Why start something you know you’ll never finish? An hour into Elden Ring, I already knew I would be working on this game for years. The temptation to get away from something too tricky, the endless number of things to keep going to, an ocean of maps, my own limited free time…I could tell this was going to be another Bloodborne, another Skyrim, another Minecraft, another thing I love where I’d never see the credits roll. In this way, Elden Ring is very similar to Berserk, the legendary fantasy manga that is so intertwined with the DNA of FromSoft games that it sometimes seems impossible to separate the two. I’ll never finish Berserk either, though not for lack of trying. Author Kentaro Miura died last May at the age of 54. His manga, which ran for over thirty years, was never completed.
I’ll be honest: Miura’s death hit me like a truck. Unfair doesn’t even begin to cover it up. I’ll never know Miura and I envy those who did, but his work made me feel like I understood him at least a little bit. There’s something very teenage about the early berserker. It’s a whole lot of fear and blood and frustration spilling willy-nilly onto the page. However, as the series progressed, the series evolved into something that cautiously examined, or even regretted, the tone of the early chapters. The protagonist Guts – and through him Miura – seemed to lose interest in avenging what he had lost, choosing instead to focus on protecting what he had left. Unfathomable horrors, both man-made and Lovecraftian, institutional religion, war, political intrigue, sexual assault, grief, trauma, love, betrayal; Berserk took it upon himself to look as good as any comic book has ever looked. And you can quote me on that.
It’s also a tough manga at times. Berserk has some of the most exciting moments I’ve seen in any story, and repeated reading doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Instead, these pre-Bad Thing chapters are steeped in anticipatory dread as you glimpse the trauma to come like a vine-choked tower on a distant mountain. Some sites are a total ordeal. A lot of people get off early and I don’t blame them. The world of Berserk is barren, violent, and meaningless. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and the gods, who are very real and very powerful, just don’t care. The hard part, explaining to non-fans, is that all that grimness is what makes the comic so damn joyful read. Every small win, every joke, every moment of redemption and kindness in Berserk (especially the more reflective second half) feels like a big big middle finger shoved in the face of an indifferent universe.
Many video games have given their heroes a giant sword and a monster to slay, but few have captured the feel of Miura’s story. This is a universal problem. Across all media, you’ll find creators trying to pay tribute to a work that moved them without bothering to think about why that work of art was hit so hard in the first place. At their worst, these “tributes” feel like belching, like a mother bird puts into a baby bird’s mouth, a thing of beauty pounded to a pulp and thoughtlessly spat out. Yes, I’m thinking of the Iron Giant appearance in Ready Player One. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Exactly this best what a thoughtless tribute can hope for is an Easter egg. And look, I don’t want to poop Easter eggs. Elden Ring is full of little Easter Eggs and they’re a lot of fun to find. But I just don’t think ‘Huh, neat!’ or ‘I remember!’ is the best emotional response an artist can evoke when conveying their own inspiration.
Here’s a quick recap of my first twenty hours in the Elden Ring. I stumbled into a horrible hellscape and suspected it to be the work of gods summoned by vile magic; I have arrived at the scene of a tragedy too late to do anything but slaughter myself to some kind of catharsis; I have sworn to vanquish a deified lord whose lustrous veneer must surely conceal a fatal blight; I’ve plunged into hole after hole of writhing abominations in hopes that I might grow strong enough to change the course of history. I have a big sword and no real plan. I also ignored almost all of my real life responsibilities. The world of Elden Ring abounds with the kind of beauty that takes me home to the Scottish borders, a gorgeous green yonder just begging you to cancel your wedding, lock your doors, throw your phone in the toilet and never diving feet first again.
I’ve always read Berserk as a tale of a found family—found, lost, and found again—and there are moments when the galloping, gripping solitude of the Elden Ring can lose that thread. Worse, it’s reminiscent of the very early days of Berserk, the blood-and-slaughter chapters about a person who ruthlessly and selfishly chooses to wage war against the entire world all by himself. That’s how it feels sometimes. Then I touch a bloodstain and see a poor bastard roll over the side of a cliff like I did in a previous run, or I snort in laughter at a message that just says ‘fortress, night’or share a peaceful moment by the sea after a difficult battle. Oh, rest…
I feel very connected to these players. I also feel connected to the Elden Ring developers who love Miura’s work as much as I do and who no doubt grieved just as much when he died. Elden Ring not only notice berserk. It honors it.
We will never see the end of Gut’s story. Miura’s loved ones will never see him grow old, really old like he should have. I’ll probably never roll credits on this endless damn game. But we can still enjoy the journey – and keep showing it to the gods, one middle finger at a time.