The boss-whisperers of Elden Ring

1 year ago 99

The major antagonists of From Software games usually have a lot of shared history. Some are blood relatives, some are lovers, some are enemies with grudges stretching back centuries. A few are all these things simultaneously. But they seldom meet, reconcile or thrash out their differences in-game. By the time we encounter them as players they've become monstrous hermits, isolated and corrupted by their vast ambitions and desires.

Some bossfights do, however, let you summon an ally character from your enemy's past, perhaps to fulfil one of each game's hidden sidequests. A select group of modders have taken this concept further. They've hacked the game to pit bosses against each other, dropping them into each other's arenas and filming the results in first-person. It's a feat of bloody fan service which exposes the nuances of each boss's design.

Garden of Eyes has been making From Software's bosses murder each other since the days of Bloodborne. His first video put the game's mentor figure Gehrman and Lady Maria, coverstar for the Old Hunters DLC, up against Laurence, first Vicar of the infamous Healing Church. It's not a close match. Laurence has the reach, but Gehrman and Maria have the speed and finesse, though Laurence's second phase - in which he tears himself apart to spew lava everywhere - at least denies the pair a spectacular finish.

Garden of Eyes wasn't expecting the fight to do numbers. "I uploaded one or two videos and just forgot about them - I was expecting it to get a couple of views or something. I left it like for 24 hours, and when I opened the channel, there were like 30,000, 50,000 views on those two videos - on a brand new channel that no one knew about." Inspired by the response, he started releasing boss vs boss videos on the regular, beginning his Elden Ring series with a match-up between two of the game's best-known demigods - Malenia, Blade of Miquella, and Starscourge Radahn.

They're terrifying bosses in completely different ways. Malenia is an old school fencer with a lifesteal ability that punishes you twice over for mistiming a dodge. Radahn is an absurdly zippy battle tank, hurling gravity magic at you and galloping about on his relatively tiny horse. Both have awesome second phases - Malenia turns into an angel of Rot, swamping you in status effects, while Radahn leaves and re-enters the map as a flaming meteor.

Watching the pair hack chunks out of each other feels like long overdue payback. But it also delivers on the game's prologue cutscenes, in which Malenia and Radahn are glimpsed duelling each other bitterly during the closing hours of the Shattering war. "That was a fight everyone wanted to see in-game," Garden of Eyes says. "It was in the trailers, it was in the opening cinematic and all of that. So that was the first fight we wanted to do, and it got a lot of people very, very hyped for that type of content."

Setting up a boss vs boss fight might sound like a glorified act of cut-and-paste, but it requires a fair amount of design insight, specialised tools, a touch of narrative framing and above all, an instinct for showmanship.

"Our Elden Ring boss vs boss videos are made with a few different fan-made tools, the main one being DS Map Studio," explains a leading member of mod group Tyrannicon, which came to fame as the instigator of a Great Giant Battle in Skyrim. "DS Map Studio allows you to load the levels in the game and move objects and enemies around, amongst other things. So you basically load the level where you want the fight to take place, spawn the two bosses and make them hate each other by choosing opposite team types. Then when you load up the game and go to that location they will be there ready to fight." You'll need to ensure that bosses don't slaughter the player filming the action, of course - Tyrannicon's in-game cameraperson wields modded magic that can end the fight in seconds, should the pugilists misbehave.

It's one thing to throw bosses together for kicks, another thing to make it a spectator sport that can sustain a Youtube business. Much tinkering is necessary to produce a watchable video. Take implementing boss health bars. "For the first, I think, two or three weeks after Elden Ring released we didn't have the capability to make health bars appear, so I had to do them manually," says Garden of Eyes. "I had to use Cheat Engine to record the damage values and the health values of the bosses when they attack each other. And then in editing, I had to manually subtract health from the health bar, or increase it."

Two Elden Ring demigods, Malenia Blade of Miquella and Starscourge Radahn, facing off in a piece of key art. Malenia and Radahn squaring off in key art for Elden Ring.

Another issue is boss phases. Most From Software bosses have at least a couple: they'll hulk out and sprout a whole new moveset when you drop their health below a certain threshold. Sometimes, these phase changes are part of the boss's AI, but occasionally, they're tethered to the arena itself.

"For Lady Maria, if you put her in another arena, she transitions normally into a second and third phase, because the phase transition is programmed into her actual AI," explains Garden of Eyes. "But Gehrman, his phase change is actually linked to the scripting and the programming of the level. So if you move him to another level, he won't transform into his second phase. So we have to take that into consideration in order to put the boss in another arena."

The biggest challenge of all, however, is making sure that fights feel fair, which might involve giving one boss a boost. Take Malenia and Radahn. In Elden Ring's prologue cutscenes, the two duel each other to a stalemate, but by the time you arrive in the world, there's a sizeable gulf between them. Radahn has become a mindless beast, while Malenia has kept herself in relative trim. "Radahn is a midgame boss and Malenia is very lategame, so there is a very big difference in power and in health," says Garden of Eyes. "If you put them together as they are, Malenia would beat Radahn in like, 10-15 seconds, basically."

