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“It Spreads Like Wildfire”: The Heroes, Lore, and Language of ‘Elden Ring’

Playing Elden Ring is a gaming experience unlike any other. The fantasy RPG shows a middle finger to the modern standardization of open-world titles, refusing to dumb down its gameplay for an unpracticed audience. A player’s success in this harsh terrain depends on their guile. The game rewards a certain level of ingenuity, prompting the spillover of new lingos, goods, and cultural identities to the real world. Much like the work of George R.R. Martin, who built some of the lore and history for Elden Ring, the game has begun to blur the distinctions between nerd culture and popular culture at large.

This sort of intermingling is nothing new in and of itself—social media overflows with references derived from video games. Twitter shitstorms wouldn’t be nearly as funny if someone hadn’t come up with that meme, inspired by Grand Theft Auto. But in Elden Ring’s case, content isn’t just repurposed for unrelated platforms in a near-identical form. The game’s mechanics give the player the freedom to use its ecosystem in a laissez-faire way, and the players use their creativity to develop cultural artifacts that then bleed into everyday life.

That’s where studio FromSoftware’s signature asynchronous multiplayer system comes into play. Even in single-player mode, you come across messages left by other Tarnished—the name of the player’s character—which can warn about a looming danger, inform about a valuable item hidden nearby, or hint at the weaknesses of the boss you’re about to face. And if beating that boss still proves to be an insurmountable task, you can summon other players to help.

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Such collaboration has led to one popular player’s customized character becoming the subject of cosplay thanks to his good deeds in the digital world—an Elden Ring folk hero who eclipsed the default character in terms of significance in the game’s broader universe.

Elsewhere, real-life conversations have started to contain the jargon the Tarnished use to communicate in the Lands Between. In the past, Austin Yarger, lecturer of game development at the University of Michigan, would describe an upcoming snowfall in his area in the expected ways—yet after immersing himself in the distinctive, oddly-phrased language of Elden Ring, his Discord message simply read: “Welcome to Michigan, therefore fear blizzard.”

Exploring the Lands Between makes for a thrilling but often dark and lonesome journey. Besides all the dying, there are no quest trackers or conversation logs to help a lost Tarnished traverse the labyrinth of secrets, puzzles, and loose ends. Elden Ring puts a tremendous amount of faith in the player’s ability to forge their own path. “It’s a very minimal kind of game from a guidance and hand-holding perspective,” Yarger says. “The game is like: Here you are. Welcome to the world. Go become Elden Lord. Bye-bye, good luck.”

FromSoftware purposefully uses the world’s most powerful graphic chip—the player’s imagination—to fill in the many blanks in Elden Ring’s story, just like company president Hidetaka Miyazaki did growing up, reading English novels he couldn’t fully understand due to language barrier. “[FromSoftware] never really put the whole story in the game,” Cass Marshall, a writer at Polygon, says. “And that’s intentional.”

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In line with FromSoftware’s well-documented sadism, developers put several constraints in place to make sure its multiplayer tools offer just enough help to overcome a temporary hurdle. Those include matchmaking restrictions, which level the summoned Tarnished’s power with the host’s, and the general difficulty in figuring out how to trigger online play in the first place, as it can only be done by collecting and using specially designed consumable items, which replace the in-game menu buttons typically used to organize co-op in other titles. “[FromSoftware designers] are very reluctant to just give you carte blanche to steamroll the game,” Yarger says.

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Screenshots via FromSoftware

Leaving a message in Elden Ring reminds one of a Mad Libs game: You pick words from a categorized glossary and combine them with phrases from available templates to create instructions for other players. “Even your means of communication with other players is limited. You need to get very creative,” Yarger says. This further differentiates the gaming experience from the structured mechanics of other popular titles, which often feature the option to voice chat or send a direct message or a slow opening with a long, hand-holdy tutorial at the beginning of the adventure.

The restrictions do a great job of amplifying the sense of achievement, adding an extra element of decoding messages to the gameplay. Players will pass turtles—one of the few non-aggressive creatures they can meet—surrounded by messages that describe the animal as a “dog.” Since Elden Ring’s lexicon doesn’t feature the word turtle, but does feature the word dog, the community overcame the game’s limitations by anointing the friendly reptile as man’s best friend of the Lands Between.

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Business-savvy players quickly started to benefit from the commercial potential of the dog-turtle mischaracterization: T-shirts emblazoned with turtles and various “dog” messages are among the top-rated Elden Ring–themed products on Etsy.

This sort of commercial memeification “is expected from any famous game with a large following,” a member of the 1.4 million-strong Elden Ring subreddit tells me, bringing up the example of the arrow to the knee meme that originated in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But what makes the “dog” phenomenon stand out is how it sprung up. Unlike the Skyrim phrase—a non-playable character’s one-liner gone viral—it was a community effort that yielded its own way of speaking. “That isn’t just a vanilla piece of communication coming through,” Yarger says. “That’s an accomplishment. It’s a challenge overcome, it’s a piece of art. And so it spreads like wildfire.”

He adds: “There’s this level of ownership here that you just don’t get with other games.”

Elden Ring inherited the messaging mechanism from Bloodborne and the Dark Souls franchise—but the introduction of an open world made FromSoftware’s latest product even more expressive. Critics point out that the increasing amount of silliness in messages—some containing references to movies and books, others becoming an output for online horniness—limits novices’ ability to learn the ropes. Or worse, it fools them into jumping into an abyss and dying—or leaves them aimlessly banging the precious Moonveil katana’s blade against a wall bearing a cheeky suggestion there’s a “hidden path ahead.”

