Elden Ring has revealed the unapologetic optimism that’s always lurked in the background of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s artwork.
(Spoilers for Elden Ring, the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Demon’s Souls ahead.)
As the brainchild of Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R. R. Martin has been welcoming in Dark Souls veterans and gaming newcomers alike in the last month and a half, countless players have been given the opportunity to tell a story.
That’s not to say that they’ve had a story told to them, nor that they’ve been able to explore a vast and nuanced world, nor that they’ve been given the tools to mold a complex and compelling plot as they see fit. All of those are true, but to give players the opportunity to tell a story is to empower them to choose which elements of a story are the most thematically meaningful. To do so is to elevate them to the level of an auteur, and to celebrate them for turning a series of characters and events into something magical and human.
In doing this, I want to convince you, Elden Ring has accomplished something deeply refreshing both in the greater canon of video-game storytelling and in the oeuvre of Hidetaka Miyazaki: it has taken the subtle optimism that has always lived inside of Miyazaki’s work and made it explicit, using a carefully orchestrated symphony of video-game narrative elements to create a work of fiction that requires the player to assert and defend a specific value beyond the scope of anything preordained by the fiction’s author. The creator renowned for unapologetically punishing games has spawned a work of art that may chart a new course in how video-game stories balance the creative relationship between their designers and their players.
I begin my analysis by showing that the characters, combat, and guides within Elden Ring collectively prime the player to assert and defend a specific value within its story. Elden Ring, I argue, makes the player’s ability to do this uniquely meaningful within its fiction by giving us a lore-grounded understanding of the player’s power: namely, the player is an Outer God on a par with entities like the Greater Will and Formless Mother. Once the player is properly motivated and put in a position to assert and defend a specific storytelling value, I argue, the range of available endings empowers her to apply that value to a specific element of storytelling: the “Elden Lord” endings are an option to favor plot, “Age of the Stars” is an option to favor the audience’s emotional response, and “Lord of Frenzied Flame” is an option to favor the protagonist, the avatar. The result allows us to see the outcomes of Elden Ring as a natural extension of the game’s spirit of exploration and wide range of possible playstyles: just as you can build any avatar you like in Elden Ring and explore its world in whatever order you like, so, too, do you have the power to attribute the ultimate meaning of its storytelling to whichever aspect you like.
A disclaimer before we begin: what I offer here isn’t an example of “lore analysis,” the incredibly valuable forensic work many thoughtful gamers are currently doing to piece together every fact about Elden Ring’s fiction explicitly confirmed by the text of the game; nor is what I’m doing a case of trying to infer what the game’s literal, flesh-and-blood creators intended to say with it, as you might learn in fascinating interviews. My method here is to propose and develop a perspective on the game’s fiction that helps us to better understand and appreciate it holistically, whether that’s by understanding how the player relates to the story, solving puzzles in seemingly contradictory parts of the story, or explaining the thematic value of seemingly random parts of the story (all of which, I argue, the following theory does). The view does imply certain elements of lore that are not present in the game’s text (in particular, that the player plays the role of an Outer God), and it does lean on lore more than my typical work because Elden Ring offers a large volume of lore explanations for concepts that are essential to the story’s thematic content (Grace, Order, Gods, and so on). With that said, my hopes are that (1) nothing I argue explicitly contradicts anything within the game’s text without a sound explanation, (2) the explanatory advantages gained by the proposed lore elements justify the inference of those elements on the part of the player, and (3) to the extent that the reader is a “lore purist,” she may set my view’s lore implications to the side and still take the rest of the view onboard as a new lens through which to understand and appreciate the game’s content, lore and all. You can learn more about this analytical method in “A Three-Stage Method for Analyzing Video-Game Stories.”
How Elden Ring Gives Its Player Narrative Standing
All video games are interactive, but not all video-game stories are interactive in the same way. In order for us to understand how Elden Ring gives its player a new kind of empowerment, we first need to make sure that it has the right kind of interactivity.
For our purposes, we’ll distinguish between four degrees to which a game’s story can be interactive for its player.
- Inability to impact the major events of a game’s plot. This describes games like Final Fantasy XIII, in which the entire conceit of the fate-driven plot is that the outcome cannot be changed. Of course a player can still impact minor events within the game—for instance, the order in which the avatars navigate the world, or the side quests that they do or don’t complete—but the core events that advance the game’s story from its beginning to its end are immutable.
- Ability to make it the case that the avatar impacts the major events of a game’s plot. This describes games like Mass Effect, in which the avatar has the option to undertake more than one course of action, and those options cascade to bring about different, mutually incompatible major events in the game’s story—sometimes even leading to totally different endings. Importantly for the current conversation, it’s not a part of the fiction that the player is impacting the game’s plot: just because the player is inputting commands and Commander Shepherd is impacting major events in the fiction of Mass Effect, it doesn’t mean that it’s true within the fiction that the player is the one making those changes happen. We can think of this level of interactivity as similar to turning the pages in a choose-your-own-adventure novel: the audience member “interacts” with the object in order to experience the fiction, but that doesn’t entail that the fiction’s story explicitly includes the audience member as her own character in the fiction.
- Implicit ability to impact the major events of a game’s plot. This is the class of video-game stories that I most commonly focus on in my own analyses. The fictions of such games are best explained by appealing to some fictional role that the player occupies and that is distinct from, and more metaphysically basic than, the avatar, but not in a way that is obvious from the mere events within the plot. Explanations of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s fiction as the player acting as the Platonic “One,” Returnal’s fiction as the player acting as a psychoanalytic force examining a mind, Bloodborne’s fiction as the player having an inescapable dream, or Dark Souls’ fiction as the player acting as a force of humanity giving life to a universe count all those games as “interactive” in this sense.
- Explicit ability to impact the major events of a game’s plot. Video-game stories of this kind make the player clearly aware, through the course of playing the game, that she possesses a fictional role and agency distinct from that of the avatar. A classic modern example of this is Undertale, in which several characters directly address the player as a kind of terrifying god distinct from the avatar whose actions she directs. A player who experienced these addresses and still thought that her only form of engagement with the fiction was the avatar could be said to have “misread the text” on the level of the fiction’s literal meaning, which isn’t the case for games falling into Category 3, above.
For ease of referring to the concept from this point on, we can say that games falling into Category 4 give their player narrative standing: a position within their story from which they can, and want to, knowingly impact the story in a role distinct from the avatar. Games in Categories 2 and 3 can also empower the player to make choices, but not in the same way: the focus of Category 2 games is on the agency of the avatar, to which the player is incidental, and the fact that Category 3 games do not explicate the player’s role means that the player is likely to treat the game, along with her actions in relation to it, as Category 2 until she reflects upon the overall story after-the-fact. Narrative standing, therefore, captures the unique situation in which a player fully recognizes, and can act upon, her special kind of god-like authority within a game’s fiction while that fiction’s events are still unfolding. In this way, it evokes and mirrors the philosophical concept of moral standing: just as a moral agent needs to recognize the morally relevant aspects, or moral standing, of an object before she can act on moral reasons sourced from that object, so too does the player of a video-game story need to recognize the narratively relevant factors of her actions towards that game before she can consciously act as a participant within that story.
Elden Ring is able to imbue Miyazaki’s characteristic storytelling with a new level of optimism because it gives its player narrative standing. In order to achieve that, it has to achieve two subordinate goals: (1) making the player conscious of her unique role within the fiction and (2) motivating the player to use that role in order to impact the story in a way she finds personally meaningful. We’ll consider each of these in turn.
Inviting the Tarnished—and the Player—into the Lands Between
Elden Ring helps the player to identify herself by surrounding her with Bloodborne-like entities in a Dark Souls-like world.
