In the last two years, the pandemic has brought us many works of art that have definitely tried to capture the struggle of humanity. There was that movie with Leonardo DiCaprio that turned pink as he yelled all the way to the bottom for people to look up at the comet rushing toward Earth. It was then on the nose that it aroused some reflection: Yes, we are divided, probably doomed. What about that?
No media has come so close to encapsulating our situation perfectly as video games. In the beginning, when many of us were in lockdown and baking mediocre sourdough, we played Animal Crossing, which is about finding solace in simple tasks like fishing and gardening while we were stranded on an island. This year we play Elden Ring, a ruthlessly difficult game that only gets harder the more you play it. It sums up what it has been like to live in a pandemic.
The Fire Ring has a story that has something to do with a ring, but more important is its design: It’s an open game, which means you can do anything whenever you want. Players will ride a horse through a poisonous swamp, sprint across melted lava and cross a crumbling bridge surrounded by tornadoes, fight or dodge enemies along the way.
Whatever you choose to do, you will probably die again and again when you try to do so, sometimes for hours. This is because the slightest mistiming of a button press will cause you to die or open yourself to attack. Even the most experienced players will die dozens of times in a dungeon before reaching the boss – the main villain at the end of a game level.
None of this makes Elden Ring sound like an audience pleaser, but the video game – a collaboration between creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki and “Game of Thrones” author George RR Martin – is set to become this year’s bestseller with 12 million copies sold before for one month after its release in February.
At some point in the game, you face a dragon. You have a choice of fighting or fleeing. In the beginning, you will probably retreat, and eventually, after gaining enough strength and the right weapon or magic spell, you will return to kill the eerie firefighter and enjoy your victory. Moments later, however, you will be assaulted and killed by something ugly, like a hawk grabbing the razor blades in its claws.
Learn more about ‘Do Not Look Up’
In Netflix’s doomsday movie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are two astronomers who discover a comet heading directly toward Earth.
It’s hard to imagine Elden Ring succeeding in any other era. In year 3 of the pandemic, as vaccination rates have risen and hospital admissions have fallen in some areas, offices, schools and restaurants have reopened. For many Americans, the dragon has been killed. But in other parts of the world, a new variant of coronavirus is driving another wave, and in New York, cases are starting to rise again.
As some of us fail our guard to get some appearance of a normal life, we prepare for the stupid bird around the corner that may still kill us. Our hard-learned lesson of the pandemic – to expect disappointment and more struggle – has trained us well for the Elden Ring.
Where the DiCaprio film, “Don’t Look Up”, was polarizing because it chose a side that criticized anyone in denial of the apocalypse, Elden Ring’s choose-yourself-adventure format is more inclusive for a population that can not work to agree on something. In the Fire Ring, there is nothing right or wrong.
To defeat a boss, you can carefully study its moves and plan an attack, or you can “cheese” it with a cheap trick that does not require skills and ensures victory. Either way, a victory is a victory. Such a flexible game can resonate with players worldwide and bring them together in a time where people are choosing their own truth about masks, images and information they read online in general.
Players mostly suffer through the Elden Ring alone, but there are parts as difficult as an ultra-hard boss battle that people will have to get help from others online. To address this, the game sets up small statues in challenging areas that serve as summoning posts to bring in a collaborator. When the mission is complete, the Good Samaritan disappears.
Fighting has always been a central theme in Mr. Miyazaki’s game, which became famous with the modest success of the Dark Souls trilogy, Elden Ring’s predecessors, but so is the need for people to turn to each other.
Mr. Miyazaki, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in interviews that he was inspired by a personal experience many years ago when he was driving up a snow-covered hill. A car in front of him got stuck and so did he and one behind him, but then another car drove behind behind and started pushing the third car. Similar assistance eventually got everyone over the hill.
“We get into each other’s lives for a minute and disappear and still make an impact,” said Keza MacDonald, video game editor for The Guardian and author of “You Died,” a book about Mr. Miyazaki’s game. “It’s not really one player in relation to the game. It’s the whole community of players versus the game.”
When I had finished the Fire Ring, with a little help from friends and strangers online over about five weeks, I did not come out of the game with a feeling of being more anxious or pessimistic. I ended up making plans with friends I hadn’t seen in two years.
Many of us have endured the pandemic alone because restrictions and health risks make it difficult to travel and gather indoors. It has been an impossible situation to navigate and the fight continues, but we are in this together in the long run. Why not turn to each other?