The appearance of an enemy called the Bladed Talon Eagle in Elden Ring elicits a series of strong reactions. First, the giant bird swoops down at the player from seemingly nowhere, slashing at them in a flurry of wings, beak, and claws. In response to this: shock and fear. Then, once the creature has retreated enough to get a better look at it, the presence of twin curved blades hanging threateningly from the bottom of its otherwise familiar avian form finally registers. To this: laughter at the absurdity of the monster’s design. Once the Bladed Talon Eagle has been killed and lies in a heap on the rocky cliffside of the castle ramparts its species nests upon, its strangeness is laid plain as something else entirely. Its majesty and ridiculousness are intertwined, quite literally, in the unlikely presence of swords where its talons should be and the player looking at its corpse might feel something entirely different than the terror and humour of before. They might feel uncomfortable with the perversity of the Bladed Talon Eagle’s very existence.
FromSoftware, Elden Ring’s creators, have long been interested in provoking the kind of discomfort that these eagles prompt. Its Souls games, Bloodborne, and Sekiro, feature an incredible array of strange beasts, from huge, twisted versions of toads, butterflies, wolves, and manta rays, to murderous trees and massive, half-dead apes with swords piercing their heads and insectile parasites controlling their bodies. The philosophy behind this monster design is exemplified best in a quote that describes director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s instruction to a colleague to depict something as nasty as a zombified dragon with “the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin.” Rather than try to simply gross out the player with the most disgusting creations possible, From attempts to infuse its monsters with a “dignity” that most often comes from their references to the beauty of the natural world. The dignity of a nearly extinct animal. The deep sorrow of nature’s magnificence succumbing to decay or corruption.
This effect has never been more pronounced than it is in Elden Ring, which takes place within an enormous pseudo-European medieval landscape—a continent dubbed the Lands Between. The player is cast as an eternally reborn character called the “Tarnished” who’s returned to the Lands Between to overthrow the demented, squabbling demigod lords who war for control of their realm following the fall from power of their immortal queen and mother.
To accomplish this, the Tarnished spends their time traversing the continent to recover magical items held by the demigods. They fight the monstrous soldiers and otherworldly fauna that claim specific territories—like crumbling stone forts or subterranean caverns—and, just as importantly, ride a horned horse across the meadows and streams, through the forests and weather-beaten cliffsides, and into the foggy valleys that make up the landscape. The impact of this latter aspect can’t be understated when discussing the general tone of Elden Ring.
The sheer size of the Lands Between and the larger amount of time spent simply galloping or hiking through it, as opposed to fighting to uncover each new corridor of a prior From game’s hostile labyrinths, makes the beauty of its natural landscape so prominent that it remains the enduring image of the game after long hours spent with it. More than the combat moves of a towering enemy boss or the twisting layout of a dungeon, Elden Ring leaves behind contemplative views of misty canyons from atop a mountain peak+ or the nearly tranquil (if not for the ferocious wolves) forest meadows whose lush green grass and bleating goats evoke a rural peace very different from its war-scorched castle yards and military camps. Spurring the horse across the fetid shallows of a dangerous marsh or stopping in a forest clearing to watch a bear scratch its claws against the bark of a wide-trunked tree is as memorable—and takes up nearly as much time—as anything else in the game.
Because it fosters an appreciation of the landscape as a place as, if not more, beautiful than its human-made architecture, Elden Ring invites players to directly experience the power and awe of nature in the Lands Between as something sacred in scale and construction. And because From’s thematic focus can never seem to escape the orbit of tragedy, evoking this kind of Romantic understanding of the natural world is often undermined or perverted in all sorts of ways, by encounters with profane mutants ranging from sword-footed eagles and bipedal giant prawn to spiders made out of bejewelled human fingers.
Elden Ring’s fiction, dreamlike as it is, makes a clear reading of the game difficult—especially for anyone who worries that some crucial scrap of character or plot development is still hidden in a patch of terrain they haven’t uncovered yet. But, as with From’s prior games, it feels like enough just to interpret the collage of beauties and grotesqueries on offer and allow an impression to form based on what stands out most in the individual player’s mind. In this case, the plot set-up and the sights that occupy a player’s time with the game provide more than enough to interpret.
From the very beginning, we see that the immortality of the Tarnished and various other characters found throughout the Lands Between is an affront to the natural order of life and death++, and represents a state of affairs that is fundamentally, existentially wrong. (Arriving at Leyndell, Royal Capital of the Lands Between offers a stunning, wordless portrayal of this uncomfortable effect, the gold-furnished splendour of the city tarnished by roving monsters and the horizon dominated by the towering sunbeam of the Erdtree and the calcifying grey-white body of a leviathan dragon corpse draped as a pathway to the base of its trunk.) Statues of saints slump sadly with amputated limbs as mumbling ghouls dressed in soldiers’ armour patrol nearby, the dead unable to die as nature intends and the sacred as blasted out and near ruin as the profane beasts patrolling this nightmare.
A castle’s hearth and chapel might be inhabited by a multi-limbed creature that reacts to the presence of any intruder by flinging itself unquestioningly toward them in a tornado of sharp limbs and bludgeoning flesh. Strange, hunched over angels with demonic faces genuflect before a torch burning atop a hill of corpses or spin around to launch an attack when interrupted from observing gallows hanged with decaying bodies. Cresting a hill is as likely to reveal the ruins of a church, a woman’s figure standing sentry in chipped and mutilated stone at its crumbling nave, as it is the silhouette of crucified figures. A village of women celebrates the season by giggling and dancing around maypoles bedecked in pink blossoms before lunging at the player in fury over the Tarnished having fought and killed their priest, a figure clad in robes made from flaps of human skin.
Each abomination is blasphemous both within Elden Ring’s fiction and outside of it. The religious institutions of its setting are decaying and stalked by monsters; the reverence its natural landscape inspires is undercut by funhouse mirror fauna and incursions of unearthly predators.
Everywhere the player goes, the Lands Between reveal themselves as a place where humanity, in thrall to the demigods who defy death itself, infect the beauty of their environment. Though Elden Ring may couch its corruptions in the strange magics of fantasy logic, its depiction of a world being undone by one of the species inhabiting it is familiar in concept if not always in form. Like an elegiac version of The Simpsons’ three-eyed fish, mutated from nuclear runoff, the game makes monsters out of the familiar. It haunts us with the deep sorrow of seeing the natural world’s magnificence doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin, leaving otherworldly images burned into our mind’s eye that are disturbing because their surreality often feels like something we see every day.
+ The number of times Elden Ring organically recreates the framing of “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” now with an armoured knight in place of a 19th century gentleman hiker, is incredible.
++ Many of From’s recent games, from the Souls series to Sekiro and Bloodborne, return to this theme, exploring the many horrors that come from the power-mad learning how to successfully transcend death and, in consequence, the logic of existence.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.