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    1. A long-ish essay about Elden Ring

      This one's a long one folks. I like to compose my thoughts on stuff now and then, and ya'll have shown a willingness to engage, so I wanted to share one of those with you. I guess I could do a...

      This one's a long one folks.

      I like to compose my thoughts on stuff now and then, and ya'll have shown a willingness to engage, so I wanted to share one of those with you. I guess I could do a video essay, but that would take me a while to accomplish and I like this niche of the internet a lot. I'm also not very good at video editing. So it's for you first, so to speak. Let's drop a bunch of what we're concerned with/worried about and go hard on something cool and fun on a lazy Sunday, is what I'd say to you if we were in person. I think I could expand some parts, but I like discussion so I've saved some for that. I do lay out a bit some boundaries of the discussion I'd like to have, but it's meant more to constrain the experience of reading it than it is to delimit the discussion itself.

      Elden Ring: A Masterpiece - Introduction

      In this piece I would like to express why I think Elden Ring is a masterpiece, a kind of great work. In doing that I intend not to merely express opinion, but to analyze and understand. To deliver an advanced opinion, if you will. That, for no other reason than to simply commit the words to the page, for the hell of it. It's not an attempt to unload feelings, to rationalize or reframe things outside the game, nor an attempt to obtain agreement/consensus or some form of emotional catharsis. It's a statement, an argument meant to be taken in, considered, and discussed if folks want to do that (I would!). It's in the discussion we can go through the details of things like the feelings, how it can operate as a vehicle, where it could be improved, etc. No work is perfect, but some get closer than others, and I think this one bears some witnessing by more than just forefathers one and all.

      Before I begin, I would like to set the stage. This is not a review in the traditional sense. It's not about just the game, but how it came to be and why that can matter. The piece assumes some things. That you know this game exists, that its DLC exists, that there is a complete work out there called "Elden Ring" which includes "Shadow of the Erdtree". That's about it! You don't need to have played the game at all, and in fact I'd be interested in perspectives of folk who consider other forms of art as deeply as I'm attempting to do with this here. My statement is that this game deserves a place. It earns a spot alongside other works we consider "great" regardless whether we have ourselves accessed them. In different language, my attempt is to justify the statement, "Elden Ring is a masterpiece", to as wide an audience as possible.

      The piece is constrained to analysis in a really broad way. I'm not really trying to talk about what I like in particular, what works and what doesn't, what's good and what's bad or how I feel. That is all for the discussion, it's not the point of this piece of writing to engage in that way with it. Trying to tailor my words to thoughts/feelings I don't yet know, is just not something I'm very good at doing. I hope to foster a fruitful discussion, not have an argument, nor persuade folks to go buy something.

      I want to be considerate of my audience, too. We are reading, here. You don't get to have things like body language, tone, and reflection of feelings to take in and supplement your understanding while you read it. No combination of words, however flowery and well structured, can deliver what those things do. That circumstance operates in the reverse: I can't see your face, hear your tone, watch you and know whether what I've said is making any sense to you. So, in constructing this piece as well as in you considering it, these facts must be kept top of mind to get to the sort of discussion I'd hope to foster. If you read something and think to yourself, that you're being accused, that something you enjoy is being attacked, that something you experienced is invalid, understand that you are misapprehending what I am intending to communicate. I won't engage on that level with it, because text can't do what talking to you myself can do. I have to render my thoughts with tools that can only do so much.

      As well, this piece is not a research paper. I'm not attempting to provide sources for everything, because what I'm more interested in is delivering the broad point. That said, I have investigated what material exists - interviews, articles, statements and history. It's not my intention to display to you, how much of these things or how many of them I know. I leave it to you, the reader and discussion partner, to assert when something I've written doesn't align with what exists, when a piece of the history doesn't mean what I thought it meant.

      Ok, stage set, let's go.

      Elden Ring is a masterpiece. What does this mean, coming from me? What does it mean to use that word, in a world where words have fluid meaning? What distinguishes a work such that I can use that word, and you, regardless of your history and experience, can accept it?

