header is screenshot from Elden Ring
The House with Ten-Foot Hedges
Gwil Jones

Planted firm atop the hill past my house, sandwiched between forking roads of white picket-lined houses and hose-wet cars, is a great perimetre wall surrounding a vast area. The wall is at once solid and liquid, snaking through long stretches of woodland before finally enveloping back in on itself. Its brickwork alone reaches nine or ten feet, a height doubled by the rows of solid, far-reaching hedges lining its sides. Its two entrances, each a malevolent presence on the surrounding suburbia, are guarded by additional greenery, rendering any outside view of the estate inaccessible short of directly sneaking in. Entrances and exits are made only by a slick, black car.

Background details are thin. The area goes unmarked on Google Maps, although satellite views reveal outlines of well-shaped fields and sizable buildings. Scraps of property records spit out vague dates; the owner had also seemingly bought several other houses in the area, including our own. Whoever owns the estate must clearly be wealthy, although the fact that they have constructed such an imposing wall on all sides already indicates such information. The records reveal a name, too: this enormous estate is officially referred to as “The Highlands.” “The Spooky House with the Big Walls” sounds better, though, so we call it that instead.

The neighbourhood continues its pretence of upper-classhood, its residents ever engaged in some inessential home extension project, yet still the wall casts its shadow. There it stands, conspicuous in its silence, a constant symbol of perilous curiosity to all passers-by. I wish to see inside someday.


I thought a lot about that walled house while playing Elden Ring. In its mystery and hostility I saw walls of the game's own, walls that shift to fit the imagination of the individual playing. Everyone has their own local conspiracy to obsess over, and through its people and places Elden Ring both considers and weaponises this fact. This is a videogame whose greatest design sensibilities, whether abstracted or directly translated, all stem from the real world, and which in turn reflect back on our own world to imbue it with a greater sense of wonder. Elden Ring is magical realism complete.

At first, it would seem that Elden Ring relishes in fantasy, with no apparent interest in realism. Its reverence for the genre is palpable in its aesthetics: characters speak in grand whispers of lordship and destiny, while stone corpses of dragons smother equally decaying cities. That the game has enjoyed such massive commercial success despite its roots in magicked source material is further indicative of the resurgence of traditional fantasy as a cultural force among young people: dark academia—gothic books as fashion—is a thing now, and as such the image of the audience for these works has shifted from cargo shorts to long coats. Elden Ring is, somewhat inexplicably, a videogame that cool people can play now. Yet perhaps what makes this fantasy most compelling is its constant undercurrent of realist design choices which aim to counter any sense of romanticism.

While it could be argued that their unavoidable imposition of rules and boundaries makes all videogames inherently realist, Elden Ring’s design appears particularly committed to such a style, recreating human feelings and experiences even at the expense of long-held ideals of protagonist power and exceptionalism. Traversal—the game’s most common mode of play—is a laborious, disempowering process: its limited movement forces more active engagement with its labyrinthian level design, which itself is crowded with gangs of enemies made genuinely threatening in their united aggression. Journeys between checkpoints stretch for harrowing lengths of time until the player is suddenly spat out at some miraculous overlook, standoffish tension finally giving way to clarity. This is a videogame about the fearful pleasure of hiking from one place to another, then peering back over a cliff edge to admire your progress, however slight or fleeting.

All of these mechanics combine to instil a genuine sense of groundedness within the player, despite such a place being entirely fantastical. There is no way to permanently rid the world of every enemy, just as there is no way to climb every cliff or redesign the castles to be more aesthetically pleasing. It is this mixture of real and unreal, this active conversation between player and designer, that makes us return to its world even after that shitting fire giant has stamped out any desire to touch the game again.

Elden Ring makes us look outward, too. Despite its very name initially conjuring images of Dorito-caked, biohazardous men locking themselves away to role-play for entire weekends, the game feels genuinely concerned about its gravitational pull on the player and their patience. Every aspect of its design encourages the player to look outward: its secrets are too pervasive and obtuse for a lone player to discover them all by themselves, while its surgical combat and oppressive tone are mentally taxing enough to mandate breaks. Its most controversial oppositional force, however, remains frustration.

In his essay “Video Games Are Better Without Gameplay”, Ian Bogost argues that the traditional narratives of games are often squandered by their limitations, whether designed or otherwise: “Game-play—the work of working a game—is fundamentally irritating, at least in comparison with other media forms … Games are machines, and broken ones at that. The player’s job is to make them work again.” Bogost points to the spectator-sport success of Untitled Goose Game, whose conceptual spark is worn down by actual play. “The goose isn’t really wreaking havoc,” he writes. “The goose is running errands.”

