Try out a handful of video games in order for me to get a better idea of what they are like for people who don’t spend much time playing them
Over the past few years, I’ve had my wife, more boomerly known as The Lady I Live With, try out a handful of video games in order for me to get a better idea of what they are like for people who don’t spend much time playing them.
These informal experiments not only have given me a better understanding of some of the obstacles that exist for those with little to no experience with games but also have been intriguing explorations of what goes into learning the language of video games.
As a result of these experiments, my wife went from being entirely unfamiliar with typical game conventions and mechanics to having a better grasp over how they work and what they expect from the player.
She took interest in a couple titles, playing them far beyond what she needed to do for these videos, and she was well along in her journey of going from a non-gamer to a gamer.
And now a year and a half has passed since she last picked up a controller.
As it turns out, time never stops moving forward, a fact that has become especially apparent since adding a baby we live with to our household.
Life gets away from you fast, but now we’ve had a few good nights of sleep and are ready for another informal experiment.
While I assume she has retained some of the skills she built up through her previous experiences, this gap almost certainly will lead to her being rustier than before, so clearly the best way to ease her back into things is by having her play Elden Ring.
Lady: I’m ready.
I’m ready for battle.
Can you get me someone to fight? *Gasp* Lady: I’m not ready for battle! I’m not ready for battle! In just its first year, Elden Ring has already become the best selling game Fromsoft has ever made.
It’s exposed a slew of first time players to the soulslike genre, and is widely considered to be the best entry point for people new to Fromsoft games, but my question is how approachable is it for someone who barely plays games at all? For this experiment, I didn’t give her a specific goal to accomplish as I wanted to see how she would naturally interact with the game, but I did set a secret end condition of beating a boss outside of the tutorial.
As always, I sat back as a mostly quiet observer, only giving occasional reminders of things she had learned and advice for what to do when she got stuck on something for a substantial amount of time.
So, this is how it went.
As some of you may remember, one of the very first games I had my wife play for this series was Elden Ring’s spiritual predecessor, Dark Souls, and it went pretty much exactly how you’d expect it to go.
*Controller slamming onto a desk* Lady: Can I be done yet? Due to her lack of gaming experience mixed with Dark Souls’ opaque and sometimes confusing design, she had a ton of trouble just figuring out how to do things, which led to her dying a lot.
Even when she did figure out the very basics, she still couldn’t get past the Asylum Demon.
As there is no way to level up in the Undead Asylum, her only way to move forward was by using the tools she had to defeat him.
With enough practice, I am confident that she could have done it, but she found losing over and over again to be extremely demoralizing, and after an hour straight of dying to the same enemy, she had no more interest in playing at all.
By presenting such a tough skill check for players in its tutorial, it sets the tone for what the rest of the game will be like at the cost of turning some players away.
Elden Ring takes a much different approach with its tutorial by having it be completely optional.
Players don’t have to prove they understand the basics to access the core of the game, and instead can just head to the overworld without any real challenge.
In fact, when the game first came out, many didn’t even realize there was a tutorial as it involves jumping into a dark pit whereas the path to the overworld is brightly lit and in the center of the screen when the player character spawns, and this eventually led FromSoft to include a tutorial message that tells players about the tutorial area.
Given all of this, I was curious to see if my wife would go into the Cave of Knowledge without the prompt, so before I had her start, I turned off all tutorial notifications, and she very nearly missed it, but not for the reasons you might think.
When she first began walking around the chapel of anticipation, she noticed various bloodstains and messages not knowing why they were there.
Without the knowledge that other players had left them behind, she assumed they were made by the developers—as if they were a core part of understanding the game.
So instead of viewing them as the random ramblings they are, she thought they were all important.
In Dark Souls all of the messages in the tutorial are from the developers and largely layout the basic controls, so it is possible that her assumption of how they worked in Elden Ring came from that, although she barely had any recollection of her time with Dark Souls as it was so long ago, so if that was the connection she made, it was a subconscious one.
