Why Elden Ring is great, and how not to die binomially.

Cross-posted from Putanumonit

One reason I haven’t written as much in the last two months is that I’ve been playing a lot of Elden Ring. It’s a video game in which you explore a vast and beautiful open world full of monsters who repeatedly kill you in gruesome ways. It’s a punishing and often frustrating experience that demands skill and discipline to persevere. You wouldn’t think that this is a formula for mass entertainment, but Elden Ring is massively popular. And with good reason.

I’ve written about some of my favorite video games before and what drives the player in each one, whether it’s the addictive minute-by-minute gameplay or a fascinating mystery to uncover as the narrative unforlds. Elden Ring has a background story (co-written by George R. R. Martin) to uncover, but it’s not central to the experience. The gameplay is pretty standard for action-RPGs: you control a character in third-person view, with movement, dodging, and swinging of comically-oversized weapons. Watching a random minute of someone playing Elden Ring doesn’t appear impressive.

Instead, the main goal of playing Elden Ring is to get really good at Elden Ring, because being really good at a very difficult game is incredibly fun. Like other very difficult games, Elden Ring has a progression system with your character upgrading their attributes and gear, but this used just as much to distract the player from the hard work of “gettin gud”. Elden Ring is a rare game where I’m having more fun on my second playthrough — even though my character is weak and has basic gear, the skill I’ve built up lets me breeze through parts that took me long hours to slog through my first time around.

My friend called these games a “stoic self-control fantasy“. Getting good mostly isn’t about committing some complex sequence of finger movements to muscle memory like you would to play a piano piece. Each challenging boss fights requires reacting correctly to one of several possible moves by your adversary, often the opposite of your instinctive reaction the first time you face them. Success requires the self-control to overcome your initial instinct, and to let your skill overcome your fear even as you have no idea from second to second what the next move and counter-move are going to be.

The other thing that success requires is leveling up your vigor so that you don’t get one-shot.

Let’s look in a bit more detail at the game mechanics and the math behind them. Your character in Elden Ring has eight attributes that can be increased with experience. Vigor, mind, and endurance affect the available pools of health, focus (a resource used for special moves), and stamina (a resource for most offensive and defensive actions). The other five attributes affect your ability to use various weapons and skills effectively, like strength for swinging heavy weapons or intelligence for launching powerful spells from long range.

You can’t be good at everything at once, so you must trade off some attributes for others. People plan out “builds”: templates of attribute allocation to pair with particular gear and a desired playing style. You can sacrifice intelligence for strength and build a character that needs to close the distance on an enemy fast, or have a high-faith low-endurance build that needs to constantly evade and disengage to recharge.

But there’s one thing all good builds have in common: they all have high vigor. Because when you lose your health, you die.

Here’s an example of the enemy you face in Elden Ring — a pale asshole wearing the skin of dead gods named, appropriately, the Godskin Asshole Apostle:

GA has nine different attack moves and combinations, each requiring a particular counter. Here are four of them:

Here’s how the math of the encounter works: GA attacks you with one of his moves, and if you counter it successfully you have an opening to hit him back. Let’s say it takes you 30 hits to bring him down, each of his hits takes most of your health, and you have 5 flasks that replenish it. So, you need to successfully counter and hit him 30 times before he hits you 6 times. In other words, to succeed at least 30 out of 35 “moves”.

If your chance of countering any single move is p, your chance of sending the leathery asshole back to hell is given by the binomial distribution. You can calculate this using the BINOM.DIST function in Excel or Google sheets.

When you fight the apostle and see his moves for the first time, your p may be only around 50%. That makes your chance of winning the fight pbinom(30,35,0.5) = .00001. Your probability on each individual move should be close to 30/35 or 6/7 to win. At 84% success, you have a 50-50 chance of winning the overall fight and will do so in a couple of tries if you keep your cool.

How hard is it to hit a 84% success rate on a repeated action? We can compare this to shooting basketball free throws (a favorite subject of this blog). I don’t play basketball regularly, and I hit about 40% of my free throws when I’m out in the park. The NBA average, i.e. the average of elite athletes who have dedicated their lives to pursuing basketball perfection, is only 77.8%. No team averages above 84% as a group, and only 42 of the 400+ players in the association do.

Back to Elden Ring. After getting skinned by the apostle a couple dozen times I was probably clocking around 80% success rate and yet I was still dying. And the reason was that a couple of the GA’s moves like the tornado or spinning slash were not taking away most of my health but all of it. Which meant that I couldn’t mess up a counter to those moves even once in the entire fight. That’s much harder than 84%.

Assuming that about every third attack by GA was a one-shot kill, to win the fight I needed to succeed 18/23 times on normal attacks and 12/12 on the one-shots. My probability of victory was pbinom(18,23,.80) * pbinom(12,12,.80), only 4.7%.

I decided to explore the world a bit and level up before re-engaging. Prior to that, I was focused on increasing my damage output. Boosting my damage by 20% would have meant that I only needed 24 hits to bring the apostle down. My chance of victory would be pbinom(14,20,.80) * pbinom(10,10,.80) = 10%. But beefing up my health to survive all the hits would bring me up all the way to pbinom(30,35,.80) = 27%, a much better chance. I put some levels into vigor, and beat the Godskin Apostle on my second try.

(I think the tornado would still have one-shot me, but it’s a rare move and I learned to forego attacking and run to the farthest corner of the room at the merest suggestion the GA may try it. Paranoia can be a substitute for resilience.)