Elden Ring, too, began to bleed from the abrasive nature of its systems, becoming more and more work-like as I continued to play. Combat became increasingly one-note: with bosses consistently able to kill me in one or two hits, the only viable option became to cast spells from afar, the knife-edge push and pull of imagined duels reduced to mildly-embarrassing-for-all-parties-involved contests of who could piss furthest away from the urinal. I found myself increasingly able to predict the rewards that waited for me in-game—usually either a weapon I couldn't use or, as a treat, a comically large bear—and as such the trepidation felt when entering a new area gradually devolved into paycheque-expecting irritation. It was this profound frustration, then, which made me realise just how much more enjoyable it is to talk and swap stories about Elden Ring than it is to actually play it.

Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, often considered a classic of magical realist storytelling, eschews typical notions of plot, its downcast protagonist and central mystery serving as a backdrop for a series of disparate short stories told by its ever-rotating circle of characters. These stories—of zoos, of wells, of wig factories—themselves feel incomplete, leaving only a lingering notion of spirituality on which the protagonist and reader alike can build. The best magical realist games replicate Murakami’s work on a metatextual level: without straightforward, fallible narratives of their own, Elden Ring instead becomes a world-spanning anthology of darkly comedic fables, each to be experienced and shared by a tiny fraction of its audience. Greed is the throughline here: “that time I fell into a pit of rats” and “that time I was eaten by a skinwalker” may be funny bedtime stories, yet both are rooted in a desire for money and power in the form of Runes.

We are constantly faced by those of higher social and economic stature than us, and by them we are near-universally held in contempt, their oppression legitimised by the constant malpresence of materialism. We “Tarnished” wish to be as rich as the lords of this world—perhaps out of jealousy, perhaps out of spite—and yet here we are, penniless and on the verge of death, spottling in a pit of rats, wondering what went wrong. These are stories which, through their focus on ascending hierarchies at the expense of our own dignity, draw a direct line between fantasy feudalism and modern capitalism, and it is only when given the opportunity to reflect on them that they develop such moralistic, class-conscious subtext.

Just as the protagonists of magical realist texts often find themselves buffeted back and forth between two worlds, each with their own rules and aesthetics, so too does the player never truly find themself settled into their virtual or physical form. Despite its contents often representing utter, rejectful misery, Elden Ring presents a world of such overwhelming scale and suggestion that it burrows into the mind, its people and places remaining long after we are expected to have moved on and forgotten them. More than any point in its actual duration, it is in this out-of-game period, huddled bleary-eyed around a school table, that Elden Ring becomes the romantic ideal of an adventure game, both its world and ours made vast, enigmatic, unknowable. 

Like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Boku no Natsuyasumi before it, Elden Ring feeds a childish curiosity that cannot help but blend into the real world, regardless of where you live. I'm sure that were I to simply pass the hedges and walk straight onto The Highlands’ grounds, I would find only an unassuming, Famous Five-ish house and an ordinary, if privacy-conscious owner. Yet Elden Ring creates a fantasy world where all of our deepest, most irrational fears are justified with nightmarish realism. 


I imagine suddenly waking up in one of the house’s guest rooms in the dead of night. I bolt upright and leap from the bed, my skittish movements driven by equal parts fear and curiosity. I peer out the window: the hard concrete floor splatters bone-crunching below, while enormous, spider-like hands patrol the garden for any survivors. I recognise the same walls and hedges as they continue to laugh at me, now blocking out all access to the outside world. I turn around and, after quickly scanning my surroundings, exit the room.

The house is a Piranesian maze, its stuffy corridors unfurling into wide-open halls of impossible geometry. Sickly greens blend into oppressive mahogany. Encounters with the many guards on patrol are desperate, breathless affairs focused more on my pushing past them than clearing out the area. Repetitive cries and angry footsteps compel me to pick a direction and keep running; the ashen glow of treasure tempts otherwise. The realisation dawns on me that any of the manor’s doors could lead to its lord; a split-second now passes each time I enter another room.

At last I find my exit. With great effort, I push open the double doors of the house’s entrance just far enough to slip out into the garden. The grass is taut and slick with dew, glistening factory-perfect in the cool light of the moon. Immediately one of the hands notices my presence and begins to make chase. I reach for the wall; my feet find little purchase. The hand plucks me from below. Suddenly the owner materialises in the doorway, cigar clutched between yellowed teeth, laughing as my body is torn to ribbons and cast to the ground. His voice is gravel.

"Foul Tarnished… Why did you come here?"


Gwil Jones is a seventeen year-old high school student living in the UK. He enjoys stylish action games and Midlands jungle, and his favourite animal is the capybara. You can follow him on Twitter.