Welcome to Poetry 101: we’re examining the messages in Elden Ring as poems. Watch the essay in video form here.
Chapter 1: Turtles are Dogs
You’re playing Elden Ring and you come across a room full of turtles. You check the messages that have been left by other players around the space.
What’s happening here? Well, players are given a very limited in-game vocabulary for animals and creatures:
‘Turtle’ is not included on this list. Somehow, out of these words, players have come to agree: turtles are dogs. These messages are left by different people at different times and somehow they collectively agreed on this use of language. The word ‘dog’ is often associated with thoughts like ‘good boy’ and ‘cute’ and these turtles seem like ‘good, cute boys’ so… turtles are dogs now. Elden Ring’s in-game message system encourages players to use language in an intuitive and poetic way.
For those not in the know, Elden Ring is a video game released in February 2022. The director is Hidetaka Miyazaki, and he’s also notable for directing Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. These games feature such a consistent approach to gameplay that they’re part of their own genre, referred to as “Souls” (or ‘Soulsborne’) games. Miyazaki’s unique relationship to stories and language was shaped by his love of reading.
In an interview for IGN, he said:
“Growing up, as a kid, I loved to read. I liked to read books that were above my range. I always tried to aim higher and read difficult books. What would happen is, although I could read them, sometimes — because I was so young — I couldn’t read TOO deep into them. Maybe I would understand half of the story? What would happen is that my imagination would help fill the other half, and that imagination element would just blow up. That’s kind of the part I enjoyed as well, filling the gaps of where I didn’t understand the readings, where my imagination took me eventually to think that I understood what I was reading.”Inside the Mind of Bloodborne and Dark Souls’ Creator – IGN First by Marty Sliva (2018)
Many people view the Souls series as cryptic because each game’s story is revealed in an abstract and fragmented fashion through NPC dialogue, item descriptions, environmental storytelling, and seemingly random messages scattered across the world. But these games aren’t being cryptic for the sake of being cryptic. They are possible to understand but they do take work to decipher all of the details.
How people interpret the Souls games is similar to how historians piece together the details of Ancient Greek culture through ancient songs, art, and poems. Picture the player as an anthropologist: someone that discovers and researches artifacts, and then tries to piece history together through known landmarks, documents, stories, and relics. To put together the narrative in these games, you visit ancient ruins and cities, you collect items that give you tidbits of the world’s history, and you experience small events that unfold through character interactions, defeating bosses, and viewing messages left by other players.
So you can think of the in-game culture of messages in the Souls games like graffiti or tagging: players use this mechanic to indirectly communicate with each other in their shared space. They vandalize the entire world with their messages, some thoughtful, some enlightening, and others weirdly horny. Players use the system to talk back to their environments, or to express a specific tone based on what they’ve seen or experienced. Sometimes people add onto what other people have written, creating a series of related messages through cooperation.
It’s also used as a method of one-upmanship: some players leave messages in areas that are hidden or hard to get to, and others aim to gain high amount of appraisals by leaving behind messages that other players find funny or useful, and still others choose to prank players into throwing themselves off a ledge, or give them the false hope that they’ll find a secret area hidden behind an illusionary wall. (There’s always that type of guy.)
Graffiti, or more specifically tagging, is a human impulse that spans thousands of years. Who doesn’t want to write their name somewhere it could be found in a few hundred years, you know, just for fun? Evidence of tags can be found on ancient structures such as the pyramids, the streets of Pompeii, and in Maeshowe, a Neolithic burial mound in Orkney, Scotland. Maeshowe features Viking tags that were written in runes sometime around the 1100’s, and many of them sounded a lot like these in-game messages. Some tags lied about the location of treasure, while others… just google it for fun.
In summary: messages in Elden Ring vary in intent and can offer directions, suggestions, or outright deception. Some messages are references to other Souls games, game franchises, or the anime Berserk which was a major influence on Miyazaki’s games. Some players are out to claim ownership of the in-game space, and others just make jokes to provide levity in a grim world.
Chapter 2: The Poetics of Elden Ring
Let’s go deeper and examine the poetics of Elden Ring, but before we get into the specifics we’re going to need to define a few things so we’re all on the same page.
What is poetry?
Poetry is a genre of literature. It’s an arrangement of words that express feelings or ideas, and it may feature a distinctive rhythm or style.
Poetry can be:
- Read as words on a page.
- Spoken aloud.
- Posted as tweets, statuses, comments, and copypasta.
- Written as graffiti and tags.
- It even appears as text on a screen in a video game
- To name a few things, but there’s many different understandings of what poetry is or can be.
So what about ‘poetics’? What does that mean?
Poetics refers to the study of linguistic techniques in poetry and literature. So that means that when we talk about poetry, we’re talking about the various characteristics and choices that make up a poem, in addition to the context of it all.
