I went into Elden Ring a bumbling yet earnest rookie. I cleared out Stormveil Castle after much death and despair; so I set out to adventure, and shortly found myself atop a tower, next to a chest. Someone who had come here before me had helpfully left a message: treasure ahead!
I opened the chest, got sucked through a portal, and woke up in a nightmare region of the game, full of misery. It was the moment that something clicked for me; I suddenly felt like I was in on the FromSoftware experience.
Elden Ring is one of the biggest titles of the year, with over 12 million copies sold as of March 2022. The game has proven to be both a commercial and critical success, and while developer FromSoftware filed off some of the harshest edges from previous titles, it’s still very familiar for long-term fans of the studio. FromSoft has been tinkering with many of the same mechanics and design principles for years, and the scale of Elden Ring’s success is largely thanks to the fan base the Japanese developer cultivated through earlier releases. And it’s this very same community that not only got me hooked on Elden Ring, but also fueled my interest in both playing FromSoft’s previous games and digging deep into their lore.
FromSoftware is perhaps best known for the Dark Souls series. Demon’s Souls, a 2009 release that would later be remade as a PlayStation 5 launch title in 2020, was a cult hit. The Dark Souls trilogy would be released over the 2010s, along with Victorian gothic horror Bloodborne in 2015 (hence the term “Soulsborne” many fans use, a way to casually refer to the developer’s catalog). FromSoft also released the Sengoku-era adventure Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in 2019, which departed from familiar elements like the persistent, troublesome Patches.
Dark Souls also impacted game design more broadly, with “Soulslike” becoming a shorthand for identifying a certain game ethos and set of mechanics. There are Soulslike games that, on the surface, appear nothing like the majestic, terrible settings of FromSoftware. But creators of games like Tunic have cleverly learned from FromSoftware and interpreted the developer’s mechanics through their own lens.
I’m the kind of player who loves digging into lore, finding out little secrets about the world and its characters. At first, I missed much of this in Elden Ring, until I began paying attention to the flavor text on item descriptions. Much of the world is up for debate, spread across little riddles and unreliable narrators. It’s refreshingly open to discovery and interpretation; there is no in-game codex full of world-building or dialogue trees full of technical information on the world.
Many of FromSoft’s games share similar gameplay cores: There’s punishingly difficult combat, until the player puzzles out the specific attack patterns and enemy movement styles. But it was the characters and world-building that really intrigued me, and got me interested in the entire FromSoft canon. The enemies are often deeply tragic, whether they’re cheerful, sun-loving warriors who eventually succumb to madness and frenzy or desperate monster-hunters who stumble upon and fall to unspeakable eldritch horrors.
There’s a limited amount of information about the game world, given away in cryptic lines of dialogue and item descriptions. A FromSoftware game follows an internal consistency to its design and logic, even when the developer experiments with larger aspects.
This consistency and scope have helped build one of the most fervent fan bases in gaming. For years, this was almost a plague; there was the persistent stereotype of the “git gud” gamer who would parry away all criticisms or concerns about Soulsborne games with one adage: Simply be better at video games. This conversation still persists — and we will likely see debates on whether FromSoftware games should have easy modes until the inevitable heat death of the universe — but it has faded away over time to allow for a more accessible, welcoming fan experience.
Peek at the Elden Ring subreddit, and you’ll see players sharing the repeated trials and tribulations of fighting Starscourge Radahn, or sharing gifs of their terrible, comically inept deaths at the hands of birds or suspicious-looking cliffsides. For every person who claims using a summon or a shield isn’t the “real” way to play the game, dozens more celebrate the wild strategies — like intense incantations, blood builds, or good ol’ cheese — they used to survive.
Elden Ring is the first FromSoftware game I’ve ever played, and it’s partially because I was so intrigued by the deep sense of identity FromSoftware fans had. I had witnessed friends go through the cycle of frustration and fury, slow realization, and triumphant vengeance over boss fights. I had seen people share gorgeous fan art of FromSoft characters, or share their lore theories on social media. I also gained a sense of the communities built around these franchises.
FromSoftware games are collaborative and heavily based around communication with other players, whether that’s through in-game messages or gathering around creators who interpret the lore and share their theories. There’s a shared vocabulary and understanding among the developer’s fans, and they work together to understand the worlds FromSoft crafts. And there are also local legends that inspire fan works of their own, like Let Me Solo Her, a player who exists simply to be summoned into a lucky ally’s world to single-handedly defeat the game’s toughest boss — even when she’s bugged and heals ridiculous amounts of damage.
Elden Ring fans have also already created tons of fascinating projects around the game’s lore and setting. Developers have created Elden Ring demake trailers and Game Boy adaptations. Players joke about the game’s difficulty and assign their own challenges by playing the game on a Fisher Price controller or going for a legendary nine-minute speed run. There’s also, of course, an incredible amount of fan art.
While the scale is surprising, adept observers could see the game’s popularity coming from afar. Even before Elden Ring came out for the public to enjoy, FromSoft fans held a vigil after every game conference where Elden Ring was not showcased or previewed. For a while, they went completely feral and made up their own lore, including bosses like “Glaive Master Hodir.” And when an additional trailer was finally released in 2021, giving more insight into Elden Ring’s lore, fans immediately rallied around a favorite character: the humble Pot Boy.
Elden Ring had a similar hold on me. After Elden Ring, I was hooked; I had never been into the idea of “getting good,” but I was absolutely down to explore games like Bloodborne, picking up the game and devouring it myself — along with digging into fan-made resources like Redgrave’s novella “The Paleblood Hunt,” a 90-page dissection of Bloodborne’s themes, enemies, and characters, or scouring videos of enemy models to get a full sense of their designs.
Elden Ring opened the door for many fans who might have been intrigued by the glimpses of this community they caught here and there, but were intimidated by the “get good” dialogue and the reputation the games have for incredibly tough bosses. But FromSoftware’s fans have championed the games for years, sharing the best bits on social media and hyping up subsequent releases. It’s worth noting that Elden Ring’s success owes a lot to those concerted efforts, in-jokes, and analyses. I’m already looking forward to prospective DLC that adds more riddles for fans to pore over, but I imagine I’ll be going through new game plus as well, doing a victory lap around the Lands Between.