      I can only offer what I have, so here goes. Elden Ring is a work which has a goal, an intended form, and it is my statement that it not only achieves that form, but that it does so, so completely and so well that it deserves recognition outside of its medium. That for something to be a "masterpiece", it must be understood as having been so successful that those who do not directly access it, can understand and accept such a status. To what end ultimately isn't really my point; you decide on that. It makes no difference to me, because at the end of the day I can just go play the game and enjoy it regardless what anyone thinks/believes about it (here's my ng+ build if you wanna see).

      That's a different statement from simply saying the game is good, that it is fun to play, that it does specific things well, that it avoids certain problems and/or that it sold well. None of those things are really part of the analysis here, because my goal in writing this is to deliver justification for calling this game a kind of "great work". A work which can stand alongside other works, other things recognized outside their medium for being exceptionally well crafted and capable of delivering exactly what they intended to deliver. It's this quality, these aspects, which make for a masterpiece, is the underlying assumption of my piece here.

      So, to be more practical, what does this game do, that other popular and successful games do not? What about Elden Ring merits such an elevated status? This is what I hope to deliver here. To do that, I think an analysis needs to tackle not just the qualities of the game itself, but the medium it belongs to, and the relationship between that medium and broader ideas of what constitutes art.

      I: Art and a Video Game

      Going back as far as I can remember, there have been debates on the artistic merits of video games. Though games began as a sort of commercial plaything, a toy, it was clear as more people made them that potential existed for something more. That, with enough effort, enough detail, enough attention and success, a video game could be something similar to other forms of art, like books, movies, paintings, music, and so on. It is because of its history as a commercial product that this discussion often gets very muddy. For the sake of keeping this piece on track, we're going to define how we're looking at it.

      Video games can be art. They have the necessary ingredients. Though they exist as combinations of other forms, various media, and though they exist as works which demand multiple individuals contribute (in most instances, at least), they possess the qualities that make artistic works what they are. I mean this in the broadest way. Art, broadly, is expression, it's a thing a person made. We can very quickly end up in very different discussions if we get more precise than that, and again I'd like to keep my piece on track here. If a person makes a thing, that thing can be art. It depends on some further details, whether it counts, but this is the foundation. Video games have that foundation.

      Not only do they have that foundation, but because of how a video game is constructed, it has the potential to exist as both, a singular work of art and as a multitude, simultaneously. The music of a game can stand on its own, as its own artistic expression, its own work. So too, can visual elements, voice work/acting, modeling and animation, so on and so forth. Where video games become a unique medium, in my view, is when all of these pieces are working in tandem: They each stand on their own, like columns which support a structure, and inside that structure is where the Art of the Game lives. With other media, it is as though they are houses unto themselves. The video game has the potential to be to the house, a neighborhood - an array of houses, each beautiful and luxurious, which come together into a neighborhood that is unto itself a beautiful thing.

      It's the beauty we're after, in my opinion. Look for the beauty and we find the meaning, and Elden Ring is a beautiful work. Because this particular work is a video game, it means this is a double edged sword - we can miss a forest for the trees, and we can get stuck on the beauty of one aspect not realizing how it contributes to a larger, more complex beauty.

      II: What is beauty, and what makes a video game beautiful?

      What makes something beautiful, from this viewpoint? What does it mean to say, "this is beautiful", and further what does it mean to call a video game "beautiful"? Why is beauty being used as a measure, and not something else?

      Let's see.

      "Beauty", for the sake of this piece, is the extent to which something exists as the object of intention. It is not appeal, on its own. What makes something "beautiful", is how close it comes to being what was envisioned by the creator, how successfully it exists in the minds of others as the thing the artist meant for them to have, as best as can be understood. What defines a "masterpiece", in this view, is when the alignment is so strong, that even when individuals cannot access the work directly, they still receive some of what was intended. The work "stands alone", in that one can experience it, know nothing more about it, and come out of that experience with an understanding that aligns with what the artist intended to convey.

      Video games, as a medium, make this type of analysis both easy and difficult. Video games are meant to be played, they are experiences. So, it's easier to see when an experience is what was intended - you press the button, it does what it's supposed to do, gun goes boom, there's a speck of beauty in that. Where it gets more fraught, is in trying to consider the extent - did the gun go boom the way the guy who made the model thought it should? Was my time pressing the button understood as more than simply pressing a button, as more than "gun went boom"? So on and so forth. We'll come back to this with Elden Ring, but for now just sit with that.

