Elden Ring and Exegesis

Below is the accessibility text for my talk “Elden Ring and Exegesis,” given May 4, 2023 for the University of Virginia Department of English Speakers’ Committee.


What does attending to popular analysis and interpretation of Elden Ring teach us about the work that we do in literary studies? Even though we don’t share objects, these two communities of professional readers can learn from each other.

Academics who study literature should learn from popular analysis of works like Elden Ring because it teaches us something about why people read criticism today, what people think the work of criticism is, and helps us better understand our discipline.

Likewise, popular interpreters of Elden Ring should learn from academic literary study because, as I will suggest, they have asserted certain norms of reading and interpretation that academic literary study has long since abandoned as definitively impractical and potentially impossible.

Literary scholars (and their academic presses) would be thrilled—if not astonished—to have readers in the thousands. A dense thirty-minute YouTube video explaining Elden Ring’s lore by the well-known Souls interpreter VaatiVidya has 7.4 million views as of this writing. As of February 21, 2023, Elden Ring had sold more than 20 million copies, according to its publisher.

I’m not comparing these numbers to make the obvious points that video games are more popular than literature or that YouTube videos are more popular than criticism. Rather, the ratio of copies of the work sold to criticism read is what seems significant here. This explanatory video has gotten about one view for every three copies of the game sold globally (this, even though the video is in English). Contemporary book sales data is notoriously unreliable and expensive, but it is hard to imagine that 37% of readers of almost any text seek out supplementary criticism.

In part, this demand for interpretation is specific to Elden Ring and the Souls series, since they are interested in difficulty as an aesthetic experience, and their most avid players value that difficulty. This description plainly applies to the series’s gameplay, but I think it also applies to its narrative.

One widely-discussed anecdote offers a biographical explanation for the Souls series’ particular kind of narrative difficulty: In interviews, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the game’s director, has recalled the experience of trying to read Western fantasy books beyond his reading ability in childhood. He used his imagination to fill in gaps between the snippets of text he understood and those that he did not.[1]

Using this anecdote as a lens to read the Souls games, the games’ item descriptions recreate for the player Miyazaki’s reading experience: tantalizing concrete details coupled with the knowledge that combining the known parts with the unknown whole requires acts of readerly imagination and interpretation.

Nathan has more and better things to say on this point about difficulty, so I won’t belabor it. But I suspect that there is something besides its narrative difficulty explains popular interest in interpretations of this work.

Elden Ring is not alone in soliciting such demand for interpretation: Other works of popular yet difficult art have been subject to a similar kind and degree of hermeneutic scrutiny; I would suggest the television series Twin Peaks as another example.[2]

Popular interpretive communities that study works like Elden Ring and scholarly critics of narrative art forms—whether literature, film, performance, or video games—have different rules governing the work that they do, which is in both cases interpretation.[3]

We already have a history of how such rules have changed over time in literary criticism. This is usually presented as a succession of temporarily dominant critical approaches that emphasize different aspects of texts: the New Criticism, post-structuralism, the New Historicism, and so on.

While these interpretive frameworks are distinguished by their different assumptions and priorities, it’s worth noting that after the mid-twentieth century, academic literary study is indisputably invested in criticism.[4] By contrast, many of those doing what we would recognize as serious interpretive work on Elden Ring may not see their work as criticism at all.

Instead, to use a generic term endemic to the internet, they might be more inclined describe their work within the confines of the “explainer.” One of my main points today is to suggest that this impetus for textual study—and the techniques used to do it—goes back to a much older form of literary study: exegesis.

It comes as no surprise that different interpretive communities have different norms for their core activities. Book reviewers who write for popular periodicals like The New Yorker, for example, have a professional code related to but distinct from that of academic literary critics. Reviewers writing about an author’s new book by convention read or re-read all of that author’s prior publication to place the current work in relation with their body of work.

This convention is similar to conventions of comprehensive reading practiced in academic literary study but it understands comprehensiveness differently. If you were writing scholarship about Moby-Dick, for example, it might be regarded as a greater professional liability not to have read Giorgio Agamben’s famous essay on Melville’s story “Bartleby” than it would be to have not read Melville’s first book, Typee. Periodical reviewers, by contrast, would likely invert the relative significance of those gaps in reading, at least for purposes of reviewing.

Just as professional book reviewers and academic literary critics have different norms about what one must read before writing, so too do interpreters of Elden Ring and texts like it have different reading protocols. These range from what to read—most famously, item descriptions and their placement in the world—to norms about what kinds of evidence are admissible.

For example, it has become normative in the explanatory community around Elden Ring (and other FromSoftware games) to refer to game assets that, crucially, that do not appear in the game as such to aid in its interpretation. These include cut lines of dialogue, unused map assets, etc.

To my mind, this is analogous in literary study to studying a poem based on either extant variants—as might be done with John Donne—or based on its known revisions, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” for which numerous discrete revisions survive.

In both cases, the value of evidence derived from material edited out depends to an extent upon the strength of the claims made with it. This process is further complicated by the fact that modern games receive numerous updates, some of which change the text we are attempting to read.