But that’s just another quirk of the mechanics that adds to Elden Ring’s multilayeredness—one that prompted PC Gamer to write a whole guide to the characteristic lingo. In addition to embracing the path of a samurai, bandit, or any other official character class, the available means of communication allow your Tarnished to perform some of the unofficial-yet-existing community roles: be it a guardian angel who helps navigate obstacles, a jester who cranks you up, a saboteur who betrays you, or a watchdog, someone who will expose a “liar” by leaving an appropriate warning next to a saboteur’s deceptive message. Fulfilling one of those roles is further encouraged by the option to appraise or denounce a message, with each positive rating healing its author a certain amount of health points—a mechanism for the community to moderate itself.

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Marshall made a point in their Polygon story that the asynchronous multiplayer system—in which a player will occasionally come across bloodstain marks that representing another Tarnished’s death, or white shadows representing others exploring the same area in real time—makes Elden Ring “feel like a conversation.” The players seem to share the sentiment. “Sometimes, a simple ‘Well done!’ after a challenging level is enough to make you feel connected to the community,” one tells me via Reddit. ”Someone else went through the hardship and left a message for others who follow. It’s an asynchronous, strange way to say: I see you, I was you.”

Combined with the game’s difficulty, Yarger thinks the social interconnectivity between players elevates the gravity of a challenging boss fight—and as a shared experience, further strengthens the community’s cultural identity. “You have that memory of that challenge seared into your brain,” he says, “and it’s just solidified there forever when you realize that this is something that unites you with so many other people.”

Interestingly, Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas players have created a mode that introduces a similar means of communication into the game—although one that allows players to type without restrictions. A majority of them view the experiment positively and, yes, the messages they leave are largely written in Elden Ring-lish.

Elden Ring doesn’t differ much from the games FromSoftware released over the past decade. “The Dark Souls games, Bloodborne, with every success, [the studio] really kept a core identity to all of their games,” Marshall says. Yet, FromSoftware’s previously best-selling game, Dark Souls III, has sold 10 million copies—while Elden Ring sold 13.4 million copies in three months, beating Call of Duty to the crown for the best-selling video game in the U.S. over the past 12 months.

What made Elden Ring such a hot commodity? Yarger points to the involvement of Game of Thrones’ Martin as a potential factor. There’s also the introduction of the open-world format, which, in a way, makes the game easier—by allowing players to level up and get stronger separate from the main story line to avoid roadblocks. Not to mention the increasingly mundane gaming market landscape. Elden Ring “is uncompromising in an era of severe standardization and hand-holding in [blockbuster video games],” Yarger says. “It just stands out”

Yarger says Elden Ring bears reminiscence to the obscure gaming environment of the ’80s and ’90s, when players sought answers and crowdsourced solutions over the school lunch table. “This is a single-player, tough-as-nails game where you still feel like you’re part of the team. … That brings out a lot of nostalgia for how things used to be,” he says. “And people who grew up in that period are those with purchasing power today.”

Whichever factor pushed Elden Ring over the tipping point, the bustling community that developed around FromSoftware games deserves credit for its role in transitioning the Soulsborne genre from niche to mainstream as shown by the rise of the aforementioned Tarnished folk hero—recognizable by his jar helmet, two katanas, and hardly any other piece of clothing covering the rest of his body—otherwise known as Let Me Solo Her (LMSH).

LMSH became an internet sensation for famously helping other Tarnished slay Malenia, Blade of Miquella, widely considered to be one of the most powerful bosses FromSoftware’s ever created. Elden Ring’s universal difficulty level makes duels like this a binary issue: You either “git gud” and keep trying until you succeed or you summon other players to help you out. It took Klein Tsuboi—the player behind LMSH—over 242 attempts to finally beat Malenia, motivating him to accompany other Tarnished—or “Jarnished,” as he calls those he has helped—during the fight, often beating the the boss, as his name suggests, by himself.

And since not every player has enough patience to go through the same duel over a couple hundred times, his summon sign—always available in the same place thanks to FromSoftware’s introduction of summoning poles in Elden Ring—was as busy as a Walmart cashier lane early on Saturday afternoon. “The common difficulty shared between all players helps to create a culture around the game a lot,” an Elden Ring player tells me via Reddit. “If Malenia wasn’t a bullshit boss for some people, would Let Me Solo Her (LMSH) even be a legend?”

But in addition to leveraging Elden Ring’s ecosystem, Tsuboi tapped into the already existing culture around FromSoftware games to make his character even more recognizable—by fighting Malenia in nothing but a loincloth. “It is a running tradition of Soulsborne games that the naked players are the most powerful beings in the game,” he told IGN.

FromSoftware fans created a distinct subcultural identity over the past decade, becoming a bustling online community that embraced the masses of people who joined in after Elden Ring was released. But the rapid influx of new players made the cultural discourse around the Soulsborne genre even more intense. LMSH became so popular that, in late April, his Tarnished—in all his bare-chested, jar-headed glory—represented the game at 2022 Pax East, joining other characters from the game’s original lore in Elden Ring–inspired cosplay. Tsuboi called it “one of the greatest memories in my life.” And In July, distributor Bandai Namco further validated the LMSH phenomenon by sending Tsuboi a personalized gift box to congratulate him on his 1,000th victory over Malenia—a duel watched live by over 7,000 viewers and which PC Gamer recapped like a sports site would an NBA game.

Just as Miyazaki envisioned, FromSoftware’s minimalism works wonders in enhancing the studio’s games with player-made mythology—creating similarly simple cultural artifacts. Marshall thinks their universality and simplicity are what makes the Minionese-like jargon or LMSH’s legend not only likely to carry over to the next Soulsborne game, but also to gaming culture at large. “Those things, because they’re so mimetic and because they’re so shared, they just sort of become part of the zeitgeist,” Marshall says.

“Even if you don’t play the games.”

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