      Why measure in this way? Let's return to the metaphor, of a neighborhood. The neighborhood is a distinct idea, something independent of the individual houses of which it is composed. In order to evaluate the neighborhood, we need something more than what we use to evaluate the houses. The attempt in this piece, is to establish such a tool, a form of analysis which allows us to consider the whole alongside its constituent parts, because we are dealing with a medium with many interconnected, constituent parts. We need a means to understand and evaluate the whole, and I've chosen the word "beauty" to represent this, defined it as I have so that the fullness of my statement, "Elden Ring is a masterpiece", can be understood.

      I chose "beauty", because so much of the discussion of the medium gets lost in those constituent parts, and in defining aspects in which those constituent parts intersect with preference. I wanted a more positive word, one which predisposes toward seeing things for what they do, not what they aren't. The point here, my point, is to render an image of the whole so that you can decide too, whether it earns the place I think it does. Perhaps too, along with that, it will mean understanding other works a bit differently - I am a philosophical guy, after all, I gotta try to bend and contort some concepts now and then to stay on top of it, keep my knives sharp. And for those of you who already hold this game in high regard, perhaps with this you can bring that feeling of awe and wonder to its maximum, because hey that's a pretty cool experience to have, yeah? Take what you can get.

      III: Why Elden Ring?

      So after saying all of this about what a game is, what art can be, what beauty is and how it applies to a game, how does all of this come together in Elden Ring? What about Elden Ring merits such a detailed and strong set of statements?

      There are multiple factors I think are worthy of consideration.

      First, that the game exists as the end of an iterative process. Unlike some other forms of media, in video games we bear witness often to "rough drafts" and "second attempts" directly, the parts of the creation of art which usually go unseen. It is partly because of this aspect we see franchises change and become different; their rough draft merited a response, and so the next iteration is made to accommodate that response. It matters, crucially so, how this happens, and Fromsoft created conditions which meant they could take a singular vision to the point of becoming a masterpiece.

      Elden Ring did not begin when Fromsoft decided to make it. It began when Hidetaka Miyazaki lucked himself into a project that was on its last legs, and just made the thing he wanted to play. That project, whatever it was called then, got infused with a vision, a distinct desire, and so took on an aspect inherent to any great work: Vision. It became the object of a single person's mind, the clay they molded rather than that which comes together as the result of a mix of various incentives and pressures. It became "Demons Souls". Those incentives and pressures always exist, but what makes Elden Ring distinct and what elevates it to the level of becoming a "masterpiece", is the existence of that singular vision within that mix. What that means of the man, I am not here to say, but I will share briefly this one time - damn, dude, wow.

      Second, along with this vision, there was a structure which allowed this iterative process to happen relatively undisturbed. Fromsoft is not like every other company. They have kept their people, their teams, and allowed them the time and space to take their ideas further. This quality is important to the iterative process - it means teams can do what an individual does on their own. They can fail and try again, putting into the next iteration the knowledge and experience of the first. Video games are often not the product of a single individual, and even when a singular vision exists, the near infinite variation inherent to having teams of people means, if you don't keep teams together, the games will change, the works will take on new characteristics. There's a whole world of reasons why these conditions don't come about in the first place, which Fromsoft successfully avoided.

      Fromsoft created the conditions for a singular vision to take root and for teams of people to continuously attempt to cultivate and realize it. They had done it before, with Armored Core and Kings Field, so not only did the conditions happen, the company had experience with it, understood the process. So when Miyazaki made his play and was allowed to express his singular vision, there was a structure in waiting, a group ready to carry it as far as it could go. That was the history. From Demons Souls, came Dark Souls, which became three games. From these came Bloodborne, and Sekiro, iterations in new directions which allowed for more attempts at understanding and changing every aspect to better align with the singular vision as well as integrate aspects of others' visions. At the same time, they grew, added on, took on more talent and allowed their talent to be transferred, for more to understand and work together.

