experience points and the in-game currency are combined into a single tally based on runes. When you defeat a monster you get a certain amount of runes, and when you by or sell items you trade in runes. Second, and crucially, if (when) you are killed your current rune total is lost at the site of your death — comprising not only your cash on hand but your experience points since you last leveled-up — and you are then given one chance to survive the retrieval of that stockpile or those runes are permanently lost.
The distillation of these two player-driven success metrics into a single metric wouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker if the implementation of the design mitigated the inevitable problems that arise, but not only is that not the case, it actually seems as if the game was intentionally designed to exacerbate those problems to the detriment of player enjoyment. Specifically, in Elden Ring it is exceedingly easy to find yourself up against a monster that you have no hope of beating, but also cannot get away from in order to save your previously earned runes. The fact that you are given one chance to retrieve your runes seems to address that problem, while perhaps also heightening the stakes, but the reality is that the reason you got killed the first time is likely why you’re going to get killed the second time. Meaning it’s not so much a second chance to succeed as a second opportunity for the game to make you feel powerless and stupid, even though you didn’t do anything wrong or rash.
Speaking of which…way back in the early days of the interactive entertainment industry adventure games made up one of the most successful genres. Oddly enough, one of the peculiar conventions of that genre — which subsequently all but died out decades ago — was the inclusion of in-game choices which led to instantaneous and unavoidable death. When I worked in the industry I spent a fair amount of time thinking about why anyone would do that to a player, and the only answer that ever made sense was that designers themselves thought it was funny to trick the people who bought their games. To that point there was often an attempt to soften such punitive design choices with an entertaining animation or cutscene showing the resulting death, thus treating the outcome as something of a practical joke, but that still left the player in the role of victim in what was an inherently uneven power dynamic.
Because Elden Ring provides no way to assess the strength of monsters before you fight them, you don’t know whether you have any chance of success until you see your carefully tailored, painstakingly developed player character dismembered in a single attack. While that does prove instructive for the future, the fact that you can be killed at any time incentivizes players to venture forth with few if any runes on hand. Meaning the player spends time immersed not in the game world, but focused on trying to work around the design itself — which, at least to my mind, is not what anyone should want.
The end result of these design choices in Elden Ring is that rather than rewarding players for exploring the genuinely interesting open world, even cautious players are inevitably punished. And again, I get that it’s an action game, but this is not just about making it hard for players to understand what they’re up against. In some instances there are — as was the case with adventure games — lethal traps which were clearly prepared with the expectation that many if not most players would be instantly killed when the trap was sprung. That the player’s runes are then also taken hostage in a situation which the player by definition cannot survive only exacerbates the degree to which the player is victimized by Elden Ring’s design mechanics.
The usual response to this kind of criticism is that Elden Ring is exactly the game the designers wanted to make, it’s wildly successful, and if some people don’t like it they can play something else. My reply to that defense is that we’re not talking about a preference here, we’re talking about objective failure — or worse, intentional malice. The whole point of interactive entertainment — which passive entertainment mediums by definition cannot provide — is giving players meaningful choices, and in the case of Elden Ring that should include allowing players to choose whether they want to risk their accumulated runes or not.
Yes, you can spend runes before you venture forth, or you can consume them by leveling up if you have enough accrued, but what about the runes you collect fighting your way to a tough boss battle? If you can’t beat that boss then the odds are the runes you collected on the way to that defeat will ultimately be forfeit. Despite all of the game’s entertaining trappings, sooner or later the reality that you have no way of knowing whether you have any possible chance of surviving a given choice infuses every new location not with wonder or excitement or even a sense of challenge, but with dread.
To make the premeditation of this joy-killing threat clear, note also that the game allows players to teleport all over the map, except when it suddenly doesn’t — which often conspicuously dovetails with situations where you’re going to get your ass beat no matter what you do. If the player character can be transmitted at relative will, where is the option to do the same thing with runes? Where is the banking function that allows players to transmit accrued runes at the relatively low cost of compelling them to find an open window or balcony, or to conjure a magical portal of some kind? Players who wanted to take the time could protect themselves, and players who didn’t care or who enjoyed the risk could gamble on themselves. Again, a meaningful choice which would increase player enjoyment.
While I also have issues with the combat mechanics, it is instructive that the game allows for remapping controls whether you’re playing with a controller or mouse and keyboard. This acknowledgement that some players may prefer to make choices other than those dictated by the designers probably seems mundane, but it is and should be a core part of the implicit pact between interactive developers and their customers. While acknowledging that some limits and obstacles may never be overcome, to the greatest extent possible players should be given the option to play a game as they see fit.
My enjoyment of Elden Ring decreased in direct proportion to the ever-increasing amount of time I devoted to trying and failing to avoid its punitive design mechanics. Instead of being in the game, I spent more and more time trying to strategize around random events that felt unavoidable. If I wanted to explore I had to accept that I would be treated unfairly no matter how I approached my in-game role, yet as many times as I attempted to make peace with that reality I ended up angry at myself for doing so. The last straw was a sequence in which fighting my way to a chest — and accruing substantial runes along the way — led me to be instantly transported against my will to a new location, whereupon powerful and unavoidable enemies aggressively attacked and killed me with a single assault. At which point I deleted the game from my hard drive and decided to look for something fun.
I will probably come back to Elden Ring in the future, if only out of a toxic mix of tedium and a determination to bend the game to my fading will, but in the interim I am also holding out hope that either the developer or a third party will mod the game to resolve this design failing. The addition of a banking function which preserves runes could be anything from a menu setting to an in-game narrative conceit, but without it the game is simply too unfair and too hostile to be enjoyed. Tough boss fights are fine, dangerous traps are fine, even lethal accidents like falling off a cliff are fine, as long as the game allows players to protect their accumulated resources if they want to. As of right now, however, Elden Ring doesn’t want them to, and that speaks volumes about the intent of its designers.
— Mark Barrett