This article contains mild plot and side quest spoilers for Elden Ring.
“However ruined this world has become, however mired in torment and despair … life endures. Births continue. There is beauty in that, is there not?”
In the opening moments of the role-playing game Elden Ring, you ascend a small flight of stairs, and a world of broken hope emerges. The vista before your character includes a distant castle that stands proudly inside a raised island, thrown toward the heavens by some unknown cataclysm. The rocks and earth around it are segmented and jagged, but it remains. A church steeple rises nearby, tall and proud, though wounded in a dozen places. Sections of walls and bridges pockmark the landscape, scattered, but not ancient and unrecoverable.
Above it all, a light-bleeding tree stands, monolithic and glorious, illuminating its arboreal children in the forests below. There is life here, life that refuses to cease despite a fractured world.
Post-apocalyptic media is nothing new, but in the past few years it seems to have taken on an even stronger tone of cynicism. The Last of Us, Fallout, Mad Max, and The Walking Dead portray worlds that have given up the ghost. Survival is the new king, and long may he reign. And as the survivors accept the new trappings of their world, the glory and thriving of the old days becomes just that: the old days. There may have been an initial charge toward order, but by the time we’re introduced, the momentum is gone, usually killed ignominiously offscreen.
In previous Souls games, this line of thinking was prevalent. You had some semblance of ruined beauty in those lands, but your character is tasked with their euthanization. The cures had been prolongments at best, the suffering had gone on long enough, and your act of kindness was to stop it all entirely. The end result is a vacant world, devoid of the pain it caused as well as the life that once inhabited it.
In light of this, the longing for restoration in Elden Ring rings out far clearer than in its predecessors. This is a world with deep wounds, but it’s making every attempt to bandage itself. There is so much life in The Lands Between: the dance of trees all throughout Limgrave and Liurina of the Lakes, rolling sheep dotting the hills and plains in sight of monstrosities, proud eagles maintaining their perches over ruins, flowers coating the entire landscape in defiance of the death around them. The light escaping from the sites of grace beckons to you, declaring that there’s still more that can be done. The characters you meet are beaten down, but almost never hopeless, even as the curses that roam the land begin to claim them.
There is a cry that comes from deep in the core of this world that not all is lost. Even the name of those chosen by grace, the Tarnished, speaks not of destruction but of misuse and dilapidation. Elden Ring is technically post-apocalyptic, yes, but this world still fights for every breath. It’s not a scrabble for survival, but there’s a distinct sense of striving for the beauty that’s still echoing through the ruins.
There is a true sorrow that mixes with that tangible hope, however. Elden Ring is filled with self-inflicted pain born out of a sense of optimism. If the characters find the next step toward power, no matter the cost, they stubbornly believe they can set it all right again. Most of these are cases of characters who are not feeling whole anymore and are willing to pay that price to complete themselves. But as the story progresses, doled out in small, tantalizing bits of lore and conversations, you find that almost every single attempt at completion through rushed or vicious methods leaves broken people and disturbing monsters in its wake. There is a desperate push to restore the former glory of the Lands Between, but it’s all at a terrible cost.
We find poor Boc, who bemoans his ugliness and desires a new way to view himself. In pursuit of rebirth, however, he only finds a loss of joy and emotion before an ignominious death. Godrick chases the strength of a distant lineage, to stand with his ancestors and be witnessed as a legend as they are. The obsession with legacy turns him toward grafting, attaching dozens of arms and legs culled from hundreds of donors. Even simple soldiers still plod onward, following their captains and lords, obeying rote orders, hoping that in some way, shape, or form, they’ll be able to pick up the pieces. In the end, no one seems to know how to put everything right, nothing really gets put back together correctly, and all attempts outside of proper restoration fail and fail horribly.
In Elden Ring, the gods are all distant, requiring envoys for their will to be done. The player character, one of the Tarnished, is put in the path of what needs to be done, and they simply hope that you’ll become powerful enough to do it. It’s all a beautiful mix of desperation and hope that you don’t generally find in games.
I find myself drawing parallels to the book of Joel, where God is speaking to the devastated people of Judah, people who have seen war and famine, hunger, and heartache. Broken covenants and wasted years led to the plague-riddled landscape that the prophet spoke to. They hurt and hoped in equal measure. But Joel 2:25, a spine-tingling line, gives a ray of grace pointing toward restoration: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” (ESV)
In many creative outlets these days, there’s a strong inclination to fear. Fear of annihilation, a sense of mistrust, a desire to find the worst possible scenario so the current one doesn’t feel so soul-crushingly plausible—it all comes out on the pages of thrillers set in bleak lands and impossible odds. Where Elden Ring sets itself apart from other post-apocalyptic media is its strong desire to set things right, not to simply lessen or fray the edges of the evil that brought its world to this point of shattered beauty. To me, this is a more accurate reflection of reality.
There is an ache in this world that we can’t seem to pull away from. We can distract and coddle and analyze and dig our heels into the dirt of our minds, but we can’t escape the fact that this world is lost in its own legacy. Eden pushes at the edge of our minds, telling us constantly that all is not as it should be. If there is no original apex of wholeness, then this thought of being apart from perfection shouldn’t bother us as much as it does. There’s no call for it. There’s no need for it. If we’re all just a grand, cosmic accident, we shouldn’t weep when sin bares its teeth and death crouches around every corner.
Instead, we fight for that pinnacle. We see the need for paragons and hold ourselves to their example, or at the very least, we demand that the most visible of us carry their torch. If there’s nothing to restore but chaos, why bother? There’s a brilliant light of grace that leads us to the flame that guides us home, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. It doesn’t promise a path free of monsters, but it does shine simplicity into our complex hearts.
That first gaze into Limgrave, with its greenery, fauna, and proud protectors still stationed next to ruined churches, reflects the modern soul crying out for redemption. No zeitgeist, no matter how inviting and appealing, could ever keep us from feeling what Augustine always knew in his heart of hearts: we are restless, trivial wanderers with no purpose until we find hope in where our hearts can be restored, in Christ alone.
Therein lies the bitterness and beauty of Elden Ring, in understanding that we can’t restore ourselves. We are bones yet to be brought to life; our former glory we inherited lies in our minds unforgotten, but out of reach. We don’t strive as those with no hope, but instead we look to the promise that lifts that hope into action.