      Third, they succeeded. Each game sold better than the last, which meant the next iteration could be more, could grow in complexity and detail, until eventually we get to Elden Ring, where it all culminated.

      Taken together, these conditions mean a kind of situation that cannot be easily emulated. Try as they might, there is no "soulslike" which benefits from these conditions, from the history in the way Elden Ring did. Part of what defines the masterpiece is that it is unique; this is how that happened, part of why Elden Ring does that. One can hope others in the world see and understand, follow a similar path, but there will never be another "Fromsoft of the 2010's" plugging away at their idea of an action roleplaying game. There will never be another Elden Ring, which is part of what makes it the masterpiece.

      IV: What even *is* Elden Ring?

      Now that we've got our analytical tools in our belt, and understand how we got here, let's look at the thing and understand it.

      There's of course a shallow way of answering the question. Elden Ring is a fantasy action roleplaying game. That's the genre it fits into. But I'm intending to say quite a lot more, so we need to offer up a better description than that, something which communicates the idea that there is more in this than what the genre description implies. It won't be something you can slap on the back of a box, and we're not trying to persuade for sales, so we need a description that tries to get at what makes this game unique and important.

      Elden Ring, as a complete package, the game + DLC, is a project that took almost 20 years to happen. It is an artisanal video game, a professional video game, a video game in its fullest and most complete sense. It is the product of a history, of a time and place, of people and a company. These are true of every game superficially, but hopefully what I've done has been to lay out why this one is different.

      Ok, sure, but what is it? I've said a lot about things being what folks intended, about why matching intent with production matters, but I haven't yet laid out what Elden Ring is trying to do.

      We have the benefit of knowing. Miyazaki has been open and upfront about what it was he was trying to make, so we can take that material and use it to evaluate. Elden Ring is supposed to be akin to his own experiences, of engaging with Western fantasy as a younger Japanese person who did not completely understand the language of the books he was engaging with. We are meant to press a lot of buttons, and come out of that feeling like we were that person, exploring a strange place and overcoming the hurdles inherent to obtaining that understanding.

      So let's see how we get to this experience from pressing a lot of buttons:

      We are given a wide variety of tools, a set of mechanics which allow us to shape our character into whatever works best for us. We are given a gigantic, detailed world in which we can find those tools and a whole lot else, things we never expected, so that we can also have experiences within the experience - learning and using tools, achieving an unexpected result, having to run and go hide so we can step away and take care of something Out There in the Real World. We can come across Weird Shit and figure out what it is, usually by way of having to engage it in combat. We are given challenges and obstacles, so we can have the experience of overcoming, of discovery and achievement. Importantly, we aren't being asked to pay for any of those experiences, so we can just keep going, thing to thing, all along the way without interruption or psychological prodding.

      We are given a world in which complex characters express themselves and work toward their own ends, a sense of a place which is governed by its own laws and contains its own stories. A sense of scale and grandeur, so that within our exploration we can experience The Sublime, as one does when they travel to a fantastical place. This is exposed to us in pieces, things we must gather and assemble, as we do in our real world with real things. In doing so we come to find a world guided by the very human feelings and motivations of those complex characters, and have the opportunity to fully understand, the why of it, if we want to. We see multiple stories unfold, progress and conclude, of things like "when friends become enemies", "when abandonment consumes someone", "when someone stands up for themselves". We get to see how others experience the world alongside us, driving home that much more that sense we are exploring a different, fantastical place.

      These things are rendered for us in multiple forms: As visual elements, as animations, as music, descriptive text, and so on. We are given guides for what events mean and how they inform who we encounter, how characters' feelings mix among the others, through the interplay of these various elements, with the gameplay serving as the glue which holds it all together. That gameplay is consistent and predictable, allowing for us to have the experience of practicing and improving. And then, the game delivers challenge after challenge after challenge, so that you have the final and ultimate experience, of facing what seems impossible and doing it anyway. Like reading a book in a language you aren't sure about, it seems flat out unworkable, until you get to it and before you know it, you're done. And now we're back to beauty - it is what it was meant to be.

