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Life, Death, and Demon’s Souls

No High Scores
I’ve become convinced that Demon’s Souls, the PS3 exclusive Japanese RPG (but most definitely not a JRPG) that had even the most hardcore of hardcore gamers alternately cursing and crying back in 2009 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s an incredible piece of atavistic, esoteric design that is both incredibly punishing and incredibly rewarding. It’s a game that puts an unusual level of demand on the player to explore, experiment, and examine- sort of a “3x game”, if you will. It was one of the first PS3 games I bought when I purchased the console in the Fall of 2010 and I’ve put around 30 hours split between two characters and I’m still learning things about the game. I find the game almost unbearably stressful at times to the point where I’ll put it away for weeks but when I come back to it I find its cold, grim atmosphere oddly embracing and all-enveloping.

I’ve also come to think of Demon’s Souls as something close to a spiritual game, literally haunted by the ghosts of players who were there before you. The player even becomes a ghost themselves when the physical body dies and the player must carry on in Soul Form with a hitpoint reduction but also with silent footsteps. You can touch a bloodstain and watch someone else’s mistakes, read spectral messages for guidance, or you’ll see phantoms of other players fighting long-vanquished adversaries. There’s a sense of deep, lonely isolation that pervades the game but it clashes against the feeling of never being alone due to the game’s innovative, persistent online functions. It’s strange to speak of a video game in such terms, but at all times you’re surrounded by spirits. There is a sublime profundity in that sensation, one that you’ll not find in any other game.

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It’s also emerged as an obtuse metaphor for the experience of life, death, and rebirth. The design paradigm is really as old as video games itself- each of the game’s levels are the same every time you visit them, and a large component of the gameplay is in memorizing enemy locations, strategic points, and expedient pathways. It’s expected that you’ll die and restart the level- there are few checkpoints, so your survival depends on your knowledge of the level and its particular patterns and organization. This is where Demon’s Souls becomes very much a game about observation and education- even when many of the game’s core mechanics are deliberately unexplained or obscured from the player. The tutorial is just about as basic as it gets- left stick to move, press X to attack, and so on- and it ends in your death at the hands of a vile demon called the Vanguard. This is the ultimate pattern of Demon’s Souls- live, learn, die, and apply what you’ve learned in the next life.

Death is frequent, brutal, and often unexpected but never unfair or unjustified. When you die, it could be that you’re not quite ready for a particular area or adversary. It could be that you’ve not properly observed the attack habits of a foe. It could be that you don’t have the right equipment. Or it could just be because you were careless, arrogant, or negligent. The game punishes you by taking away all of the souls, a sort of ethereal currency and experience point measure, that you’ve earned in that life. If you can make it back to where you died, you can reclaim them. If not, they’re gone forever. It does give you a second chance, at least.

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The game reminds me of playing games in the 1980s, back when we didn’t have YouTube videos or Gamefaqs.com to tell us how to play a game. We also didn’t have elaborate tutorials, waypoints, or shimmering “jump here” indicators that prevent failure. It makes me think of playing Simon’s Quest on the NES and having no clue what to do or where to go next and just working it out for myself. Except, of course, Demon’s Souls isn’t horribly translated and buggy like that game was.

The rewards for finding your own path through the game are great. Every battle feels like a huge victory. When you walk into a chamber and there’s a gigantic Dragon God that you’ve got to defeat, piecing together clues and exploring the environment yields an unexpected solution to the problem- a terrifying situation that is almost certain to end in death becomes a monumental victory over impossible odds. Other games do this, but in Demon’s Souls it feels somehow larger, more meaningful, and relieving.

I still have a long way to go with the game, and I’m looking forward to playing through it with different character types and trying different strategies. There are sidequests, of a sort, but nothing like the routine pick-up-and-deliver fetch quests of most RPGs. There’s nothing that specifically tells you how to do them and they can be failed. Most result in special items, from what I hear. This is part of the mystery and wonder of the game, the things it keeps hidden to lure you into its unique world. I’d encourage anyone getting into this game to completely avoid any kind of strategy guides or online spoilers because discovery is a huge part of what makes this game so special.

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Much like life.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

11 thoughts to “Life, Death, and Demon’s Souls”

  1. I gotta say that I get giddy whenever people talk about Demon’s Souls. I honestly believe it’s one of the best games to come out in the past decade. There is just nothing else out there quite like it.