One of the first messages she read pointed to the side of the cliff and said to jump off.
Incidentally she had clicked a bloodstain that led to a figure doing just that, so wondering if it was some sort of secret, she followed suit.
Lady: Try jumping…what? Raz: *giggling* Lady: What? Are you kidding me? What—what am I supposed to do? So, when she got down to the Stranded Graveyard and was told by another spirit looking thing to take the plunge, she was very skeptical and refused to jump down.
Lady: Are they trying to kill me again? For a second I thought she was gonna continue along the main path, but after running around a bit though, she read another message that said The Cave of Knowledge Lies Below.
This was the only one she had come across that was direct and didn’t feel like a bunch of gibberish strung together, so something about it felt more official and she decided to just go for it.
While this ended up being the only time the messages influenced how she approached an area, it was interesting to see someone engage with them as if they really mattered and weren’t just a sometimes helpful but often goofy online feature.
The Cave of Knowledge itself proved to be an okay tutorial, although it did have a few issues.
All of the prompts for controls and mechanics are shown in one of two ways.
Those being either a small pop-up in the left side of the screen or a big text box that momentarily pauses the game.
For the most part, this was fine, but as her focus was on the center of the screen, there were a few instances where she just didn’t notice the instructions on the side, missing pretty important information like how to lock-on to enemies—the only reason she ended up figuring that out was because she accidentally pressed while panicking.
As for the more obvious text prompts, my wife kept getting annoyed by being stopped every few seconds to have something explained to her, especially when most of them could have just been communicated with a simple button prompt.
I am unsure why they use these two different approaches to teach player’s the controls, but I think as far as less experienced players are concerned, the game would have been better off finding a middle ground between the two where the prompts show up in the center of the screen but don’t halt the game completely.
It’d make things obvious without being nearly as annoying.
On the topic of teaching players the controls, one issue I have noticed throughout many of these informal experiments is that a lot of games on PC don’t allow players to customize the UI of the button prompts.
Oftentimes, the only option is the Xbox gamepad layout, which has also been adopted by Steam.
As I only own playstation controllers, this has led to some confusion for my wife when playing games on PC that don’t have that kind of customization, which was the case for Elden Ring.
I actually ended up having to make a cheat sheet for her so she could have something to reference.
Now, I understand that the vast majority of people who use a gamepad on PC will opt for an Xbox controller as it is the most compatible with Windows, but there are a substantial number of people who use other controllers, and it seems like a missed opportunity to not support them.
Having more customization for button UI only serves to make games more accessible.
And like I don’t know anything about how to program video games, so it could be far more complicated to incorporate than it seems on the surface, but even if it is, given the resources FromSoft has, it feels weird they didn’t include it.
While this is not the biggest deal in the world, it is a quality of life improvement that would help a lot of players and save me from needing to buy an Xbox controller for future experiments.
Anyway, on the whole my wife had a much better time navigating the Cave of Knowledge than she did with the Undead Asylum, and I think a big part of that was due to it ending with a much more manageable boss fight.
The Soldier of Godrick is really just an average enemy, but because he has a boss sized health bar and intense music, it made the fight feel more important and impressive than it actually was.
The challenge was pretty well suited for her and only took a few tries to overcome, so she left with the satisfaction of beating what she found to be a tough boss without ever getting demoralized.
All in all, Elden Ring’s tutorial largely seems designed with inexperienced players in mind, which is an interesting departure from most other tutorial areas in FromSoft games that rarely pull any punches.
She Entered the Lands Between feeling confident, a feeling that unfortunately did not last once she was introduced to the wider offerings of the game As she stepped out into the Lands Between, she was immediately overwhelmed by how massive it was, and at first questioned where to go.
Seeing the Tree Sentinel patrolling below, she assumed that must be the way, and promptly got killed.
Lady: How do you beat that?! How do you do it? Raz: What do you think? Lady: How do you do it? Not wanting to have to deal with it, she decided to head west instead where she then ran into a demi-human giant and… Lady: Awwwwwwwwwwwww.
