Elden Ring’s Malenia embodies FromSoftware’s problems with women
The game's most powerful boss reveals the developer's worst flaw.
She rests there, deep within the Haligtree’s guts, as if she had simply drifted off in the shafts of light that stream down. Malenia the Severed (defender of Miquella!) has crumbled, her one good arm laying at the foot of the whorls and gnarls that once cradled her young brother. This enigmatic warrior captivated the audience from the start, and she was prominently featured in the remainder of the game’s marketing materials. Instead of being an undisputed favorite, she irritated fans and exposed FromSoftware’s creative limits.
Malenia is a tough-as-nails finale encounter who, while optional, is a brick block for many gamers. It’s a two-phase combat packed of rapid, devastating attacks while Malenia heals from the damage she’s caused to the player, similar to Lady Maria from Bloodborne.
She is immediately intimidating when you first meet her in Elphael. Her presence is unnerving. Her moves have been refined and perfected. Her tone is neutral and unemotional. Her expression is expressionless. Everything in the first part of the conflict is geared to impede and emasculate; there’s a dark irony in a woman whose assaults suck health from you in order to strengthen herself. And, just when you think you’ve knocked her down, she climbs back up one more time.
Malenia’s first death precipitates her final change into the Goddess of Scarlet Rot, as she emerges triumphantly from her flower to spread tragically beautiful skin, rot, and butterfly wings. She is no longer wearing armor, and the camera slowly reveals her nakedness. Her body is coated with rot, yet her breasts and genitals are as smooth as a doll’s. It elicits a perplexing mix of terror and titillation, confounding the process of looking at her body. Her lack of protection feels more like a challenge than a weakness.
The fight ends in a maelstrom of airborne dive bombs, rot explosions, and numerous duplicates of herself dashing about you. When she dies, she returns to the safety of the rot bloom, silently vowing to return in the future for revenge beyond the normal life cycle.
Malenia is an example of how FromSoft writes women in their games. These ladies, whether bosses or NPCs encountered in the wild, share a condition. They dwell in horribly decayed environments and share a common brokenness: ugliness, abandonment, and loss. They are affected by gender, and the “treatment” for when they become hurdles rather than passively helpful is for the player to engage in brief violence. It is a certain type of idealized femininity, as fanciful as the gloomy castles and massive woods — demure, silent, devoid of desires or motives — an echoing presence of dolls, moms, and even help-meets who assist the player along. When confronted with a howling, terrifying frenzy, their feelings are muffled in their more placid counterparts.
Malenia is made of the same thing, and she isn’t universally despised; there is love for a big, red-haired lady in armor. Nonetheless, she is a problematic character who is the topic of social media postings, memes, and debates. It’s clear that her existence as both a boss (even if optional) and a character in the game’s plot irritates some members of the audience.
Many of these iconic FromSoft ladies are well-known to fans, like the Emerald Herald (Dark Souls 2), the Fire Keeper (Dark Souls 3), and, most recently, Ranni the Witch (Elden Ring). [Ed. note: Nico is being pretty charitable here, leaving out Demon’s Souls’ Maiden in Black, Dark Souls’ infamously heaving giantess Gwynevere, Sekiro’s Emma, and Bloodborne’s The Doll.] The greater gaming community has a negative attitude toward female characters, therefore the Soulsborne community’s love of them appears to be good on the surface. When such adoration is predicated on that empty, soulless condition, or reduces them to infantilized “waifus,” you know that hate and liking are twins connected from the same deep sexist roots.
In his article “Why Are Female Characters in ‘Dark Souls’ Games Quiet and Alien?” Matt Kim writes:
While this type of archetype is not exclusive to Japanese anime, it is one of the most common sorts of characters in the genre. Even worse, these figures are intentionally fetishized for their otherworldliness. Their absence of a broad emotional spectrum contributes to their allure. Furthermore, these people are often more resilient than everyone else in their tale, maybe because they are emotionally unburdened. However, one could argue that their lack of “emotions,” which is used here as an unpleasant euphemism for men’s perception of feminine flaws, makes it easier to think they are capable of such immense power.
