I am by no means a Souls expert. The opposite really. I played Dark Souls a bit and loved it – but I also struggled with it, as a foolish, cowardly, flighty kind of person and player. By the time I almost knew what I was doing – or rather, by the time I started to make any kind of real progress – I had started to play in a very specific way.
So specific I can almost remember the physical sensation of it. Most of the time, I played Dark Souls as if my head had been partway retracted into my shoulders. Sunken neck, everything tense, slow, tortoise-style forward movement, always expecting the blow on the head, always expecting the ground to fall out from beneath me. Which, granted, it sometimes did.
But now Elden Ring is here and I am giving it another go. And it’s made me remember that I only did the no-neck thing most of the time in Dark Souls. I had a second, rarer, mode of playing – and Elden Ring has given it back to me.
Real talk: when I properly take on Elden Ring I will hit the guides. I will learn which class to choose, which item to select, where to head first and where to stop off next. The order! The rituals and intricacies. I will learn where to put my points and all that jazz.
And yet that is to come. When I kicked off Elden Ring at the weekend I was just eager to see a bit of it. I told myself that this first sortie did not count – it was played in anticipation of a do-over. So I picked any class that appealed, selected the item with the most amusing name, and then set off into the world. And this bit is very important. Once I reached the open world, once I emerged from the darkness and the landscape lay before me beneath a golden sun, I started to treat the whole thing as if it was Fortnite.
Okay, this is probably heresy. But hear me out. I play Fortnite in a way that’s counter to how I play almost every other game. And that’s because the storm is always at my back. So I cannot dilly and dally and lose myself in certain things that delight my eyes along the way. I have to think: Only Forward. Yes, the name of one of my favourite novels, but also a good motto for a game in which you have to keep ahead of prickling death. Fortnite: only forward. Onward! The next hill, the next river, the next mountain, the next town – careful, but keep moving.
So I set off in Elden Ring. A few early mistakes – a nasty fall off a cliff, far too long in a cave full of wolves, a bit of herb picking and a very foolish fight against an enormous man on a horse. But then! Then past a little ruins with a chamber beneath it – I snuck into the chamber and back out again with the treasure; classic Only Forward stuff – and beyond it a glimpse of the place that really I should be heading to. Vast spectral tree. Big tower. Very much a come-over-here vibe to the whole place.
But how to get there? Only forward! I picked my way towards the tower and then found that I was on the coast. Only forward? Well, I suppose I could drop down these ledges. Maybe I could travel along by the water’s edge. JESUS what are those things on the water itself? They look like Dougal from The Magic Roundabout, but a horrible eldritch version of Dougal, hair all matted, face eaten away by rats. Better skirt around them!
Eventually, I ran out of forward – no more stones to walk across, and a distinct impression that a person of my stature in the game was not yet ready for a dip in the ocean. I was beneath the place I wanted to get to, but I had run out of options. Unless I only forwarded in another direction – heading back the way I had come, essentially, but trying to see the landscape before me as one I had not yet crossed.
Long story short: I found a cave. And the cave was dark and I wandered in and I fell down a bit of a hole within the cave and had branching paths before me. Branching paths in most games make me hyperventilate – I don’t want to miss anything! Where should I go first? How will I remember to come back and try the other path? Should I have brought a pen and paper? This is very much the kind of thinking I try to play games to escape in the first place – it is the toxic second-guessing of my life in the real world.
But here, I was like: well, I’m going to die anyway, so just pick a path. And I did. And when that branched I picked another. And again.
Two things: firstly, I found wonderful stuff down there. Every campfire felt magical, every attack by wolves out of the darkness felt like a story I would tell my daughter about when she came home from school.
Secondly, this is how I played the best bits of Dark Souls – the non-no-neck stuff. I think what happens is this: you play safely, and you reach a point where your caution has paid off. You get beyond a tricky bit of combat, and you find a bonfire. All good, so why not just be a bit speculative for a few minutes? Why not just explore and see what’s around. Pick any direction. You’re going to die, but it doesn’t matter because you have a bonfire on the cusp of this new land! You give yourself a few deaths to just speculate and explore. You’re wildly over-extended and surrounded by horrors, but the bonfire means that none of this matters. Have a Souls holiday! A holiday from your traditional way of playing.
I wonder sometimes if this is the real way to play Souls games: to whistle as you work, as it were. Pick a direction and just prepare for a one-off adventure that no doubt ends in your death. But it doesn’t matter, because you won’t lose much and you won’t have to think that any of it matters. Forget the grand narrative and see each life as a little mini adventure with its own kinks and quirks and delights and horrors. It’s how I play Fortnite. It’s how I wish I played more of Dark Souls. And as for Elden Ring? Well, let’s see.