I remember a time before I had regular access to the internet, and the frustration that would arise when I got stuck in a game. I miss that feeling. It’s not because I enjoyed it, but rather because of how I overcame it. None of the kids on the playground had access to the internet either, so we’d have to collaborate, and help one another past our blockades. For example, it took an entire group of us to figure out the optimal path through the Whirlpool Islands in Pokémon. There was something uniquely satisfying in both trying to explain what you’d found, and absorb what other’s had to share so you could incorporate it into that night’s expedition.
The only problem with helping in this way was that our information sometimes got miscommunicated. What made perfect sense in our heads, didn’t always translate. You’d know exactly what you were talking about, but if the other person couldn’t picture it in their mind’s eye then they’d be completely lost. However, you could never be sure when it’d finally click, and the advice would make perfect sense. Perhaps you just needed to find that exact frame of reference your friends was using when relaying their advice. And boy did it feel good when you finally worked things out.
It was only recently that I was reminded of all of this while I was playing through Elden Ring. That’s because of my favourite feature from the game: player generated messages. Players are able to leave cryptic messages scattered across the game world that rival the ambiguity of the help we used to offer one another as kids. Despite there opaque nature, I really dig the system. We’re always a Google search away from finding an easy answer to any question we have, so it was refreshing to utilize an in-game system that offered far less intrusive hints for solving Elden Ring’s many mysteries.
I have to imagine some of you are wondering why the messages themselves are cryptic. Is this another instance of the Souls community being elitist? Thankfully no. Elden Ring doesn’t allow full customization of what you say in the messages players can leave, which is a stark departure from how many other games handle player communication. There’s a list of what I’d guess to be around 200 unique words, and phrases alongside maybe 2 dozen templates. The idea is that you choose a template such as “be wary of ****”, and then you select which word you’d like to fill the blank. The system is rudimentary, but it prevents slur based harassment from occurring while still allowing players to speak to one another.
Players aren’t just limited to one template, however, as they can also add a conjunction to their message. This allows for the use of a second template for those times when a single template wouldn’t suffice. There’s also the option to have an emote appear while players read your message. I’m not sure if it was intended, but several industrious players have made use of the pointing icon to provide additional direction to players reading their messages. In fact, some of the best hints I received were complete nonsense until I looked where the writer was pointing.
While it’s an incredibly limited system, I think that works to Elden Ring’s benefit. When you’re limited to a small selection of words, you’re forced to become creative with how you convey your intended message. Just like my old schoolyard days, players have come up with shorthand terms to refer to specific entities. While this will be completely alien at first, but the more messages a player reads, the more familiar they’ll become with the language used throughout the game. This will drastically increase how useful the messages become, while also allowing for them to leave anecdotes from their own journey.
Before I close this one out I wanted to go through a concrete example of how player messages helped me solve a puzzle. Obviously this will be a spoilerino for Elden Ring. Consider yourself warned.
I was wandering around one of the numerous a mountain regions in the game world, and happened upon a steeple. These were usually locked with magic, and this one was no different. Per usual, there was a riddle carved into a goblin statue just outside the entrance, so I approached it, and was greeted by complete gibberish. I was able to gather that I needed to find something invisible, but you can imagine it’d prove quite difficult to find something you can’t see. However, as I turned around, I saw a message sitting behind me. I decided to give it a read hoping it could orient me. “Seek bridge, in short try here,” it read, while the writer pointed behind the steeple. I peered over in the direction they were pointing and noticed the shattered remains of a bridge.
Upon reaching the cliffside opposite the steeple, I nervously stepped out onto the bridge. I had no way of verifying that the message I’d just read wasn’t a ruse, but I boldly stepped out into the vast nothing. Much to my surprise, I didn’t immediately fall to my death. As I continued to trundle forward I noticed numerous messages littered the invisible bridge. There was so many, in fact, that they made an outline to help guide me across. Turns out the invisible bridge wasn’t straight, so these additional spots of assistance were a big help. Huzzah!
While this example was fairly straightforward, I couldn’t tell you the number of times that other players helped me across my time with Elden Ring. Sometimes it was solving more obscure puzzles, or warning about a foe lying in ambush ahead. These hints amounted to Elden Ring being a much more positive experience for me, as I could get a subtle boop in the right direction throughout my adventure. I don’t think I’d have had as much fun were I constantly running Google searches every 5 minutes. Plus, there’s something wholesome about players trying to support one another in an otherwise oppressive game. It truly warms my cold, dead heart.