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Demon’s Souls: The Hate is Strong With This One

No High Scores

Demon’s Souls is a Game for People Who Hate Themselves

There. I said it. And it’s true. No offense if you love the game and I’m sure I’ll catch flack from Bill, but I’ve known him a long time and I promise you: Deep down in places he doesn’t like to talk about at parties, he hates himself. It’s an Ohio State thing, I think. Me? I’ve got my share of self hate too, so there’s a level to which Demon’s Souls has sunk it’s claws into my whithered heart and worked them mercilessly so as to inflict maximum pain only for me to desperately gasp, “Thank you sir! May I have another?” I’m not sure how long that will last. Not forever. There’s almost zero chance I actually finish this game. How long will I continue the masochistic torture? Ahh, but that is the question.

Buffy fans. You remember Riley Finn? You remember when Riley went all dark and hung out in some vampire nest, letting a trashy vamp suck off his wrist? Demon’s Soul fans, you are dark Riley Finn and Demon’s Souls is sucking your very life from your body and asking you to thank it for leaving you just enough to continue on as a whithered husk that makes Buffy decide she doesn’t love you anymore. This game hates you. It hates me. It hates existence. It will do terrible, terrible things to you and make you want to do terrible things to other people as retribution. When Alfred tells Bruce in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” he’s talking about you after you finish a session with Demon’s Souls. It’s utterly by design and the game expects you to love it for its utter contempt of everything you stand for.

I absolutely refuse to give in to this. I hate you, Demon’s Souls. I HATE YOU!*

(More, complete with another great movie clip, after the break…)

Yes, in this scene I am Wes Mantooth to Demon’s Souls’ Ron Burgundy. I’m not proud of that. Later in the movie Mantooth will admit that through all that hatred there is respect. You can’t help but respect a game that is so good at being so completely without mercy. Still doesn’t mean I have to like it. And I don’t. But you know what? I didn’t like The Dark Knight either. That is an unlikable movie. Doesn’t stop it from being amazingly good and that’s really what we’re talking about with Demon’s Souls: An uncompromising vision that dares your self-loathing self to continue or be forced to admit that it’s better than you. And are you gonna let a game, a PS3 game no less, tell you it’s better than you? (It is, by the way.)

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So how did I fall prey to this trap? Let me tell you.

Friday evening, bored and really not wanting to go back to Dead Island (which I’ve given a couple hours to and it just hasn’t grabbed me at all) I dug out Demon’s Souls from my stack of unplayed games and resolved to give it a real try. (Time to end The Lull.) I created a Wanderer, which is basically a dexterity-based fighter. Light armor, nimble reflexes, fast attacks. I made it what I’d guess is a fair distance before being felled the first time. I then spent the next hour repeatedly dying before getting back to that same point, losing souls in the process, not that the game was interested in letting me know just what these souls are for beyond buying and repairing stuff. I had accomplished absolutely nothing and I quit in disgust.

As I finished my dinner, though, there was this voice in my head saying, “Maybe try it with a different character?” I know that voice. It’s the voice of a bumbling imbecile who wishes me a lifetime of torment. And yet I listen. Starting up a straight-up fighter, this time I managed to adventure much further. I even manage to trade in some collected souls on repairing some equipment because -I don’t know- it’s better than losing the souls… I guess. I keep looking around the home base area, called the Nexus, for a place to store the 1,500 or so souls I’ve managed to accumulate. Surely if the game features a mechanic by which you lose collected souls and isn’t going to throw in any kind of waypoints that let you go back mid-level to do some soul trading surely, surely, SURELY, there must be a way to bank these things if you do spend 10 minutes just hauling your ass back to the Nexus. Yeah, not so much. So I go back into the world and die. Then I die again before getting my body and souls back, and they’re lost. Another two hours spent accomplishing exactly nothing.

Rage quit.

I go to bed swearing on all things decent and warm and fuzzy -kittens, basically- that I will never touch this game again.

