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FGC #643 Elden Ring

I never did get that ringI appreciate Elden Ring, because, more than any game I have ever played, it perfectly encapsulates how it feels to be a tourist.

Elden Ring is a FromSoftware title. FromSoftware struck gold a little over a decade ago with Dark Souls, and has had incredible success with that franchise and “soulsborne” titles like Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. And, while many have tried to pin down exactly what makes these games so popular (if only to clone that je ne sais quoi so they can make their own piles of money), it seems that several people have settled on one reason these games are great: it is the challenge. Soulsborne titles are known for their unforgiving difficulty, brutal bosses, and any number of sink or swim situations that, more often than not, lead to a ubiquitous “you have died” message. But hope is not lost! These FromSoft games are built around the concept that you will fail, and restarting and reclaiming your lost collectibles is as easy as making your way to wherever you happened to expire, and now, shucks, guess you are here anyway, let’s see if we can make a little more progress this time. And, in this simple death-rebirth-progress-repeat loop, accomplishments are made, and eventually you have every last trophy claiming you have become a freaky god-baby or whatever the hell happened at the end of Bloodborne. In short, calling the appeal of FromSoftware titles “the challenge” is reductive of a carefully tailored gameplay cycle that isn’t all that different from the Dragon Warriors of old.

This is gonna hurtBut I have never cared about any of that. Of course I find FromSoftware games challenging! But I also find Mega Man Legends challenging, too. I have been playing videogames for the last thirty years, and, unless we are talking about a genre/playstyle that I know by heart (that would be the original Mega Man franchise, for instance), I am very likely to die over and over again regardless of “challenge”. I probably pick up a game faster than some people, but I have never had any sort of videogame “sight-reading” dexterity. It takes me a while to learn a new game, and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about Bloodborne or Bloodstained. Every new game is memento mori, and I too will die… and quickly! I might even have a leg up on FromSoftware titles at this point, too, as I kind of know the general pacing now of… How do I put this… “That one guy syndrome”? Like there’s always that one guy… He has a horse in this one… There is always that one guy near the start of the game that there is no way you are beating him right now, so you must come back later, and if you try to spend all your time on him at the start, you are going to have a bad time. And that and other tricks only work so many times, so after fearing the old blood and praising the sun a number of times, I am fairly immune to many FromSoftware tricks. In short, these games are challenging, but they never really felt substantially challenging on my end. They are hard, but everything is hard when you game like a pillow cursed with dummy thumbs.

So how do I experience FromSoft games? Why do I even bother? Well, because the greatest FromSoftware games are about exploring, and I love games based on exploring. As if it wasn’t obvious from a Castlevania game being covered on this site every other month, I enjoy seeing scary monsters, skulking around their lairs, and, ideally, finding all sorts of secret places while rolling around murderous skeletons. FromSoft titles offer this kind of experience in enormous quantities, and I am always happy to dodge some giant’s sword only to accidentally discover a treasure hidey-hole. That is the kind of gaming experience I cherish, and it can only be found in painstakingly constructed castles/planets/forgotten lands. I don’t care if it is a Crocomire or giant land octopus involved, just factor in those breakthroughs, and I’m good.

But I have noticed a curious issue with my Soulsborne playthroughs: I never 100% any of these games.

Poor flightless birdsNow, this is something of an interesting issue. Traditionally, if I enjoy a videogame, I try to wring about as much enjoyment out of it as possible. While this does not always lead to a “platinum trophy” style “do everything” event, it does usually mean I have seen what I consider to be “everything”. For instance, I might not need that 100% of the map filled achievement, but I want to feel like I have spoken to every NPC, and completed every relevant questline. I won’t be finishing the Metroid Dread boss rush anytime soon, but I do feel happy with that perfect item collection rating. My definition of “100% Completion” might not match the opinion of everyone else, but it is a level that leaves me content.

Elden Ring? Not so much. I have completed the game, I have filled in the portions of the map I feel are relevant, and I am happy with my experience. Why? Simple: I am delighted being a tourist.