The balancing issue can be handled in other ways. When Tyrannicon ran an Elden Ring boss tournament series (complete with irreverent commentary) they kept the game's alphas and underdogs separate to begin with. "I had to structure the draw in advance so all the harder bosses where in the top half and the more manageable bosses were in the bottom half," Tyrannicon says. "This meant that they only started meeting in the semifinals, and it made for a more entertaining series overall, because a bunch of fights were more evenly matched."

Some bosses are harder to categorise as stronger or weaker, with much depending on the AI's mood on the day. "I remember recording one of the later fights in the main boss vs boss tournament, Death Rite Bird vs Fire Giant," Tyrannicon goes on. "But the problem was the Death Rite Bird has a one-hit-kill move basically, and it kept doing it right at the start of the recording. So I kept having to film it until the AI held back and didn't use the move until a good few minutes into the video. That's one of the main problems with making boss vs boss videos - you never know how the AI's going to act. It might do something dumb a bunch of times before you get a decent fight that you can use." (In the resulting footage, The Death Rite Bird isn't the only one who seems off its game - the Fire Giant takes a random swipe at the cameraman.)

The last piece of the puzzle is making each fight agree with the game's lore. It's an exercise in what-if fanfiction, and while commenters may get lippy about the authenticity of the match-ups, many are only too happy to formulate their own explanations.

"There are some bosses that wouldn't fight each other but we have them fight each other, and you'd be surprised, actually, at how many people in the comments start creating their own stories about why it happened," says Garden of Eyes. "I really love going through the comments, because there's a lot of people who get very creative, with pages upon pages of writing about why those two fought or why this one won. It's a great aspect of this genre that gives people some kind of visualisation for a fanfiction they may have imagined. It gives them a space to present their ideas. And sometimes, I also get inspired by these ideas and make videos about the videos." Garden of Eyes has devised Mortal Kombat-style intros for some of the fights that blur assets from each game - putting the Dark Sign in the sky of Bloodborne, and having the bosses taunt each other before exchanging blows.

Many Fromsoft boss mod videos are borderline unintelligible - AOE spells overlapping, smaller elites like Malenia obscured by their larger, yet punier brethren. Some are openly played for laughs, forcing the game's headline opponents to fight crowds of no-name boglins, or even traps (if you're struggling with Elden Ring's demigods, I cannot over-emphasise the catharsis of watching them get their arses handed to them by a set of giant balls). But even at their most chaotic, they shed new light on the intricacies of each boss design.

"Sometimes we have weaker bosses equally matched with some of the stronger bosses, to see like, OK, if this boss was a late game boss, how strong would it be, and you'd be surprised by some of them - they're very smart when dealing with the other bosses," Garden of Eyes says. "So it was a very fun experience, it got me learning more and more about the mechanics of the game, the different stats, strengths and weaknesses for bosses and enemies."

Pulling back the view is invaluable when it comes to megafauna like Elden Ring's Astel, a cosmic scorpion composed of gobbets of broken star, or Elden Beast - the living incarnation of the concept of Order, who looks like a massive broccoli that's spent too long in the microwave. "I was very surprised by how Astel fared against Elden Beast, because the problem with Astel when you're fighting him is that he's huge," Garden of Eyes comments. "You can't properly see his attacks. When you see him from far behind in the videos, he's actually got super-good animations and movements and attacks and all of that."

Porting bosses from one game to another, especially, distils each game's similarities and differences to a single, bloody encounter. Slave Knight Gael from Dark Souls 3's Ringed City DLC makes a good foil for Bloodborne's Orphan of Kos, for instance, because he already feels like he belongs in Bloodborne. "In general, the bosses in Bloodborne are faster because the gameplay overall is faster paced," Garden of Eyes notes. "However, Gael is also a very fast-paced boss compared to other Dark Souls 3 bosses, so it was nice to see how that design can compete with the Orphan of Kos."

Lady Maria, meanwhile, is an interesting match for Dark Souls 3's Sister Freide because the two could almost be mother and daughter. "They're very similar," Garden of Eyes goes on. "You feel like Sister Freide is very heavily inspired by Lady Maria. They both have this jumping and spinning attack where they smash to the ground. It's literally the same attack, but seeing them both fight each other in that context also makes you appreciate how different they are."

Perhaps inevitably, Garden of Eyes is now trying to apply what he's learned from boss-matching videos to the creation of brand new, or at least fiendishly revised, Elden Ring bosses. He's part of a small international modding team who are developing a complete game overhaul, with additional or reworked weapons, equipment and mounts, original music and areas. It's loosely pencilled in for release after the Shadow of the Erdtree DLC.

Garden of Eyes is elusive about what the new bosses involve, but a few will be transformations of bosses from other From Software titles - tantalisingly reimagined to suit the world of Elden Ring. "In Bloodborne, there are these beings called the Great Ones - one of our ideas is making one of those Great Ones an Outer God in Elden Ring," he hints. "We're sort of creating a parallel between the two games in a - I don't want to say 'lore-friendly' way, but it's not just that we threw Bloodborne's Great Ones into the other game. We're creating a new design, a completely new story that links the two together in a very intricate way."

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