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Confused by ‘Elden Ring’s’ story? Let us explain.

(Washington Post illustration; Bandai Namco)

“Dark Souls” creator Hidetaka Miyazaki writes stories that reflect his childhood picking through Western fantasy and sci-fi books. Poring over these texts, he used his imagination to fill in the parts he couldn’t read.

All of Miyazaki’s games, from 2009′s “Demon’s Souls” to this year’s “Elden Ring,” are not stories told following a straightforward, cinematic formula. Instead, players are dropped into the middle of the story and asked to pick up the pieces of the narrative. At the high risk of sounding pretentious, there are parallels between a player new to Miyazaki’s storytelling method and a first-time reader of the 20th-century masterpiece “Ulysses” by James Joyce. It would be nigh impossible for a modern reader to take in “Ulysses,” written in a stream-of-conscious and seemingly chaotic and puzzle-box structure, on their first go. Similarly, a player weaned on “Uncharted” and other blockbuster cinematic games may find the narrative of “Elden Ring” lacking; there’s barely any exposition, and great effort is required of the audience to piece together the story’s many scattered elements.

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But like a dedicated reader of Joyce, I’ve been playing Miyazaki’s games for more than 10 years, and I’ve acclimated to his storytelling style. Many longtime players of Dark Souls games have made entire careers out of compiling and chronicling the stories of these famously hard-to-understand games. YouTube channel VaatiVidya is the most popular archivist of Miyazaki’s stories; another channel, The brother’s code, recently began breaking down the Dark Souls and “Bloodborne” games in a more digestible, timeline-adherent format. Yet another channel, EpicNameBro, has detailed walk-throughs of each game, from the perspective of a player experiencing the story in real time as the game progresses. SilverMont features detailed explanations of every Dark Souls character.

Because “Elden Ring” is so new, none of these channels have any dissections of the game’s story up — yet. So for now, I’d like to take a crack at explaining what I’ve been able to understand about what’s happening in “Elden Ring.” But before I do that, here are some quick bullet points on the things I pay attention to while playing that have helped me arrive at the picture of the narrative I have now. Next time you play “Elden Ring,” use these as a field guide:

  • Read item descriptions: This is the ground rule for understanding these games. Every item in the game will have some information written in its description. Your understanding of the story often will be rooted in what these items say. For example, the “telescope” item description explains how Carian astrology “withered on the vine” under the Golden Order, a faction in the world of “Elden Ring.” This tells us that the Greater Will, the natural law of the world which the Golden Order worked to uphold, and the study of astrology were at odds with each other.
  • Everyone and everything is there for a reason: It’s a safe bet that every enemy and item you find was placed at a certain location for a reason. Along with item descriptions, the locations of the items also provide important context clues. Why is that thing there? What use could someone in that environment have for it? Why does this region of the world have more enemies of this type than I’ve seen anywhere else? Why is this unique enemy found only at this location?
  • Exhaust all dialogue options: These games are classic role-playing games in that they practically require you to talk to everyone. Often story progression and character development will occur when you simply decide to continue a conversation with a non-playable character.
  • Examine the world and its inhabitants — what they’re wearing, what they’re using: Certain enemy types in one area might look a bit different than they do in another region of the world. For example, if you fight a magic-wielding knight, it likely hails from the magic-wielding factions in “Elden Ring” — the Academy of Raya Lucaria and the Carian royal family. Moreover, notice how there are no stars in the game’s opening area of Limgrave? It’s not just an artistic choice. The stars are missing for a reason.

‘Elden Ring’ and what we know of the story

Note: This section covers many aspects of “Elden Ring’s” story. The first few paragraphs will focus on the story we can glean from the game’s introduction and trailers. Once we delve into middle- and endgame material, there will be another spoiler warning.

Already, “Elden Ring” is being mined for information as players experiment with various spells in different situations to trigger new story events. The coming months will no doubt provide more answers. In this piece, for now, I’d like to help begin forming up some of the contours of this epic tale — though some of what’s written below is more theory than fact.

The Elden Ring is not at all like J.R.R. Tolkien’s One Ring. It’s not a physical object one can wear. Rather, the Elden Ring is the natural law of “The Lands Between,” the game’s setting. It is made up of Great Runes that dictate how the world functions, including aspects like life and death. The game’s story, very broadly, is about a land torn apart politically and abandoned by its god, with the natural order thrown out of balance.

Queen Marika the Eternal is essentially a god of The Lands Between — as determined by something called “The Greater Will” — and her children are demigods who rule over parts of the region. The Greater Will is something like the Force from Star Wars, though it isn’t necessarily benevolent. The Erdtree, a giant golden tree in the middle of the world, is the hub of the Greater Will’s power.

As revealed in the story trailer from December last year, the Rune of Death was somehow stolen “on a night of win’ry fog.” This resulted in the murder of at least one demigod, Godwyn the Golden, in what the game’s introduction calls “The Night of the Black Knives.” Godwyn is the son of Marika and Godfrey, the first Elden Lord and the regal man with a lion spirit watching over him as seen in some of the game’s promotional artwork. Keep close track of these names and others; many are similar, or start with the same letter, which may lend to some initial confusion.

