Coming off my Halo: Infinite review (where I applied a serious eco-critical lens1 to a big game because I thought it would be funny), I’ve now done the same for Elden Ring, which has proven more difficult to talk about cohesively. Its merits go a lot further in regards to complex symbolism and literary ambition (even in world construction and micro-biomes), but it fails to enliven its ecology in similar ways that most videogames fall prey to.
So what is it saying about the natural world? Can its failures be pinned on the RPG genre? Are there any dense forests that take more than a minute to walk through? Let’s find out together.
In an interview with Edge magazine (#367), director Miyazaki is asked about the Erdtree and then says the most enticing stuff I’ve ever read from him (paraphrased lightly):
“The tree is something that burns an image into your mind, but it also stands out as something that represents those rules and an order of the world we talked about earlier. What can represent these rules and order but also not be absolute?
That was the question that ran through my mind when I created this image. The tree is something that’s alive, something that grew, it’s something that will eventually wither and die.”
This is a dramatic hint to the core of the game, come a year before it was even released. He goes on a bit more to describe the tree (excitedly!) as representative, the perfect metaphor for ebb and flow of powers that eventually become replaced. This story is one that Fromsoft indulges in across their works, and this promise of an age and its tree is delivered on most strongly of what the game can give you.
But beyond the Erdtree as a uniting visual metaphor, Elden Ring is vibrant with the vitality of succession, where all forms of power are married with symbols of organic growth, clambering over the past and recycling it into the future. Cast in a light where the lands between are a well of abstract nutrition – of mystic energies, of faithful servants, of land and waters – figures representing flowers, tree roots, lions, dragons, and the uniquely human vie for success, breaking down the land for consumption with rot and claw and steel. The capture and recapture of energy is ecology in abstract, and Elden Ring dwells on the human drama of these forces – natural process excessively warped by powerful figures, here cast into the mythological clash of deities and the grim humanity that writhes under these imposed systems.
This theme is elevated by the narrative thread detailing the most powerful beings in the game’s setting: the Outer Gods. Where humans and the deific among them warp the processes of succession for their fleeting goals, they merely follow pressures of existing forces at work on the Lands Between, older and more abstract than human lives.
Despite the name, they strike me less as “Gods” and more as dense ideas, each a cluster of symbols and metaphors that are difficult to collectively label. “God” does happen to be a noun reserved for the one who allies with a force to change the world, Queen Marika, while the Outer Gods’ nature, by contrast, invokes unconscious competition and unknowability – both like and unlike competing organisms or colliding fundamental forces in accordance to their literary purpose. They represent anything from cathartic rejection, faint hope, comic cynicism, and obviously more than enough wry allegory to real manipulative systems, religious or otherwise.
Just as gravity cannot be seen but by the tumbling of rocks and rivers, the Outer Gods are never seen directly, but work through beings in emergent patterns. The Lord of Blood and the Elden Beast are envoys, the Fire Giant a host, each blessed with the charge of enacting their power and not commanding it, as if all the trees and mushrooms of our world would be driven to grow by the whispering of distant celestial bodies, by collective pain or an emergent didact. In the language of alchemy (a fascination of the game larger than I can fit here), the “Gods” are often tied with fire, the transforming force of alchemy – black flame, frenzied flame, old flames and cold flames – natural successive forces stymied out of the world by the clinical Queen Marika. Even rot spreads in brilliant orange bursts of Aeonian scarlet bloom, and by this metaphor alone does the cold light of the moon offer a tempting alternative; a fireless path beyond the fertile land, saved from total darkness by the guidance of a luminous body2.
But where much more can be said of the forces interwoven into the fabric of the game3, we can circle back to the fundamental premise spoken to by Miyazaki. Elden Ring is fascinated, centrally so, in depicting the Lands Between and its inhabitants as a space of succession, where orders past and postulated are symbolized by organic beings – dragons and trees and humans and demigods – but which all come to an end by the hands of a successor. This age is concluded by our fated tarnished to an order particular: something rational, defiled, chaotic, novel, or quietly hopeful. Gone are the figurative binaries of the perpetuated system against desperate unknowability – the anxious dichotomy of Souls games past – Elden Ring knows that orders cannot be extended forever, that climax forests will eventually be replaced by encroaching deserts or groaning glaciers, and indulges fruitfully, if broadly, instead with the flavors of diverse futures ending in blank pages.
