At Elden Ring, the struggle feels real

In the past two years, the pandemic has brought us many works of art that have tried to emphatically depict the struggle of humanity. There was this movie with Leonardo DiCaprio turning pink screaming at the top of his lungs for people to look up at the comet hurtling towards Earth. It was so on the nose that it sparked a bit of thought: Yes, we are divided, we are probably doomed. So what?

No medium has come close to encapsulating our situation quite like video games. In the beginning, when many of us were off work and mediocre sourdough bread, we played Animal Crossing, which involves finding relief in simple tasks like fishing and gardening while stranded on an island. This year we’re playing Elden Ring, a ruthlessly challenging game that gets harder the more you play. This sums up what it was like to live in a pandemic.

Elden Ring has a story that has something to do with a ring, but more importantly its design: it’s an open world game, which means you can do anything whenever you want. Players will ride a horse through a poisonous swamp, run across molten lava and traverse a dilapidated bridge surrounded by tornadoes, fighting enemies or escaping along the way.

No matter what you choose to do, you will likely die over and over again trying to do so, sometimes for hours. This is because the slightest mistake in pressing the button will make you fall to death or open you up to attack. Even the most experienced players will die dozens of times in a dungeon before they reach the boss – the main villain at the end of the game level.

None of this makes Elden Ring seem like a crowd pleaser, but the video game – a collaboration between creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki and “Game of Thrones” author George R. R. Martin – is on track to become this year’s best seller, with 12 million copies sold within A month from its February release.

At some point in the game, you encounter a dragon. You have the choice of fight or flight. At first, you’ll probably hold back, and eventually, after you gain enough strength and the right weapon or magic spell, you’ll return to wipe out the treacherous spell and enjoy your victory. Moments later, though, you’ll be ambushed and killed by something nasty, like a hawk clutching razor blades in its claws.

It is hard to imagine the success of Elden Ring in any other era. In the third year of the pandemic, with vaccination rates rising and hospitalizations declining in some areas, offices, schools and restaurants reopened. For many Americans, the dragon has been killed. However, in other parts of the world, a new type of coronavirus is driving another wave, and in New York, cases are starting to rise again.

As some of us let our guard down to have some semblance of normalcy, we prepare ourselves for that stupid bird that might just kill us. Our lesson from the pandemic – expecting disappointment and more struggle – has trained us well on the Elden Ring.

Where DiCaprio’s movie, “Don’t Look Up,” was polarizing because it chose a side critical of anyone who denies the apocalypse, Elden Ring’s format for choosing your own adventure is more inclusive of a general who can’t seem to agree with anything. In the Elden Ring, there is no right or wrong.

To defeat a boss, you can carefully study his movements and plan an attack, or you can “cheese” him with a cheap trick that does not require skill and guarantees victory. Either way, a win is a win. Such a fluid game would resonate with players all over the world and bring them together at a time when people choose their own truth about masks, snaps, and the information they read online in general.

Players mostly experience the Elden Ring alone, but there are some really tricky parts, like fighting a very fierce boss, where people will need to get help from others online. To accommodate this, the game builds figurines in challenging areas that act as summon centers to bring in a collaborator. Once the task is completed, the Good Samaritan vanishes.

Struggle has always been a central theme in the games of Mr. Miyazaki, who rose to fame with the modest success of the Dark Souls trilogy, the predecessors of the Elden Ring, as well as the need for people to turn on each other.

Mr. Miyazaki, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in interviews that he was inspired by personal experience many years ago when he was driving up a snow-covered hill. A car got stuck in front of him, and so did he and one behind him, but then another car in the back moved forward and began to push the third car. Similar help eventually helped everyone up the hill.

“We come into each other’s lives for a minute and disappear and still make an impact,” said Keiza MacDonald, video game editor for the Guardian and author of She’s Died, a book about Mr. Miyazaki’s games. “There is not a single player versus the game. It is the entire community of players versus the game.”

By the time I finished playing Elden Ring, with some help from friends and strangers online over the course of about five weeks, I hadn’t exited the game feeling more anxious or pessimistic. I ended up making plans with friends I haven’t seen in two years.

Many of us have experienced the pandemic alone because restrictions and health risks make it difficult to travel and gather indoors. It was an impossible situation to navigate, and the struggle continues, but we’ve been in this together for a long time. Why don’t we turn to each other?