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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The success of ‘Elden Ring’ had nothing to do with the pandemic

(The Washington Post illustration; Bandai Namco Entertainment)

The New York Times on Wednesday published a column that attributed the success of “Elden Ring,” this year’s hottest video game, to the pandemic. Unfortunately, this analysis ignores a host of historical factors that all but guaranteed the game’s success — in any year.

The New York Times story draws a thoughtful parallel between struggling through the game and our current reality in which the pandemic has only become more drawn out and difficult to navigate. There’s a nice line about how the game’s freedom of choice is inclusive and agreeable, particularly for a society that can’t seem to agree on anything. But it’s important to stress that the game and its success are not products of our global crisis.

There were numerous factors that contributed to 12 million copies of “Elden Ring” being sold worldwide in its first three weeks post-release, a staggering sales figure usually only attained by industry titans like the Call of Duty or Pokémon series.

“Elden Ring” is essentially a sequel to From Software’s Dark Souls series, which actually started with the 2009 PlayStation 3 exclusive “Demon’s Souls.” The New York Times piece describes the Dark Souls series as a “modest success,” which is a fair analysis given its sales history only. By comparison, in three weeks, “Elden Ring” had already sold approximately half the lifetime sales of the entire Dark Souls trilogy of games.

But that line of thinking ignores the fact that “Demon’s Souls” and the Dark Souls games left an indelible mark on the games industry. From Software’s titles became monuments to a style of game design that focused on overcoming challenges with intense focus, a grasp of the game’s esoteric underlying rules and systems, and sometimes, by summoning the help of friends through cooperative online play.

“Dark Souls” may have been a modest sales success, but it is unquestionably one of the most influential games of the current century. It crystallized an entire subgenre of games, now dubbed “Souls-like,” and some of the industry’s most popular intellectual properties have followed in its footsteps. Its control schemes were emulated in successful hits like Sony’s “God of War” (2018) and the last three games in the Assassin’s Creed series.

Further still, last year “Dark Souls” won the Golden Joystick award for “Ultimate Game of All Time.” The respected European games publication Edge also once called it the greatest game of all time. All this success, outside of sales numbers, can hardly be described as “modest.”

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All of this was achieved despite the fact that the Dark Souls games — and, now, “Elden Ring” — are notoriously challenging. Without compromising its original vision, From Software has focused on tweaking its formula in each successive game to find more ways to empower the player.

Game design during the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 console generation started to shift toward high-definition graphics, which meant a stronger focus on presentation. This focus on bigger budgets and presentation also resulted in games that made the player feel more like an audience to the proceedings, and not a participant. “Demon’s Souls” and the Dark Souls trilogy, by contrast, kept the player engaged by ratcheting up the challenges, and constructing worlds and stories that often needed to be deciphered rather than just passively consumed.

From Software has maintained a consistency of quality over the last decade that has catapulted the once-fledgling Japanese studio into the highest weight class of video game developers in the world. When it announced “Elden Ring,” a new intellectual property, in 2019, there was little doubt among fans that it would be a game of extremely high quality.

Word of mouth was also a strong factor. The games are designed from the ground up to be mysterious; they offer wildly varying experiences for different types of players. From Software’s games include an online function, where players see “ghosts” of other players struggling, which heightens the sense that players are suffering together, part of one growing (and groaning) community. As YouTube video essayist Noah Caldwell-Gervais said in his recent five-hour analysis of the Dark Souls trilogy, he “drove his wife up the wall” because he couldn’t stop talking about the game. That’s because Dark Souls games are intensely personal experiences that feel exciting and triumphant, and it’s hard not to share that excitement with the people you love.

The rise of video game influencers on YouTube, Twitch and other social media platforms only added more fuel to the series’s fame. As more of these popular gamers discovered the series, their excitement was palpable.

‘Elden Ring’ is a comedy game, and the punchline is you

This cycle has continued with “Elden Ring.” Comedy and entertainment troupe RDCWorld decided to try the series for the first time upon the latest game’s release. Now, they can’t stop streaming and playing it. “Angry” Joe Vargas, a longtime YouTube games critic, recently scored the game a perfect 10, despite his history of avoiding the Dark Souls trilogy.

“Elden Ring” repeatedly topped “most anticipated game” lists in 2021 — and after it was delayed, 2022. Since its announcement, it was a popular meme to harangue Geoff Keighley, host of the Game Awards, asking him to reveal even a morsel of information about “Elden Ring” in advance of its release. When he finally revealed the first gameplay trailer in last year’s Summer Games Fest event, he declared, “I’m free!”

So no, the success of “Elden Ring” didn’t come out of nowhere, and it certainly had nothing to do with quarantine, lockdown or the existential malaise inspired by the global pandemic.

The success of “Elden Ring” had everything to do, instead, with how its developers have designed and iterated on a successful formula for the last 11 years. And once that formula clicks, its resonance with players is undeniable. “Elden Ring” is a triumph, a milestone for the video games industry. For that, you can thank the people who made the game, and the people who play it — not circumstance.