    I wholly agree about putting the game down and coming back later. Not only do long sessions of Demon’s Souls leave me somewhat stressed, but I find that I have to be in the right mindset for the game. I have my good Demon’s Souls days and I have my bad Demon’s Souls days. On the good ones the stress the game induces me with takes a backseat to the thrill and excitement of moving through the world and overcoming obstacles. On my bad days I walk off edges repeatedly, die in dumb ways and become utterly frustrated at the game for not doing what I want it to. I imagine it’s what a lot of people who tried the game and hated it feel like, though I know I’m frustrated because I’m not in the right mindset, not thinking tactically enough and not playing slow enough to learn from my mistakes, while others may just be mad at the game. Like it’s the game’s fault or something.

    So I turn it off and pop in, well, just about anything else where I can turn my brain off a bit and get through a game with minimal effort. While I do love Demon’s Souls and would gladly take it with me to a desert island, I’m also glad that not every game is as brutal and exacting as Demon’s Souls. Sometimes it’s nice to run and jump and shoot and race around for fun without stressing over things jumping out of dark corners and constantly dying in the process.

    Much like life. 😉

  2. You said it. It’s a unique experience that oozes atmosphere. I really think no game does it better. It plays more like a survival horror game than anything else to me, but with much more interesting combat and systems than found in most of those games.

    It’s not the kind of game you play if you enjoy being in the “zone” though. It constantly asks you to step back and survey the situation and plan. That’s just not going to resonate with some people. For me, it does sometimes stress me out like you describe.

  3. You can get this on the cheap these days- I bet you could get one on Half.com for under $20, easily. I know Gamestop does it at $17.99. At that price, it’s one of the best values in gaming. If it turns out to be your kind of thing.

  4. Oh yes, definitely there are “on” days and “off” days. Sometimes you put the game in and make zero progress, fumbling and making stupid mistakes left and right. Then other days you’ll have breakthrough after breakthrough.

    I suppose that’s pretty off-putting to some folks, but for me that’s part of the appeal. Plus, I think some players today have forgotten that the process of learning- as in what you as the player learn- is often more significant progress than levelling up, finding a new item, or whatever.

    Definitely a desert island game, no doubt.

  5. There’s definitely a survival horror influence on the game- that whole low on resources, low on health, death at every corner thing. That’s part of what gives the game a real frisson, the moment-to-moment survival in difficult areas can be quite thrilling.

    That also makes going into previously unexplored areas amazingly tense and scary.

    I think the combat is amazing. It’s visceral, physical, and really requires observation, strategy, and skill. I love that each weapon (and combination of weapons) has a completely different sense of handling. Lately I’ve been using spears and shields- being able to jab while blocking is awesome in tight spaces.

  6. You should consider looking at the King’s Field games as well.

    From Software worked out the basic exploration and very Western RPG style you find in Demon’s Souls in those games.

    That same sort of dread and terror about what is around the next corner is completely in the King’s Field games, but actually increased in some degree because they take place in one seamless world. With no level barriers to mark the areas that are too dangerous for you.

    The only downside is that only one of the series made it to the PS2. (Two if you count the rushed-seeming Eternal Ring which was a launch title for the PS2.)

  7. I love the idea of this game, and I love some things about this game, but I don’t love this game. I’m all for ridiculous challenges in games I like. Getting every star coin in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, including the incredibly difficult World 9, and getting 242 stars in Super Mario Galaxy 2 were some of the hardest things I’ve done in games in quite a while, and I loved them even though they were frustrating. But here’s the thing; even though they were frustratingly difficult, they were still (almost) always fair. If I fail a level, I get to retry from the beginning, but it’s always the same. I need to come up with a plan to get through, but I can always try again from the same state.

    Demon’s Souls makes a single, albeit incredibly infuriating, major mistake in this regard. You know what I’m talking about. The first time you die in a level, you get sent back to the beginning as a ghost, all the enemies become more difficult, and your health bar gets cut in half. You cannot get back to the base power state until you kill the boss of the level and come back to life. And make no mistake, you will die your first time through a level. It’s impossible not to.

