The moment the Asylum Demon pancaked me under the weight of his truck-size mace, I knew Dark Souls was no ordinary action RPG. The interactive power fantasy I had expected when I purchased a copy in 2011 was nowhere to be found, and there were no cutscenes to explain the vaguely interesting but ultimately incomprehensible story. All I understood for certain was that I was no hero, but a nameless, accursed undead, fated to die over and over and over, until I lost all memory and sense of purpose.
Confused, frustrated, and intimidated, I dropped Dark Souls, the grandfather of the new hit game Elden Ring, until years later, when my YouTube feed recommended a video from somebody named VaatiVidya (Vaati to fans and friends). I soon learned my experience was by no means unique, and Vaati quite literally showed me who my character was and how they needed to progress in the game. His “Prepare to Cry” series — a play on the game’s de facto motto “Prepare to Die” — revealed that, behind the bewildering level design and enigmatic NPCs, there had been a thematically mature and hauntingly beautiful fantasy world no less compelling than The Lord of the Rings or, tellingly, Game of Thrones. And like Dark Souls before it, Elden Ring’s story is also one where a player adrift in an unforgiving world must save it by vanquishing deitylike beings and ghastly bosses.
Vaati taught me that there was more to this type of game than I ever imagined. And once I was hooked, I was really hooked. So hooked that all the other types of games I once enjoyed suddenly ceased to satisfy me. The hunger that now consumed me could only be stilled by similar games from developer FromSoftware, like the next two titles in the Dark Souls series, not to mention Bloodborne, which is set in a Lovecraftian nightmare, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in a world loosely based on Shogun-era Japan.
Each of these so-called “Soulsborne” games laid the foundation for Elden Ring, FromSoftware’s biggest, most ambitious title yet. It’s also the most popular, dwarfing the success of Dark Souls just as its terrifying bosses dwarf the player character. This achievement can be attributed to several factors, including publisher Bandai Namco’s fevered marketing campaign, the involvement of Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, who provided a basic outline for the game’s world and plot, and, of course, the mettle of director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his development team.
But another, often overlooked element of FromSoftware’s success might well be the steadily growing size and influence of the internet community built around its titles. It’s a community serving the same function tutorials, cutscenes, or guidebooks do in more straightforward games, and while every popular game has online supporters, this is a fandom that thrives on answering to its games’ outwardly hostile ambiguity. As FromSoftware’s fanbase coalesced, YouTubers like Vaati have managed to earn a decent living explaining the tricky gameplay and even more complicated plots of their favorite games. In doing so, they inadvertently paved the way for Elden Ring by introducing countless new players into the fold.
According to Zullie the Witch, a YouTuber who specializes in unearthing the subtlest mechanics hidden in FromSoftware’s code, independent content creators played a key part in the Souls series’ history from the beginning. “Sony considered Demon’s Souls a flop” after that title’s release in 2009, she writes in an email, “and had no interest in localizing it for an English release, but content creators playing imports of the Japanese version helped to spread the name and drum up interest in the West. Bandai Namco greenlit Dark Souls as a spiritual successor, but who knows if they’d have taken that risk if not for the praise Demon’s Souls received from various internet communities?”
By the time Elden Ring came out last month, these primordial communities had evolved into a full-fledged online ecosystem spanning YouTube, Reddit, Discord, and TikTok. It is buffed by hundreds of content creators, each focusing on different aspects of the games. Loremasters like Vaati and Ashen Hollow piece together narratives via item descriptions and dialogue. Tyrannicon and theDemodCracy are there mainly for the challenge, sharing tips on how to defeat bosses and, as Tyrannicon’s so-called “Elden Ring Guru” puts it, “relate to the rage” when players end up losing. LilAggy, who beat Dark Souls by covering his enemies in poo, is one of several speedrunners who uses his skills to comically trivialize this unforgiving genre.
Many of these creators have a digital reach greater than that of medium-size newspapers, with several boasting close to a million subscribers (Vaati currently has over 2 million). But it’s not just the big fish that know how to attract new players. Redditor k0sm0sis felt drawn to FromSoftware because its games reminded them of the Legend of Zelda adventures that they grew up on, but stuck with them after discovering YouTubers such as Sinclair Lore, a channel that introduced them to the feminist themes embedded throughout Bloodborne.
“I’d fall asleep listening to Sin and Sophie [hosts of Sinclair Lore] discuss the intricacies of Byrgenwerth, the formation of the Healing Church and the mysteries of the School of Mensis,” k0sm0sis, who appreciates the hosts’ literary analysis, told Vulture. “I love how content creators share their theories and build narratives based on tiny clues in [the games’] environmental context.” The Soulsborne games may be punishing, but a sense of community can alleviate some of the pain and frustration of repeated failure. You die, yes, but if you play online, or watch these videos, you never die alone.
The newest game has only expanded the series’ and creators’ reach. Just as YouTubers assisted Dark Souls players in the past, their videos rush to our aid when we become stuck in Elden Ring. As content creator FightinCowboy pointed out in a Zoom call, Elden Ring gives players more options than ever to make the game as easy or as difficult as we want it to be. Equip enough spells and incantations and spirit summons, and even a newbie will be able to take down a behemoth like Starscourge Radahn within a couple tries. That kind of customization wasn’t really possible in previous games. Back then, your only hope — as the memes used to say, before it became ironic — was to “git gud.”
Of course, those tools and mechanics are useless if the player doesn’t know about them. FromSoftware doesn’t go out of its way to inform you, but YouTubers do, and that’s why they’re more valuable than ever. “Elden Ring leans more into a power fantasy,” FightinCowboy says. “But it’s still a game about patience and watching your enemy.” He approaches the game in the same way a teacher approaches a classroom. As of late March, four weeks after Elden Ring’s release, his general play videos and meticulous walkthroughs counted more than 150 episodes. His streams take viewers through every dungeon, weapon, and item, giving them the knowledge and confidence they need to explore on their own.
FromSoftware knows how popular the independent streamers are. In the months leading up to Elden Ring, various channels were given early access to a closed network test of the Limgrave area. Korea-based YouTuber ymfah told Vulture that Bandai Namco set up Discord servers to answer questions from participants and that they had been “very responsive.” Recently, one of Vaati’s beginner guides was posted on the publisher’s own YouTube channel to “help new players stick with the game,” and even smaller YouTube accounts like BlueLizardJello have attested to receiving plushies and chocolates in the mail as tokens of gratitude.
Many YouTubers I talked to were hesitant to acknowledge the contributions they’d made to FromSoftware’s success, stressing time and again that most if not all of the credit belongs to the developers. Although his influence is on par with fellow gaming luminaries Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima, Miyazaki has kept a low profile and is difficult to interview. Still, there is a sense that based on his previous comments, the director would want to share some of the credit: “We really owe a lot to the gamers who gave so much praise to our previous titles,” he once said of Bloodborne. And as fresh as Elden Ring feels, its fans know the similarities. After all, Miyazaki’s games are about downtrodden people trying to survive and succeed in an inhospitable world, ever thankful for each other’s support.