How I became an Elden Ring detective
It started with a save game...
Playing a video game is a deeply personal experience. Unlike other mediums, you're in control of what happens. I'm not just talking about making choices in an RPG, but the way every single press of a button or tilt of a stick adds up to make your playthrough different from mine. While we always bring something of ourselves to books, movies or albums, the core text never changes. Unless you decide to cut up a novel and then stick the pages together in the wrong order or something.
You can watch someone else play a game, and there are now more ways to do so than ever, but it's not the same as poking around in someone else's game, something I'd never given any thought to. Not until I saw a message on Twitter asking for help with Elden Ring. This person, who I'm going to call Sellen, because they asked to be anonymous and it's the first Elden Ring NPC name that sprang to mind, had messed up their Elden Ring save game. They'd accidentally killed an NPC that they very much did not want to kill and were quite distraught. They shared that save with their partner and didn't want to potentially ruin the game for them.
Sellen was offering to pay someone to recreate their Elden Ring save, but without the unfortunate death of poor Jar Bairn. I can totally understand why, as young JB is an adorable little example of Elden Ring's fascinating pot people. Paying someone to play a game for you may seem strange, but after chatting with them privately, I discovered that they were both busy folks with little time to play games. While they'd only played the game for sixteen hours or so, that represented a couple of months of shared time that would be hard to get back. Intrigued by the challenge recreating their save presented, I accepted the oddest commission of my freelance career so far.
Now, this wasn't the first time I'd played a game on someone else's save. I'd shared save files with my siblings growing up, due to Pokémon only having one slot on the cartridge, or my stubborn refusal to buy more than one VMU for the Dreamcast. (That's a visual memory unit, for the poor, unfortunate souls who haven't experienced the joy of the best console ever.) It was a very different experience though. Instead of jumping into Legend of Zelda to help my sister with a tricky bit, or tricking my brother into grinding on my Phantasy Star Online character for me (which, now I think about it, is probably some kind of child labour violation) I was heading blind into the save file of a complete stranger. Not only that, I wasn't just there for larks, I had to catalogue every part of the game state in order to recreate it.
After a bit of wrangling involving a save-file importer, I jumped into Sellen's world. It made sense to tackle the easy stuff. I took screenshots of the character sheet and visual customisation sliders, and made a list of important or unique items that had been acquired. As the vast majority of these are only found in certain places, knowing what I had to find helped me know where I needed to go. My scavenger hunt list written, I moseyed about Roundtable Hold, the game's central hub and a gathering point for many of the game's characters, taking notes on the presence or absence of NPCs, as well as their quest stages.
Before leaving the safety of the Hold and venturing into the Lands Between proper, I flipped over to the map screen to grab some screenshots for reference. Exploration and the unlocking of waypoints being such an important part of the game, reaching all the same ones was a vital part of my task.
I knew from my search through their inventory that they'd not made much progress with defeating bosses, so I was caught off-guard by how much of the map they'd explored. Sixteen hours into the game for the first time, I was still running around in Limgrave and the Weeping Peninsula, the zones nearest to the starting point. This wasn't the case for Sellen and their partner. I knew they'd gone far enough North to reach Jarburg, but they'd ventured to the Southernmost tip of the Peninsula and far enough into Caelid to discover Redmane Castle! They'd even found the Siofra River. These locations were all either hard to find, a long way from the starting area, filled with deadly enemies or some combination of all three. They may not have been the mightiest warriors, but they sure were great explorers!
Running around the map, our different experiences became even more obvious. It was clear that they'd reached Caelid through the infamous teleport trap, which snatches players from an early area and deposits them unceremoniously in the middle of a tricky dungeon. What wasn't so apparent was how they'd made it all the way to the castle without hitting any of the Sites of Grace (Elden Ring's waypoints where you can rest, replenish your health and level up) in between. Back in Limgrave, there were spots that I hadn't even discovered on my first playthrough. I spent a couple of hours just wandering about, seeing the game through another player's eyes.
The experience of playing From Software's Soulsborne titles has been likened to a sort of video game archaeology, with the story contained in brief item descriptions and snippets of conversation. Very little is explicitly stated, it all has to be pieced together. My investigations were very similar, except that instead of trying to understand the game, I was figuring out how it was played. Of course, all this detective work was only half the job. Now I had to follow in their footsteps as closely as possible.
Armed with a hefty document of screenshots and shopping lists, I started a new game. After rushing through the opening area, it quickly became apparent that the challenge wouldn't be in obtaining the items, spells and Sites of Grace I needed. Instead, the tricky bit was avoiding doing things I shouldn't. Preventing over-levelling the character wasn't too hard. It didn't take me long to reach the required level and, since the act of levelling up is a deliberate one, I just had to remember not to reflexively do so.
Reaching some of the more distant Sites of Grace without visiting any of the intervening waypoints was quite demanding. I had to keep referring back to my map screenshots and make some truly epic journeys. Travelling from the relative safety of the Artist's Shack in Limgrave to Redmane Castle, a route which takes you through areas stuff with aggressive and horrifying monsters, without stopping to rest along the way was the most nerve-wracking trip I've taken in a video game since I did corpse runs in EverQuest!
Hardest of all was knowing which items not to pick up. My goal was to make the save file feel like Sellen's, not give them an unwanted leg-up. While I'd been through the game three or four times at this point, my knowledge of every last item location was far from perfect. Not hoovering up everything that isn't nailed down isn't something that comes naturally to the seasoned gamer and on more than one occasion I had a brief "Oh, crap!" moment as I thought I'd accidentally grabbed something I shouldn't have. In the end, I only made one mistaken acquisition, a mostly inconsequential Ash of War.
What struck me most about the whole unusual journey was how differently Sellen and their partner had played the game to me. While I'm now capable of dashing through Elden Ring at a good pace, my first go was marked by careful, thorough exploration and measured progression against bosses. I would never have dreamed of running around and just seeing the sights to the extent that they had. Neither can I imagine being able to spend so little time playing a game that I had become invested in. There are so many different ways to play and enjoy games and it's good to have a reminder of how they're all just as valid and important.