About halfway through Elden Ring, I realized that the player’s character is the villain of the story.
At some point before the story begins, a manifest symbol of divine order called the “Elden Ring” was shattered by nefarious means, and the rulers of the land fought over its shards. Whether because of the battles or because of the nature of the shattering itself, everything is now in ruins.
As an outcast “Tarnished” warrior who has returned to the magical Lands Between, your job is to retrieve the shards of the Elden Ring from the fallen rulers and thereby restore the Golden Order of the once-great civilization. At least, that’s what you’re led to believe.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the society enabled by the Golden Order wasn’t so great. The ruling class built its civilization by subjugating other cultures in fantastically horrific ways. This isn’t subtext, exactly, but neither is it surtext – it’s simply the story told by the environment of the game.
You may think that perhaps, if you repair the Elden Ring and become the new Elden Lord, you’ll do better. You’ll burn the ruined vestiges of the old order and create a more just and fair society. The game defies this hope at every turn, however. For every kindness you attempt, you cause only more suffering.
In more prosaic terms, almost every sidequest in Elden Ring ends badly.
The kind and modest Sorcerer Thops, who has developed a brilliant form of defensive magic, asks you to spare a key to the Academy of Raya Lucaria if you happen to find one. Should you do so, he is unprepared to face the dangers of the battleground the school has become, and he is slaughtered at his desk.
The gentle and noble Irina has fled from the besieged Castle Morne, and she asks you to deliver a letter to her father, beseeching him to join her instead of perishing in a hopeless battle. When you find Irina’s father, you learn that the castle was overtaken by the slaves he abused. Irina is slaughtered in your absence. This drives her father mad, and you are forced to kill him.
Meanwhile, Preceptor Seluvis, a member of the only group of good guys you encounter in Elden Ring, asks you to deliver a healing potion to one of your former companions. What this potion does is to turn her into a mindless “puppet.” This is an act of revenge against the woman’s adoptive father, with whom Seluvis has a feud that he never bothers to explain. It’s strongly implied that Seluvis uses his puppets as sex dolls, but this unsavory magic is necessary is help another female character. In order to save her from endless torture, you must agree to collude with Seluvis.
The only pure and wholesome place in Elden Ring is Jarburg, an isolated village filled with flowers and animate Living Jars. Living Jars are magical war machines that were abandoned because they happen to be extraordinarily bad at fighting. Should you visit Jarburg, you will be greeted by Jar Bairn, a young Living Jar who asks if you will become the Potentate of Jarburg. Jar Bairn will happily chat with you, and he has more lines than almost anyone else in the game. Aside from enjoying a few rounds of idle conversation, there’s nothing to do in Jarburg. There are no battles or treasures or quests, just Living Jars lazing about in the grass and tending to the flowers.
So the player will leave Jarburg – if they ever bother to find the village at all – and probably never return.
Instead, you’ll continue through the game, murdering and pillaging and destroying everything you encounter. Elden Ring doesn’t give you much of a choice. If you don’t kill something, it’s only because it succeeded in killing you first. You have to survive by any means necessary, even if that means leaving a trail of blood in your wake. In order to become the new Elden Lord, you must be utterly ruthless.
Along the way, you’ll bear witness to the atrocities committed by the former rulers of the Lands Between. You’ll gradually understand why this violence was necessary, and you’ll begin to realize that your own choices are limited. There is no happy end to this story, not for you or for anyone else.
So why finish the game, then? The former rulers are no longer in any position to subjugate anyone, and the formerly enslaved peoples are now free. Castles will crumble, and ancient cities will be forgotten, but the dead will finally be allowed to rest. Why not simply lay down your sword and allow the Lands Between to heal?
I am very bad at Elden Ring, which is an extremely difficult and punishing game. To make matters worse, no one in the game offers you real or meaningful guidance. On top of that, all of the guides available online are fragmentary, disconnected, and clearly written in haste. The artist Frankiesbugs is a veteran of the Soulsborne games, and she’s been patiently helping me find my way forward as we slowly navigate the Lands Between. Mostly we’ve been making silly jokes about the game’s shitty wizards and their appalling sense of fashion, but we wanted to try to create something a bit more serious that reflects the deeper themes of Elden Ring.
This collaborative comic is a tribute to a masterpiece of the medium that forces you to ask difficult questions with no easy answers. I have to admit that I may not ever finish Elden Ring, but maybe that’s okay. It wouldn’t be so bad to be the Potentate of Jarburg.
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