Saturday morning I awoke. Deep sleep has a habit of tricking the brain into believing it’s learned something. I know this because some scientist guys at some point in my life got their work published somewhere where I in turn absorbed the McNuggets of their ideas before moving on and forgetting most of what I’d read. So as I stood in my kitchen trying to think of something breakfasty to give my body that didn’t make me want to vomit at the thought of it** I had two thoughts:

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1) I really should work on the podcast.
2) You know, I feel like I learned some stuff about Demon’s Souls last night. I’ll bet if I went back I can do better.

I didn’t touch the podcast until Sunday. Instead I went back to my Wanderer, because it turns out he really is more dexterous than generic fighter guy, and after Witcher 2 I can hardly get enough somersaulting underneath the sword swings and bites of creatures trying to end me. Plus, I’ve learned so much…

No High Scores

If Yoda were actually there in that moment he’d slap me across the face and call me a stupid git who knows absolutely nothing about anything; as Yoda was prone to doing. As it turned out, though, I had learned something*** and I managed to actually see a big chunk of the opening level – like a dragon I will never ever go fight. Finally -FINALLY- I was getting somewhere! I had collected thousands of souls that I really didn’t quite know what to do with and I had managed to open a gate to the first boss, The Phalanx. Of course that gate was back at the beginning of the level and, of course, in my search for a shortcut back there I got killed. Then I got killed again trying to get back to my precious soul collection.

Rage quit.

I will never play this game again. Except we all know that’s not true. Why? Because deep down in places I don’t like to talk about at parties (this sounds strangely familiar), I know that I hate myself and that I deserve to be punished. The game is like a bug in your brain, maybe the sluggy thing from Wrath of Kahn, only with its own voice. And it’s whispering to you, ever whispering, that this time -THIS TIME- if you go back it will be different. I mean I’ve learned so much, right?

Where the f*** is Yoda to slap you across the face when you need him?

But then, this time it really was different. Screw the lost souls, let’s just go see this boss thing and see what that’s like. And you know what happened? I whipped that Phalanx’s sorry ass on the first try. I’ll grant you as Demon’s Souls bosses go, I don’t need to see the others to know this thing’s a giant bog of gooifed wussy, but I won and I didn’t die and that makes me special (in my own mind). Not only have I won a big encounter, I have my in-game humanity restored, which means a doubling of my vitality. I can trade in souls for character building stat boosts instead of just equipment repair or limited gear that I don’t need. I love this game. Love. It.

With renewed confidence I go back out into the first area, always conveniently restocked with beasties, and I hack and slash my way, corridor over corridor, to some spear-wielding black knight guy who waxed me on my first attempt. Surely, experience and massive health boost in my corner, he will be no trouble. I die. Another 2,000 or so souls left on the stony floor. Okay, there’s no need to panic here. I’m back in spirit form (half health, better damage), but I can go back there and get my souls back, right? Yeah, you know this drill. I never got close to my body. About two minutes into what is about a ten minute trek, still in what qualifies as an “easy” portion of the level, I got caught swinging madly at two monsters only to see my hero hitting the wall next to them over and over again. (Safety tip: Learn to use target lock.) They stun and hack and before I can breath a disbelieving expletive I am dead. Souls gone. Humanity gone. Again. (The only way to get your humanity back at this point is through use of rare items or beating another boss.)

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Rage quit.

I haven’t touched the game since, but I know that I will. I will go home tonight and I’ll load it up and I’ll have some kind of success and I’ll feel good, like I’m finally getting it, and then I’ll lose it all and I will hate the game and myself and all of you (just because) and the cycle will repeat for at least the next five days until I’m forced to quit playing because Skyrim has released.

Demon’s Souls. Only Wes Mantooth can say it properly:

Deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But god damnit do I respect you.