The Lands Between are riddled with gods and avatars: powerful entities and forces that exist in a space metaphysically beyond the Lands Between, and the physical representatives of those entities and forces within the Lands Between. To name a few:
- The Greater Will, an abstract guiding force directing the Tarnished, is represented through the Two Fingers
- The Golden Order is represented by the Elden Beast
- The unknown forces of the stars and cosmos are represented through various instances of Astel
- The God of Scarlet Rot is represented through Malenia
- The Frenzied Flame manifests through the Three Fingers
- The Lesser Erdtrees that sprouted following the decline of the Erdtree begot literal “Erdtree Avatars” fighting as agents on their behalf
Some—but not all—of these “gods” are what the game refers to as Outer Gods, entities like the Greater Will and the Formless Mother that influence the world while existing beyond its purview. Without any other context, such entities invite comparison with Bloodborne’s Lovecraftian “Great Ones” that exist beyond the ken of humankind and with whom contact begets madness.
But the god figures of Elden Ring, unlike the Great Ones, do have further context: they are tethered to the rich history of the Lands Between through the intermediaries of the avatars and the specific roles they have played in charting the trajectory of the world. In explicating these relationships, Elden Ring moves those gods outside the domain of unknowable horror and into the realm of characters, populating its fiction with the same kind of obscure-yet-ultimately-knowable entities a seasoned player would expect to find somewhere like Lordran or Drangleic.
God-characters that mediate their agency through distinct avatar-characters are normalized throughout Elden Ring: it’s unlikely that a player who discovered and read the relevant details within the game would infer that the God of Rot that is sealed away beneath the Lake of Rot is identical with Malenia, the demigod who fights Radahn, yearns to protect her brother, and ultimately succumbs to the influence of Scarlet Rot, becoming a kind of goddess in her own right. A consequence of this is that players gradually get used to the idea that entities in positions analogous to their own—exerting influence on the Lands Between through the conduit of an avatar—are also characters in their own right.
And we haven’t even yet considered just how uncannily similar some of these god-avatar relationships look to the player.
Tarnished—those who lost access to the Grace afforded by the Golden Order when Marika shattered the Elden Ring (the Shattering)—are guided along the path to mend the Elden Ring and become the next Elden Lord by the Greater Will, as expressed by the Two Fingers, which are interpreted by Finger Readers such as Enia (above). Just from looking at that single sentence of lore, it’s obvious that the avatar’s quest in Elden Ring is highly mediated: there are many degrees of separation between the avatar and the source of the reasons for which it is embarking on its quest. But that mediation isn’t arbitrary, adding complexity for complexity’s sake: rather, it thematically reflects the same kind of mediated experience we get whenever we sit down to play a video game.
Let’s compare the relationship between the Tarnished and its quest to the formal relationship between an avatar and a story’s plot:
- As Tarnished lose their Grace after the Shattering, avatars exist in conflict-driven worlds and lack the intrinsic agency to engage with or resolve those conflicts. The avatar in a game’s story finds itself tasked with resolving problems in the world yet lacking any ability to do so on its own: it needs the help of a player to guide its actions. Just so, the core conflict of Elden Ring creates literal disorder in the world—a dissolution of the Elden Ring’s unifying Golden Order—in a way that robs the character in a position to resolve that conflict (the Tarnished) of any ability to do so on its own (the loss of Grace).
- As Tarnished are guided back along the path of Grace by the Two Fingers, which opaquely express the intentions of the Greater Will, avatars are guided through a game’s plot by the inputs of a player’s fingers, which opaquely express the intentions of the player. The player of a video game is in the unusual position of being responsible for choosing and implementing the actions that direct an avatar from the beginning to the end of the story and everything in between, yet being unable to express the mental states that motivate her to act as she does. For instance, if the player of Elden Ring decides to kill Patches because she thinks it will be funny to do so as a way of getting revenge on the many treacherous instances of Patches in previous FromSoftware games, the only part of that process that permeates the “membrane” of the game’s world is the fact that the Tarnished killed Patches: there’s no sense in which the characters thereby learn that the Tarnished killed Patches because the force guiding the Tarnished thought it would be funny. The Two Fingers “wriggle, spelling out mysteries in the air,” just as the wriggling of the player’s fingers spells out guidance devoid of intention.
- As the actions of the Two Fingers are interpreted by authorized “readers,” the inputs of a player are interpreted by authorized entities within a game’s story. Depending on the ways in which a game is interactive, different entities will fill this role, but there’s always someone trying to make sense of the player’s twitching fingers: characters like Flowey inferring things like morbid curiosity in the player who decides to take a violent route through Undertale after completing a peaceful one; stories like BioShock where authors presuppose and cultivate player expectations that the plot undermines with sharp twists; even games with minimal direct or indirect reference to the player’s agency will typically act as though the player is acting out of interests that align with the avatar’s. Any seasoned player of video games will recognize that this kind of interpretation is hit-or-miss: inevitably, you’ll come across a game that admonishes you for taking a path that you’d only discovered on accident, or a game that praises you for making an especially good decision when you’d assumed you were taking the default path. The huge logical leaps and oversimplifications required in this kind of interpretation are taken to a parodic extreme with Finger Readers who infer full monologues from the writhing of the Two Fingers, or Brother Corhyn “frantically attempt[ing] to record [Goldmask’]s wisdom; the movement of his finger.” It’s telling, in this regard, that allegiance to the Two Fingers is represented through the parameter of Faith, trusting in an inscrutable, encoded mode of signification.
The result of this is that even as Elden Ring’s setup initially feels disorienting and convoluted, the player who guides her Tarnished through the playground of Outer Gods and bears witness to twitching fingers pointing the way should ultimately look down at her own fingers and feel a kinship with those Outer Gods. Merely by populating its universe with pairs of beings ontologically similar to the player-avatar relationship and making one such being physically similar to the player’s mode of engagement with video games, Elden Ring manages to make the player conscious of her unique role within the fiction without ever breaking the fourth wall. As she sees Outer Gods and other god-like entities influencing the game’s world through their avatars, she becomes primed to conceive of her own role and influence in the same way—and maybe even, eventually, to conceive of herself as an Outer God.
Calling the Player to Action
So far, we’ve gone halfway to showing that the player of Elden Ring has narrative standing: we’ve seen how the game makes her conscious of her unique role within the fiction. To finish the job, we need to further show that it motivates the player to use that role in order to impact the story in a way she finds personally meaningful. Elden Ring orchestrates this through its characters, which (1) show the player and avatar the urgent need to make meaning out of the fractured state of the Lands Between, and (2) acknowledge the ability of the player and avatar to change their worldviews.
The Urgency of Understanding
Where Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro all concern their player and avatar with the perpetuation or breaking of a cycle, Elden Ring impresses upon them the need to understand the current nature of the world as a way of deciding a new future. Two elements in particular work together to create this effect: an unusual breed of guide, Sir Gideon Ofnir, and the structure of the game’s three Mending Rune endings.
It’s not unprecedented in Miyazaki’s modern oeuvre for the avatar’s guides to turn against them. In Bloodborne, the avatar’s victory over Mergo’s Wet Nurse leads Gehrman to try to execute the avatar and rid the Hunter’s Dream of it; in Sekiro, Emma stops helping Wolf and turns against him if he submits to his adoptive father and succumbs to the path of a Shura. Yet these reversals of relationship happen in response to choices the player and avatar make: it’s only if and when the avatar reaches a point at which the guide is no longer able or willing to support it that the guide becomes hostile. In Elden Ring’s Sir Gideon Ofnir, we see something new: a guide who turns against the avatar because his own perspective on the meaning of the avatar’s quest has changed.
