Elden ring is concerned about the human form
Grace-driven and graceless humans fated not to die. The shambling bones of Those who Live in Death. Man-made marionettes, but also real bodies turned into soulless puppets. Clay-made guardians of ancient ruins. Tribal demi-humans and animalistic misbegotten. Alchemically-made Albinaurics. Dwellers of ancient cities deep below the ground. Monsters made by grafting limbs from fallen soldiers in single, caterpillar-like entities. Hulking figures cursed with an overgrowth of horns. Knights who fight like knights, like dragons, like dogs. And again, spirits; more spirits than you can count.
Elden Ring, made by From Software, is the latest of a series of games known for their non-linear approach to storytelling and a steep learning curve. Responsible for directing the game's plot and its world-building, two one-of-a-kind authors: Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin.
It's hard to tell what the game is about. If anything, this is the kind of game that delights in being cryptic for the sake of it. It requires you to struggle with scarce, often conflicting information. The player, akin to a historian or an archaeologist, needs to build multiple interpretations of the game's events and be ready to scrap the wrong ones whenever new evidence is brought to the light. Frustrating, at times, but a delightful exercise to stretch one's mind's muscles. This is what non-linear storytelling is all about.
Despite this lack of linearity, a recurring theme is so clear that the game slaps your face with it.
Humanity was on the foreground of Elden Ring's spiritual predecessors - the role, meaning, and fate of humans was the central point and main concern of the Souls Series. Back in Dark Souls, humanity was framed as an unknowable factor. A writhing mass akin to darkness, whose potential threatened the ruling class of gods.
Elden Ring tries to be even more subtle. The player character is a Tarnished (as in tarnished gold) but the term is never explained; we can assume that the Tarnished are human with reasonable certainty. This will be our baseline, our frame of reference.
As in most of fantasy games, the hero has to face enemies. Those often comes in the shape of monsters - and Elden Ring is no exception - but the few inhuman enemies pale in comparison with the extravaganza of almost-human creatures.
Clearest offenders are the demi-humans: it's in the name. They are portrayed as bestial, monkey-like brutes; and yet they have a society, they follow leaders and queens, they use tools, they are able to tailor clothes and even armor, they can learn sorcery (which, in the game's mechanics, is strictly associated with intelligence). They are also capable of speech - one of the non player characters in the game confirms it. It's not clear then what makes the demi-humans less-than (or half-of). My bet is that they seem to have trouble growing hair (but the same can be said for a lot of men in their 40s).
Similar treatment is reserved for the misbegotten. While still having four limbs, they have bigger and rounder heads, tails and sometimes wings; in general they seem to borrow feature from beasts of the animal kingdom. Instead of living in the fringe of society, thought, they are actively exploited by it. The misbegotten are servants or slaves to their human masters, until they finally rebel en-masse. We don't know much of them, if not that they are understandably resentful of their condition.
Albinaurics are even more complex. They are created by magical means - it's not clear to what purpose. First generation Albinaurics look human in every aspect, except for a degenerative condition that strikes their legs, forcing them to crawl. These Albinaurics have human intelligence, can talk, express grief, and tame beasts.
Second generation Albinaurics have alien, inflated heads and a grey, wet skin reminiscent of some kind of frogs. We have no hint on their grade of intelligence, but it's safe to assume that they have their own society.
Both kinds are said to fear mages and are persecuted.
A pattern clearly begins to emerge. If there is such thing as human rights in Elden Ring, it's easy to get disqualified and get no right at all.
To us, the player character, this is a non-issue. Due to the breaking of the titular Ring and a period of total warfare that followed, we are thrust in a world were 90% of living beings is hostile to us. We rarely get the option to make distinctions or talk out our differences since most things will attack us on the spot. Humans and non-humans alike are either caught in a frenzy or are bent to ending our existence, to the point that the only way forward is through slaughter.
However, this is not the case for the game's own logic. Consider the Omen: humans that suffer from the growth of cancerous horns on the surface of their body and are thus exiled in the sewers, no matter the power or prestige of their families. They eventually grow to become hulking brutes, and are hunted by Omen Killers - a group of cleaver-armed fanatics.
Over and over, we are faced with a history of discrimination and hate. As players we will naturally focus on the bigger picture - the mysteries behind the Elden Ring and the disappearance of the goddess Marika. We know that something is wrong in the world; we overlook the fact that this xenophobic hate of everything slightly different might be one of the causes. After all, even when Marika and his consort were in power, they deemed fair to seal an entire people in a catacomb over the crime of holding different beliefs.
It's then safe to declare that Elden Ring is deeply concerned about the human form and constantly trying to bring humanity up by pushing everything else down.
As of now, 150 hours into the game, I still have to see one of the endings. Like in the predecessors, the player character will be probably called to reinstate the old order, burn it down, or build a new one. Even if the world is in ruin, says our companion Melina, here new children are still being born; isn't this worthy of saving? And maybe it is. It's hard to deny a certain beauty to life and a subjective value to it, but I feel like we are faced with an impossible problem. For the game is involved in asking questions, it doesn't seems as interested in building answers. Furthermore, our hands are bloody as the player character; maybe as bloody as the gods themselves. Hardly saints, and very far from a hopeful redeemers.