We have all played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild before, right? Remember that dude who would give you inventory upgrades if you traded him gold poops? He was in the Warriors game? Hestu! Hestu upgrades your inventory, and you are meant to collect korok seeds across the world, scamper back to Hestu when you have a healthy amount, and then gradually upgrade your capacity as the game proceeds. Know what I did? I missed Hestu! Big ol’ lug is hanging out on one of the most traveled roads in Hyrule, and I completely avoided the doof. This is supposed to be an area/person you see early in your adventure, but I managed to take a different path, and didn’t find Hestu until after I had slain Ganon. I went the entire game with an extremely limited backpack all because I took one wrong turn at Albuquerque about an hour after Link got out of bed. And the damnedest thing about all that? I expected as much! Give me an open world with very clear directions for a neophyte player to “follow this route”, Slice an antand I guarantee you I will find some way to wander off the beaten trail. This is why the glowing path is my friend, because I know without some invasive guidance, I am going to meander off to somewhere I shouldn’t be.

And many people will tell you this is the point of open world games. Leave the guides behind, Goggle Bob! You are exploring just like you’re supposed to! But my issue is not that I am somehow playing the game wrong, it is that I am missing things that will make my life easier. I wanted Hestu’s inventory upgrades! I wanted the ability to carry around every elemental sword this side of Koholint! And I could have had it, if somehow I knew to head in Hestu’s direction. I did not want to use a FAQ or strategy guide, because I didn’t want everything ruined, but a gentle nudge in the right direction of something that would improve my life would be nice.

Elden Ring does not do gentle nudges. Elden Ring is the kind of game that sticks its opening tutorial in a pit that looks portentously deadly. Elden Ring is the kind of game where a “helpful” NPC sends you to your death just to see if you would listen to her. Elden Ring is the kind of game where people debate online what exactly “the hug lady” does, and whether she is secretly trying to kill you. Elden Ring is an extremely opaque game, and, while “working with the community” is intended to be part of the experience (an experience that identifies a lot of turtles as dogs, incidentally), the sheer scope of the Lands Between means that it is very difficult to so much as figure out exactly where you are, left alone effectively ask another human being for directions. I need to know what to do at the castle the dude on the overpass told me to clear out. No, not the castle with the knight with the dragon arm. The other castle. No, not the one with the sickly nerds and the moon woman. I think that was a university…

But this isn’t a knock against Elden Ring, because I have felt this way before. Elden Ring gives me the exact same feeling as being a tourist.

This doesn't look goodLook, I come from a touristy area. I know my entire local economy and livelihood relies on the fact that, for a few months every year, a bunch of sunburned malcontents roam the streets and coffee shops looking for some kind of summer loving (even if that “loving” only applies to a love of a particular slice of pizza). And, while I am well aware I would be living in a van by the river if these tourists did not exist, having lived in this area all my life has granted me an obvious, absurd complex regarding the concept of “tourists”. Those monsters come here! And eat at our restaurants! And clog up our roads! And use our ocean! It is irrational (again, none of these things would exist in the first place if it weren’t for the tourists [okay, maybe the ocean would still be there]), but it is something ingrained in my psyche.

So the idea of me, tourist hater extraordinaire, enjoying being a tourist should be hypocritical. And it is! But, like the entire republican party, I am not going to let being a hypocrite get me down. I like being somewhere new. I like seeing new places. I feel bad if I am somewhere on an extremely limited, regimented visit. I want to wander the streets! I want to see the rinky-dink little cafes that haven’t had more than three customers in three years. I want to skip the Paris subway, walk back to the hotel, and find whatever this is…

This is France

That ain’t in no guidebook. If I were to ask a thousand people for directions on what to do in Paris, they would never tell me to cut through that random street, and also find nearby cat campaign posters…

This is Cats

I live for that nonsense. I want to vote for a cat in Paris! That is the best part of sightseeing for me: not seeing all the wonders of the biggest tourist traps, but experiencing all the surprises that aren’t attached to a gift shop. Disney World is great! But let me walk down International Drive and find the absolutely weirdest buffet known to man. It has spaghetti and burritos next to each other? Spread my ashes over that garbage (it is only a marginal health risk compared to some of the other stuff at the buffet).