Gideon is in the unusual position of being both a guide and a rival to the player’s Tarnished: he is also a Tarnished who seeks to become the next Elden Lord, and he does so by aspiring to be “All-Knowing,” gathering information about all of the Elden Ring’s shardbearers and sharing that knowledge as it suits him. Yet when Gideon confronts the avatar upon the player’s final approach to the Erdtree, he doesn’t do so as a rival who wants to claim the throne in the avatar’s place: rather, he does so as someone who learned so much that he no longer believes the quest can be, or ought to be, completed. He speaks to the Tarnished in that final confrontation:
Ahh, I knew you’d come. To stand before the Elden Ring. To become Elden Lord. What a sad state of affairs. I commend your spirit, but alas, none shall take the throne. Queen Marika has high hopes for us. That we continue to struggle. Unto eternity.
[After the Tarnished defeats him:] I know…in my bones… A Tarnished cannot become a Lord. Not even you. A man cannot kill a god…
As Gideon comes to know progressively more about the path to Elden Lord through the avatar’s quest, he comes to believe that it is impossible to complete that quest because to do so requires fulfilling an impossible condition: killing a god as a mortal. While there are characteristically few details with which to fill in the concrete meaning of this, I think it stands to reason from the description of the Elden Beast’s Sacred Relic Sword (”[a] sword wrought from the remains of a god who should have lived a life eternal”), along with the fact that the game indicates a “god [was] felled” upon the defeat of the Elden Beast, that Gideon is referring to the impossibility of a mortal being killing the Elden Beast, a divine embodiment of the Golden Order reified by the Greater Will. If to be an Elden Lord is to impose a certain unifying principle upon the Lands Between and imposing such a principle requires first annihilating the principle imposed by a metaphysically transcendent Outer God, then it seems as if the Tarnished have been tasked with an impossible mission—from which reasoning Gideon concludes that the meaning of the journey must merely be to struggle, akin to Sisyphus forever pushing a boulder that forever resists his efforts (or a Chosen Undead rekindling a fire that will eventually fade once again).
It’s hard to overstate the impact of witnessing an avatar’s guide completely rejecting their quest. Imagine Navi ushering Link back to bed after Ganondorf takes power in Ocarina of Time; imagine Lakitu deciding that it’s meaningless for Mario to try to save Peach in Super Mario 64. While many guides have turned against avatars over the years, a guide that’s lost its own sense of guidance is disturbing, and it raises a pressing question: “Given how completely a lack of understanding this quest can cripple the people who have led me on it, how can I find a way to make my own meaning out of the quest?”
The need to answer this question is further underscored by the fact that three of Elden Ring’s six endings center on the establishment and enactment of a new unifying principle for the world through the gestation, harvesting, and implementation of a Mending Rune, a specific cipher for reassembling the Elden Ring. Each of these focuses on the journey of a different Tarnished seeking to find the worldview that makes the most sense to them—a struggle similar to Gideon’s, the difference being that they end up with a positive philosophy rather than an endorsement of nihilism or absurdism.
Goldmask (above), the Dung Eater, and Fia are all grasping at possible worlds that have the potential to be realized in the aftermath of the Golden Order being undermined: Goldmask gestates the possibility of a more perfect order that jettisons the fickleness of gods and ideological instability of the Golden Order; the Dung Eater gestates the possibility of a curse that is so ubiquitous as to obviate the distinction between divinity and depravity; Fia gestates the possibility of a world that integrates death into its ecosystem rather than binding the dead to the Erdtree.
Taken together with the epistemic downfall of Gideon, the Mending Rune endings impart to the player two key lessons about the way in which a journey of a Tarnished works: it is a necessary part of the journey to determine what its meaning is, and it is possible to impose that meaning upon the world such that the world can become otherwise than what it currently is. Especially as these elements of the game are focalized around its conclusion, contextualizing and recontextualizing the rest of the journey, this sends a message to the player that interpreting the story she’s experiencing is an essential aspect of completing the game, not some optional metagame to contemplate after the credits roll.
Conversational Influence in Elden Ring’s Boss Fights and Quest Lines
Deep in the bowels of Demon’s Souls’ Valley of Defilement, the player and avatar discover Maiden Astraea: a saint who made a pilgrimage to the valley to heal its victims, only to fall victim to its corruption.
If the avatar defeats Garl Vinland, the trusted bodyguard who fights in Astraea’s stead, and then approaches Astraea, the player is given the option to “Talk” rather than fighting her, at which point she recognizes that she can no longer resist the avatar, annihilating herself and surrendering her Demon Soul.
While this particular mode of boss fight is unique in Miyazaki’s modern oeuvre, I see it as a fitting symbol for a mode of storytelling that comes up time and time again in Elden Ring: what we can call conversational influence, the ability of the avatar and player to change the perspectives of other characters based on their actions toward those characters.
It may seem like a foregone conclusion that avatars and players can influence the views of other characters, but many of Miyazaki’s works seem to be thematically defined by a stark indifference to avatar actions. Gwyn’s defeated outlook on Lordran doesn’t change when the Chosen Undead reaches the First Flame; Owl doesn’t relinquish his desire for the Dragon’s Heritage when Wolf defies him; the Great Ones, by definition, aren’t the kind of things with perspectives that can be moved by a hunter. The players of Miyazaki’s works repeatedly find themselves trying to make meaning out of worlds that seem totally apathetic to their presence.
Elden Ring is different: it takes the theme of conversational influence and weaves it as a throughline across the many boss fights and quest lines the Tarnished and player encounter in the Lands Between. Most representative of this is Godfrey, First Elden Lord, who, at the foot of the Erdtree, challenges the Tarnished “upon [his] name as Godfrey, the first Elden Lord.” Halfway through the battle, acknowledging the avatar’s strength, Godfrey slays Beast Regent Serosh, the companion who quelled his lust for battle, and literally renames himself mid-battle as Hoarah Loux, the warrior identity he bore before becoming Elden Lord and after he was cast out as Tarnished.
The player and avatar are able to reignite in Godfrey the spark he’d lost when his last worthy enemy fell, giving the boss fight a jarringly uplifting and optimistic tone as the new contenders give a fallen servant of the Erdtree reason to declare his autonomy once more.
The conversational influence we see in full relief with Hoarah Loux is echoed in many other key battles:
- Melania’s rot blooms and she ascends to godhood in response to battle with the Tarnished
- Ranni intercedes and asserts the value of her mother after the Tarnished becomes a threat to Rennala
- Rykard realizes that the power of the Tarnished and player, if absorbed into his being, could render them capable of devouring gods
- The Tarnished’s intervention releases the cursed blood that Morgott suppressed, forcing him to confront the shame that his heritage put upon the other demigods
The same principle applies to some of the key figures who join the Tarnished and player on their journey:
- Melina will give up guiding the Tarnished and promise vengeance if the player decides to make it the case that the Tarnished inherits the Frenzied Flame
- Rather than conceiving of it as the Tarnished’s destiny, Ranni is repeatedly surprised if the player decides to have the Tarnished complete the various tasks required to advance Ranni’s own destiny and make the Tarnished her consort
- Goldmask, the Dung Eater, and Fia only arrive at their Mending-Rune worldviews with the player’s intercession and implicit endorsement of those worldviews: Goldmask wouldn’t recognize the Golden Order’s imperfection without the Tarnished sharing the truth about the unity between Marika and Radagon; the Dung Eater wouldn’t embrace his putridness as a universal blessing without the Tarnished tuning his seedbed curses on himself; Fia would not be able to lie with Godwyn of her own accord without the Tarnished’s comfort, support, and banishment of the Lichdragon that resisted the force of Death within Godwyn.
