One reason Elden Ring has gripped absolutely everyone right now is simply because it's massive. It's just huge, gargantuan, sprawling. It's a big game (some say too big (opens in new tab)) that many people will never hope to finish, and yet, nobody can stop talking about it. FromSoftware games have continuously trended upward in popularity, but its new open world game, probably helped by the limits on our very own open world right now, has taken off in a way that's heartening as a long-time Souls fan. These games have always been tremendously intricate worlds with strange characters and creatures. To see the game filtered through so many different perspectives is like being in some kind of global book club.
My Twitter feed is saturated with Elden Ring, be it stunning screenshots or wide-eyed impressions of the game's unrelenting beauty and horror. The art is my favorite to see though. Rarely have I seen FromSoftware's eccentric characters so lovingly depicted. Everyone has a favorite NPC that they can't get out of their head, especially artists. Some love the beauty of Ranni's moonlit grace (opens in new tab), some like to imagine a much more sympathetic Malenia (opens in new tab), and others are just fully down bad for Blaidd (opens in new tab). The deluge of drawings reminds me of the Overwatch fandom in 2016, when all kinds of artists lined up to sketch out its eclectic cast and share it.
Ste Pickford's inky illustrations are a little different (seriously, follow him (opens in new tab)). Sketched over gridded notebook paper are Elden Ring's most iconic faces and monuments with text tucked beside them. On the first page, you see his bandit character standing inside of a DND character sheet. His name is Luna. He has a buckler, a knife, a full set of bandit garb, and 13 dexterity. Flipping the page reveals a sky of limbs stretched across the page, the Erdtree beaming behind Pickford's little rogue. Elden Ring's scale, captured by nothing but pen and notebook paper.
"My daughter had got me a couple of sketchbooks for Christmas and I was wondering what to use them for," Pickford told me. "I'd never used a fountain pen to draw, so I bought one, and decided my new sketchbooks would be for fountain pen drawing, without any penciling. I started one that way, just regular drawing and sketching, and decided to use the other one as a 'gaming journal'. Elden Ring was the first game to come out after I'd got my fountain pen, so it seemed like the perfect one to start with."
Pickford's Elden Ring journal continues past Limgrave, through the fog of Liurnia, and the craggy hell of Caelid. Along the way, he tries to describe the characters he comes across. "I'll come back for this old goat later," he writes of Margit, the Fell Omen. Of the blue witch in the Church of Elleh: "She is Renna and she said we would not meet again…" And Kenneth Haight: "I met this arrogant prick in eastern Limgrave."
There's no elegance in Pickford's dispatches. A sword with more swords grafted onto it is "ridiculous," and the ghoulish finger maidens are "very odd." But these descriptions mirror what it's like to stumble your way through Elden Ring, to let FromSoftware whip out and show you the weirdest shit for hundreds of hours. The game has a talking ceramic pot filled with human flesh named Alexander, after all. Pickford's understatements are confirmation that we all had similar thoughts in the early portions of the game, and were all wondering what the hell was going on.
Surprisingly, this is Pickford's first time writing down and drawing his experiences while playing a game. He'd never thought of it until game critic Tim Rogers mentioned notetaking in one of his lengthy videos. And he got the spark to actually do it with Elden Ring after seeing the briefly controversial Twitter tip from journalist Jason Schreier (opens in new tab) about taking notes while you play.
"Someone else, I forget who, in the [Elden Ring] previews, said it reminded them of playing an old ZX Spectrum game (the big 8-bit home computer in the UK), where you had to make your own map on paper as you played," Pickford says. "I loved making maps of games back in those days, and the idea of playing a modern game with the same requirement to document and note-take felt really appealing to a nerd who likes drawing."
"My copy didn't arrive on launch day and I was forlornly reading about everyone playing it on the Friday, so I ended up drawing the cover, in pen, in my new journal that evening, to feel part of it," he said. "When I started playing the game's visuals and atmosphere hit me so strongly that I just knew I had to start sketching it. Then the journal took on a life of its own."
