Playing Elden Ring before its official launch was an honest experience. I'd flick the game online and see a few messages scrawled on the ground in glowing chalk. It was a Lands Between where "try jumping" wasn't some evil trickery, and "illusory wall ahead" meant discovering a hidden passage.
Since the game's release, the player messages have taken on a different complexion. Before, I trusted in our small community trying its best to get by. Now I must treat every message with caution as they fight amongst themselves. The world is awash with trolls and their terrible craic, but I'm not sure I'd have it any other way.
You might think getting your hands on Elden Ring before its launch would be super cool and super awesome. While it was both of these things, it was also super terrifying. I was a lowly Prisoner in FromDifficultware's largest world to date, without any online reading material: no guides, no clips on Reddit, nothing to help a brother out. But in online mode, I saw ghostly apparitions of other adventurers going through the same ordeal, which acted as a reminder that I wasn't alone. Loads of others were in the same boat (more like deathly gondola eh? wink wink nudge nudge) and we'd all leave messages to help each other out.
And if you're unfamiliar with Souls' messaging service, then here's the deal. You choose from drop-down menus of words or phrases, snap them together, and your character will scrawl the message onto the floor once you're done. As Alice Bee perfectly put it to me once, it's a bit like those fridge magnets word packs, but instead of the theme being "Shakespearean insults", it's "the internet x Ghormengast".
In the pre-release period, almost all of the messages scrawled on the floor were helpful. Constant warnings and directions from a small community of Elden Ringers just trying to get by. The messages are only available when you're playing online, and at RPS we were sharing one copy of the game between six of us, so had to take turns connecting Elden Ring to the internet. Eventually, I got to the point where offline mode felt rather lonely and I'd get FOMO. Not in the sense of, "Man, I'm missing the party", but more, "Man, what if I miss an illusory wall or hidden passage?". The messages had become integral to my experience, like a constant buzz or chatter that helped stave off the loneliness.
Fast forward to now and Elden Ring's world is awash with messages of... varying quality. Approach any ladder and you'll find "visions of snake" written next to them. Get it? Because it’s like the board game Snakes and Ladders. Imagine if there was, for some reason, a ladder in a pub toilet and someone had scratched that message on the wall. In real life it would probably be elevated in the best way by other wall artists' additions, with timeless humour like “visions of my snake” and “ladder! Up! To your mum’s house!”. In Elden Ring's system this is not possible. All I can do is downvote or turn my nostrils up in disgust and move on.
There are, however, terrible messages which make for a good laugh. Many of them are absolute grot, which appeals to my juvenile sense of humour. Lots of “If only I had pickle” when literally any statue has its back turned. “Head” makes an appearance whenever there’s any kneeling statue or massive head, I suppose. Don’t forget the “but hole” specials, reserved for any pointed objects jutting out of the grass, or the popular "try finger but hole".
Sometimes, Elden Ring players go from relentlessly horny to longing for a partner. Often I’ll approach a breathtaking vista – of which there are many – and I’ll see clusters of “gorgeous view ahead” followed by admissions of loneliness. “If only I had a lover...”.
Then, of course, you’ve got the turtles that are dogs – a good chuckle from me. In Elden Ring, any animal can be labelled a dog. But I’ve come to appreciate the less prevalent “lever” left next to levers. They are the perfect message: informative, simple, dreadfully obvious. So obvious that you’ve taken the time to read the message in front of the object you’ve already clearly identified as a lever. Stunning.
The football chant remains my favourite genre of Elden Ring message, though. You’ll encounter these when turning your camera to face towers or magical gateways without obvious entry points. After the initial disappointment or puzzlement of the situation, you can always count on a “O you don’t have the right O you don’t have the right” to hammer home the situation. All the better if you image an arena at full capacity, plastic beer cups in the air, flags painted on bellies, all belting it out in unison. Some performing the "tosser" hand motion just to rub it in.
There is something remarkably creative about the finest player messages. They stick together phrases and words which you wouldn't think would work, but somehow, they marry perfectly. Perhaps even more impressive is the grotty imagery they're able to evoke with the strict confines of a PG dictionary. And they don’t hold back. Once something sticks, the repetition helps cement them as a good joke. And even if it's not that funny initially, like "lever", for instance, the more you see it, the more it begins to crack you up.
I’ve gone from one extreme to the other since Elden Ring’s launch, and you might think that the world being awash with terrible messages has muddied my experience of the game somewhat. Where before I’d felt like I was part of a small band of adventurers, now I’m very much running behind the pack, relying on any scraps of info they feed me, accurate or otherwise.
But I really don’t mind the awful chat. The messages may be silly or dumb or plain unhelpful, but they fit the world of Elden Ring very nicely. For one, it isn’t Balamory, it’s a horrible land filled with nasty creatures that want to flay your skin from your flesh and use it as a pair of curtains. Many of the messages are helpful in their own way, even if they're lies, because they provide some mild laughter in the face of misery. The very act of processing messages can also serve as a reminder to buckle up and watch yourself. You never know if a highly appraised message could be a collective duping from hundreds of players at your expense. I genuinely can't see myself every playing in offline mode. I've grown to love the buzz of terrible patter whenever I sit down for an Elden Ring drubbing.