Quests such as these underscore that the world of Elden Ring is not one in which characters’ lives are fated to evolve along a certain trajectory, like the Sculptor becoming the Demon of Hatred in Sekiro or Vendrick fading into obscurity in Dark Souls II: the Tarnished and player’s agency can substantively change the perspectives of other characters, not simply moving them forward toward the fated outcome of their quest line but rather changing their own belief system such that their worldview becomes apt for a certain outcome of their quest line.
The conversational influence that pervades the Tarnished’s interactions with key characters and bosses shows the player that she has the ability to meaningfully impact the Lands Between and the perspectives of those within it with her actions. With her inputs contextualized in this way, she is able to recognize herself as capable of rising to the pressing interpretive challenge raised by Gideon and the Mending Runes. Elden Ring has shown its player to be playing the kind of role in which she can meaningfully influence the world, and it has motivated her to do so in a personally meaningful way.
Elden Ring has given its player narrative standing; the question now, then, is what it allows its player to do with that narrative standing.
How Elden Ring Empowers Its Player to Locate the Value of Its Storytelling
The fact that a player has narrative standing in a video game doesn’t entail that she’ll be able to do anything especially fulfilling within its story: it’s a further step to understand whether and how the player, as the audience of an interactive story, is able to have a meaningful experience given her special role within that fiction.
In this case, I want to convince you that the structure of Elden Ring’s possible outcomes gives the player a basis not only for deciding which element of storytelling is most valuable, but also to make that decision in a way that is meaningful within the story’s lore and gives the overall theming of the fiction a deeply optimistic outlook. As groundwork, I’ll first offer reasons that speak in favor of analyzing the player as playing the role of an actual Outer God within the game’s fiction, not just an entity analogous to an Outer God; then, I’ll show how the game’s endings allow the player to exercise her agency in that role in a way that celebrates the value of (1) plot, (2) audience reaction, or (3) the protagonist’s agency.
Understanding the Player as an Outer God
We’ve already established that there is a whole class of entities within Elden Ring—the Outer Gods, along with other avatar-using characters—that invite the player to think of herself as a fictional agent separate from her avatar, the Tarnished. Now, I want to suggest to you that we should actually consider the player’s role within Elden Ring to be that of an Outer God.
To be clear, you don’t have to endorse this view in order to buy into the broader theory of Elden Ring’s story being structured in such a way that the player is empowered to determine the story’s value. However, I think that taking this additional theoretical commitment onboard allows us the benefit of a unified explanation for several of the more puzzling aspects of Elden Ring, along with a more satisfying account of exactly why the player has the special kind of fictional agency she’s able to exert within the Lands Between. In my view, that explanatory power is worth stipulating a fictional role for the player that is not made explicit on the level of the game’s literal text.
I’ll motivate this view with three puzzles that a theory of the player as an Outer God puts us in a position to solve, after which we’ll be able to more clearly see how the seemingly diverse endings available in Elden Ring have a common thread to them: an Outer God determining where the story of Elden Ring derives its value from.
The first puzzle is the impossibility of restoring the Golden Order. Finger Reader Enia, among many others, is unambiguous in the goal of the quest undertaken by the Tarnished: “To become Elden Lord, and restore the Golden Order.” Yet in none of the game’s six endings is the Golden Order actually restored: either a new order is introduced (the Mending Rune endings), the world itself is radically transformed (“Age of the Stars” and “Lord of Frenzied Flame”), or the status quo of a fractured world is maintained (the basic “Elden Lord” ending in which the Tarnished rules over the Age of Fracture). Moreover, the final barrier to becoming Elden Lord—the Elden Beast—appears to be a manifestation of the Golden Order itself, described in its Remembrance as “the vassal beast of the Greater Will and living incarnation of the concept of Order,” where the order advocated by the Greater Will and imposed upon the world as its singular “Order” is the Golden Order.
The puzzle, then, is why the Tarnished would be sent on a quest where not only is it impossible to fulfill the goal set out by the entity directing it to undertake that quest, but that entity itself also seems (through its vassal beast) to prevent completion of that quest. Ironically, the failure of Gideon as a guide, which we discussed earlier, helps to “guide” the player to this puzzle: his doubt that the Elden Beast can be slain begets the player’s doubt, upon killing that beast, that the stated goal of their quest can actually be realized.
The second puzzle is the ability of the Tarnished to be reconstituted upon its death. Elden Ring presents a world rich with explanations of why creatures do or don’t die: there’s a Rune of Death that led to the death of Godwyn, a binding of Destined Death that leads the souls of the dead to be hewn into the Erdtree; it demands explanation, then, that the Tarnished is able to revive at sites of Grace in a way apparently unavailable to other characters. Some have gestured at Marika having facilitated this, but how or why she would do this is as mysterious as the nature of Marika herself. One could also imagine that the Greater Will were somehow facilitating this power in order to guide the Tarnished along its quest, but this only brings us back to the first puzzle, wondering why the Greater Will would facilitate something that ultimately cannot be realized.
The third puzzle is less a puzzle of plot and more a puzzle of affect: from where I sit, it’s difficult to relate to the horror-stricken mentality of Gideon when he confronts the Tarnished in the game’s finale. As we considered above, Gideon is a Tarnished on the same quest as the avatar, and he comes to believe, consistent with the first puzzle I just described, that the quest is impossible, from which he concludes that Marika’s design is simply for the Tarnished to suffer in perpetuity. Such a realization strikes me as similar to the awe or horror one would experience at realizing that the universe is cold and indifferent (similar to the theming of Dark Souls) or that the world is populated by eldritch beings beyond our ken (similar to the theming of Bloodborne). Yet as the audience, inconsistent with our reactions to many stories that espouse similar themes, we don’t share in those feelings of awe and horror with Gideon: my impression—especially as Gideon is presented in that final battle, small against the background of a massive hall, with no cutscene, profound musical score, or any of the gravity that comes with them—is that we are looking upon a character in the midst of an existential crisis without having reason to join him in it (similar to King Lear railing against the storm in King Lear). Given that our avatar is on the same quest with the same mandate as Gideon, it’s not obvious why Gideon’s terror would feel so distant from us at this moment. Of course, to the extent that you don’t experience this reaction to Gideon, there’s no puzzle here; if you feel the pull of this reaction, though, then you should also feel the pull of the need to explain it.
Analyzing the player as occupying the fictional role of a separate Outer God, on a par with the Greater Will or the God of Scarlet Rot, solves these puzzles and offers a coherent understanding of the Tarnished’s quest.
As Goldmask and Gideon both seem to observe, there is something paradoxical about the Golden Order: it simultaneously seeks to unite all things, as represented in its Law of Regression (“the pull of meaning; that all things yearn eternally to converge), and to understand the relationships that can only form between discrete entities, as represented in its Law of Causality (“the pull between meanings; it is the connections that form the relationships between all things”). This paradox is apparent in the relationship between Marika and Radagon: for the parts of a single entity to simultaneously function as parts of a whole and agents unto themselves is inconsistent with our ordinary understanding of causation and agency. This is why it’s so intractable to explain the actual history of how Marika and Radagon impacted the Lands Between: to fully do so requires treating them as one entity and two individuals at the same time.
That this kind of paradoxical order would be imposed by the Greater Will is consistent with what else we know about the Greater Will: as an Outer God, speaking through the Two Fingers and seeking to govern the world through the Erdtree and Elden Lord, it’s existing in a way that’s metaphysically beyond the Lands Between yet still influencing events and people within the Lands Between. That cuts against our ordinary conception of causality: typically, it’s given that metaphysically distinct entities can’t exert causal force on each other (this is part of what caused trouble for Descartes’ dualist account of mind as being a separate metaphysical substance from the body it was meant to influence). It shuns those who, with a fragment of its power, enact a sense of agency that is separate from the unity of the Elden Ring: the Two Fingers tell us (through Enia) that “the Greater Will has long renounced the demigods,” those who inherited shards of the Elden Ring and cultivated individuated interests and cultures. The Greater Will, in other words, is trying to accomplish the impossible task that we all attempt every time we engage with a video-game story: it’s trying, through its influence as an external agent, to sculpt a world that is intrinsically complete, inert to external influence.
