Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Is (Not) My GOTY 2024

...or how I learned to stop caring and bask In the shade of the Erdtree

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree Is (Not) My GOTY 2024
Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree (2024). Image courtesy of IGBD. Copyrighted material by FromSoftware, Bandai Namco.

This article is preambled by an apology. I am currently working on a piece that relates to how the Yakuza games represent friendship and forgiveness, along with how those moral facets coincide and conflict with our cruel, non-game world. I really want to deliver polished work and that essay is just not there yet. I am going to work on it a bit more, but want to keep up with my "one article a month" rule. So please, enjoy this apology cake – filled with my thoughts on the new Elden Ring DLC.

I often think of a quote that Hidetaka Miyazaki said in response to a design draft of a grosser, gorier Gaping Dragon. He told his artist: "This isn't dignified. Don't rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can't you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?". It's a design ethos that runs through all of his works – how do you give such a broken, desperate world a sense of history? How do you grant the fallen, the mad and the corrupted a shred of aspiration, dignity and perseverance? How do you humanize the inhuman? Play any of Miyazaki's games, and you will get your answer.

Is it fair to give the 2024 GOTY to Elden Ring DLC? In my utopic world – yes. Realistically – no. Regardless, Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree is, so far, my favorite gaming experience of 2024. It recaptured the feeling of wanderlust I first experienced with the original – that distinct fresh breath of adventure and discovery, that dopamine rush of surpassing insurmountable obstacles by defeating brutal bosses. Above all, I re-experienced the wonder and sadness of being lost in a beautiful yet broken world.

My yearly roundup is a loose wrangling of yearly videogame favorites, so I tend to make choices based on personal enjoyment and videogames' permanence in my mind chasm. I still believe some fairness must be involved in the decision. I therefore stick to three ground rules:
1) No early access games. (Do note that I am a fan of the early access model, but I only consider "finished products" for the roundup. Once a game leaves early access, I consider that the "year it released" and it can become a contender for that year's GOTY)
2) No games from previous years. (duh)
3) No DLC.

Hence, Shadow of the Erdtree is disqualified. I know this is my own website (for now), and I can post whatever ramblings I want and follow whichever rules I self-impose. I could just give Shadow of the Erdtree a proper spot as a contender for GOTY 2024 and a place on my yearly roundup. But I don't see that as very fair in my book. Given all this, I want to spend the next few paragraphs gushing about how much I adore the DLC, and, inevitably, the base game as well.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree (2024). Image courtesy of IGBD. Copyrighted material by FromSoftware, Bandai Namco.

If I had started with games writing earlier, Elden Ring would've been my 2022 GOTY, no doubt. It blew everything else I played that year out of the water. Elden Ring plays like an amalgamation of all the best ideas from previous Souls games – the loop-like level design of Dark Souls' Lordran, the speedier combat of Bloodborne and the verticality and mobility of Sekiro. It continues to absorb me to this day. Case in point: Shadow of the Erdtree, the long-awaited DLC that came out earlier this year.

Shadow of the Erdtree itself plays like a victory lap of all the main game's areas – the ascent to the top of Belurat is reminiscent of the solo siege of Stormveil, magical knights and stone-headed mages guard Castle Ensis as if it were their home in Caria, and the DLC opens up midway to a lush, yellow plain called Altu-I mean - Scadu Plateau.

The new map is vast enough that if any other game studio would've made Shadow of the Erdtree, it would've been labeled an Elden Ring sequel. I have dedicated over 500 hours to Elden Ring and I did not think the DLC was going to amaze me as much as it has.

There was this experience I had that was unique to Elden Ring. I was in the first area of the game, dedicating literal days to exploring every nook and cranny in Limgrave. Every ounce in my body screaming "Woah! This area is huge!" expecting a couple more areas of similar size and scope. Then the map kept getting larger...and larger...and larger. The beginning area, which felt gigantic and majestic at the start, felt comparably small and unremarkable when placed alongside the whole map, which contains snow-driven, giant-corpse-laden mountaintops and a whole-ass shining medieval city at the foot of the Erdtree.

Shadow of the Erdtree recreated this experience flawlessly – I am continuously in awe as the Shadow Lands keep expanding into brand new locales. I love the seemingly endless fields of blue flowers at the Cerulean Coast, swaying with the wind. Staring at Jagged Peak from a distance gave me the same sense of unease as when I first stumbled upon the mountainous area that surrounds Volcano Manor.

What really aided in my feelings of wonder, was experiencing the original, and now the DLC, fresh-faced alongside fellow friends and gamers. There was a magical moment in time when the base game first came out where everyone was figuring out the convoluted questlines, reacting to bosses and sharing information with each other. We are currently experiencing that with Shadow of the Erdtree – we are witnessing it fresh-faced together.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree (2024). Image courtesy of IGBD. Copyrighted material by FromSoftware, Bandai Namco.

Having someone alongside me to share my reactions to new enemies or interesting dungeons added to my adoration of Elden Ring. I first played and beat the game with my good friend, who for anonymity's sake, I will simply call J. Seasoned FromSoftware veterans, we created a shared character, trading off control with every "YOU DIED" screen. We ended up beating the game a second time with our respective solo characters.

Our jaws dropped when Godrick first cut off his arm during his phase transition, I still quote Margit's introductory speech to J and when I need to lock in I quote Godfrey's: "I've given thee courtesy enough". I am being slammed with the same impact. The dancing divine lion gave me chills when first introduced, Rellana the Twin Moon Knight intimidated me when her swords were alit with flames and blue magic.

Every day at work, I just dream and wait of when I can play Shadow of the Erdtree some more and discover more of its bosses and recesses. I am writing all this without having actually beaten the DLC, and, frankly, I don't care – it's already the most fun I've had this year while holding a controller.

I want to take advantage of this article's ending to expose the main reason I enjoy games like Elden Ring, and why most Souls-likes falter. I don't like Elden Ring just because it has stamina-based combat, vast vistas to explore or brutally difficult boss fights. I like the dome that surrounds this solid core – the intense attention to detail, the mysterious and deep lore, the grimdark aesthetics of it all. I absolutely love how implicit everything is – it allows conversation and theorizing like no other game series out there.

It's that facet of design I alluded to – with few words and fanfare, these characters, bosses and locations are characterized with so much personality and vigor. They are all such tragic figures, yet so memorable and human, despite some of their monstrous appearances.

As a result, there's a multiverse Artemis somewhere out there that is absconding my rules and crowning Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree as her GOTY for 2024. And I wouldn't blame her at all.

Elden Ring: Shadow of the Erdtree (2024). Image courtesy of IGBD. Copyrighted material by FromSoftware, Bandai Namco.