The call to adventure issued by Elden Ring proved irresistible to many players when it launched on February 25. Perhaps a little too irresistible, as many players’ eagerness to dive headfirst into the game’s breathtaking and brutal landscape, coupled with the game’s own tendency to obfuscate things that other games make very clear, led them to skip right by the combat tutorial area at the start. At least some of those players mistook this bastion of guidance and learning for one of FromSoft’s notorious and deadly traps.
this is probably the funniest level design of the year to me pic.twitter.com/HqZ9rAUarV— Bruno ☠️ Dias (@NotBrunoAgain) March 2, 2022
After customising your character, doing some light tourism of the game’s sweeping landscape, and getting your generous arse handed to you by the spidery monstrosity Grafted Scion, you find yourself in a dark cave, seemingly discarded like one of Sid’s toys in Toy Story. Gathering your bearings, you soon see two basic options before you: a door, lit by the diffuse light of a glowing tree, with statues lining its steps, and a pit, where a ghost sits waiting to encourage you to leap in. Although the glowing tree is warmly enticing, the cold, dark pit the ghost is goading you into actually holds the game’s combat tutorial.
Many games subtly guide you toward progress with visual cues like light sources, and in this regard, Elden Ring is no different. The literal glowing tree beckons you toward the game’s grand open world. However, the pit’s combat tutorial introduces you to key gameplay mechanics like dodging, blocking, parrying, and locking onto enemies, a useful crash course, particularly for those who are taking their first plunge into FromSoft’s whole Dark Souls design ethos with Elden Ring. But who could blame you for not diving into the mysterious pit just because a ghost dared you to? After all, Souls games are notorious for luring players into all kinds of deadly traps. How’s a player to know this pit isn’t yet another one?
When Bruno Dias, a writer and director at FailBetter Games, tweeted a photo with arrows pointing at both where the start of the game and its combat tutorial are, a bit of discourse ensued, with one camp arguing that Elden Ring’s level design is a prime example of encouraging and rewarding player exploration, and another saying that the game should be more overt in communicating that the cave holds a tutorial area.
“This is actually genius tho because if you’ve played a souls game before you’ll be hesitant to jump down into a pit and go for the door,” wrote one Twitter user. “While new players will talk to and trust the ghost man because the games haven’t given them trust issues yet.”
“I feel like the message needed to be more explicit,” wrote former Kotaku Australia editor Alex Walker. “I absolutely couldn’t see the bonfire from my angle, or even the ledge, so I treated it like the other messages I’d seen until then: ‘This is designed to fuck me up.’”
It’s often said that reading is fundamental, and that’s certainly true in Elden Ring. In fact, the game hints very heavily that the dark plunge leads to a tutorial area, via a message left by the developers themselves, which you can find scrawled at the precipice of the pit.
“The Cave of Knowledge lies below,” reads the message, and you might think this, along with the ghost’s encouraging words, would be enough to nudge players wanting to get a handle on the game’s basics into the waiting pit. However, the only thing clearly differentiating dev messages from those left by other players is your ability to appraise them, a subtle distinction and one that’s easily missed. Additionally, the message is surrounded by similar-looking player messages that, more often than not, are funny or misleading troll messages rather than genuine hints as to what lies ahead. With players misleading each other as to the true nature of the cave, it’s little wonder that many may be wary of leaping into the unwelcoming pit, especially when the warm light of the tree beckons them into the seeming comfort of the nearby structure.
I’m of the opinion that there’s something brilliant and very much in keeping with the Dark Souls design philosophy about how Elden Ring handles this. You have here the risk-reward gamble of braving the game’s world by plunging into the unknown, presented in a way that may particularly set off veteran players’ rightful fears–fears developed through years of being hilariously crushed by deadly traps or fearsome foes after venturing forth in FromSoft games. If you’re a SoulsBorne veteran, you’re no doubt already battle-hardened enough to know the gist of Elden Ring’s combat mechanics, and probably don’t need the tutorial. If you miss the tutorial pit or opt to skip it entirely, time itself no doubt quickly becomes a hard-knocks teacher on how to go from a wimpy maidenless tarnished to a chad combat veteran who receives warm hugs with plot implications. But if you find yourself in need of a refresher on the particulars of Elden Ring’s combat, you can always fast-travel back to the combat cave to get good.