As the Mending Rune of Perfect Order expresses, this is an unstable ideology born of “a fickleness of the gods no better than men”: an Outer God in the position of the Greater Will, essentially, is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. There is no sense in which the Greater Will, maintaining this position, could actually restore the Golden Order, because the Golden Order isn’t sufficiently balanced as a concept to be stably enacted in the first place. It is possible, though, for a different entity with the same kind of metaphysical authority as the Greater Will to override its influence and impose a different, less paradoxical kind of order upon the Lands Between. If the player is this kind of entity—that is, another Outer God—then it becomes conceivable that the Greater Will could be trying to lead the Tarnished along its impossible journey to restore the Golden Order yet that the Tarnished, actually guided by the player, could overcome these efforts and instigate something new.
With the avatar as the vassal of a different Outer God, the player, our three puzzles are solved in a way that illuminates some of the more mystifying elements of Elden Ring’s narrative. The paradoxical desire of the Greater Will would rightly stagger those such as Gideon who have no way of overcoming those desires, but a Tarnished guided by the player— their own personal, separate version of the Greater Will—can choose otherwise, making it possible to complete an impossible quest (Puzzle #1) and freeing that Tarnished and its Outer God from the existential terror that ought to plague the other Tarnished, such as Gideon (Puzzle #3). An Outer God is also the kind of thing that can impose unique influence within the Lands Between (e.g., the God of Scarlet Rot is the source of scarlet rot, the Formless Mother is the source of blood magic), so it makes sense that a Tarnished representing a unique Outer God would also bear unique metaphysical abilities, just like Malenia does as an avatar of the God of Scarlet Rot—and it seems reasonable to me that an Outer God directly concerned with the task of shaping the world order would have, as its characteristic influence, the ability to cause persistence beyond the moment that the world would call an entity’s final death (Puzzle #2).
In the role of an Outer God, the player has an opportunity to answer the game’s urgent need for meaning with something more sustainable than the Greater Will’s Golden Order—but especially as we’ve analyzed the Greater Will as analogous to players’ default mode of engagement with video games, it’s far from a guarantee that the player will be able to seize that opportunity. Thankfully, the matrix of endings to Elden Ring makes it possible for them to do exactly that.
How to Coherently Exit a Video-Game Story
If the paradox of Greater Will comes from an external agent trying to impose complete order on the Lands Between, then the player of Elden Ring can avoid that paradox by doing what Wittgenstein referred to as (roughly) “kicking the ladder down”: using the tools of player agency to reach a desired conclusion to the story, but then letting go of that agency so that its continued involvement doesn’t fracture the new world order (not the kind of literal ladder-kicking we see throughout Miyazaki’s work). Where the Greater Will is reminiscent of the way in which we generally involve ourselves in video-game stories, this challenge is reminiscent of the general problem of how best to understand the future of a fictional world after the end of a video game. What happens once a world like Hyrule, for instance, suddenly finds itself without the influence of the player’s agency, which so thoroughly facilitated the heroism that defined the game’s events?
Elden Ring is overtly concerned with storytelling: the game begins with a narrator saying that “The fallen leaves tell a story,” establishing the history of the Shattering and setting up the quest of the Tarnished and the player; the spirits of fallen foes are embedded in the Erdtree, chronicling their history in Remembrances. And the player, tasked with the urgent matter of giving the world a new meaning and resolving the paradox of Greater Will, has the opportunity to tell her own story in her own way: the possible endings of Elden Ring empower the player to terminate her agency in ways that privilege and imbue value to specific, basic elements of storytelling.
There are many plausible ways in which one could break down the act of storytelling to its building blocks, but here’s one way that seems as defensible as any other: to tell a story is for a storyteller to architect a plot for a protagonist in such a way as to elicit specific audience responses—emotional, intellectual, and so on. I want to convince you that each of Elden Ring’s endings constitutes the player establishing a coherent, new order for the Lands Between that’s grounded in these elements: the four “Elden Lord” endings ground themselves in the storyteller and plot, “Age of the Stars” grounds itself in audience responses, and “Lord of Frenzied Flame” grounds itself in the protagonist. The result is an uncanny artwork that allows its audience to determine its value in a positive light precisely by giving up their rights to influence the world.
Valuing the Plot: The “Elden Lord” Endings
You’d be hard-pressed to tell a story that represents the concept of a destined path more obviously than a literal holy line pointing the protagonist in the direction of its fate.
While it’s impossible for the player to satisfy the Greater Will’s desire and restore the Golden Order, it is possible for them to follow along the trajectories pointed out by Grace to walk their Tarnished along the path to becoming Elden Lord. Staying on this path sets them to the “default” ending, in which the Tarnished slays the Elden Beast, takes the throne, and, the narrator tells us, ushers in the “Age of Fracture.”
Though the introduction of an Age of Fracture might initially seem puzzling, its meaning should be apparent at this point in our analysis: having defeated the Elden Beast yet ushered in no new order with which to replace the Golden Order, the tension between a unified whole and a collection of individuated parts is dissolved in favor of merely giving those individuated parts autonomy. An Age of Fracture, in which the Ring that governs the world’s order is not reconstructed with a Mending Rune, recognizes the diversity of cultures, governments, and religions that have propagated throughout the Lands Between and allows them to evolve independently.
While it takes more effort and movement beyond the lines of Grace to find the three Mending Rune endings, it’s noteworthy that they are all structurally identical to the “Age of Fracture” ending: they show the same images of the Erdtree, capital, and Tarnished upon the throne, with the same narrator from the game’s introduction saying most of the same monologue in each of these four conclusions:
The fallen leaves tell a story. Of how a Tarnished became Elden Lord. In our home, across the fog, the Lands Between. Our seed will look back upon us, and recall. [Followed by a succinct description of the particular age the Tarnished has ushered in]
There are really just three major differences between these four endings in which the Tarnished becomes Elden Lord: the new age that the Tarnished introduces varies in name, the overall state of the Erdtree and surrounding world varies in tone, and the tone in which the narrator delivers the above monologue varies. So, the Dung Eater’s “Blessing of Despair” ending shows a festering Erdtree and a narrator’s voice trembling in terror, whereas Goldmask’s “Age of Order” ending shows a resplendent Erdtree and a triumphant narrative voice, while Fia’s “Age of the Duskborn” expresses a kind of liminal quietude in between these extremes.
Combined with the fact that these four endings share only a single trophy or achievement—that of the Tarnished becoming “Elden Lord”—this structural similarity makes these four endings feel almost like skins, cosmetic alterations to a video game that don’t bring about any substantive differences (e.g., different costumes for an avatar, with no impact on the avatar’s abilities). Especially when Elden Ring’s other two endings are radically distinct cutscenes, we ought to wonder why it is that these four outcomes, which clearly have quite distinct implications for the Lands Between, are presented as almost entirely fungible.