And, oddly enough, Elden Ring seems to capture that feeling better than any other game. In many open world games, you are continually looking for similar McGuffins. To once again recall Breath of the Wild, if you are doing damn near anything in that universe, you know you are aiming for a new shrine. And this is great for people that like goals, but the world does feel a little smaller when you know lightning dodging or walrus racing is all going to end in the same reward. In Elden Ring? There are dead ends. There are “rewards” that are little more than “look what you found”. You are trying to become the new Elden Lord! And when you explore this newly found dungeon, you will find… skeletons. Or giant ants. Or some weirdo that wants to turn you into a tree for some reason. And your reward for traipsing through this dungeon? Some lore. A weapon you will never use. Absolutely nothing. There is no guaranteed reward for practically anything you do in Elden Ring. I am pretty sure I even murdered a few bosses that offered the incentive of a pat on a back and nothing more. Elden Ring has its own brutal difficulty, but even more than that, it has a brutal world that often seems to contemptuously ask the player, “Enemy slain? So what? You want a trophy?”

Let's go, horse!Then why keep playing? Because there is joy in exploring. There is happiness in being that tourist who is “just visiting”, but can savor an appealing view. In a game where there are clear and omnipresent goals, everyone has the same experience. In a game where anything can happen, people can have exceptionally different encounters. Families have been visiting “tourist traps” for years, but no two people are guaranteed to have had the same experience. Climb to the top of the pyramids, and you might not enjoy it as much as another person nearby munching on a gyro from the Queen of the Nile food truck. In a world where there are not guides, where there is nothing telling you where you “have to be”, you can be a true wandering tourist. And that can be more fun than any kind of “scripted” experience. I do not need to know the name of the freaky dude riding a tiny horse and summoning meteors any more than I “need” to know the name of the guy who painted that mural I loved. I am a tourist right now, and I can enjoy enjoying without having to know everything.

So you can have your challenge or lore or fingers or whatever it is I’m supposed to like about Elden Ring. I’ll be over here, galloping around with Torrent, and taking in the sights. I might not learn anything you would find in a guide, but I am going to have fun seeing what I can see, and discovering what I can discover. I am going to be a tourist in these Lands Between, and I am going to enjoy that experience.

… And maybe I’ll buy a t-shirt later.

FGC #643 Elden Ring

  • System: I technically own the Playstation 4 disc, but I got a Playstation 5 about five minutes later, so that’s mostly where these screenshots are from. Sorry, it appears this is not going to be on Switch anytime soon.
  • Dodge!Number of players: There are thousands of people posting all over the place and occasionally showing up to murder your avatar, but it is an otherwise solitary experience.
  • Give me an explanation: Okay, there is one bit of lore I would be curious about. Why is everything giant? Or, to be particular, why are so many random animals and vermin the same kind of giant? Giant ants are roughly the same size as giant octopi as giant wolves, and that does not scale correctly at all. Why did everything grow to exactly the same size? Don’t say it was “magic”! Everything is magic!
  • Favorite Boss: Give me that Fire Giant any day of the week. Elden Ring bosses have a tendency to have distinct phases, and Fire Giant winds up with a phase where he tears off his own legs in an effort to better crawl-fight you with his immense stomach-face. That is the kind of dedication to a bit I can only admire.
  • Greatest Regret: The opening mentioned The Loathsome Dung Eater, and apparently I missed that dude entirely. This is a shame, as I find it personally offensive to have any piece of media mention “The Loathsome Dung Eater”, and then not have them prominently featured in every minute of the final product. This is storytelling 101, guys.
  • Say something mean: I enjoyed Elden Ring. It is a good game. That said, why are there jumping puzzles? This is not a world that should utilize jumping for anything other than skipping over ruined castle foundations. There should not be floating islands in space that require precise jumping when my character feels like she weighs 1,200 lbs. And do not get me started on giving the horse a double jump. That is not a traditional trait of horses!
  • OwieDid you know? You can tell you are in a FromSoftware world if you cannot conceive of a character complimenting another character’s butt. Elden Ring? Bloodborne? Dark Souls? Name a single speaking NPC in any of those universes that would look at a badonkadonk and be like “You got a great pooper right there”. You can’t. It is impossible.
  • Would I play again: I might organize another trip to the Lands Between in the future. And, hey, there is bound to be some DLC, too, right? Maybe that would be another good excuse…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pocky and Rocky Reshrined! The priestess and the raccoon will save the day yet again! With leaves! Please look forward to it!

What is even happening here?