      In so many other words, we are transported to this other place, where things are different, and by simply engaging with it, we can become part of it. We can know it, feel for it, understand it, as we do the world in which we actually live. What makes Elden Ring the masterpiece, is that it achieves this for so very many people, all together. The extent of its beauty is such that millions of people played it, that thousands compiled its lore, that dozens got so damn good they can no-hit every boss in the game. It spawned legends, like Let Me Solo Her. It created careers, in the case of endeavors like Bonfireside Chat and VaatiVidya. With its DLC, it provided the tools to prolong the experience well past its end, created even for people well familiar with it a second shot at that first time experience, which several million more people got to do recently.

      When we consider this alongside all else, the history and development, it is a work of beauty, as laid out prior. It is exactly what it means to be, and did that so well it created new things in its wake. Just like Lord of the Rings, Three Kingdoms, The Illiad, and so on, did. It delivered both an experience unto itself and a cultural moment that I think means it stands just as tall as those other works. That it is a video game, just means that looks different. It is of its medium, just as those works were.


      We will see countless imitations, derivatives and evolutions, and there will inevitably come another such work with such a wide impact and depth to itself. But for now, at the moment, I think we can look at Elden Ring and appreciate it for being one of those great things, standing alone. It will be a game which we'll see again much later in time - there's a whole generation of people who are currently experiencing the beginnings of what will one day be "I wanted to make something as great as Elden Ring". It won't just be soulslikes, action RPGs, or even just fantasy works as a broad category. People who experience something like this go in all kinds of directions with it, and I for one am beyond excited to see what comes from that. It will deliver for years to come, which is the final part of what makes it the masterpiece.

      One final note, just a thing I'd like to bring attention to, is that all along the way, Fromsoft games have been delivering on a level I have not seen much with video games at large. They're like the opposite of the industry in this respect - instead of being a skinner box/gambling machine, these deliver a "good enough" experience of overcoming adversity that they've been the catalyst for positive transformations in people. I love those stories, there's zero shame in it by my measure. Along with everything I've written, the fact that happens with consistency is something really very special that deserves cultivating, in my opinion, and further emphasizes just how much has been given to us. There is so much that can be done with that if folks can bring things together in the right ways, deliver on the right kinds of experiences.

      I hope that was enjoyable. I appreciate you reading it. As I wrote at the top, the piece is focused but the discussion doesn't need to be so constrained. I'm primarily interested in craft and experiences, what folks think about the points or if they have something similar to say about something else. Criticism is welcome, as always. If you have the co-op mod you've just met a prospective party member, too. I'm pretty good at it. Happy Sunday!

      30 votes
    2. Postmodernism, conservatism, reactionarism: A brief attempt at deconstructing the purist fans

      The recent reaction to the Rings of Power trailer and a thought-provoking video about ragebait from the Youtuber Arbitor Ian made me think about this topic. Fan as Identity and Fandom as Tribe We...

      The recent reaction to the Rings of Power trailer and a thought-provoking video about ragebait from the Youtuber Arbitor Ian made me think about this topic.

      Fan as Identity and Fandom as Tribe

      We all know that guy who is an extreme purist about a beloved franchise. As they love to talk about it, they love the source material, or they love the originals. Any adaptation of or addition to these is seen as deviating from these "sacred texts". Especially if the more recent material produced significantly differs from these sacred texts, it has to be bad. So, you should watch or create hours-long videos nitpicking them.

      This type of person accepts as a given that the original material they are talking about is sacred. Therefore, any change to it is bad. They are often known as a purist, however, I think the better term for it is conservative.

      There is research that posits that fandom is basically a postmodern tribe and fan a postmodern identity (1, 2). The idea is not entirely new. Sports fandoms and fans have been noted for these qualities before (3, 4).

      I think this makes intuitive sense to people who read both humanities and participate in a fandom. Fans take their fictional worlds to heart, and they strongly identify with the characters, the universe, the stories, the games, etc. Combined with the weakening of more traditional identities, and the rise of internet that has created the conditions to connect with people worldwide, it's not surprising that such postmodern identities and tribes would be born.

