The Elden Ring combat tutorial is, according to some, the worst game design crime since unskippable cutscenes. After being horrifically murdered by Grunty the Scallop (or whatever the hell their name is), you wake up in a tomb and are presented with two possible choices – exit through a big door or listen to a ghostly NPC who tells you, in slightly more flowery language, to access the tutorial by jumping down a big hole.
It’s a hugely suspect invitation, especially if you’ve played previous Soulsborne games and were just after a refresher. Why would you throw yourself to your possible doom, based on the word of a specter? Another pressing question is, “Just how can a ghost sit on a chair?” but we’ll leave that one for now.
So, not trusting Ghosty McGhostface, some people head to the left instead of leaping down. However, it turns out that drop really is non-lethal. So those people miss learning about stealth, blocking, and not dying nearly as much. In fact, there have been reports of players spending hours playing Elden Ring and only, quite by chance, discovering that they can backstab enemies for massive damage.
But you know what? After years and years of player trolling, I don’t begrudge FromSoftware wanting a little payback. Because more than just a method of skipping the Elden Ring tutorial, it seems calculated to give Soulsborne trolls a taste of their own medicine.
Let’s back up. If you’re a newcomer to the series, you may have missed out on the joy of the Soulsborne messaging system, which was first implemented in Demon’s Souls. It felt like leaving messages for other players was the real multiplayer experience, even though you could also invade other people’s games or lend them a helping hand.
You were supposed to be offering helpful advice for other players with your messages. For example, if there was a boss that was vulnerable to fire, you might leave a glowing message that informed people of just that. You would piece these messages together from a bank of words and phrases, and then they would appear in other people’s games, fostering a caring atmosphere that reminded you were never truly alone.
What actually happened was that people started trolling the living daylights out of each other. Players would leave messages on the edge of ledges urging people to jump down, and naively believing they were about to land safely on some secret ledge, these new players would fall to their doom.
Of course, there were helpful messages too, but series director Hidetaka Miyazaki and team apparently didn’t anticipate how this would interact with another Demon’s Souls mechanic – “bloodstains.” If you activated a bloodstain and got a ghostly replay of a player’s death, not only could you leave messages advising someone to take a long walk off a small cliff, but you could sit back and watch them die again and again.
Did I take part in this trolling? Absolutely. And the system, which has continued throughout Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and now Elden Ring, is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Having people stumble off cliffs is just the tip of the iceberg – you can persuade players to search for treasure that isn’t there, hack away at walls for no good reason, stumble into traps, and so much more.
FromSoftware blocked Elden Ring players from putting “butt” in their character names, yet that didn’t stop messages like “Try finger, but hole” from gracing a world that George R.R. Martin had a hand in creating. It’s hardly high comedy, but it’s a testament to the sheer creativity of the series’s player base that they’ve exploited messages to this extent.
But the downside is, with no effective way of policing whether the messages are designed to help or hinder, it’s created an atmosphere of mistrust. Every message should, if you choose not to ignore them entirely, be taken with a pinch of salt. Even before I reached Grunty, I watched someone’s shade leap off a cliff at the behest of a message.
“But hang on,” you might think, “isn’t it possible that FromSoftware didn’t realize 13 years of message trolling would give players a reason to doubt an NPC who urged them to leap into the abyss?” It’s possible, and if that’s the case, it’s a major, major oversight on the team’s behalf.
But I very much doubt it, and you only have to read this interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki to realize that he has a wicked streak. Whether or not he anticipated the mean-spirited shenanigans that the Soulsborne games’ messaging system would lead to, I’m sure he was laughing himself silly while implementing Elden Ring’s little “feature.”
To be fair, while I may not have been a full-time Soulsborne troll, I’ve posted enough “jump down” messages that I’ve been the cause of more than a few virtual deaths over the years. So pondering the value of the spectral NPC’s message, I paused at the edge of the Elden Ring tutorial pit, acutely aware that my bloodstain could be someone else’s source of entertainment.
Gazing down into the pit didn’t really help, and I’m convinced there’s some invisible tweak that negates fatal fall damage. It certainly seemed as if the fall would kill me, but five seconds later, my character’s ankle bones were still on the inside and I was free to continue being just the worst. But for that moment, I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of some of the deliberately deceptive messages I’d left.
In theory, Elden Ring’s big drop shouldn’t punish new players, who aren’t as distrustful of ghostly messages. In practice, it depends on how other titles’ NPCs have treated them. But it does mean that Soulsborne veterans who may have not actively engaged in trolling would be dissuaded from taking the tutorial, which is unfortunate.
I have to tip my hat to Hidetaka Miyazaki for getting me good. But what about those players who needed the tutorial but missed out on it and, as a result, found Elden Ring to be more of a slog? As a way of pranking long-time fans, it’s one heck of a clever trick, but if it’s lost FromSoftware some would-be Soulsborne converts, there could well be a hidden cost.