    There’s a difference between being challenging, and being a dick. This game crosses that line for me. That mechanic isn’t a challenge; it’s just a dick move, and I hate it so much that I refuse to keep playing this game, despite it’s compelling other aspects. There is no justification for teasing the player with full power before mercilessly taking it away in every single level.

  8. I’ve been playing video games since Commodore 64, and I have to say, that even though this is not my all time favorite game, it is the best game I’ve ever played. It made me fall in love with gaming anew. It is old school hard, and I love exposing my button mashing fighting game playing friends to it, and watch them get shanked by the first round of 1-1 stumbling zombies. I smile, and they ask the inevitable “You like this game”, or “You beat this game”? To which the answer to both is yes.

    To me, this game isn’t a “dick” as described by another commenter. It is brutal in its learning curve, so if you do not adapt, it will kill you again, and again. The “You Died” screen should say instead “Don’t Do That” in terms of a strategy. I’m almost through Game++++ which will earn me my Platinum Trophy. I stopped soul leveling, play as a soul only, with clever rat ring low health buff. If I get hit 2x without shield spells up, I’m dead. But it is my fault, and I know every time that I died, that I failed to adapt to a necessary strategy. My favorite fights are also my most frustrating, making them the most rewarding when I pull them off. For some reason Maneater, and Flamelurker go absolutely mental on me when I fight them, so I am tense and stressed out every time I encounter them. When I defeat them, it is usually after a dozen tries, and I’m yelling at my HD screen about vengeance and my mild and temporary superiority. I am wracked with tension, and stress. It feels good in a way that no game in recent memory has the ability to make me feel. I’m good at this game, but not so good that I can run around and mash, willy nilly, no way.

    The western exploratory RPG was surprisingly fleshed out for a Japanese Studio. FROM Software really got Boletaria right. No weirdness, no unexpected eyerolls. Nothing against JRPGs, but I’m not a 16 year old anymore, and that just isn’t my genre now. Recently I finished FF13 only because I felt obligated, and turned it off before the credits were done rolling. I literally had to stop playing the Metal Gear series when Raiden had to wander around naked, holding his hands over his junk. Thank god this is not one of those games.

    To me, Boletaria is destroyed, not worth redeeming, and needs to be put out of it’s misery. The sickness and pestilence overflow. In short: I love this environment, I can taste it, it is bitter and hollow. The characters are desolate and haunted, their dreams and hopes crushed. I was their savior and destroyer all at once.

    This game clearly isn’t for everyone, and I am glad for that. Reading other reviewers here that really get this game, I sit nodding my head, sharing a secret camaraderie with you. A few weeks ago I watched the trailer for Dark Souls, the spiritual sequel. While watching it, I got that feeling I had when I first reached the King of Storms, “Oh my God, how am I supposed to even begin to win this fight?” My hands had balled up, my shoulders tense, and I took only about 3 breaths the entire time the trailer played.

    Bring the punishment, the crushing despair, only slightly tinged with a glimmer of hope. I can think of nothing better.

  9. I disagree- this game is completely fair to the player, it’s just that it is almost unrealistically demanding. It requires you to observe and be careful, and even when it “punishes” you it’s a learning exercise. Even at half power (really 3/4 if you have the Cling Ring) every level is beatable with the right tactics and skill. There are also the Stones of Emphemeral Eyes, and there’s usually one near a boss fight so there’s usually an opportunity to return to physical form before or even during a major battle.

    There are also some benefits to being in soul form, such as reduced enemy awareness and if I’m not mistaken you can’t be invaded by another player while in soul form.

    It’s a hard game though, no doubt about that.

  10. Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate what you’ve got to say about the game. I do wonder if this is a game really more tailored for older gamers (I’m 35 myself), it really does remind me of playing exploratory RPGs in the 1980s. I _love_ how it has a genuine Dungeons and Dragons feel to it.

    That feeling you talk about with the King of Storms…man, I’ve had that. Walking into that chamber with the Dragon God just about freaked me out. By that point, you’re totally, painfully aware of how vulnerable you are and here’s this ENORMOUS Dragon…god…but once again, observation and exploration fell him, not necessarily brute strength or reflexes.

    I didn’t list Dark Souls among my most anticipated games of 2011 at Gameshark.com because details were sketchy…but after seeing a bit more including the trailer, there is no other game I want more this year. Skyrim looks great and all, but I know this is the game that I’ll be sinking 50+ hours into when it releases.

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