“Queen Marika was driven to the brink,” says the story trailer, as a consequence of Godwyn’s death. This leads to the destruction of the Elden Ring, an incident known as the Shattering that’s seen and performed by a mysterious person in the game’s announcement trailer from 2019. The rest of the story from the game’s intro cinematic is pretty straightforward. After the Shattering, Marika disappeared from The Lands Between, and her demigod children were left to fend for themselves. They chose to go to war for the remaining shattered pieces of the Elden Ring, fighting for power. This war ended with no winners. Even the two mightiest warriors, Malenia the Blade of Miquella and Radahn the Conqueror of the Stars fought to a draw, with a gravely injured Malenia infecting Radahn with a disease known as Scarlet Rot. This act was so destructive, it poisoned and cursed Radahn’s mind with an eternity of madness and suffering, while the surrounding area of Caelid was drowned in disease under a scarlet-red sky.

While the game’s story may make it seem like this is recent history, it’s important to remember that “an age” has passed since the Shattering, and by the time the game begins, we can assume that The Lands Between have suffered for a very long time under this fractured, chaotic age without order.

The player is part of a group called the Tarnished. These are people forgotten by the grace of the Greater Will. In what appears to be an attempt by the Greater Will to correct the chaos of the Shattering, it once again decides to bless the Tarnished with some grace. Suddenly, Tarnished exiles have begun to return to The Lands Between, each for their own reasons. The game’s intro cinematic shows us several of these characters, including Hoarah Loux, chieftain of the Badlands. It seems being “blessed by grace” grants permission for the Tarnished not only to wander The Lands Between once again, but to gather and wield the power of the Elden Ring’s runes. This is why the player is able to defeat enemies and take in runes (this game’s version of experience points) to level up.

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Note: We’re navigating toward middle- and endgame spoiler territory here. Read further only if you are at least near the end of the game.

Before the Shattering and Godwyn’s death, Marika was at war with the neighboring Carian royal family, overseen by Renalla the Queen of the Full Moon and head of the sorcery academy. A red-haired warrior named Radagon of the Golden Order led this battle, but quickly fell in love with Renalla. This ushered in a time of peace between the students of sorcery and followers of the Golden Order, and they had a child named Ranni.

Marika exiled her husband Godfrey once he had conquered all neighboring lands, apparently because he was no longer of use to the Greater Will. Radagon then left Renalla to marry Marika, leaving the Queen of the Full Moon in anger and grief. This is why Renalla’s dungeon has a conspicuous lack of the game’s checkpoint system, called the Stakes of Marika. One might assume that Renalla would not welcome statues of the woman who stole her husband away into her home.

Marika and Radagon had their own children, the aforementioned rot warrior Malenia, as well as Miquella. It’s here that you should take note of each of the demigod’s naming conventions. They all sound the same (Godrick, Godwyn for example) to highlight their lineage in godhood.

Godwyn’s death and the Shattering of the Elden Ring occurs. When we encounter Ranni the Witch — who we later discover to be Renalla’s daughter — we discover that she, Malenia and Miquella were all in line for Marika’s seat of power. However, Malenia and Miquella were both born cursed and unfit, while Ranni rejects her lineage. It’s soon revealed that the Rune of Death was stolen by Ranni herself, taken from Marika’s bodyguard and keeper of the rune, Maliketh the Black Blade.

Ranni was then able to create knives powerful enough to kill immortals, which were used on Godwyn the Golden. For reasons I’ve yet to discern, Godwyn’s death caused Marika to go mad and shatter the Elden Ring herself. Also, earlier I mentioned Godwyn as only one of the demigods murdered that night. The other was Ranni herself. The ritual apparently split her spirit from her body — a fate Godwyn also suffers, as we later discover — in an attempt to tear herself away from Marika’s lineage.

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I know I just said Ranni is related to Marika. That’s because the biggest secret of the game, revealed almost toward the end, is that Marika and Radagon are the same being. One might assume that Radagon married Renalla as a way to quell the rising power of the sorcerers and practitioners of powerful moon magic. All we know for sure is that the Marika side of the being decided to shatter the Elden Ring, while the Radagon side simultaneously tried to repair it to no avail.

Ranni’s motivations for killing Godwyn remain unclear to me, but I might assume that she did so to undo the influence of the Golden Order. It’s clear throughout the game that many factions resent the Golden Order’s influence. It’s not clear whether Ranni predicted Marika’s resulting madness and shattering of the Elden Ring.

There are many unanswered questions about the story of “Elden Ring,” particularly about the character Melina, the spirit woman who offers to guide the player to the Erdtree and reunite the Elden Ring. Melina and Ranni both share the same eye markings, but on different eyes, so there may be a connection. There are also the stories of the other Tarnished who join you during the journey at the Roundtable Hold, the game’s hub area. Fia the Deathbed Companion, the Loathsome Dung Eater and the quiet, introspective Goldmask all factor into at least one of the game’s several endings, including restoring a version of Death back into the Elden Ring.

But after almost 200 hours of playing the game and experiencing its various plotlines, it’s clear to me that “Elden Ring” is a game about how our identity can have competing interests. There are two or more parts of ourselves often at odds with each other. Radagon and Marika are the most obvious example of this, but Ranni also had to wrench herself away in some forbidden ritual just to begin outlining her own destiny.

“Elden Ring” is a video game that asks the player character to know themselves thoroughly, to define and then understand their weaknesses and strengths in the form of attributes, builds, weaponry and appearances. It’s only through this mastery of their own identity can a Tarnished, the player, restore and rebuild their fractured world, no matter what that may look like.