I played through the first half of Elden Ring with a vague understanding of what I thought was going on in the Lands Between. I didn't go massively out of my way to figure things out, and I planned just to play naturally and see what conclusions I came up with by the end. Then I hit that part of Goldmask's quest in Leyndell, Royal Capital.
Until that point, I had taken things at face value and concentrated more on exploring and defeating bosses. But once I found out the major twist—which I won't spoil here—it made me question literally everything I'd learned up until that point. Coupled with another discovery made in the capital, it was clearly time to break out a google doc and start taking notes.
Elden Ring doesn't lay out its story in the traditional sense. Instead, you need to search for clues found in item descriptions and the environment to figure out what's really going on and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the past to lead to the current events. On the surface, everything looks pretty straightforward, but several quests, item descriptions, or in-game dialogue makes you rethink what is going on.
This won't be anything new if you're familiar with other Souls games—it's a story-telling method Miyazaki has become well-known for. Several facts are presented to you, either through cutscenes, item descriptions or gameplay, and you need to connect the dots and come up with your own theories on where everything else fits. NPC quests can be super-helpful with this, but dialogue especially needs to be weighed against who is speaking and how reliable they are.
Having finished the game, I have a pretty solid idea of what's happening, but I have so many unanswered questions. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time examining that corpse in Deeproot Depths after getting over the initial "What the actual f-" moment. The Blade of Calling asks far more questions than it answers. And don't get me started on Radagon and his origins.
One of many things that give me sleepless nights though, is Melina and her (apparent) connection to Destined Death. I know what the game implies, and I've read the theories that tie her in various ways to either Ranni or the Gloam-Eyed Queen. Both hold weight, but something still doesn't feel right. And her dramatically changed appearance during one specific ending is loaded with implications.
Much of what you take from the story comes down to interpretation based on the facts presented. Most of my time in Elden Ring is spent wandering around inspecting stuff with the telescope or trying to find something that others might have overlooked. I've got two separate saves: One where everything is unlocked, so I can fast-travel anywhere I want for investigation purposes. And the other I've stopped right before the boss that changes one location drastically and prevents access to another when defeated. That way, I've got all bases covered should I want to check something.
My screenshots folder is in an absolute state too. Anything that looks mildly interesting or could relate to something else? I've probably got a screenshot of it from several different angles. I even spent one evening going to every location I could think of and using the Mimic Veil to see if that produced any notable results. Basically, it turns your character into a random nearby object. Sadly, the only odd thing I found was that my character would turn into a statue found primarily in Caria Manor in Liurnia when the item was used in the final boss room. And even that seems kinda logical, given what we know.
I can't begin to tell you the number of statues I've gestured in front of, or Golden Order incantations I've used in various places, sadly with no results. I was initially excited when I discovered you could use non-damaging spells in Roundtable Hold—an otherwise combat-free area—but I've come up with nothing so far.
It feels like the answer to everything is right there; if only you could make the connection or find the last piece of the puzzle that has eluded everyone up to this point. But it's not just one thing left hanging—many things are still unclear. It's infuriating in some ways but incredibly compelling in others.
I've seen and read plenty of interpretations for various aspects of the story. Some of it makes sense, there are still a lot of outstanding problems that don't quite fit—for me, at least. But it's fun to piece things together or come up with theories. Sadly, I don't think we'll ever get definitive answers to everything, even if we do get a DLC because that's not Miyazaki's style. But then, I guess that's part of the draw.
Maybe I'm just looking for excuses to keep playing. Elden Ring has taken over my life in the last couple of months, and it's been an absolute blast. I'm just not ready to relinquish my role as Elden Lord, or let go of the Lands Between quite yet.