It's easy to argue that you, player, are not the true protagonist of Elden Ring – that honour instead goes to Ranni.
FromSoftware’s games have never been about heroes. The Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls games have typically starred lowlifes rising up to overcome their fate – or in the case of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a stoic Shinobi just tried to protect his master, all against backdrop of decaying worlds where everyone’s at each other’s throats.
Elden Ring changes that, but not in the way you might think. You’re still very much a nobody; a “Tarnished” out to seek glory by claiming the title of “Elden Lord,” battling your way through horrendous men and monsters alike. Some, like Margit the Fell Omen, outright tell you to “put these foolish ambitions to rest,” while others like Sir Gideon Ofnir stab you in the back to prevent your grand machinations, all viewing you as an unworthy hero.
We have to look beyond the player character for the “hero” of Elden Ring, then. The shoulders that title falls upon belong to none other than Ranni the Witch, the mysterious blue-skinned being with several cohorts residing in a big fancy tower near Caria Manor. Yours and Ranni’s journeys actually begin as mirroring each other: you’re both recruits of the Two Fingers, but Ranni spurns being a pawn for The Fingers – which is where your journey with the Empyrean begins.
Prior to the events of Elden Ring, Ranni’s body was killed on the Night of the Black Knives, leading her soul to be conjoined with her doll model, which the player inadvertently stumbles upon. Ranni fights the Fingers in direct opposition to the status quo: the Fingers want a pawn they can control to maintain order and rule The Lands Between, but Ranni basically decides this world’s due for a bit of a shake up.
Ranni’s ideals work something like this: she wants to separate the planes of mortals and gods, believing no mortal should be able to directly see the boundaries of their lives in front of them as physical barriers. The gods shouldn’t interfere in the lives of mortals, Ranni posits, and should be left to their own devices in another realm entirely. With the state that The Lands Between are in, can you really blame her?
FromSoftware’s stories always operate in grey areas, and Elden Ring’s is no exception. The Fingers and Ranni are in direct opposition, but neither one is “good” or “evil”; the former seeks to maintain the status quo (quite like keeping the Flame alight in Dark Souls’ ending), while the latter wants something brand new for everyone who’s suffering as a result of said status quo.
Ranni’s route in Elden Ring isn’t easy, by any means. The player must overcome countless obstacles, like assassins sent by the Fingers in the guise of Blaidd the Half Wolf, and even murdering Blaidd when Ranni’s former comrade eventually loses his mind. It’s all in the service of Ranni, and the only thing the former Fingers pawn is ever concerned with is seeing her goals through to the end – even if that means abandoning allies like Blaidd to their ultimate demise.
Ranni’s story is one of self-indulgence, yes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Look at Kuro in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, for example: the young Lord’s focus is entirely on himself, believing he needs to banish his everlasting, power-granting bloodline for the betterment of the land, damn the consequences. Kuro’s mission is entirely self-serving: he cares not a whit for anyone who might suffer as a result of his bloodline evaporating, because he knows the alternative – his blood being abused by powerful rulers – is far worse than anything that can befall the commonfolk should his bloodline up and vanish.
Ranni’s mission is self-serving, just like Kuro’s, but it’s for the good of everyone in The Lands Between. If the status quo has brought so much pain and suffering on the common people – as we can see it has countless times in Elden Ring – why would she want to maintain it? You might look at Ranni’s abandonment of Blaidd as a cruel move, but it can also be read as one friend putting the needs of everyone who will benefit should they succeed ahead of themselves. Blaidd might devolve to a bloodthirsty beast, and that’s the price for Ranni’s mission, not the sacrifice she’s willing to make.
If Ranni’s quest comes as one of personal sacrifice, it’s impossible not to read her role as that of Elden Ring’s hero. In fact, you could even read Ranni’s role as Elden Ring’s protagonist: She starts out manipulated, and maimed when she tries to break free of the Fingers, but never once loses her focus of building a better world for those around her. She, like the turtles of Elden Ring's world, represents something good. Sort-of.
Ranni picks up Elden Ring’s world by the scruff of the neck and drags it forward to something bigger and better, with us merely an accomplice in her grand designs. FromSoftware’s games are rarely ever home to heroes, much less those that actually succeed in their noble quests (R.I.P, Solaire), but with Ranni, we might finally have a hero worthy of actually saving an entire world.