GameSpite Journal 9 | Perfection Through Death: Demon's Souls

Much has been written about how Demonís Souls is a brutal, sadistic experience that exists only to punish and humiliate the player. Many see it as less of a game and more of an elaborate torture device created by From Software as a cruel, spiteful attempt to crush playersí sense of self worth and leave them as broken, miserable husks of humanity. Nevertheless, this exaggeration is not quite accurate. While Demonís Souls certainly can be considered a grueling experience at times, it is not designed solely to satiate the developerís sadistic appetite. From Software does not loathe the player; rather, they want the player to be perfect. Nothing comes easy in the world of Demonís Souls, but that is an essential part of the gameís charm. Nearly every gameplay mechanic and design decision reflects a calculated and deliberate effort to hone the playerís skills to a razor-sharp edge.

Perhaps that is the best way to describe the Demonís Souls experience in general: deliberate. The user-created protagonist, a tabula rasa that can be assigned an equally blank class, differs significantly from the typical action-adventure mold used in the majority of modern games. Most contemporary action games strive to empower the player, providing a plethora of abilities to allow for superhuman feats of acrobatics and strength. Demonís Souls is not concerned with such artificial methods of self-esteem-boosting or ego-stroking. Much like the gameís pacing, character movement is plodding and methodical. Attacks from both the player and enemy are calculated and measured, and the movement speed in general is slower when compared to most modern blockbusters. In this way, Demonís Souls is more reminiscent of classic games on the NES, which required a similar degree of precision and cautiousness.

Furthermore, physical skills are relatively pedestrian and limited by a finite amount of fatigue, which strictly governs every physical ability. Even with maximum endurance available, the hero must remain parsimonious in his actions; a few swings of a sword, a sprint through a long corridor, or even a block of a particularly fierce blow from an opponent can drain a full stamina bar. While this may seem frustratingly restrictive, especially when compared to more lax games of this era, it was purposefully implemented with that goal of perfection. The point of Demonís Souls is for the player to complete a level as flawlessly as possible. This is reflected even in the gameís health system. The distinction between a complete health bar and one choked to fifty percent capacity is miniscule; the difference between surviving four enemy strikes instead of three is negligible, especially in an environment where Death can claim oneís soul at seemingly any moment.

This leads into the crux of the Demonís Souls experience and the primary mechanic with which it seeks to perfect the playerís abilities: Death. Here, death does not signify the end. In fact, dying is the inevitable outcome of the gameís tutorial, where the hero faces a brutal and unavoidable demise. This may be the single most salient point taught in the tutorial: Death is an unavoidable and necessary experience in the world of Demonís Souls, and something that should not be feared, but embraced.

Not that the player should strive to perish! Obviously, no one seeks death in a game. However, one must accept that they will die in Demonís Souls, and, depending on the playerís skill and familiarity with a level, die often. Though it is possible to complete Demonís Souls without expiring in theory, in practice it is virtually impossible. This can be anathema to those that have been conditioned by many modern titles that actively provide support to help them succeed on their mission, and while Demonís Souls provides no such coddling, dying serves a purpose other than frustrating the player into rage-quitting and throwing the disk into the garbage. In fact, death is yet another educational experience that From Software has incorporated in order to augment the playerís mastery of the game. Ironically, this inevitably of failure can be genuinely reassuring, as while death in most modern games is a sign of ultimate failure, in Demonís Souls, it is a core mechanic of the gameplay.

Falling in any one of Demonís Soulsí numerous levels (which together comprise five large areas of the kingdom) forces one to replay that area from the beginning, with every trap and enemy reset. Although this is certainly punishing, it forces the player to commit every camouflaged pit, concealed knight, and devious trap to memory, all while improving his competency in battle through sheer exposure and experience. Mollifying matters is the fact that unlike, say, a roguelike, the hero does not revert back to his initial level upon passing away. By using souls (which serve as both currency and experience) the player can permanently increase eight stats governing their characterís development, which permanently increases the characterís soul level (that is, their ďactualĒ level) as well. The wrinkle in this otherwise pedestrian experience system is that souls can be lost permanently if a player is not vigilant. Upon death, all unused souls are lost in the stain of blood left at the location of the playerís demise, and by fighting his way back through a levelís treacherous gauntlet, all souls lost can be reclaimed with absolutely no penalty. However, if the player dies again on the way back to his bloodstain, the old crimson smear is replaced by a fresh one, and all souls previously lost are forever dissolved in the ether. It is this delicate balance that preserves the ďtough but fairĒ essence of the Demonís Souls experience. By using the information obtained in death, players can conquer any obstacle and reclaim their lost experience; if they fail, the lesson has not been learned, and the punishment becomes severe.