I think that the similarity between the narrative voices in these endings points the way to how our analysis of the player as an Outer God can explain the endings’ similarities more broadly: in these four endings, and these four alone, the voice and structure of the narrator who introduced the game’s story returns to finish it, cultivating a strong sense of unified plot from the structural likeness between the story’s beginning and end. “The fallen leaves tell a story” to set the player and Tarnished upon their quest, and “the fallen leaves tell a story” in the “Elden Lord” endings to make meaning out of that completed quest, giving us a stable sense of storyteller expressing one coherent plot to us. And indeed, in these endings, it is the constitutive elements of the story’s plot that take priority: in the game’s default ending, the events that have led characters like the demigods to individuate and form unique cultures are honored and reified by treating the overall land as fractured, and in the Mending Rune endings, the player gives other characters besides the Tarnished license to go on their own journeys, reach their own conclusions about the state of the world, and impose their own order based on how they believe it ought to be.
The player who chooses one of these four paths resolves the paradox of the Outer God by imparting her world-ordering agency to characters within the world, obviating the kind of outside influence that undermined the nature of the Golden Order. On this view, the endings feel interchangeable from the perspective of narration and only unlock a single trophy or achievement because they are all instances of the player making that same choice to assert that the value in Elden Ring’s storytelling comes from the characters living out the plot of its story; the only variable is which character in particular she chooses to empower and embody in the new world order.
How to Tell a Story about Opting Out of a Story’s Plot
Once an interactive story has introduced the concepts of an external, god-like influence and a way of adhering to and valuing the story’s plot, it has implicitly created the potential for a story about divergence from the plot.
In this way, while I’m far from a George R. R. Martin scholar, it’s worth noting that the path of Grace and the “Elden Lord” endings are reminiscent of Game of Thrones’ “Lord of Light,” R’hllor: this god figure, similar to the “Elden Lord” trajectory, makes narrative meaning out of the plot of Game of Thrones. The events in the story become what the god wants to bring about, and the concept of plot armor becomes fictionally explicable as the Lord of Light safeguarding someone who may play a key role in events yet to come.
The difference in Elden Ring is that, by virtue of its story being interactive, the audience can recognize this R’hllorian plot structure, recognize their own narrative standing, and decide whether to abide by that structure or to give the story a different kind of meaning altogether.
More germane to Miyazaki, it’s interesting to observe that the exact way in which Elden Ring gives its players the ability to determine non-plot story values—the final two endings, which we’ll consider below—basically splits “Shura,” the most pessimistic ending of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, into two separate, much more optimistic endings.
“Shura” sees Wolf, the avatar of Sekiro, acquiescing to the will of his adoptive father, Owl, when Owl charges him to obey the Shinobi code and serve him in his wish to seize the immortal powers of the young Kuro for himself. The player has the choice to have Wolf obey Owl or refuse him; refusing him opens up the latter half of the game and its three other endings, whereas the “Shura” route sees Wolf quickly eroding into a Shura: a demon consumed by bloodlust, mindlessly destroying everything in its path.
As much as it may constitute a thoughtful conclusion to Sekiro’s story, it’s hard to deny that this is a demoralizing and pessimistic ending for Sekiro’s player, who watches the fortitude of her avatar go up in smoke with the rest of the world. Crucially for our current purposes, “Shura” wraps two themes into a single ending:
- Submission to emotion: a Shura is a demon consumed by its hatred, violent urges, and negative sentiments, not unlike a Sekiro player who becomes too frustrated by the gameplay to continue making progress until he calms down (I’m speaking from personal experience, here)
- Destruction of the world: within the Shura framework, it’s a natural consequence of the creation of a Shura that the Shura, unless somehow stopped, will raze the world to the ground—and the “Shura” ending sees the player and Wolf killing, in quick succession, all those who are best poised to stop Wolf the Shura
Remarkably, it’s the bifurcation of these very two themes into distinct endings that lets Elden Ring empower its player to choose uplifting values for its story, far afield from the dejection and frustration that follow the “Shura” ending. We’ll consider each in turn.
Valuing Audience Responses: “The Age of the Stars”
What is the virtue of emotion if it’s subordinate to duty?
The question might seem like a non sequitur—perhaps as much of a non sequitur as a marriage plot buried beneath the surface of Elden Ring—but I think it ultimately points the way to understanding the “Age of the Stars” ending as a way of allowing the player to choose audience responses as the locus of storytelling value in the story.
Ranni the Witch—demigod, Empyrean, potential betrothed—has a lot in common with both the Tarnished and the player. Like the Tarnished, she was chosen by the Greater Will, through the intermediary of the Two Fingers, for a specific purpose: in Ranni’s case, as a potential successor of Marika “to become the new god of the coming age.” Like the player, she has the ability to choose otherwise: she “would not acquiesce” to the Two Fingers and stole the Rune of Death, (seemingly inadvertently) inciting the Night of the Black Knives, to destroy her body and thereby free herself of the Greater Will’s influence. Like the player, too, she lacks a corporeal essence in the Lands Between (since she killed her original body), instead channeling herself through the “avatars” of various dolls. And, like the Tarnished, she has the opportunity to enact a new order upon the entirety of the game’s world as a harbinger of change.
Ranni’s complaint about the current order, which she seeks to upend by killing her Two Fingers and ushering in the Age of the Stars, is that “life, and souls, and order are bound tightly together,” whereas she “would have them at great remove,” embracing “fear, doubt, and loneliness” in a journey away from the world and into the stars, kept at a distance rather than immanent, as they were in Nokstella. The reasons why Ranni would will this aren’t transparent, but I think that the relationships she’s cultivated in her life hold a clue: Ranni is one of the few entities in all of the Land Between to have cultivated and maintained close relationships from childhood through to the present day. Her War Counselor, Iji, and Blaidd, the shadow imparted to her by the Two Fingers to keep her on the Greater Will’s desired path, are both, by her account, “willing to give too much to [her]” and “kind of heart”—no trifling thing in the Lands Between—and we see the depth of that emotion borne out in our interactions with both of her companions.
Blaidd is an especially tragic case: his affection for Ranni is so thorough and genuine that he is able to help her walk the path of defying the Two Fingers and Greater Will despite his status as her shadow, a slave and watchdog of the Greater Will—until, that is, the very end of Ranni’s quest, when the Greater Will forces his duty back upon him, driving him to the point of madness (above). In this way, Blaidd embodies a problem that Ranni—between her friends and a mother who was abandoned by her husband in favor of a goddess (who also happened to be another version of her husband)—would be in an ideal position to recognize and wish to resolve: when emotions and one’s inner life are subordinate to the role one is expected to play upon the world’s stage, one loses one’s sense of self, too tightly bound up in knots to either fully experience one’s emotions or adequately execute one’s duty.
Structurally, this theme is also relatable to many of the players trying to find their way through Elden Ring as Outer Gods: when progressing through the Lands Between requires so much technical precision that the repeated failure of the player and death of the avatar are virtually inevitable, it’s only natural that players may eventually get angry, dejected, or frustrated—at which point their emotional response to the duty they’re trying to discharge (progressing through the quest of the Tarnished) further undermines their ability to discharge that duty (their skill declines as they get more upset). While audience response is one of the key elements of storytelling, an emotional response so tightly bound up in one’s ability to progress the plot can undermine itself, a real reason why many players walk away from games like Elden Ring.
For Ranni to sever her connection to the Greater Will and relocate the emotional locus of the world to the outside of it is to give those emotional responses priority over the events and obligations intrinsic to the world. It’s in this context that the inscription she’s left on her ring of betrothal, the Dark Moon Ring, resonates with the game’s broader themes:
Whoever thou mayest be, take not the ring from this place, the solitude beyond the night is better mine alone.
Ranni isn’t using this inscription to categorically deny herself a consort: rather, she’s absolving the would-be consort of any sense of duty to her such that they are free to act solely on their emotional attachment to Ranni, again putting emotional content before any plot-driven obligations that would constrain those emotions.