SHOOT This time after respawning, she surveyed the land a bit more, trying to determine the right path, which is when she noticed the Erdtree in the distance and figured that must be where she needed to go, so she pretty much ran in a straight line towards it, bringing her close to the Gatefront Ruins.
And I think this is a great example of how well thought out Elden Ring’s world design is.
While there isn’t really a wrong way to go in the game, there is a main path for players to follow in order to progress, although even that technically isn’t mandatory.
This path pretty much starts at the Gatefront Ruins that lead up to Stormhill and the first major boss of the game, Margit.
Of the various ways the game tries to direct players towards the Gatefront Ruins, this was one I did not pick up on during my own playthrough, but it makes a lot of sense.
The Erdtree is massive and its golden hue stands out among the rest of the environment.
Many players will no doubt be curious to see what is at the base of it, and while this isn’t a goal players will be able to accomplish at this point, it is still something that can be used to influence player decision making, so even if someone ignores the main roads and the guidance of grace that literally points them where to go like my wife did, all it takes is being intrigued by the Erdtree to be led to the main path.
Once getting to the Stormgate site of grace and unlocking Torrent and the ability to level up, she kept pressing forward, opting to ride past enemies instead of actually engaging with them.
As she made her way into Stormhill, she lost track of the Erdtree as it was mostly blocked by the ruins of a bridge and the fog in the area decreased visibility a bit.
For the few moments it was in sight, she was preoccupied by a pack of wolves that ambushed her, so instead of continuing towards it, she ended up following the road instead.
While I don’t know the full intentions of the developers, obscuring it in these ways seems like a very intentional choice so that players head towards Margit instead of the Erdtree itself which will just take them to a cliff’s edge.
Watching her play made me appreciate the world design of Elden Ring even more than I already did, which I honestly didn’t think was possible.
There are so many subtle touches that help guide players that manage to feel so natural to the world that you almost never pay attention to them, and it was really cool to see these design choices lead my wife in a certain direction.
Moving along the main road now, she tried to deal with the battalion guarding the gates in the same way she had dealt with every other enemy so far: running past it.
Her first few attempts of charging straight in were met with failure, but as she examined the area, she noticed that there weren’t as many enemies along the side of the road, so she rode around and slipped past them.
The ability to avoid conflict definitely made the experience less frustrating for her as, at least in the open-world, there was nothing she really felt stuck on, and she had fun weaving around enemies and finding clever ways past them.
With that said, the flaw to her approach was that the game doesn’t reward players with experience or items for not fighting, so when she got to Margit, she was woefully underprepared both in terms of player skill and character upgrades.
Lady: Oh no.
Oh n— This game is so annoying.
These sorts of skill checks are common barriers in FromSoft titles; in most of them, as there are only a few paths players can take, if they want to progress and see new areas, they will have to overcome difficult bosses pretty regularly, either by taking the time to learn their attack patterns and weaknesses or grinding the same areas over and over again to level up enough to make them less challenging.
As I mentioned before, in Dark Souls when my wife ran into a barrier like this, the frustration of losing again and again led her to want to stop playing.
The only thing she could do was fight the Asylum Demon and that got annoying quickly, but her experience with Elden Ring in this regard ended up being a bit different.
After dying a few times and realizing she stood no chance, she just went off to look for other things to engage with.
Due to its open-world structure, players have an incredible amount of options of stuff they can do.
This makes it so when they hit a spot that they’re not ready for, instead of repeatedly bashing their head against a wall, they can simply leave.
While there still are a few chokepoints players will need to eventually overcome in order to progress, due to the sheer amount of content that players can access from the moment they set foot in Limgrave, it is unlikely they will be forced to conquer a challenge before they are ready to do so.
At least, that’s how it works in theory—when my wife actually went off to find other things to do, it proved to be more difficult than expected.
She wanted to find enemies to fight in the hopes of leveling up, but she struggled with where to look.