FGC #379 Fable 2

FABLE!Let’s hear it for the glowing “follow me” path!

Let me tell you something about myself: I play a lot of videogames. It’s true! And you know what is an integral part of any given videogame? Level design. World design. From Mario to Zelda to Doom, it doesn’t matter if your hero has the best ups or bazookas around, it’s all going to come crashing down if you can’t design a world for squat. And I have played through the best worlds! Super Metroid is an amazing bit of planetary architecture, and Super Mario Bros consistently features some of the finest individual stage design in the business. Final Fantasy worlds are deliberate, thoughtful affairs, and have been since the 8-bit era. While I’ve certainly trudged through some stinkers, it would likely not be an exaggeration to claim that I have spent over 20,000 hours exploring complicated, deliberately created fantasy worlds.

So, after all that, you’d think I’d have even the most rudimentary sense of direction. And you’d be wrong.

I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten lost on my way to the refrigerator. I’ve certainly gotten lost following basic MapQuest directions. And, while my friends and I have vowed to never speak of it again, I may or may not have been responsible for being lost for approximately six hours on the labyrinthine highways of Pennsylvania trying to arrive at a location a whole hour from home. I’m not a complete lost cause! I do have a surprisingly good sense of actual direction, like I could easily tell you which way is East right now (it’s that-a-way), but actually navigating a manmade road in a direction that facilitates “going east” is likely impossible. I need careful, slow GPS directions to find my way to any site I haven’t already visited 500 times, and, if my phone didn’t have an onboard directions app, I’d probably be posting this article from a remote cave in Nebraska. Life would be so much easier if I could just live in any found cave…

Get 'emThis, unfortunately, has translated into decimating my videogame map memory. Yes, I’ve memorized some games like one might never forget the contours of a lover (“You’re comparing Super Metroid to some manner of paramour again, aren’t you?” “You never forget your first.”), but my recent replay of Yoshi’s Island reminded me that I have the map sense of a naked mole rat (I am assuming creatures that are effectively blind are bad at maps, but please correct me if I’m wrong). I 100%’ed Yoshi’s Island back in the day, and, when I was done doing that, I did it all over again for at least three save files. Considering all the hidden secrets and damned contemptible red coins in that title, that would mean, just to accomplish such a task once, I would have, at one time in my life, have had to explore every last inch of Yoshi’s entire island. And I did it repeatedly! And, just a few (more than a few) years later, I can barely recognize the second world. Touch Fuzzy, Get Biz-ay is permanently seared into my noggin, but most any other stage is a mystery. And it’s not that my thumbs don’t know how to make Yoshi pull off acrobatic feats the likes of which shyguys have never seen; no, it’s entirely my own ailing memory for locations that hampers Baby Mario’s progress.

Reality or digital, I would have a hard time backtracking my way through a paper bag.

Fortunately, this works just fine for today’s game, Fable 2. For many people, the big draw of Fable 2 was its morality system and “interlocking world” or whatever Peter Molyneux claimed was the alchemical secret to the franchise that week. Basically, the Fable 2 world places a very significant emphasis on consequences for actions, so if you spit on a street urchin during the intro, suddenly your entire hometown is a crap sack for the rest of history. Alternatively, you could buy some bread with your last shiny penny, and suddenly the future is all rainbows and pony rides. As a bullet point on a game case, this is pretty interesting, however, in actual practice, it seems alternately goofy and disturbing. Look, I ate an adorable chick alive once, and now the entire world has been plunged into darkness under the heel of a malevolent cult? Dude, I’m sorry, I just wanted to see if it was animated (it’s not, but there is an interesting crunching noise). And don’t get me started on the problems with the Fable diet choices

ShinyBut for all the goofiness of the Fable 2 universe, I can’t fault the game at all, as it grants us the blessed golden trail. Set any quest as your goal in Fable 2, and a delightful little glowing path will materialize in front of your avatar. Follow this rainbow to a pot of gold! Or wander away, get completely lost in the middle of some godforsaken forest, and look down to find that trail is still there and ready to lead you home. The golden path makes it impossible to get lost, and, even better, always points you towards your objective. You can save, stop playing because you have a goddamned life, come back a month later after you’ve successfully rehabilitated your cat after he got into a dynamite fight with that one brown mouse, and there’s the path all over again. You can play half the game, quit for a decade, and restart with absolutely no need to remember what you were doing at all. Just follow the path, and you’ll be back on track in no time.

