I finally finished my first playthrough of Elden Ring last week, which feels like a bit of an achievement considering that I've also been suffering from a particularly nasty stomach flu. I just wanted to keep my head in a bucket, but the Lands Between beckoned, and with the end so close I had to keep playing in those gaps between unpleasant eruptions. The real challenge, though, was finishing something that's consumed my life for over a month.
Typically, I find it very difficult to focus on a single game. I'm easily distracted, and my constantly expanding game library provides nearly endless distractions. There's been a cavalcade of seductive new releases, and all the old stalwarts, my online obsessions, trying to tempt me away. But this time I stayed the course.
The reason for this new level of discipline is simple: Elden Ring is fucking brilliant. It's the first game since Disco Elysium to really grip me like this, where I absolutely have to talk about it all the time even when I'm off the clock.
It can be an obtuse pain in the arse at times, and at no point did any of the patches alleviate the significant performance issues, which should have annoyed me so much more given my recent expensive PC upgrade. But these imperfections became largely invisible the moment I booted the game up—drowned out by the parade of striking grotesques, cheesy build experiments and the overwhelming sense of camaraderie that comes from pushing through a challenging game with millions of other people.
Fellowship of the Ring
That last part made it particularly hard to say goodbye. I've only just started socialising offline again recently, in small doses, and throughout the pandemic ordeal gaming has really been an incredible salve, second only to getting a puppy in November. And Elden Ring's where that peaked—and even if I hardly dabbled in the multiplayer side of things, it's still been a deeply communal experience.
All of my victories and successes I share with the folk who tirelessly wrote guides, the Tarnished discussing build ideas on Reddit, the friends and colleagues giving me advice on Twitter and PCG's own Slack channel. Maybe I could have finished without all this assistance, but I would have missed so much, and the experience would have been worse without it.
The older I get the less inclined I am to join online communities, especially gaming ones. Elden Ring did not inspire me to do a 180, but simply existing online and playing Elden Ring means you're inevitably going to become part of this loose affiliation of Tarnished spread across the world. Even if you've managed to avoid social media, if you're playing online at the very least you're going to see the messages and ghosts of all these other adventurers.
It does feel like being part of something, with its own language and eccentricities and sense of humour, elevated by the fact that, damn, this game is one tough bastard. You've got to rely on your fellow Tarnished. Sure, some of them are arseholes who drop messages on top of Sites of Grace or beneath ladders, responsible for so many unnecessary deaths, and there are a lot of falsehoods scrawled on dungeon floors or on the edges of cliffs—but that just gives the rest of us some villains to revile. The trolls bring us together.
The only comparable experience, really, is the launch of a big new MMO. We saw some of that with New World, but the crucial difference here is that Elden Ring is actually great and its secrets are well worth unravelling. Now that I'm out the other side, it's a bit lonely. I already miss my nights spent muddling my way through this enigmatic world with my ghostly comrades, each of them doing the same thing in their own version of the Lands Between. It feels strange not to be buried in debates over the efficiency of different swords or sharing exploits to help people overcome a particularly tricky adversary.
As I approached my destiny in the Erdtree last week, I stepped back. There were a few optional bosses I still needed to tackle, and plenty of spells and weapons I wanted to collect for my NG+ adventures, but really I just wasn't remotely ready to leave the Lands Between and all the people still playing. Because I knew that, while I absolutely cannot wait to play again, it's not going to be with the same intensity. I'll dip in and out while playing other things. The new player experience is a singular one that can't be recaptured.
So I left the Erdtree. It was only then that I took on what's considered the game's trickiest boss, Malenia, and boy did she live up to her nasty rep. She was just one of a multitude of memorable encounters I had while I was technically mopping things up. Even this late in the game, Elden Ring continued to send me down rabbit holes, delving into hidden areas and getting very lost. I changed my build a whole bunch of times, too. Amid all of this, I completely forgot I was only a few big fights away from watching the credits roll.
The distance between the point where I decided, "OK, I'm ready now" and actually finishing it was also vast. The final boss fight is a doozy. My main build had proved to be pretty much unstoppable until that point, but time and time again the Elden Beast destroyed me. I watched videos, trawled Reddit, quizzed mates—there was a lot of homework. I left the Elden Tree yet again, searching for the weapons and talismans that would give me an edge. Now it was Elden Ring itself trying to stop me from saying goodbye. It was great—one of the highest points in a game that's full of them.
When I finally did it, with no more flasks, a dead mimic tear and only a sliver of health, I was body-slammed by all that joy and relief. I woke up the dog to demand a high five. And then I had to throw up all over the bathroom because stomach flu doesn't give a shit about my achievements. But even as my throat burned and my guts felt like they were being crushed, I was elated. I'd held off for ages, but it felt bloody amazing to finally become Elden Lord, even if it meant I'd have to move on.
Of course, now I have no idea what to do with myself. Sleep, probably. Apparently some games have come out? I guess I could see what they're all about. But actually I'd prefer to play nothing for a wee while. I still need to digest Elden Ring after 150 hours of chewing. And I suspect other games would fail to hold my attention, or I'd spend too much time comparing the experience to the sublime one I've just enjoyed.
That said, I do have Sekiro installed…