She came across a few encampments, but they all had a fair amount of enemies roaming around; while she was able to pick off a few that hung around the outskirts, any time she got too far in and had to take on more than one enemy at a time, it didn’t go well.
Lady: There’s a lot—okay.
*horse noise* Lady: Rude.
So she rode around searching for things that felt more manageable but struggled to find anything of substance.
Occasionally she’d encounter some enemies on their own that she could take out, but this didn’t really yield significant results.
As she didn’t know how to take on multiple enemies, especially in wide open areas where they could easily surround her, her best bet was finding a cave, but despite passing a few, she didn’t notice them.
After aimlessly riding around for awhile, entirely unprompted she said: Lady: I liked Breath of the Wild better.
When I asked her why, along with saying it was just generally less stressful, she also remarked on how it was just easier to find things, and I think that’s fair.
The shrines and shekiah towers stand out due to their bright orange lighting and sleek, almost unnatural design.
Also, they can be spotted from far away and will draw the attention of most players.
Now, I personally think Elden Ring does a good job of signaling to players where points of interest are through the use of light sources, but for her, these kind of lights didn’t register as a sign that there was something to explore; she just saw them as set dressing, so she never paid all that much mind to them.
The style and visual language of a game has a huge impact on how individuals interpret things, and obviously especially for inexperienced players, the less complex that visual language is, the easier it will be to understand what they can and can’t engage with.
As a lot of Elden Ring’s visual language is more subtle than Breath of the Wilds’, certain things stood out less.
Eventually, I gave some pointers on what she should be looking for and she wound up finding a cave, which is when the real challenge began as she finally had to figure out how to actually fight.
Of all the bosses she could have faced, I was glad she came across the Beastman of Farum Azula as he leaves a lot of openings and doesn’t have that much health, and I figured if there was any boss in the game she could beat, it’d be him, and… *panicked car horn noises* *controller slam* Raz: Don’t break the desk or controller.
I don’t like this.
In general, she lacked patience and coordination.
Pretty much everytime she got into a fight, she’d do a lot of panic pressing, leading to her either attacking or rolling way more than she needed to.
She would constantly attack without paying attention to the enemy, get hit, and then roll away as fast as she could in the hopes of not dying.
For the most part, she was either all in on attacking or all in on rolling away, rarely putting the two things together to effectively sus out attacks and counter when there was an opening.
She also had a fair bit of trouble with doing various actions at the same time as moving, so whenever she attacked, called Torrent, or chugged a flask, she would let go of the joystick first, leaving her extremely vulnerable.
Maybe most consequentially, she found every battle to be anxiety inducing, leading to her squeezing the controller super tightly and accidentally pressing wrong buttons, resulting in inopportune item use and crouching at the worst times possible.
As she battled against the Beastman more and more though, she started to do better; dodging more effectively, getting attacks in without trading damage, and even recognizing certain attacks.
She had a handful of attempts where she got him down to around half health which was a huge improvement over her earlier attempts.
With that said, despite the improvement being encouraging, the repeated failure proved to be immensely frustrating.
She kept trying for awhile as something about the fight seemed more doable to her than Margit had, but she eventually hit a point where it was clear it would take a lot of grinding in order for her to beat him, and she didn’t really have the tolerance to go through that, so it seemed like her playthrough would end there.
However, after she stopped playing that day, I realized that there’s a pretty major mechanic that she hadn’t engaged with in the slightest that could help give her an edge: those being the Spirit Ashes.
Unlike other iterations of summons in FromSoft games, the Spirit Ashes feel more core to the game.
Where summoning in the Souls series generally requires the use of a limited resource, the Ashes only require FP or HP, making it a far more reliable tool.
Having beaten the game almost entirely without using the ashes (I hate you Malenia), I’d say that the bosses largely seem to be balanced around them, especially the fights with multiple enemies, and given that one of the most common rewards for exploring is an item that upgrades the spirits, it feels like the game was designed with the assumption that they would be a part of the player’s arsenal.
