Opinion: At Their Heart, FromSoft Games Are Not Single Player

My Dad picked up Dark Souls 3 at the age of 64. Not that his age should be a commentary on his abilities as a video game player. The only reason my family had an NES when I was young was because he was excited to take on Ghosts n’ Goblins. But if Souls games’ reputation precedes them, it says that only competitive purists (mostly young men) have what it takes to play them. The moment he made it to Firelink, some of our friends were online to walk him through the process of summoning a cooperator into his world. And as soon as we were in-world, we each dropped dozens of Embers to the host, so that setting up co op play would never be a problem. Because that’s how we all play. To us, Souls titles are amazing hang out games, perfectly suited to banding together as often as wanted.

Back when I first took the plunge, it was the combination of my friends’ talk of Bloodborne‘s haunted Victorian vibe and the rituals involved in summoning help that convinced me to get past the game’s notorious difficulty. Additionally, it was how they talked together about it, not the game’s accolades nor the chance it would supposedly give to prove myself some sort of true gamer. No. It was the promise of doing something cool with my friends. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if my group actually teams up to explore FromSoft’s various worlds. We can just meet up on PSN to visit or talk strategy as we play solo. The extent to which the player can choose how much to team up reveals the multiplayer heart of these games. Well, I was hooked. To me, co op is the Souls series’ true nature. And it outshines its presumptive status as the savior of the single player adventure.

It’s ironic to me that the discussion around Souls games trends toward things like difficulty and fan gatekeeping. Not that those topics aren’t important to process for new FromSoft players. It’s just that, if you look at the society that has developed around them, I think you’ll see that a true sense of togetherness among fans has evolved. And to me, that flies in the face of the notion that the fandom is dominated by obsessive ringers who devote themselves to dominating each title by themselves and with strict rules about what type of character they can run. To that point, I think this multiplayer society also refutes the idea that there is a “correct” way to play FromSoft games. If showing off your fashion souls isn’t its own way to enjoy the game with others, I don’t know what is. Heck, even strictly solo players who only indulge in multiplayer to join a fight club or punish co op hosts prove my point. They’re enjoying the game with other people!

With Elden Ring, any pretense that Souls games are niche or cater to a hardcore audience is shot. Among its 12 million players, the so-called “git gud” crowd are most certainly the minority. And I believe it’s because the secret is out: Souls games are fantastic multiplayer adventures. If that somehow bristles any long-standing fans, I hope this helps: When my friends get together online, we are obsessing over every dark alleyway and each new jaw-dropping foe just as much as a dedicated solo player would. Make no mistake. Of course, we can’t claim the bragging rights of having discovered every winning strategy or be the first to reveal an illusory wall. But you know what? Neither can the vast majority of solo players. And anyway, that’s simply not where we get our fun out of it.

To be honest, I’m starting to see the stereotype of the grumpy FromSoft player who wants all filthy casuals to play the game correctly as a straw man. When I look at Reddit threads dedicated to any FromSoft title, I see fans helping each other. Giving solid advice. Telling frustrated players how to cheese. Offering gamertags so they might come to their aid. Rarely do I see a legitimate “git gud” comment. And when they do show up, I think they’re often typed sarcastically. It’s a natural extension of the in-game messaging system. You’re just more likely to remember being scolded or tricked than helped. And that’s true of mean fans. They’re easy to hear and hard to forget. But then I try to remember that I’m treating Elden Ring and its predecessors the same way I treated hard arcade games like Golden Axe or Final Fight: Fun alone, but exhilarating with friends at your side.

Maybe my own excitement at seeing my friends’ avatars rise up from their summon signs blinds me to FromSoft’s “true” intent to be the definitive single player challenge. But I think not; because FromSoft built some form of the multiplayer experience into every mechanic Elden Ring has to offer. There are rules for how to team up, how to invade, and even how to do a mix of both. And those mechanics are malleable enough that groups are often creating entirely new ways to play together. Take the messages that litter The Lands Between. They represent an asynchronous discussion between players, one that is only a step or two removed from giving advice, pulling pranks, or lending a hand to real life friends. They’re the gateway drug into co op and PvP. In fact, I think so highly of multiplayer Elden Ring that its Ashes of War summoning system strikes me as a consolation prize offered to players who can’t or won’t be playing with friends.

When you’re summoned as a cooperator, Elden Ring tells you your job is to help the host defeat the area boss. Hidetaka Miyazaki famously likened the concept to having his car pushed out of a snowbank by a group of strangers. But I think we’ve hit a point with Elden Ring where that wording has become vestigial. For several entries in the series now, players have been cooperating to explore the entire realm together. Being sent home after the boss is defeated is just an excuse to pass hosting duties on to the next friend in the party. And I love it for that. Matter of fact, I love it for being so many things to so many types of player, including the git guds. They’re welcome to treat my favorite co op game like a single player challenge.

How do you play FromSoft titles? Has Elden Ring become a multiplayer game for you and your friends, or do you disagree? Tell us how you like to take the experience in the comments or over at the Boss Rush Discord.

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