Some basic features of a poem are:
- Genre: What type of poem is it? There’s 3 main types: narrative, dramatic, or lyric— we’ll circle back to this soon.
- Lines and Stanzas: Think of these as the sentences and paragraphs in a poem; there are single rows of text and groupings of rows.
- Subject: who or what is being talked about or shown in the poem
- Theme: that’s the topic of the poem, what it’s all about.
- Imagery: what is being described and how?
- Rhythm: rhythm is formed by the stresses and pauses in each word
- Rhyme: this is an easy one– look for words that sound alike arranged into patterns.
- Point-of-view: who is speaking?
- Tone: this means how it makes you feel overall when you read it (joyful, sad, grateful, angry, …)
- Figures of Speech: similes, metaphors, puns, symbols, and more.
- Form: what does the poem actually looks like?
This isn’t a comprehensive list of all of poetry’s traits but it’ll get you started.
OK, so what are some of the poetics occurring in Elden Ring?
- We’re looking at lyric poetry as our genre. As I mentioned before, there are three overarching categories of poetry: narrative, dramatic, and lyric. Narrative poetry tells a story whereas dramatic poetry portrays a situation and is meant to be spoken. ‘Lyric’ poetry comes from the Latin word lyricus, meaning of/for the lyre. These poems were originally accompanied by music, however, nowadays many lyric poets write for the page.
In lyric poetry, the overall vibe is melodic and the mood is emotional which is appropriate for the tone in Elden Ring. The words that are used express a state of mind, perceptions, and feelings, rather than tell a story. The lyric qualities of the game are subtly backed up by the occasional presence of music and musicians throughout the game.
- In terms of lines and stanzas, we see brief 1-2 line messages that result in a single stanza.
- The subject, theme, and imagery is pure high, dark, midieval fantasy. The limited vocabulary provides us with images like: armor, talisman, dragon, knight, mage, demi-human, incantation, castle, monstrosity, wraith, and so on. Messages aim to describe the surrounding environment, an idea, or a feeling.
- The tone is mysterious, subdued, and restrained because of its limited descriptions, passive emotions, lack of swears, and generous use of ellipsis…………
- Point-of-view is pretty straightforward too: A single unknown author speaking to an unknown other is our point of view. We know this because messages are written in first person (because the speaker of the message is referred to as “I”, as in “If only I had a ****…”). There is no “you” in Elden Ring’s vocabulary, but there is an implied audience or receiver of the words with phrases like “try ****” or “**** ahead”– these are phrases that you say when you’re talking to someone else.
- In terms of Figures of Speech: This vocabulary and the form it takes allows for metaphors, jokes, memes, innuendo, and more. There’s many playful ways to express your thoughts.
- Form: The message form is built into the game and has stayed relatively consistent throughout most of the Souls games:
Templates (2nd line)
Words (2nd line)
Chapter 3: Poetry doesn’t owe you an easy mode
Poetry is deceptive in its simplicity; there’s always a surprising amount of information packed into only a few carefully chosen words. I mean, even defining poetry and what it’s for isn’t as straightforward as it seems. There’s as many definitions of poetry as there are poets.
American poet and teacher Brenda Hillman muses:
“… I thought poetry has the obligation to try to express what cannot be expressed, but that it could not always be done in direct ways.”Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems by Brenda Hillman (2006)
Hillman is an advocate of poetry that some readers consider intimidating, off-putting, or downright difficult. In her essay on poetic theory, Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems, she claims that poetry equips us with four tools:
- the sense of who we are in our environments;
- the understanding that every word and phrase matters and can be of interest;
- the idea that meaning circulates on many levels;
- the conviction that the strange mystery of our existence can be represented.
These four thoughts can help us as readers enter into any poem and try to begin to understand it, or at least feel it out. If we think about the messages and vocabulary used in Elden Ring each of these four ideas continue to ring true: the in-game use of language gives us a sense of who we are in this setting, every word and phrase can be of interest in different combinations, the meanings of words circulate and vary as the players communicate with one another, and the strange mysteriousness of the world and its lore are invoked and revealed through this cryptic writing over time.
While poems may have an obligation to express the inexpressible, they are under no obligation to make it easy for us according to Hillman. Likewise, Miyazaki’s Soulsborne games frequently face the criticism of being too difficult. The choice to make the games challenging without providing an easy mode has become an hallmark artistic choice of the series that makes or breaks the experience for most players.
If all poems were easy, they couldn’t offer us new thoughts, ideas, or experiences. Sometimes the most difficult poems can bring us the gifts of insight, attentiveness, patience, and skill.
- Elden Ring (2022)
- Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, eds. Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy (1995)
- Runes: A Handbook by Michael P. Barnes (2012)
- Inside the Mind of Bloodborne and Dark Souls’ Creator – IGN First by Marty Sliva (2018)
- Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems by Brenda Hillman (2006)