The nebulous nature of life and death in Demonís Souls is not merely a gameplay mechanic; itís an integral part of the story and atmosphere as well. In the Kingdom of Boletaria, players and NPCs alike can exist in both a living, breathing body form as well as a fleeting spirit form. While everyone begins as a corporeal being, this form does not last, as a single death (which, as demonstrated previously, is all but a certainty) will reduce them to their ephemeral self. Once a spirit, the hero cannot return to his bodily form unless a boss is defeated or a rare item is consumed. On the surface, the physical form seems to have all the perks: Players can request the aid of helpful blue phantoms and have twice the health of their soulless counterparts. Despite these unquestionable advantages, dying while in corporeal form has dire consequences: All levels have a separate ďworld tendencyĒ which can shifted towards white (easier) or black (more difficult) in a variety of ways, and physical death is perhaps the easiest way to make an already difficult experience even more grueling. While this mechanic is one of the more interestingly unique features of Demonís Souls, its arcane and unexplained nature is one of the gameís few missteps, as it is never conveyed entirely to the player. Despite a status screen clearly demonstrating how light or dark each world is at the moment, there is little indication to how the world tendency can be altered. Indeed, a player could conceivably make the experience progressively more difficulty without knowing why the game has suddenly become harder.

Inexorably linked to the binary nature of existence in Demonís Souls is its incredibly unique online functionality. The aforementioned blue phantoms that can be summoned while in bodily form are actually other players, existing in soul form and having volunteered their services to any needy players who do not want to (literally) lose their skin. Up to two blue phantoms can be summoned at any one time, which can significantly increase the odds of victory, especially when facing one of the gameís more difficult bosses. While these spectral azure guardians can be a great incentive to remain in human form, it also leaves the player susceptible to a unique threat: the black phantom. Unlike the helpful blue phantoms, a black phantom is a player with malicious intent, whose only purpose is to invade another playerís game and wreak havoc. Only one black phantom can invade a world, however, despite the potential three-on-one odds, the dark ghost can be more of a game-changer than two blue ones. The black phantom is for all intents and purposes another enemy in a level, and is not only ignored by the other foes inhabiting the environment but aided as well. Because of this, a black phantom can simply wait for the hero to be worn down by a few particularly difficult foes and strike when he is at his weakest. Better still, if the invader has an intimate knowledge of the level, he can set up devious ambushes, waiting for the hero to fall into a trap or engage a group of foes before unleashing a blindside assault. It should be noted that both blue and black phantoms are entirely anonymous, fleeting spirits entering from an alternate world. Itís this quality that sets Demonís Souls apart from so many multiplayer games, as this anonymity manages to maintain the delicate, oppressive atmosphere of Demonís Souls while providing a fascinating way to interact with other players.

As an aside, by far my favorite black phantom experience rests in the final stage of the Tower of Latria, a haunting prison occupied by mindflayers, mages with octopus-esque visages that seem to have been torn from the pages of Lovecraft. As players manage to climb to the top of the tower, fighting their way through the Cthulu mages, an unskippable cutscene begins, showing a strange figure being summoned in a yet undiscovered location. Once the final boss room is reached, the player is greeted by a black phantom, and thatís when the terrifying reality sets in: The final boss is a real player. The result is one of the most stressful bosses in videogame history, as death results in the same penalties as usual, but instead of facing a foe with a relatively predictable routine, one is faced with a challenging, unpredictable human. Playing as the black phantom in this instance is particularly satisfying, as it allows you to play the role of the villain. Not only have you caused the hero to lose his experience and complete the level over again, you have deprived him the chance of completing the entire area. Itís a truly invigorating experience, one that has not been replicated elsewhere.

The online features in Demonís Souls are not limited to this blue/black phantom dynamic, though the other implementations are less direct and more subtle. As the player explores the world, white apparitions may pass by for a few seconds before abruptly fading away. These spirits are actually other players who are currently exploring the world, and while they cannot be interacted with, their mere presence provides solace in knowing that there are others out there struggling to survive. Glowing red messages, scrawled on the floor offering sound (and sometimes unsound) advice, have been left by other players. These messages can be incredibly useful and range from a tipoff to an upcoming trap to necessary tactics to defeat an upcoming boss. Bloodstains other than oneís own mark the world, and upon examination, yield red specters that provide a tantalizing glimpse at another playerís last seconds of life. While viewing these ghostly snuff films can be a guilty pleasure (how did that guy not see that pit!?) they also contain valuable information. It is entirely possible to bypass an unknown trap by simply having viewed someone elseís demise from said trap. In the world of Demonís Souls, you not only learn from your own mistakes and experiences, but from the trials and tribulations of others as well.

Demonís Souls is a truly unique experience. While the game has unquestionable production values as seen in most modern AAA titles (graphically impressive, developed on the PS3, full online implementation, etc.) it shares many qualities with the old-school games of years past. The methodic, thoughtful, slow pace is reminiscent of classic action games such as Castlevania, a comparison that is further strengthened by the similar atmosphere and tone shared between the two franchises. Much like old platformers, Demonís Souls thrives on the player using an encyclopedic knowledge of enemy patterns and environmental traps to complete a level as flawlessly and efficiently as possible. Death comes swiftly and easily, however, the knowledge gained in death can be harnessed to increase oneís proficiency. Even the creative online features in Demonís Souls harkens back to a bygone era. The hastily-written notes that litter the game world provide a similar feeling to the vague, suspect tips exchanged by schoolchildren on the playground regarding a particularly difficult level on an NES classic. In this day and age, Demonís Souls is a refreshingly uncommon and engaging experience, one that does not seek to cosset nor punish the player, but to hold him accountable for his own actions, and in doing so hone him to perfection.

By Matt Williams? | July 20, 2011 | Previous: Big Daddy Dearest | Next: "I Feel... Young": What Games Can Learn from Star Trek II