I think this lesson comes up in other areas of life as well: if there’s anything that can knock you out in one blow you should focus on that above all else. Learning how to avoid it, and ideally building up the resilience to survive it even if it takes you time to recover.

This applies to investing: trading on margin multiplies your returns, but also opens you up to losing your entire bankroll even if the underlying investment only dropped by a fraction. You can apply it to relationships as well, if there’s one work fuck-up that will immediately cost you your job or one type of transgression your significant other won’t tolerate. Optimize for not getting one-shot before taking your own shots.

The first rule of life is not to die, and a game where you die a lot is a fun place to learn this.

New Comment
11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:52 PM

I think one of the interesting things about Elden Ring, compared to many other games, is that it's much more about the enemies than it is about you, and that makes it substantially more difficult for it to become stale. [A similar game in that regard is Undertale, where (on a nice playthru) your character basically doesn't get any better, you just get better at not getting hurt by the enemies / going thru the conversational sequence necessary to befriend them.]

Like, consider this YouTube video, where a game exploiter sets up a super powerful combo (a very expensive spell to deal lots of continuous damage, plus a temporary buff that makes spells do more damage, plus a temporary buff that makes spells free!) and... gets one-hit-killed by the first dragon that he tries it on. In other games, this might be the point at which every battle from then on out becomes a repetitive exercise in performing the combo. [Despite the combo's significant limitations, it's nevertheless situationally useful and I used it a bunch on my mage.]

There are other solutions to keep things fresh; for example, in Hades, you are mostly choosing powerups from a random set of options, and so can't execute the same combo every run, but during a run there will typically be a point where you lock in your combo and then it's all execution from then on out. [Hades has the same dynamic of binomially avoiding trouble.]

If, instead, you're playing something downstream of Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer or so on, you often have the experience of being locked in to a playstyle; you wanted to be an archer? Great, here's fifty hours of being an archer. Want a different playstyle? Well... I guess you could start over.

I upvoted your post because it helped me understand what the fuss is all about. 

I stopped playing video games long ago, and it is one of the best decisions I have taken. In my case, I absolutely love video games and I think some of them are truly masterpieces (I am looking at you Ocarina of Time, Diablo). I won't say no to play, once in a blue moon a match to Age of Empires II, or even replay the Monkey Island Saga. But the truth is that video games are, at least for me, one of the worst ways I can think of spending my time. They are extremely fun when I play them, but when I finish playing they just give me a very bad feeling of having wasted my time, in front of a screen., instead of doing other activities that feel much better to me and that have a positive impact in my life.  The opportunity cost of playing a video game is simply too high. Going to the gym is not nearly as entertaining, but I do feel much better after doing it.

Carl Sagan, after playing some videogames with his son asked him not to ever show them to him again, "I like it too much". I feel similar. Not saying that this applies necessarily to everyone, but I think it is better to be careful.

I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but what's a rationalist (and presumably also carer-about-AI-safety) doing spending this much time (and mental energy - you seem to have been doing a lot of calculations) playing a video game? If you need to play something every so often in order to rest, that's reasonable, but you explicitly state that you've been writing less partially due to playing the game; as someone who has had to mostly eliminate my consumption of video games specifically because I almost invariably get addicted to them and lose tons of time, I can't help but wonder if you're in that situation.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

I weak-down voted your comment, mainly because it has an underlying movement that is very should-y (beware other-optimizing!), based on at best medium information about the writer. I believe you probably wouldn't have made a similar comment about someone spending two months learning the piano?

I would like it to be the case that Lesswrong stays a place where overly math-heavy video game discussion is socially allowed, and not where everything that doesn't reduce x-risk is frowned upon. Let people play during the apocalypse, they should enjoy their remaining time.

After playing 10k hours of video games...I do think fake cultivation and fake achievements are a substantial danger.

Eg "requires skill and discipline"

No, it is not only designed to be beaten (by children), but designed to tick an artificially addictive skill curve as optimally as possible.

No, it is not only designed to be beaten (by children), but designed to tick an artificially addictive skill curve as optimally as possible.

Not necessarily true in general. Many games have challenges/achievements that only a small fraction of the playerbase (sometimes less than 1%) get, and even just beating the main story is sometimes less than 10%. (Though just from the stats we can't tell how much of that is lack of skill vs. lack of desire).

To put it another way, some video game challenges are harder than most days at my job as a programmer.

If you're a selfless altruist who eliminated video games from your life so that you can spend more time on altruism, then hats off to you and genuine thanks for your service. But don't act like you're confused that someone else would not do it. You can be a rationalist and care about AI safety without being a selfless altruist devoting every minute to it.

I understand why someone would do it. I was projecting my own insecurities. The fact is, I have no idea whether anything I do is useful, and I regularly waste hours watching Youtube or even just walking in circles daydreaming and claiming to myself that I am thinking. I have tremendously weak self-control and decision making ability. Pot calling the kettle black, I suppose.

Just as a data point for you: I made the conscious decision to spend 100 hours on Elden Ring the day I bought it, and have spent almost none of these 100 hours feeling conflicted or shamed. Writing this post was also fun — was writing the comment fun for you?

I don't want to go into a discussion of all the topics this touches on from self-coercion to time management to AI timelines to fun, just a reminder to be careful about typical minding.

Sometimes it's better in the long run to take a good chunk of time off to do things for fun and write or work less. Sometimes less is more. But this is very much a YMMV thing.