It’s a glorious thing.

Sure, there have been naysayers over the years. Yes, the path absolutely discourages straying from the trail and exploring, and, should an area not contain a quest, it’s likely you’ll never encounter the location at all. Sure, the very concept of a “go here now” guide seems antithetical to a game that touts the importance of choice. And, the path absolutely drops the onus on the level (world?) designers that previously had to carefully design an environment that subtlety pushed the player forward toward new goals. In fact, this seems to be the number one problem with the path, as you can see its impact almost immediately. No more do there have to be trees that point forward or trodden paths that indicate your future goals; no, now it’s all a glowing path through a generic forest, and, turn off the path, and what hope do you have of finding your goal? Fable 2 was designed with the glowing path in mind, so it seems very little effort was put into making an actually “thoughtful”, forward progress-based map experience.

And all I can say is: welcome to my world.

WeeeeEarth, our dearly beloved planet, is not designed well. There are oceans right next to big piles of sand, and Mother Nature didn’t even think to stick a guardrail or two on her most dangling precipices. Humanity tried to tame this crazy wilderness, but as anyone that has ever driven a car in New York City will tell you, failed utterly and completely. In my own hometown, a place that doesn’t have to account for that many people or unusual geography, we have at least two streets that somehow loop in on themselves, and have thus trapped confused visiting relatives for decades. I don’t know if I’ll ever see my uncle again! And, sure, this is me, someone who once wound up in international waters in an attempt to walk to the local post office, saying this, but you have to admit that the average aerial city map looks less like the careful design of Miyamoto and more like someone haphazardly threw up a set of tinker toys (you never forget your junior prom).

So you know what? I can handle a game or two with crappy level design. The world has crappy level design, and I’m tired of pretending that Dr. Wily could build a fortress better than most urban planners. Give me my poorly designed Fable universe, and give me a glowing trail to follow through it.

And if you still think my glowy path is a bad thing? Then get lost.

FGC #379 Fable 2

  • System: Xbox 360 exclusive. It’s weird how rarely that happens.
  • Number of players: Two! You can have a friend pop into your world for extra mayhem. Have fun, lil’ buddy!
  • They’re all good boys: The other big selling point for Fable 2 was… a dog. Look, it was 2008, and a little furry AI buddy was the pinnacle of technology. And we were young and stupid. It was at least two of those things. Regardless, the dog was good fun and predictable in its plot function, but maaaaaybe a little useless in every other conceivable way. I’m pretty sure Sonic 2 Tails would have been a more welcome addition.
  • Branching Paths: And speaking of plot, this is a great example of a story with a resolution like I was trying to describe during the FF12 article: you can be good or bad, but, one way or another, you wind up saving the world all the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for altruism or revenge, the ending is still the same. Granted, other companies would eventually refine and master this kind of storytelling, but it’s always clever when a choose-your-own-adventure ends on the same page.
  • GlowyFavorite Combat: It was here that I learned to stop worrying and just love shooting things with gigantic magical guns. I rather expected I’d be more of a magic user, but when I leveled everything up, I found that I had transformed my avatar into some manner of na’vi. That is incredibly lame, so, for all future playthroughs, I just focused on the gun stuff, as “tall” was all I could tolerate. Yes, I choose my killing methods based on how they impact my appearance. How do you do it?
  • Did you know? There were some production problems with the Fable 2 Limited Edition. It was initially supposed to include a figurine and some trading cards… but they never materialized. As an apology, Fable 2 LEs were shipped with a voucher to download some Fable OST MP3s. That’s nice… except a number of LEs were accidentally shipped without the vouchers, too. Oops.
  • Would I play again: Path or no path, I really did enjoy Fable 2. It’s not my “game of the year” for 2008 or something, but it was certainly a lot more fun than… huh… literally every other Xbox 360 exclusive I can think of. Assuming we ever see a Fable 2 HD, maybe as part of some ridiculous collection, I’ll likely jump on it immediately.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Moon for the Nintendo 3DS! We shall catch pokémon from here to the stars and back! Please look forward to it!

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