Almost everything in Elden Ring will try to kill you -- mercilessly, repeatedly, in creative and often unavoidable ways. More often than not, they'll succeed. And once you get past the inevitable rage and frustration, you'll probably love it. In fact, FromSoftware games have a reputation for using death as a mechanic to guide players toward better decisions, level-appropriate interactions and the unbridled satisfaction of defeating an enemy that has impaled you dozens of times.
But looking beyond the mechanics of what is shaping up to be one of 2022's most widely discussed games lies a question: What is Elden Ring teaching us about death positivity?
Popularized by author and mortician Caitlin Doughty, death positivity is a social movement that encourages people to speak openly about death and dying. It isn't by any means saying that death is a positive thing but rather is a push to destigmatize the conversation around death so that we can better understand it and prepare ourselves.
Depending on which direction you take in Elden Ring, you could be consumed by a dragon, crushed by indentured giants, impaled by birds with swords for feet, lanced by weapons bigger than your entire body and, more often than not, killed by jumps that are a little too high for your internal organs to cope with. The height of that jump? Largely inconsistent, so good luck finding out.
With all that on the table, Elden Ring and games of its ilk force us to confront death in a productive way, even when we don't overtly realize that it's steering us in that direction. But when we think about "death games" as a genre, it isn't really the model of what you'd typically expect.
Games designed to be about death often serve a very transparent purpose. Think A Mortician's Tale, Spiritfarer and What Remains of Edith Finch. Whether it's to help us process grief, come to terms with our eventual demise or even open up a discussion on a concept considered taboo in many cultures, these games are designed to address death in a way that gives meaning or resolution to the player.
Death is central to the narrative of those games: You know exactly what you're getting into when you boot one up. Though Elden Ring is a game that is overwhelmingly about death, most people playing it may not be interested in thinking critically about what that really means.
To the average player, much as with its Dark Souls predecessors, Elden Ring is no more than a very difficult fantasy game that allows you to roam around getting utterly trounced by enemies in the name of enjoyment. Players are there to kill bosses and conquer lands. And that certainly is the game. One thousand percent. Nobody is saying it's not. But it's also so much more.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of Elden Ring and Dark Souls, openly references death as a core function of the game, rather than a hindrance. In this incredible piece by Simon Parkin for The New Yorker, Miyazaki explains: "Death and rebirth, trying and overcoming -- we want that cycle to be enjoyable. In life, death is a horrible thing. In play, it can be something else."
The impetus for the game's narrative (as detailed in the introduction, so no major spoilers) is that thanks to the theft of a special Death rune, nobody in the world of Elden Ring can actually die. Players and NPCs alike are doomed to fight over and over -- respawning over and over -- and your job is to restore order to the world by reinstituting true death.
Conflict in Elden Ring arises because everyone is stuck in a destructive cycle of perpetual life -- without the ability to face death, the world becomes a wilderness of conflict and chaos. This world needs death in order to function and thrive.
And so the game teaches players that, while true death is an inevitable, unavoidable obstacle, it's also a deeply important and necessary part of life. Some of the main tenets of death positivity -- discussion, destigmatization and transparency -- are crucial to keep moving forward.
In Elden Ring, one of the best ways to transcend death is through discussing it with other players and the community. Forming strategies, collaborating with fellow adventurers and whining about repeated deaths with your friends all serve to unite players in a common goal and contribute to your eventual capacity to face down death.
What we don't actively realize, though, is that through play and open community discussion, we are subconsciously teaching ourselves to face the reality of death in a positive way. Yes, in video games the stakes are low. But in Elden Ring or Dark Souls, the stakes feel higher because when you're facing a particularly hard boss, it's nearly impossible not to get swept away in the tension. It's brutal. We share that experience together and bear the brunt as a community, even when we alone face the challenges.
Then, when it comes time to face the hardship and pain of a death in real life -- whether it's a loved one, or even your own final moments -- we innately remember that transparency, community and shared experience can create intense opportunities for growth and understanding through the pain.
As someone with a professional interest in the intersection of death, technology and culture, my playthrough ofserved as a reminder that death positivity can be found in the most unlikely of places.
I haven't finished yet, so I'm not sure how well the endgame narrative aligns, but if other FromSoftware games are anything to go by, I feel reasonably confident in assuming that even the narrative itself will serve as a conduit for death positivity. In fact, almost all FromSoftware games are about death and rebirth -- even Bloodborne, which (spoiler alert) has players hunting down parts of an umbilical cord.
I still find myself getting frustrated each time I get killed. Every "YOU DIED" message in the midst of a boss battle sends me into a rage spiral. But the frustration and anger we feel when our characters die is reflective of the human experience of death.
It will be annoying and frustrating. It will hurt. It will be brutal and it will ultimately be one of the hardest things we have to face. In these early days, we have no choice but to band together, talk about it, come to terms and eventually move forward.
Often in these painful, real-life moments, we turn to video games and media for comfort. And even in Elden Ring, a game that doesn't seem particularly comforting from the outside, you can find that.
Because by creating a game where players are actively encouraged to remain resolute in the face of guaranteed death, FromSoftware has created a game that has a core understanding of death positivity. And for that reason alone, I'll keep persevering through every last in-game death -- even if it kills me.