The unexpected, fully optional marriage plot that leads to “Age of the Stars” embodies the submission to emotion seen in “Shura” without any implication of destroying the world. The “submission” element is key: with the player’s journey through the Lands Between so tightly binding her emotional responses to the functions demanded by the game’s plot, the most authentic way to symbolically create the distance required to appreciate the story’s emotional content is to cede those plot obligations to someone else—in this case, Ranni. To cede those obligations through a voluntary expression of emotional attachment resolves the paradox of the Golden Order in a way that may even empower players to go through the game a second time with a new perspective on their reactions to its story, inviting them to treat their feelings about the game as valuable ends in themselves (this in contrast to something like the avatar becoming an infant Great One in Bloodborne’s “Childhood’s Beginning” ending, which creates the same distance between the player and the world but jettisons emotional content in favor of the unknowable and eldritch).
Valuing the Protagonist: “Lord of Frenzied Flame”
Elden Ring found a way to make the total annihilation of its world empowering and uplifting.
That may not seem like the most intuitive reading of the “Lord of Frenzied Flame” ending, but I want to convince you that the game’s most destructive ending is carefully orchestrated in such a way that Elden Ring’s avatar—initially a slave, like so many other entities in the Lands Between—escapes its shackles of servitude and seizes control of the story.
While there are several avenues through which the player and Tarnished can learn of the Three Fingers and Frenzied Flame, the clearest direction comes from Shabriri (above), who challenges the Tarnished, on its way to kindle the flame of ruin, to spare the life of the maiden Melina and find another way to kindle the flame.
You are about to sacrifice something precious. The life of a fair maiden, that you would toss into the fiery forge. Only so that you may be Lord. What a horrible thing to ponder. Your ascendency requires her sacrifice, whether she wishes it or not. But how would the Lord, crowned so, be looked upon?
The player who’s cultivated a sense of attachment to Melina may well be interested in a way to penetrate the Erdtree that won’t cost her life. Yet, if she follows Shabriri’s advice to “descend into the depths, far below the Erdtree Capital,” that noble motivation of saving a maiden’s life is persistently challenged by the reality the Tarnished encounters. The Subterranean Shunning-Grounds feature discarded Omen, a gaping abyss of a festering sewer, and Melina repeatedly insisting that the Frenzied Flame is the wrong path and that she wants to offer herself as kindling because it is the purpose she has chosen for herself.
The result of this is that even before the player discovers the source of the madness-inducing Frenzied Flame, her approach to that source constitutes a kind of madness: if you’re looking to do something noble and positive like sparing the life of a maiden, then the wretched nature of the path taken to fulfill that goal should give you pause—and if you keep going with that same goal in mind despite mounting evidence that the very person you wish to save does not endorse this, then you are thereby doing something irrational, or mad.
It is this special kind of madness—divorce from the logic of using appropriate means to bring about desired ends—that makes the Tarnished apt to inherit the Frenzied Flame from the Three Fingers. For this madness is of a different kind than the cosmic-horror insanity that manifests in something like Bloodborne, and its exact nature reveals to us a path through which the avatar can escape the confines of its story and achieve freedom.
Hyetta, if the Tarnished takes her through the motions to become a maiden and reader of the Three Fingers, expresses the clearest account of what the Three Fingers actually want from the heir to the Frenzied Flame:
All that there is came from the One Great. Then came fractures, and births, and souls. But the Greater Will made a mistake. Torment, despair, affliction… every sin, every curse. Every one, born of the mistake. And so, what was borrowed must be returned. Melt it all away, with the yellow chaos flame. Until all is One again.
Those who gave me grapes howled without words. Saying they wished they were never born. Become their lord. Take their torment, despair. Their affliction. Every sin, every curse. And melt it all away. As the Lord of Chaos. No more fractures…no more birth…
While the world of Elden Ring perceives those who are exposed to the Frenzied Flame as suffering from “madness,” the intention of the Three Fingers is to erase all conceptual disparity: with life comes death, with hope comes despair, and so on. It’s not obvious from Hyetta’s monologue exactly what mistake the Greater Will made, but based on the facts that the intention of the Three Fingers is to return all things to a singularity (“Until all is One again”) and that those who suffer and advocate for this path express pain merely at having existed in the first place (“they wished they were never born”), I think it’s reasonable to infer that the mistake was imposing an order that entailed any disparity whatsoever. Recalling that the Golden Order is founded on the Law of Regression and Law of Causality, this is tantamount to saying that the Law of Causality—”the pull between meanings […] the connections that form the relationships between all things”—was a mistake.
Especially within the context of a story, such a perspective is a form of madness of the variety that would need to be sealed away, buried, forgotten, and forbidden: the very idea of a story depends on conflict to shape its plot, and conflict requires disparity between things; so, for characters to desire the erasure of disparity within a story steps outside the rational ways in which they can engage with their world. While irrational, this isn’t the kind of idea that’s intrinsically sadistic or beyond human ken—which goes some distance toward explaining the tone with which the Three Fingers approach the Tarnished in the Frenzied Flame Proscription, a far cry from the Amygdala vice grip that teleports the Hunter to Bloodborne’s DLC:
The Three Fingers’ alarmingly tender embrace of the Tarnished, then, gives the Tarnished the opportunity to step beyond the purview of both plot and player in an existentially meaningful way. In madness, it gives them the opportunity to fulfill what I called the triad of narrative freedom in my reading of Final Fantasy VII Remake: a set of three conditions that jointly allow a character in a story to act as an agent independently of that story. To achieve this, I argued, a character must:
- be distanced from authorial intent (i.e. it doesn’t seem as though the character is being used by an author as a tool to express a point of the story)
- be distanced from audience expectations (i.e. the audience shouldn’t have a strong, justifiable sense of what might happen to the character next)
- be distanced from narrative valence with other characters (i.e. the character shouldn’t stand in an obvious, hero-vs.-villain style relationship with another character that could govern what will reasonably happen next)
The relationship between this path and the path of the avatar becoming Elden Lord satisfies Conditions 1 and 3. The Tarnished’s role in the Lands Between is defined by its candidacy to become Elden Lord, which supports the sense of a destined, Lord of Light-style plot we discussed above—and even Ranni’s Age of the Stars doesn’t totally do away with this paradigm, for she initiates this age by mending the Elden Ring with the Tarnished at her side. For the Tarnished to inexplicably cast that entire plot aside leaves the player without any point of reference for how the story’s protagonist might integrate with other storytelling elements to help an author express a particular message (Condition 1); and, since the plot to become Elden Lord was one of the few core attributes embedded within the Tarnished by the story, the loss of that attribute leaves the matter of how the Tarnished relates to the Lands Between and its other inhabitants unclear (Condition 3).
The path to the Tarnished becoming Lord of Frenzied Flame also satisfies Condition 2 in a way that’s uniquely apt for the player abdicating her agency as an Outer God in favor of placing the locus of storytelling value on the protagonist. Especially in the case of the player who takes her Tarnished down this path out of a desire to save Melina’s life, taking the Tarnished to the Three Fingers requires a willful undoing of means-end logic, as we discussed above. If the ordinary relationship between player and avatar is one of the player making inputs with predictable outcomes in order to make the avatar execute predictable actions in order to achieve outcomes that matter to the player (e.g., the player pressing the right bumper in order to make the avatar swing its sword in order to kill a dragon), then this undoing of means-end logic is a direct affront to that relationship, priming the avatar to transform into the kind of thing that can’t be controlled by an Outer God or guided by anything else, fueled solely by the homogeneous, indiscriminate Frenzied Flame that the Three Fingers pass on to it. Once that happens and Melina abandons the Tarnished, I think it’s likely that many other players share the feeling I did: the feeling of being completely adrift, understanding that you have done something irrevocable to your avatar and have created unfathomable distance between that avatar and everything you were working toward in Elden Ring up to that point; the feeling of not knowing what comes next for you or the avatar. That feeling is telling you that Condition 2 has been fulfilled.