When she is involved in fight, however, she shows her full, hideous form.
Female characters in FromSoft who stray from this peaceful, doll-like look are nevertheless written with a lack of emotionality that feels similar to masculine stoicism. Every permutation of character that women portray in video games is informed by a peculiar emptiness.
Soulsborne games are notorious for testing their audience, and have attracted a specific type of player base, generally guys, who take their boss-killing performance seriously throughout the years. To some, the difficulty of these encounters is the purpose. This mindset has long kept many people away from the studio’s games, but Elden Ring’s success drew a larger audience willing to have bosses pound them into dust.
Malenia’s boss battle is excruciatingly tough, and the audience’s angry and competitive attitudes toward it are frequently tinged with gendered toxicity. Numerous Reddit threads, YouTube videos, and tweets discuss the failures or accomplishments of athletes while laced with sexist obscenities. People also returned to the typical communal debate about which ways of beating her were more legitimate and which made you a “pussy,” and triumph over her took on a strange masculinized chest-beating at times. These responses are unpleasant, but not unexpected. This boss battle causes conflict between the developer’s gender beliefs and its thoughts about supporting a power fantasy. When the game pushes players to accept failure, it results in an odd performance. Malenia’s character design only adds to this.
Malenia’s boldness about defeating her makes sense; she invokes the concept of a virginal warrior like Joan of Arc or Brienne of Tarth, her purity and power being outside of womanhood. Her look is inspired by Athena or the Valkyries, yet even without that, her nakedness is horrifying rather than enticing. Her entire demeanor is aggressive and taunting to the gamer. Men can’t help but fantasize about being the one to take down a stubborn, rebellious lady who has never been defeated. (Or, at the very least, be present when it occurs.)
The way FromSoft hides the environment and plot behind item descriptions and arcane NPC language not only makes the world untrustworthy and mysterious, but it also strengthens fans’ biases toward Malenia. She fades into the background of the story, whether by choice or omission (there is some evidence of cut content that could have expanded her actual story). Prior to meeting her in the Haligtree, her story is revealed mostly in parts, the most significant of which being her war against Radahn. The two demigods compete for the title of Elden Lord in a narrative trailer published before of the game.Radahn severs her arm, and in a frantic gesture, she rushes onto him, thrusting the blade into herself and exploding into a massive rot flower. The player enters Caelid, which is blighted from edge to edge as a result of this.
If you missed the trailer, your first experience with Malenia’s influence will be when you travel to battle Radahn. Witch-Hunter Jerren, a Radahn herald, tells of the general’s demise owing to the Scarlet Rot. He’s a shell of his former self, frail and insane, devouring fellow citizens like prey. It’s easy to understand how this would sway the audience’s perception of her as an attacker. It sparked debate among fans about how her makeover “cheated” an otherwise fair match. (It is relevant that Radahn was a master of gravity magic and also severed her arm.)
To shed light on Malenia’s adventure, players must embark on a quest to save a young woman stricken with rot, who resembles Malenia. According to the myth, the demigod released spore clones of herself, which sprouted in Caelid. In FromSoft’s games, all paths lead back to women being moms, including fearsome sword maidens.
These narrative choices quickly undermine her originally daring design, diminishing its effect. What is the most terrifying thing a design team could conjure up? A distant warrior lady who doesn’t care about them, slowly dying to a rot she was born with. While Malenia’s character development has progressed slightly beyond how women were written in previous FromSoft games, her narrative remains constrained by the same rules. What should have been a space for mechanical and narrative progression devolves into a video game’s means to a goal. Women continue to litter the road as either passive help-meets or predictable stumbling blocks that the fan base is all too eager to avoid.
While FromSoft’s games are frequently thought-provoking reflections on the corrupting impact of power, the inevitability of death, and the looming fear of cosmic terror, the women in them feel stunted. Malenia is a half-grown notion that was cut too short. What may have been is now cocooned in flowers on the Haligtree floor, passionately dreaming of vengeance.