I’ve been fixated since release trying to understand a main theme of the game, like it was missing a central thread as in Sekiro. While obvious systemic issues are drawn up early on, the details burrow and twist into nowhere, confusing the meanings and asking questions to which no answer is given wholly or dramatically. Yet for all the puzzling dead ends, the game towers less as a story than a sculpture, something to be turned and studied, for light to dapple and illuminate a different detail at a different time. Stepping back, all the knotted shapes and sinuous curves of characters and places and monsters and prose build and snap together to invoke a mythical place beset by perpetual change. What better way is there to build this theme of successive orders than to simply catch the player inside one and let them try to see it? To blaze a trail through wriggling drama and see what becomes of the aptly named Lands Between, an unwitting participant in ecology with exaggerated agency.
Guided by Grace ((RPG Tropes))
Coming back down to earth, Elden Ring is also a playable game, which means the majority of moment-to-moment interpretation requires a different lens for analysis than literary theming. The problem is, however, that the DNA of previous Souls games and their developers have warped the shape of the game before it was even conceived. To keep myself from talking about the RPG genre as a whole (a label gesturing to a legacy of inherited tropes from tabletop games and genre fantasy) I’m just going to focus on the how these imported mechanics cast relations with the (digital) natural world.
While leaving to others a more thorough analysis of videogame conventions and their problems, I think comical objectivity may be of use to get a basic ecological angle. Consider these points as if we’ve never seen a game before: Elden Ring has chosen to let the player inhabit a singular body from an immersive perspective. It has little interest in presenting a realistically-proportioned region, but a reasonable facsimile with encounters and monsters as primary inhabitants. The procedural premise is a human combating their way through fields and castles and grabbing everything up. We’re already arriving at some pretty spicy stuff, right?
That humans made a game like this can’t wholly be taken for granted. The basic perspective is bounding and solid, commendable even; we aren’t playing as trees, crabs, or inseparably entangled networks of forest, but a member of our own species, where we can can run and roam around like the animals we are. We’d like to explore a whole region with this exciting perspective, but that isn’t possible to make, so shrinking it down is reasonable enough. Sprinkle this space with semi-historical visual shorthands and some resonant symbolic groundwork and you’ve got yourself a story.
No, the more problematic premise worth talking about is accumulation and combat. They’re probably the most essential RPG tropes – possibly unquestioned at the outset of this game’s development – and where I, for example, can temper or control their importance when I run a game at the table with my friends, Elden Ring has a lot to lean on from recent history and code repositories that make the form harder to break out of.
So, accumulation first. The desire for collecting stuff is to some degree a basic quirk for humans, cheekily catered to by all sorts of activities, and in Elden Ring, a player collects overwhelmingly numerous trinkets and currencies, plucked from merchants and castles and other enemies over the course of their journey. The variety of collectible things is an understandable device; both a concession to diverse player interests and an avenue for artifacts laden with prose and disparate storytelling. The system, though, bothers me, as the structure of economy doesn’t at all lend itself to the feeling of mythic fantasy, encouraging bizarre and exploitative behaviors from players as they seek to prepare themselves for opposition. Plants become quickly reduced to items, players plow through herds of sheep for crafting materials, and the structure of inventory commodifies all that can be gathered, sapping weight and importance from the character and the world.
Importing RPG economy wholesale generates myriad contradictions. Why can’t hunting animals provide dozens of bones instead of one or two? (They’ll be killing until they get 20 bones anyway.) Why does the game have a storage box when you can comfortably carry anything you desire? What do runes feel like and should I be taking them seriously? Is the cool factor of a hundred weapons worth it when constantly acquiring them erases their importance?
Despite its dignity, Elden Ring‘s nougat-y videogame core seems too easy to be healthy, conjuring silent questions around the unfortunate feeling that the human aspects of encumbrance, rarity, and mystic energy bear no visceral representations beyond mere number – the icons in a ubiquitous list. I think existentially I have to write in sympathy for wanting to make games about getting stuff, but beyond satisfying this basic instinct, all the swords and sorceries your character can hold combine to weaken sublimity instead of strengthening it, occasionally encouraging exploitation.