Naturally, there will always be a contingent of Souls fans who refuse to use certain mechanics, but not every player is looking for an extra challenge For folks struggling with the constant pressure many of the bosses put on them, the Spirit Ashes are great way to redirect attention and deal more damage, so it seemed like the perfect thing for my wife to use.
With that said, for it being such a helpful item, especially for less experienced players, it is surprisingly easy to miss.
It involves going to the Church of Elleh at nighttime after getting access to Torrent or buying it from the Twin Maiden Husks in the Roundtable Hold after enough time passes.
I imagine there are a few reasons they opted to make the item one the player has to find instead of automatically given, but, after watching my wife’s playthrough I can’t help but think that it would be a bit better if it was something that couldn’t be missed.
Anyway, I decided to have my wife give the Beastman another shot, but this time with the Spirits, soSo I pointed her in the right direction in order for her to get the Spirit Calling Bell and the Lone Wolf Ashes.
With a new tool at her disposal, she headed back to cave to face-off again, and it was a bloodbath; the Beastman continuously got stunlocked by the wolves and my wife would jump in every now and then to deal a bit of damage until… *gasp* Lady: They did it for me! *laughing* Lady: I didn’t do anything Raz (feebly): That’s not true.
Lady: My wolves did it all! After beating him though, she felt a little underwhelmed.
She had spent so much time trying to beat him on her own, but felt in this case that the wolves did most the work.
And, yeah, I went to test it on my own afterwards, and the wolves were able to take out like 75% of his health on their own.
She didn’t have a problem with the idea of getting help from the spirits, but in this instance, they were far too effective.
I had her go back to use them against Margit.
This time, even with their help, she wasn’t able to beat him, and seeing them in this context, got her to veiw them more like a useful tool than a complete exploit.
While I do still stand by the idea that many of the bosses are balanced for the use of Spirits, clearly, the Beastman wasn’t and unfortunately the way it played out robbed her of some satisfaction.
So I decided to try one more thing.
Many of her struggles with the game came from a lack of experience, but there was one aspect that caused her a significant amount of trouble that arguably got in the way of her improving, that being her choice of starting class.
She went with the Bandit, which actually is the same one she originally chose in Dark Souls although it has a different name there, and at the time I didn’t really think much of it, but after watching her play and then doing some research after, it become apparent that it is one of the worst classes, especially for someone learning how to play for the first time.
It has one of the lowest starting levels and gear that is not well suited for new players as the armor doesn’t negate much damage, the shield is primarily used for parrying, which she did not have the timing down for, and the dagger is really short, so she always had to get super close to enemies in order to hit them, making it difficult to have proper spacing.
The character selection screen doesn’t show any stats by default, and mainly presents characters by their designs, so she chose entirely based on which class she thought looked the coolest instead of by comparing their attributes.
With that said, even if she had compared them all diligently, aside from seeing that some classes had bigger numbers, I don’t think that information would have been all that valuable in terms of making an informed choice about which would be best for her as there is a lot of information without much context.
I understand that part of the FromSoft experience is unknowingly making decisions that negatively impact you, but I’d say the game could benefit from being clearer about which classes are more difficult to start with than others.
In fairness, it does have what is probably the best choice for new players be the first option and what is certainly the worst be the last one, but this won’t be entirely obvious for those less familiar with Souls games.
Anyway, in the hopes that this would make a difference, I made a new character for her, this time picking the vagabond and got her back to the fight, and lo-and-behold, it felt like more reasonable challenge for her.
Her attacks did significant damage that could cause knockback and she was able to keep more space between her and the beastman, all of which helped her better apply the skills she had been working on during all of her failed attempts.
The build gave her a bit more room for error so when she did make a mistake, she wasn’t punished as severely for it.
And then, after a handful of tries: *cheering/screaming* Raz: You did it! Lady: Oh my god dude, that was a close call.
Raz: That one feel better? Lady: Oh yeah that one felt better.
Raz: That’s a good middle ground? Lady: Yeah Through trial and error, we were able to find an approach that worked for her while not oversimplifying things, and it was really fun to see that happen.