      The Conservative Fan

      I talk about conservatism here in the broad sense, meaning being biased toward conserving what traditionally exists, a standpoint that values tradition. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry about this is well-researched.

      "Conservatism in a broad sense, as a social attitude, has always existed. It expresses the instinctive human fear of sudden change, and tendency to habitual action."

      I think the "purist fan" fits this definition perfectly. Combining this with the idea that a fan is a type postmodern identity, we can assert that this type of fan is a type of postmodern conservative. Therefore, fandom purism is a type of postmodern conservatism.

      The Reactionary Fan and Outrage Culture

      There are a lot of descriptions of what a reactionary is, and there is no agreed upon definition. I'm going to use a definition that makes sense to me as a broader definition.

      For me, a reactionary, in its broadest sense, is someone who doesn't analyze things much and instead opts to act on impulsive emotion, which is very often anger, resentment, hatred. They approach topics from a very bad faith position. They make short, quippy, and wrong statements.

      Reactionaries often, but not necessarily, defend conservative or conservative-adjacent views, because conservatism is biased toward reacting to changes and seeing them as negative. This aligns with the reactionary mindset that is built upon heavily reacting to things. Since change is inevitable and will always create reactions, conservatism -which is about resisting change- is a perfect fit for reactionarism.

      A relevant extension of this reactionarism is the outrage culture. A production can't be just bad or mediocre, it has to be awful. You can't just dislike it and move on, you have to feel outrage. You have to belittle it at every chance you get. It's because your identity as a true nerd, and a fan of [insert fictional world], is threatened. You have to act now! They are trying to take it away!

      Ragebait being amplified by social media algorithms also strengthens this. However, pointing to it as the sole reason would be a mistake.

      The Synthesis and Some More Considerations

      The purist fan is a postmodern conservative. They attach their identity very strongly to some sacred texts (book, comics, movie, etc.), and they don't want them to change. Therefore, there is a heavy bias involved in discussing developments around these texts.

      The conservative fan can also be a reactionary fan, but doesn't have to be. They don't have to go out there and yell at people, or condescendingly talk to their social circle, like a reactionary fan does. However, they often do.

      It shouldn't be hard to see why conservatism and reactionarism, in the context of fandom, would be related to their corresponding ideologies in the classical sense of the words. While decompartmentalization exists, and people don't necessarily act the same way in different areas of their lives, it makes sense that a general attitude about change would affect one's approach to both fandom and regular politics.

      I think this is a major reason why we see so many loud "purists" about fandom topics follow reactionary politics in regular politics. It also explains why the regular reactionaries can so easily convince fandom reactionaries to adapt their arguments. They come from the same attitude toward change and same attachment to conservative identity politics.

      So, this is my analysis of this topic. Before closing, I want to raise a question that's been on my mind. The quote I shared at the start of the post, the fear of change, I suspect this might be one of the key underlying characteristics of these people, both in regular and fandom politics. People who get attached to certain periods of time in the past so strongly that they dislike any change, or even react violently—they are at the heart of this.

      There is a related, very famous meta-analysis studying 22,818 cases (88 samples) across 12 countries. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. According to the study, conservatism is negatively correlated with openness to experience (-.32) and positively correlated with dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity (.34).

      Returning to fandom context, what I'm trying to get at is that maybe holding so dearly to experiences we've had as kids or teenagers is maybe not that good. Sure, there is nothing wrong with nostalgia, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying things we did as kids or teens. But I suspect this overemphasis on being forever teens is turning people into dogmatic, reactionary people. Maybe it's time to grow up and accept change, even find ways to cherish it.

      Very Important Note

      This is not an endorsement of any change to stories and franchises. Obviously, some can be bad. In fact, many adaptations of source material lose some things, partially because of differences in medium and partially because of financial interests involved in movie and show production. RoP is a good example of mediocritization due to financial concerns.

      As you can guess, I did not even like Rings of Power. But even though I've been a Legendarium fan since I was a kid, it wasn't because they changed the source material. It's because I think RoP was, to use a more modern term, mid. However, this did not cause me to go on a rant about how they are ruining the Legendarium. This is a key difference, in my opinion, between simply disliking and being a reactionary.

      16 votes