It is this carefully orchestrated divorce of the avatar from the player and plot’s influence that allows “Lord of Frenzied Flame” to be the only ending in which we see the avatar actually acting. In the “Elden Lord” endings, the Tarnished is seated upon a throne, evoking the image of a static figurehead; in “Age of the Stars,” the Tarnished kneels, underscoring its submission as Ranni claims the agency it once held. Yet the final input in the “Lord of Frenzied Flame” ending shows how thoroughly the avatar has been severed from the goals of the world and the influence of the player: in total contrast to means-end logic, the player’s final prompt is “Become the Lord of Frenzied Flame” (shown above); with virtually no visibility into what could happen next, the player presses the button, at which point the Tarnished becomes literally free of the player’s control, writhing and falling to the ground of its own accord, beyond the reach of the player. When it rises as the Lord of Frenzied Flame, we witness it very actively razing the Lands Between—the kind of destruction seen in “Shura,” with none of the submission or surrender to emotion that characterizes “Age of the Stars.”
I’m willing to accept, with all that said, that I may be “mad” and the ordinary player may not find this ending to be empowering and uplifting. Even so, I don’t imagine that many would find it disheartening in the way that “Shura” is. The Tarnished who’s given the ability to govern itself by an inner flame rather than any external mission or will of an Outer God is admirable by virtue of its sheer autonomy, and a player who wants to celebrate that autonomy ought to feel fulfilled by the option to subordinate literally the entire world of Elden Ring to that autonomy.
The Fallen Leaves Tell Your Story
If you look closely at Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or Sekiro, you’ll find an undercurrent of optimism, but it’s optimism in the face of deeply pessimistic cycles that shape the plot. How will you find meaning in the face of a fire that will always fade? How can you hunt your fears in an inescapable nightmare? How will you defend what you love in a world where you and your charge are cursed by unwanted immortality?
Elden Ring takes the philosophy of its world and gameplay—that the player can explore whatever aspect of the Lands Between with whatever build of avatar she wants, and she’ll have a good time doing it—and applies it in equal part to its storytelling. Far from a simple tale about a soul of no renown taking the crown, the game’s fiction shows the player that she, and she alone, has the authority to determine what the story is about and why it matters, with six endings carefully constructed to give her a positive narrative experience no matter how she chooses to administer that authority. In so doing, without sacrificing the unapologetic difficulty of its predecessors, it cultivates a player who, if she should make it through the game, will end up feeling as strong and fulfilled as a Level 713 Tarnished for reasons all her own.
- Thanks to Dan Hughes for discussion of an earlier version of this analysis. ↑
- There are many other senses and degrees according to which a game may be more or less interactive (e.g., how much influence the player has over defining her avatar, how many players may influence a game’s fiction at a given time), but a full taxonomy is beyond the scope of this analysis. ↑
- This analysis depends on a distinction between major and minor events in a story, but I don’t think that anything in the analysis crucially turns on whatever your preferred definitions of ‘major event’ and ‘minor event’ may be. ↑
- This is a bit of an oversimplification: on my view of video-game fictions, it is always a part of the fiction that the player occupies a certain foundational fictional role (what I call ‘the fictional player’) that is distinct from the avatar and centrally involved in making events happen within the fiction. All the same, there are cases in which that fictional role is more or less fleshed out within the fiction of a video game: in Mass Effect, the fictional player is very much in the background, whereas the fictional player takes center stage—and so begets a different sort of interactivity—in something like Undertale or Elden Ring, as I discuss below. ↑
- As an aside, note that this exact kind of sentence loses all meaning when we speak of a game as “a Soulsborne game,” rather than considering what we can learn about a game from specific elements it shares or does not share with specific other games. ↑
- This mode of analysis, in which the analyst derives a story’s thematic content from a tight analogy observed between the story’s content and the formal structure of the storytelling medium, can also be seen at work in the argument for metaphysical vampirism in Code Vein. ↑
- Some have argued that Goldmask’s Mending Rune of Perfect Order restores the Golden Order because Brother Corhyn may no longer be in his right mind by the time he denounces Goldmask as having strayed from the Golden Order. Regardless of Brother Corhyn’s mental state, the description of the Mending Rune itself, brought into being by Goldmask’s cogitation, implies that the order it will establish is distinct from the Golden Order and seen as an improvement upon it: “A rune of transcendental ideology which will attempt to perfect the Golden Order. The current imperfection of the Golden Order, or instability of ideology, can be blamed upon the fickleness of the gods no better than men. That is the fly in the ointment.” While one might argue that the order brought about by this Mending Rune is the “true” Golden Order, that doesn’t change our observation that it is a departure from the order that the Greater Will wishes to see restored. ↑
- Leibniz formalized the principle that the Golden Order violates as the identity of indiscernibles: basically, that if two things are identical, then they have all the same properties as each other. Yet only Radagon married Rennala; only Marika shattered the Elden Ring; and so on. ↑
- Notice that this follows in the footsteps of trophy-based storytelling we’ve considered in other recent games. It’s also not without precedent in Miyazaki’s works: the fact that there’s only a trophy associated with one of Demon’s Souls’ two endings, for instance, raises the question of how the game’s narrative lens wants us to interpret the relative value of those endings. ↑
- We see similar themes elsewhere in Miyazaki’s corpus, such as the “Yharnam Sunrise” ending of Bloodborne or the Bearer of the Curse walking away from the throne in Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, but I think that “Shura” shows the impact of unifying submission to emotion and destruction of the world more clearly than either of those. ↑
- When speaking with the Tarnished during her journey to kill her Two Fingers, Ranni says, “I was once an Empyrean. Of the demigods, only I, Miquella, and Malenia could claim that title. Each of us was chosen by our own Two Fingers, as a candidate to succeed Queen Marika, to become the new god of the coming age. Which is when I received Blaidd. In the form of a vassal tailored for an Empyrean. But I would not acquiesce to the Two Fingers. I stole the Rune of Death, slew mine own Empyrean flesh, casting it away. I would not be controlled by that thing. The Two Fingers and I have been cursing each other ever since… And the Baleful Shadows… are their assassins.” ↑
- It’s of course possible for the player to guide the Tarnished down the path of Frenzied Flame without knowing about the opportunity to save Melina. In such a case, this path is less of an ideal path to giving the Tarnished radical freedom, but the key point still holds: given the Three Fingers’ goal of annihilating all disparity and the fact that the player’s very mode of engagement with the game depends on disparity (influencing a world externally as an Outer God attached to an avatar), the player’s pursuit of the Frenzied Flame is still self-undermining even absent the considerations around Melina. ↑
- It seems to currently be the consensus that the Frenzied Flame is an Outer God, but I haven’t found sufficient evidence that bears that out. The closest I can come is the description of Miquella’s Needle, which was crafted “to ward away the meddling of outer gods” and is “capable of subduing the flame of frenzy if inherited.” Yet we know that Miquella crafted the needle to protect his sister against the influence of the God of Scarlet Rot, and we can grant that the Frenzied Flame is relevantly similar to Outer Gods, in terms of being a metaphysically influential force, while still recognizing that it is importantly distinct from them. Rather than being a world-external entity that relates to and influences characters within the world, the Frenzied Flame is a force that exists within an entity like the Three Fingers and can be inherited, conveyed to the essence of the Tarnished. This strikes me as a more faithful account of what we see in the game and further reinforces the idea that the Tarnished is claiming intrinsic agency, rather than simply trading one Outer God for another. ↑