By comparison, every imported trope about fighting things is mutated with an odd deftness (I dare say). With the exceptions of “farming” crafting supplies or runes for empowerment, violence for accumulation’s sake is addressed with criticality or systemic judgement in-text, leaving the remainder of combat reading… almost primal.
Now to get this concept across, imagine your average Elden Ring encounter. You’ll wander on your horse into a territory where a beast or a soldier dwells and then it snaps at you. You’ll either fight back or run away, but ultimately progress onto somewhere else where most beings react the same way. From a bear in the woods to a sorceress in her academy, the animal nature of “contest against other being and get a benefit” lives at the core loop, at really the core of every game with violence in it, the difference to reality being that you murder your opponents with a giant sword and get a couple runes for your trouble. This fantasy violence feels like only an elevated version of universal animal behavior – something natural enough for an animal to create. From lizards tackling each other to kangaroo fights, territorial combat is rarely lethal in the animal kingdom and a defining dramatic aspect of organic existence, and this “lethality” is largely softened by nearly all foes and the player respawning all the time. Elden Ring‘s mythological death systems enunciate this, with the debatable immortality of every living thing framing even combat to the death with a star-conquering demigod as no more than a grand butting of horns.
So while most of the combat can be read in this lens, the task of checking its ‘eco-vibe’ or general meaning is a challenge of dissecting power dynamics, notably where there are humans involved. I think Elden Ring does this fantastically, as broad narrative threads are devoted to conquered demihumans and dignified beings of all sorts of shape.
Conquest is a central fascination of Elden Ring – but do not mistake this fascination with love. Tarnished motivations flit between it and subjective justice, depending entirely on the player’s temptation and interpretations of the game’s hammy invitations for lordship bought by “warrior blood”. Even as the Tarnished enters the stage, history is built from ancient orders and species fought to near-extinction by the victorious Golden Order, and from the Giants to the Misbegotten or the much-characterized Omen, the game holds the most sympathy for otherized creatures beset by the prejudice of human supremacy, charged furthermore with a Catholic-coded religion to make excuses for itself in a way that hews close to existing ideology. While the sympathy is mostly reserved for animals with human traits, they make for dramatic story-telling figures to represent non-human forces larger than themselves, and I think the game paints wisely in displaying the cruelty and stagnation of orders bought with blood.
And when it comes to non-human characters, I’ll bring up the word that matters most in these eco-reviews: dignity. Though I would like to see plenty more games experiment with non-player entities having agency over their destinies, the majority of tree spirits and giant lobsters and beast-men and bats in Elden Ring‘s many corners simply attend to their own business without asking for permission or offering reward. They roam and live for themselves. They sprout up wherever seems most likely. And when they aren’t detailed, heroic figures with narrative import, they still exist as part of the cultural and ecological fabric of the world that Fromsoft thought obvious to include, and I find that really praise-worthy.
So at the end of the day, the specific shape of a Fromsoft game is something I’d like to see changed. Their dungeon-crawling mode feels like a limiting format for everything they’re interested in, and the imperial pleasures of collection that make it popular seem almost like an afterthought to what they’re really trying to convey.
But in a world with games full of cops and soldiers and settlers and supermen? Fromsoft has a bright enough soul to avoid getting lost in their weakest imported tropes. I even have faith they might break their own mold someday.
Attention to Detail
Finally, I’d like to talk about the everything else in a somewhat unorganized section. I previously mentioned that the world is a shrunk-down version of a single region; so while initially it feels massive, tumbling further that you could imagine into the hundred hour mark of a first experience, it eventually feels disappointingly small on successive plays5. Once the mind has wrapped around it, you might start to question whether the shrinking down was really worth it, and this unfortunately leads to similar problems and missed opportunities as are present in most other open-world games – although there is plenty to praise as well.
Regrettably, most of the criticisms levied at the lack of naturalism in Halo: Infinite can be levied here to some degree – although each are tempered somewhat by finesse. The forests are disappointingly small and sparse, if deliciously dense and dark when available. Cliffs are ubiquitous and uninformed by geological processes, if shapely and clever for dividing well-designed gameplay regions. The lack of moving water or deeper lakes sticks out as a sore spot when aquatic plants so beautifully buffet their edges and shallow interiors6. In some ways, it’s actually worse than the other game, and I’m shocked that rivers are relegated only to under-ground ant-tunnels (as beautiful as they are).
