Playing a video game is a deeply personal experience. Unlike other media, you are in control of what happens. I’m not just talking about making decisions in an RPG, but the way every time you press a button or move a lever adds up to make your game different from mine. While we always bring something of ourselves to a book, movie, or album, the core text never changes. Unless you decide to cut up a novel and then paste the pages in the wrong order or something.
You can watch someone else play a game, and now there are more ways to do that than ever before, but it’s not the same as poking around in someone else’s game, which I never thought about. 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 remain anonymous and is the first Elden Ring NPC name that came to mind, had messed up their Elden Ring save game. They accidentally killed an NPC they didn’t want to kill and were quite distraught. They shared that save with their partner and didn’t want to spoil the game for them.
Sellen was offering to pay someone to recreate her save from the Elden Ring, but without poor Jar Bairn’s unfortunate death. I can totally understand why, as young JB is such a cute little example of the fascinating pot people of Elden Ring. Paying someone to play a game for you might seem strange, but after chatting with them privately, I discovered that they were both busy people with little time to play. While they had only played the game for sixteen hours or so, that represented a couple of months of timeshare that would be hard to get back. Intrigued by the challenge of recreating his salvation, I accepted the strangest commission of my freelance career thus far.
Now, this wasn’t my first time playing a game on someone else’s save. I had 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 Dreamcast VMU. (That’s a visual memory unit, for the poor unfortunate souls who haven’t experienced the joy of the best console.) However, it was a very different experience. Instead of jumping into Legend of Zelda to help my sister out with a little trickery, or trick my brother into making my Phantasy Star Online character play for me (which, now that I think about it, is probably some sort of child labor violation) was blindly heading to a complete stranger’s saved file. Not only that, he wasn’t just there for jokes, he had to catalog every part of the game state in order to recreate it.
After a bit of discussion with a save file importer, I jumped into the world of Sellen. It made sense to tackle the easy stuff. I took screenshots of the character sheet and visual customization sliders, and made a list of important or unique items that had been acquired. Since the vast majority of these are only found in certain places, knowing what I needed to find helped me know where I needed to go. With my scavenger hunt list written down, I wandered around the 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 Fort and venturing into the Midlands proper, I flipped over to the map screen to take a few screenshots for reference. With exploring and unlocking waypoints being such an important part of the game, reaching all of them was a vital part of my task.
I knew from my search of their inventory that they hadn’t made much progress in defeating the bosses, so I was taken aback by how much of the map they had explored. After sixteen hours of play for the first time, I was still running through the Limgrave and Weeping Peninsula, the closest areas to the starting point. This was not the case with Sellen and his partner. He knew they had gone far enough north to reach Jarburg, but they had ventured to the southern tip of the Peninsula and far enough into Caelid to discover Redmane Castle! They had even found the Siofra River. These locations were all hard to find, too far from the starting area, full of deadly enemies, or some combination of all three. They may not have been the mightiest of warriors, but they sure were great explorers!
Running around the map, our different experiences became even more obvious. It was clear that they had come to Caelid via the infamous teleport trap, which snatches players from an early area and unceremoniously drops them 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 touching any of the Sites of Grace (the Elden Ring’s landmarks where you can rest, replenish your health, and level up) in between. Back in Limgrave, there were places I hadn’t even discovered in my first game. I spent a couple of hours wandering around, seeing the game through another player’s eyes.
The experience of playing From Software’s Soulsborne titles has been likened to a kind of video game archaeology, with the story contained in brief descriptions of items and bits of conversation. Very little is said explicitly, everything has to be assembled. My investigations were very similar, except that instead of trying to understand the game, I was discovering how it was played. Of course, all this detective work was only half the job. Now she had to follow in his footsteps as closely as possible.
Armed with a large document of screenshots and shopping lists, I started a new game. After running through the opening area, it quickly became clear that the challenge would not be getting the items, spells, and Sites of Grace that he needed. Instead, the trick was to avoid doing things you shouldn’t. Avoiding leveling up the character wasn’t too difficult. It didn’t take me long to reach the required level, and since the act of leveling up is deliberate, I just had to remember not to do it reflexively.
Getting to some of the more distant Sites of Grace without visiting any of the intermediate points was quite demanding. I had to keep referring to my map screenshots and go on some really epic rides. Traveling from the relative safety of the Artist’s Shack in Limgrave to Redmane Castle, a route that takes you through areas filled with aggressive and hideous monsters, without stopping to rest along the way was the most stressful journey I’ve ever taken in a video. game since I did corpse races in EverQuest!
The hardest part 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 edge. While I had played three or four times at this point, my knowledge of each item’s location was far from perfect. Not vacuuming everything that isn’t nailed down doesn’t come naturally to the experienced player and on more than one occasion I had a brief “Oh shit!” moment when I thought I had accidentally grabbed something I shouldn’t have. In the end, I just made one wrong purchase, mostly inconsequential Ash of War.
What impressed me most about the entire unusual trip was the different way Sellen and her partner had played the game with me. While I am now able to traverse Elden Ring at a good pace, my first step was marked by careful and thorough exploration and measured progression against bosses. I never would have dreamed of running and seeing the sights to the extent that they did. I also can’t imagine being able to spend so little time playing a game that I had been interested in. There are so many different ways to play and enjoy games and it’s nice to have a reminder of how they are all equally valid and important. .
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