“Elden Ring” shows its hand early. Immediately after the game grants your haggard hero a horse — a mere 15-30 minutes in — you’re confronted with a big gate. Should you pass through it, you’ll encounter a few archers winging toothpick-flimsy arrows in your direction. Naturally, using the newfound speed of your newfound steed, you’ll rush in for the kill. This causes a two-story-tall troll to fall out of the sky, possibly on top of your head.
If you’re a normal person, you’ll yelp and urge your horse into a headlong charge right past the troll. Then, you’ll blaze up a hill, outmaneuvering — or getting turned into a pincushion by — scores of archers. Eventually, the crowded main path will give way to open space. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, you might relax into a more evenly paced trot. Then, three wolves will fall out of the sky, scaring you witless or killing you.
In many other games, this would feel cheap. Why is it raining enemies? Why won’t the game give you a break after you overcame a difficult challenge? “Elden Ring” practically begs you to shout some variation on, “Are you kidding me?” This makes perfect sense. The game is kidding; it’s making constant, preposterous jokes at your expense.
“Elden Ring” seeks to drive you to the edge of exasperation — the point at which you’re so flummoxed that you can’t help but laugh. Other big-budget video games might occasionally enter that space during their most difficult fights. “Elden Ring” lives there. From the get go, it wants you to know that its world is openly hostile toward you. More importantly, it wants you to understand that this is hilarious. You’re just a little guy in a world full of incredibly big guys. They will regularly stomp you into a crater and, even when it’s abundantly clear that you’re dead, continue stomping. You’re basically Wile E. Coyote — equal parts predator and prey, endlessly pulverized for your efforts.
Among modern games, this is a unique approach to humor. This is because — despite a veritable avalanche of games that take inspiration from the Souls-like genre, of which “Elden Ring” is the latest entry — it’s extremely hard to pull off. Gamers, generally speaking, want to feel empowered while they’re playing. They do not want to be belittled and laughed at. Even games that lean into that sort of humor — for example, Valve’s 2007 comedy master class “Portal” — do so with writing, pairing characters’ mocking words with a generally smooth upward gameplay progression for players. You spend most of the game satisfied, in other words, even if the villain is verbally trying to make you feel bad. As Vice recently pointed out, “Elden Ring’s” humor differentiates itself by being physical in nature. Wordless moments of exploration give way to equally wordless moments of, say, a loot-laden cliff suddenly dropping you into an abyss or a gargantuan bird skewering the silence (and you) with its feet, which are also swords.
In this way, the player is an active participant in “Elden Ring’s” humor. Whereas games like Double Fine’s 2021 darling “Psychonauts 2” might sport scores of perfectly timed jokes, “Elden Ring” allows you to choose the pace at which you repeatedly walk into rakes that artfully hit you in the face. These are your brutal failings. It’s not just about some AI routine the developer scripted; it’s about your choice to plunge recklessly into uncertain territory, lust greedily after loot or approach some prowling demigod under the impression that it could be friendly. The punchline, more often than not, is that you got cocky — and the fall that follows pride is something we all enjoy laughing at.
In general, people don’t love to be punished for their hubris. But “Elden Ring,” unlike other big-budget games, trusts that the player will eventually get over it. They might fume at first — they might even rage quit for a couple hours or a day — but they’ll eventually recognize the absurdity of their obliteration and learn from it. They’ll try again, succeed, and look back and laugh at how gruesomely they failed the first few times. They will go, over time, from being the butt of the joke to being in on it. This is why the game has become such a social media sensation. Everybody has their own uniquely stupid death to share. Even those who shy away from harder games can appreciate a clip of somebody lazily leaping at an enemy, missing, getting booted off a ledge onto a lower ledge, standing up, getting hit by a fire arrow, and falling off the second ledge to an incredibly pitiful death. It’s a story unto itself — a pitch-perfect symphony of self-destruction that couldn’t be better if somebody had orchestrated every aspect of it.
It would be easy to read all of this as an unintentional byproduct of “Elden Ring’s” difficulty if not for the fact that so many other elements of the game also come with a wry wink. Far from the generic fantasy setting some see when they first look at screenshots of rusty armor and castle ruins, “Elden Ring” also contains turtle popes, villages owned and operated by jar people (called “Jarburg,” naturally) and numerous references to George R.R. Martin’s name.
On top of that, the game includes a messaging system that allows other players to scrawl pieces of advice on the ground using a limited series of word and phrases, leading to both legitimately helpful guidance and blatant trolling. These, too, tie into that rhythm of the player starting out not getting it — and, for example, leaping to their death after reading a message that implies they’ll find a secret if they jump, not that I’d know anything about that — and then being in on the joke forever after.
These jokes compound on themselves: Players have taken to designating all animals “dog,” but when you eventually come across an NPC with a wolf companion, a nearby player-made sign reads, “ … horse?”
Some find this meme-y lightheartedness at odds with other elements of “Elden Ring,” but the truth is that it helps differentiate the game from other vast fantasy role-playing adventures. As video game podcaster Bob Mackey put it on Twitter: “Saw an editorial complaining about the misleading messages left by players in ‘Elden Ring.’ I understand, but I also like the novelty of playing in a dark fantasy setting that’s covered in s---posting.”
“Elden Ring’s” deranged brand of humor — grafted, as it is, onto a grim fantasy setting in which nobody can truly die — is only really possible in a video game. In a pre-scripted book, show or film, the tone would wind up distractingly all over the place. But in a game as vast as “Elden Ring,” a wildly vacillating tone can be a good thing.
Without slapstick and silly messages, “Elden Ring’s” setting might become oppressive after 60 or 100 hours. As is, each play session slots into its own genre. One might be about the drama and triumph of overcoming a major story boss. Another might be about the comedy of you running through a castle, screaming, while 100 enemies you were supposed to stealth past pelt you with every armament known to medieval man. You never know what you’re going to get. Well, that’s not entirely true: You’ll almost certainly get mad. But later on, hopefully, you’ll be able to laugh at yourself for it.