The finity and direction of the game is well-supported – even comfortably gamey – but very little promise of a romantic landscape the game is clearly inspired by shines through here, where I could imagine a knight trawling through seemingly endless forests or desert battlegrounds. And ask yourself seriously: wouldn’t you like to play a game where a forest takes more than thirty seconds to ride through?
All the vitality of a landscape in scale is lost as a concession for tightness in a game distinguishable by fluidity. The space is really a tenth of what it could fill in-between dungeons – a landscape unfilled by unique “content” but by the same forbs, animals, and trees decorating a landscape shaped by erosion and rivers – and I’d just kill for this studio to commit to the negative space and a certain kind of trust in the players to pull that idea off.
Yet for the lingering disappointment in the form of the world, the commitment to depth does a lot to make up for it, even expanding my imagination for what could have been possible. Each region invokes a rich palette and playfully straightforward ecological motif, let loose and vivid across a diverse arrangement of lighting conditions and weather patterns (you might discover the rain dampening your fire spells or wetter enemies as vulnerable to lightning, revealing a step-up in their commitment). Every corner has a different strength; the mountaintops and their scale and sparseness, Liurnia’s immensity and fantastic weather, or the Weeping Peninsula’s forest-cover and flattened beaches. I could write a blog just about the Haligtree! – but suffice it to say this mecca for the dispossessed marries its tender intentions with the strongest relationship between architecture and wildlife.
And on the whole, the wildlife is beyond compare. Plants and fungi decorate Elden Ring‘s every field, from varying grasses to shrubs to veritable hills of fruiting toxic mushrooms. The animals – I can barely express my delight at the animals on display: goats, bats, wolves, and fox-squirrels? Lobsters and crabs and giants and hounds? Eagles perched across every high cliff? I have a personal endless appetite for pushing those boundaries – feeding behaviors or mating or chilling or playing would be lovely to see in the animals throughout the world – but they run away well enough, and their given breadth and quality more than meets the bar. It’s stimulating, magical even, what a game can impress so filled to the brim with life, where every color of tree is a riff on some species and every magical herb has a lovingly rendered portrait.
If anything, my greatest criticism of Elden Ring‘s world pertains to that other beast, the humans, whose influence seems inescapable, but oddly contained.
If you regarded humans in Elden Ring through only what you see in the game, they would seem oddly un-animal and divorced from the world. Yes, the castles of Elden Ring are significant landmarks, and the trade routes or mercenary camps connecting them permeate the world with human presence, but the barriers between these unnaturally lonely cities are sharp, with very few villages and a startling lack of agriculture to blend the pinnacles of human density with the wilder un-populated regions. All this gives the impression that they live locked up in their cities, venturing out only to conquer or when driven as outcasts.
It’s not beyond me that this may be read thematically – as the older orders are described quite clearly to have reverence for the blending of animal forms and more intimate relations with the lands and the stars – but the end result feels like negligence, or at least a lack of interest in population topology, which casts an unfortunate nature/culture distinction on a mythology where these concepts are otherwise blended quite literally. With naught but some roaming sheep to suggest a relationship between humans and the land, the true sense of the population of the Lands Between is vague and obscured, suggested only through the sparingly few shacks and city homes that we can actually see. This would be an unrewarding kingdom for demigods to clash over (unless they really enjoyed the scenery and nothing else), and that really is a pity.
Still, the humans you might meet are excellent figures representing much more than themselves, to their benefit. Gatekeeper Gostoc (who opens the gate at Stormveil Castle) is a welcome peasant representative, whom I continually let steal my runes as recompense for his stomping display after defeating Godrick, espousing his disgust for the dead petty tyrant. Ranni, a demigod who I suspect misunderstood the lessons she was meant to learn, locks herself up in heady ideals away from the rest of the world and its people and life – a fitting behavior for one who will readily abandon it for the stars.