And it made me want to see her overcome a different challenge.
One that has been sitting unfinished for a few years now.
One that required going back to the start of all of this to complete.
Having seen the benefits of having a weapon larger than a toothpick, she opted for the warrior instead of the thief.
Now, as it has been a few years since we ran the very first informal experiment, she had forgot most everything in the tutorial, so she fought the Asylum Demon for far too long with a broken sword, got rolled by the boulder, and was sniped by an undead archer, but when she finally began some actual attempts on the Asylum Demon, she looked more confident and competent than she ever had before.
Having played a decent bit of Elden Ring before trying this, she not only had gotten better at combat, but also had gotten used to much faster gameplay, so she found the Asylum Demon easier to read than any of the bosses she had faced in Elden Ring.
While she wasn’t always perfect at keeping up with his attacks, she was able to better capitalize on openings and avoid its big, slow swings.
On her first attempt, she was able to do more damage than she had ever done to him on her original playthrough.
On her second, she choked, but on her third… *panicked yell followed by shocked yell* Raz: You did it!! *high five* *laughing* There are a lot of factors that went into her finally being able to beat the Asylum Demon like using a half decent starting class and just more general experience with playing games, but I think a big part of it came from her learning a lot of the basic skills in Elden Ring, a game that, while far from perfect, much more clearly teaches players how to play, and then applying those lessons to its predecessor.
In short, Elden Ring helped her get good, and that’s pretty cool to see.
So, is Elden Ring a good starting point for people who don’t really play games? I mean, no, of course not, although it was far more approachable than I expected it to be.
Between its fairly detailed tutorial, thoughtful world layout, and plethora of options for how to approach a fight, it gives inexperienced players a lot of tools to help them succeed.
It still contains the difficulty and obscurity that has long defined the series, making it people who don’t really play games will struggle to get a grasp on things without help from an outside source, but it does have a few shifts with how FromSoft typically operates, that seem to be there as a way to appeal to a wider audience.
Of course, FromSoft doesn’t and shouldn’t design their games with players like my wife in mind as she is nowhere near their target demographic, however, I do think its interesting to see how they’ve tried to pull in players a bit outside of their typical circle; how they’ve expanded approachability, while not losing their distinct identity.
Personally, I think they could have gone a bit further with certain aspects to give a better experience for players new to the genre, but I also understand that they are trying to maintain a delicate balance and don’t want to push things too far.
All in all, I had a lot of fun watching my wife shake off the rust from her gaming hiatus and go on to take her skills to a new level, and even though she did not enjoy playing Elden Ring, it did push her to understand games a bit better as well as overcome a challenge that she hadn’t been able to before.
Lady: How long did it take me last time to do that? Raz: You didn’t do it last time.
Lady: Okay *laughs* Rude Raz: But you’ve gotten better! For those of you interested in seeing more of my wife’s journey with Elden Ring, I put together a highlight video of part of her playthrough that you can watch right now over on Nebula.
By now I assume you already know the deal, but in case you don’t Nebula is a streaming service made and owned by creators, me being one of them.
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On Nebula, you can watch videos from many of the best creators on the internet ad-free as well as a ton of exclusive content that is made possible by Nebula’s support.
Every time my wife and I do one of these informal experiments, we record for hours and there end up being far more interesting moments than could ever fit in a video essay, so if you’d like to hear my wife curse some more at a video game, that’s the place to do it.
Lady: Augh! oo oo! What’s happening, why—AH DIH DEH.
Lady: Crushed it.
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Lady: I can’t play video games, babe.
I can’t do this.
It’s like—my heart rate is through the roof, right now.
I just spit everywhere—I can’t do this! I don’t like this Raz: Keep going, you’re doing great.
Lady: Am I good? Raz: You’re doing great.
Lady: Am I good though? Raz: What do you mean? Like good at the game? Lady: Am I good at the game? Raz: No.
But you’re doing fine.
Lady: Oh that’s mean.