While it is in no way conducive to making fast progress in the game, I had a very lovely time yesterday playing Elden Ring and keeping a journal of my adventures.What a game! pic.twitter.com/6PegfkTXYPFebruary 28, 2022
Pickford usually draws his own, original comics (opens in new tab), and, apart from that, he makes games alongside his brother, John, as the Pickford Bros. They've been working on games since 1983, earning themselves a whole BAFTA nomination for Magnetic Billiard: Blueprint (opens in new tab), a chalk-drawn puzzle game for iOS. All of this game development experience led Pickford to the Souls games, and then, almost entirely away from them.
Back in 2009, he couldn't crack Demon's Souls on PlayStation 3, Elden Ring's quaint ancestor. "Playing it on my own, without anyone to talk to about it, it just seemed impenetrable and obscure, and the mood was too oppressive for me," he said.
"Later, after Dark Souls came out and people were raving about it, I bought it to see for myself if I could get my head around it," Pickford added. "For a while I had the typical game developer reaction to it: this is 'bad design', this is 'terrible UX', etc. It was failing to do all the things that game developers train themselves to prioritize, like bending over backwards to explain the world and the story to the player, to make sure players fully understand every system in the game, to make their first moments gratifying and rewarding, to make the moment to moment gameplay slick and responsive, etc. Everything felt wrong and slow and clunky and obtuse. This was objectively a bad game! But I stuck with it."
Then Pickford got bit by the Souls bug and went on to play through the entirety of Dark Souls a few more times, finished Dark Souls 2 once, and made it a quarter of the way through Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne. Now, it's all Elden Ring, and drawing Elden Ring.
"I've got into the habit of spending an hour or so before I start work just doodling in the journal, so it's become a sort of 'warm up' exercise for me every day, just drawing without having to invent anything," Pickford said.
For Pickford, the journal is a great way to forget about being a professional artist by day, trying to please a client, trying to make everything meet expectations. "With the journal I've reverted to a sort of unrefined raw style of drawing—what comes out when I'm not really trying to impress anyone, just drawing in a way I enjoy, even if it's a bit messy and over-inked," he said. "I get lost in the shading, slapping more ink down and having fun. So because I'm not trying too hard, and the top notch design work has already been done for me, it's easy, not like work."
Pickford is currently about halfway through the game. He's reached the parts of the Elden Ring that could be hung on a wall. When I stepped into areas like Siofra River and Altus Plateau, I couldn't decide if I suddenly wanted to learn how to draw or if I was realizing very quickly that that was now officially beyond my skill set. The artists at FromSoftware are unreal, and I imagine it'll be a joy for Pickford to figure out how to translate their most arresting work to the page.
Studying the characters and the locations to draw them probably leads you to have an even better appreciation of Elden Ring's world than you would get by running through it normally. Each of the Dark Souls games have 'Design Works' books filled with concept art. You get to see how close the original sketches resemble what you find in the games, down to things like the way characters and enemies hold themselves. It's truly impressive how little they stray from the original ideas, and that ethos seems to have continued in Elden Ring.
"I don't know much about FromSoftware's methods, but I do think the art direction and the implementation, in all their games, but especially in Elden Ring, is some of the best I've ever seen," Pickford said.
"You can tell there's an incredible level of attention to detail, and way more design than is strictly necessary—incidental carvings and statues and even the layout of locations all contain more story clues and background information than you really need for the game to function. You can tell these games are made with love."
As someone who has finished Elden Ring a few times on my own and spends a lot of time watching friends work their way through it, scrolling through Pickford's tweets is like finding an old high school notebook. I have college-ruled pads filled with little drawings of Dragon Ball Z and Spider-Man faces that I made while sitting in class. These little memories live on the margins of the notes I struggled to take. Looking at them pulls me right back to those moments, or some version of those moments. I remember the hard plastic chairs, the carpet, and the laminated tables. FromSoftware games are so special because they have this effect on you too. You only get to experience getting dropped into Firelink or ringing the Bells of Awakening for the first time once. As a Souls fan I desperately want to convince other people to play them and share that experience with me so that I can re-experience it all too.
Elden Ring is so massive that the things that happen early in your adventure can feel like they were a lifetime ago, especially for me—I reviewed it. Pickford's journal lets me go back and remember what it was like to take my first steps into its strange, alluring world. And damn, it makes me wish I could take notes like that.