While not all criticism and study of videogames is done outside of the academy, the vast majority of it is. After all, the academic study of video games is of relatively recent vintage. It was faintly visible in the 1980s, but became much more so during the “Are video games art?” debate of the 2000s and 2010s.[5]

Communities that have been interpreting games as works of art since the have developed protocols of reading that are related to but somewhat liberated from the academic study of other narrative forms. As I suggested with my earlier allusion to exegesis, however, many of those rules (e.g., an effort to produce an unobjectionable account of the fabula and syuzhet even when ambiguities prevent it) reproduce in part or in whole earlier moments of the history of literary criticism.

Because of this and following Michael Warner, scholarly interpreters of games can perhaps function as a counterpublic to this kind of textual study because our protocols of and intentions for interpretation are so different from those who write and read this criticism.[6] If the exegetical tradition fell by the wayside as interpretation moved from religious to secular texts—and thus the notion of indisputably correct interpretation became both less urgent and less interesting—an apparent return to this mode of analysis tells us something about what people think interpretation is for.

A great deal of this criticism happens on YouTube. While far less well known than VaatiVidya, another video speaks to themes of this paper and this panel because it argues that Elden Ring has reached the limits of interpretation accepted by the community.

A YouTuber published a video titled Elden Ring’s Lore is Uninterpretable” in June of 2022. This video, which has about a hundred thousand views—large by literary critical standards, admittedly small by Elden Ring standards—begins by attempting to reconcile some interpretive problems that the community had faced in reading the game thus far.

After reviewing several apparent problems of interpretation, the narrator throws up their hands and argues that the game’s broader themes are uninterpretable because it does not appear to be possible for the community to reach consensus on the interpretive difficulties that face it. Without that consensus on fundamental details of plot and the history of the world, they argue, it is not possible to begin interpreting the significance of the story.

I would like to try to name some of the assumptions that this argument makes in order to specify what they mean about Elden Ring’s interpretive community, and how different they are from the assumptions of literary criticism.

The first is this apparent need for consensus before interpreting significance. Literary criticism has long since assumed a pluralist relation to interpretation, where the value of competing interpretations is measured less by their perfect fidelity to the text than by their explanatory value or critical utility. Disagreement over interpretive issues large and small is expected. No one would give credence to the argument that literary critics must first reach consensus about Moby-Dick’s apparent contradictions before we can begin to interpret its grander themes. I would wager that literary critics today would regard efforts at such reconciliation as always already doomed, limited in value, or both.

A second assumption of the video and the strand of criticism it represents is that the interpretative significance of the game pertains to a comparatively narrow set of objects and actors: Minimally Elden Ring itself; somewhat more broadly, Elden Ring and its players; and, in what is perhaps the broadest interpretation usually ventured, the work of its auteur.

Again, this is distinguished from contemporary criticism by its focus on the text as an aesthetic end in itself as opposed to a vehicle or occasion to discuss some larger issue in, say, literary, political, or intellectual history.

The “explainer” genre of analysis holds itself to a standard that I have taken to calling “comprehensive comprehension.” It seeks not only to explain a part of the text, but to reconcile the available evidence into an interpretation that unobjectionably incorporates as much of the available evidence as possible.[7]

The closest literary critical examples for this vision of the comprehensive comprehension would be something like Gifford and Seidman’s Ulysses Annotated, a 700-page guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses that describes its ambitions as 1) pedagogical (i.e., of benefit to the student learning to read the text), and 2) as “a specialized encyclopedia” that “enables” a reading of the source text.[8]

These goals are similar intent if not in form to the vast majority of writing and community criticism produced about works like Elden Ring, especially on sites like Fandom.com and Fextralife, both of which are wiki-style encyclopedias focused on describing both gameplay and lore details.

What interests me, finally, is that these efforts at comprehensive comprehension are justified as the necessary preconditions for the interpretation of meaning. But attempts to prove or disprove readings of the available evidence far outweigh any interpretations based on what limited consensus exists.

In the case of Elden Ring, it seems clear that these difficulties will not be resolved before the announced downloadable content (DLC) is released, which readers hope will clarify issues from the game as it currently exists, and which will eventually render the game narratively complete.

But I think that this process suggests—like the decline of the exegetical tradition of literary study—that a more modest and piecemeal approach than comprehensive comprehension must eventually come to the fore, if only to allow readers to think with what they have read.

[1] Simon Parkin, “Bloodborne Creator Hidetaka Miyazaki: ‘I Didn’t Have a Dream. I Wasn’t Ambitious’,” The Guardian, March 31, 2015, sec. Games, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/31/bloodborne-dark-souls-creator-hidetaka-miyazaki-interview; Gene Park, “Confused by ‘Elden Ring’s’ Story? Let Us Explain.,” Washington Post, March 14, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2022/03/14/elden-ring-story/.

[2] This helps us recognize the extent to which this phenomenon is and is not dependent on the internet as its medium. As the Twin Peaks critical community began prior to the wide use of the world wide web (the show aired 1990-1992), and interpretation circulated in magazines (e.g., Wrapped in Plastic and in books including the tie-ins).

[3] Stanley Eugene Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[4] Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Twentieth anniversary ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); John Guillory, Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022).

[5] This debate has been resolved less through the triumph of the affirmative position than a near-total disinterest in continuing to debate the question.

[6] Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York : Cambridge, Mass: Zone Books ; Distributed by MIT Press, 2002).

[7] Again appealing to Twin Peaks, this four-hour video with 2.4 million views similarly exemplifies the ambition and approach of the comprehensive comprehension.

[8] Don Gifford, Robert J. Seidman, and Don Gifford, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, 2nd ed., rev.enl (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).