And then there’s Millicent, a favorite of mine, whose journey to either bloom and perpetuate the scarlet rot or die with dignity as a human reveals one of the deepest hidden storylines that From has ever told – a gripping tale of rampant ecology, continual rebirth, unwanted followers, blue-garbed warriors, and ancient fairies. All centered around Malenia’s scarlet rot and her tragic blessing that has encompassed swathes of the world, Millicent’s role can be read more un-literally than any other sidequest in the game, bringing the best that From has to offer into one wild and beautiful thread.
At the end of the day there’s too many details to list. Too much stuff to account for. The depth of the fog on Divine Towers, the puffy grasses by minor Erdtrees, the roiling Limgrave clouds that look like an animated painting – Siofra River’s eerie chorals, the ant tunnels, where the desert meets the sea, the Altus forest, the mountiantops, the red trees in Farum Azula! These things all deserve their meanings divulged, their efforts praised, and their shortcomings discussed, but I suppose I have to trust the other millions of people who played this game. Suffice it to say the world is gamey, but earnest.
When I started the Eco-Review for Halo: Infinite, it was really meant to be a joke, something cheeky for the moss lovers and geologists. But the more I dove into it, the more I found truly lacking, and this concept consumed me for Elden Ring. There’s a vitality that’s missing from games that attempt to make worlds. People know they want it – they’ll say they don’t feel alive, that they want bigger worlds, but not the dreaded “copy-pasted content”. If only they had words for what that could possibly be!
Elden Ring has this sense of vitality – just a bit! – and it goes a very long way. I love this game- and it’s not (just) that I was excited for it, that it exceeded expectations, and that it has a more plants and animals than you can wade a Tarnished through, but that it kept me thinking for months on end about its succession of civilizations, its seemingly industry-standard shortcomings, and all the care and thought yet put into every symbol, model, texture, and cliff. It doesn’t get lost in the utility of a landscape, but pays attention to what a landscape means and the forces at work within them, perhaps more than what they actually are; so as much as an RPG world and occasionally a painting as it looks, it also breathes, saying more without its item descriptions than I think any game they’ve previously made.
Elden Ring is big, perhaps deserving more depth than my blog post can really give. Maybe I’ve done it justice – just sort of splurging and remixing out my thoughts over half a year – but for as cynical as I can feel about the obligatory attitude other studios have for ecology, I feel this one was well worth the time, and I hope to inspire whoever reads this to take that stuff seriously.
Until next time, touch grace.
1 What is meaningful ecology: Do plants grow sensically and according to their nature? (if not, why?) Are beings seemingly alive, more than set dressing? Are they neglected? Does the game come across as human-supremacist, exploitative, or unempathetic to non-humans? Is it gross or cynical? Do its meanings feel like an accident?
2 More on the outer gods: There’s this great, brief video by Zionstorm that playfully compares all the outer gods to mushrooms, doing a great job divulging some thoughts I had about the ecology of it all.
3 The lunar journey: I think the Ranni ending is exactly as she sells it: something alien and new, a faint hope worth the price of entry. It’s not salvation, but the bargain of a cold witch to voyage the stars and leave behind the world, at best a gentle abandonment of humanity. I prefer the earth, but I can see how many hearts were stolen by this vision.
4 A secret footnote from the RPG section that I deleted the call for: Somewhere out there I saw a reddit post about a user asking how to build their character better after speccing heavily into intelligence, thinking it would open more conversation options with NPCs. This is funny, but also interesting food for thought about how for-granted we take mechanic tropes that could be leveraged for a lot more (or maybe re-named or better elaborated). There are dozens of things you could affect when increasing your ‘Arcane’, but it just makes blood do more damage.
5 Successive plays: The game does not particularly owe offering anything on a successive playthrough. As ever, intimacy of getting to know something takes away the mystique, which the game loves most and stands to lose.
6 Shallow waters: Elden Ring‘s sister-game Sekiro featured an adventurous swimming mechanic, allowing a lake and several contained ponds to be explorable. While the co-development may have impeded its implementation by differing design goals, I speculate the ocean was the biggest hurdle, where swimming out to it may have required odd solutions to keep the character in-bounds, or maybe swimming away would just draw attention to the game’s oddly small boundaries. Maye it’s just hard to make the character look good in the crashing waves, or that they’d sink in their armor, or that… (you get the point)