*I think I’m setting a No High Scores record for analogous pop-culture tie-ins in a single post. It’s good to aim high.
**I don’t like to eat breakfast, even when I’m not feeling self-loathing about Demon’s Souls. Nothing ever sounds good to me in the morning, yet I feel obligated to ingest something because people in white coats and who know how to properly use a stethoscope tell me it’s the, “most important meal of the day.”
***Like turning the Game Mode of my TV on so that I’m not a millisecond behind the action all the time. Seriously folks, if you have an LCD TV, game mode can be hugely important in precision games. Pinball FX has been the big one so far, but I’ve noticed monumental swings in my ability to survive in Demon’s Souls based on whether or not I remember to turn Game Mode on.
****Yay footnotes!

Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at ToddsFoolery.com.

27 thoughts to “Demon’s Souls: The Hate is Strong With This One”

  1. Luke: There’s something not right here… I feel cold. Death.
    Yoda: [points to a cave opening beneath a large tree] That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.
    Luke: What’s in there?
    Yoda: Only what you take with you.

  2. I seriously considered referencing that part of the movie instead. It all works. I’m big dumb Luke and I think I know everything and Yoda knows I’m full of shit and he laughs inside every time I fall on my face.

  3. The thing with that part, though, is not that Yoda is laughing at dumb Luke, but that facing himself was something Luke HAD to do – in the cave, he faced himself (in more ways than one), and by winning, he lost. It’s a deeply philosophical part of the movie (that ties very well with the very end, in which Luke stops to fight his father, facing death, and ends up saving both of them and the galaxy by doing that), and easily one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever.

    My point is… some games (the best of them, I would add) will give back to you whatever you take with you when you play them. And your article seems to acknowledge that in every line you typed; you said the game hates you, but you would mention every now and then that it draws from that part of you, within you, that hates yourself. Also, when you stopped caring for souls and just faced the challenges without the fear of losing… you won at your first try. Again, that’s something that says a lot about yourself, something you can see not only in a Star Wars movie, but in strategy classics like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi’s Go Rin No Sho. It’s powerful stuff, and to think that a game can bring that up is nothing short of amazing.

    On a somewhat related note, if there ever was a game that made me seriously consider buying a PS3, it was Demon’s Souls (and now Dark Souls). I was hoping to see a PC port, but those are every day less likely, and I might have to end up buying the console at some point. We’ll see.

  4. My problem with the game isn’t that it is difficult. It’s that the design is opaque and nothing is explained. This is what manuals are for after all, but wait no, the manual is a thin anemic thing that explains nothing. What are souls? Why do I want them? How do I use spells? What does Humanity do? and on and on and on.

    There are wikis and and strategy guides for that. No, it is the responsibility of the game makers to explain how his game works. No one would sit down and play Clue or Monopoly without understandind what you were trying to do and how to do it?

    Why make an exception for Dark (or Demon) Souls? Fucking over the player doesn’t go from bad game design to good game design just because it is intentional.

  5. Playing Demon’s Souls is a really weird experience when you think about. It’s insanely difficult, and has no real story to drive you forward. The only reason to play it is that the gameplay is excellent, and it somehow manages to feel completely fair, even when it totally isn’t. I recall one point where I died 20-30 times due to a grueling sequence of battles in a swamp. Enemies were coming at me in groups of 3 and 4, while I was stuck in a poisonous bog, unable to properly dodge or move. However, stopping literally never crossed my mind. Even completely that section didn’t really make me happy, it just made me feel less incompetent. And this is a game that ate 40-50 hours of my life in a span of about a week.

    I guess this was a just a long-winded way of saying, welcome to Demon’s Souls, Todd. It’s an absolutely miserably amazing game. Also, stay away from the spear guy, you don’t have the key for the door he’s guarding anyway.

  6. No. I hate to play the “you just don’t get it” card on you, but there it is. Both of these games are deliberately, stylistically obscure, esoteric, and vague. Part of the appeal is the enigmas and mysteries these games create, and the player’s discovery of what things mean and do. The cryptic narrative and dialogue, the unexplained mechanics, the abstraction of it’s particular fantasy setting…this stuff is as artful, intelligent, and sophisticated as video games have gotten. And they want you to work to decipher it all. Few developers would be so bold.

    The thing is too is that it’s not rocket science, and if you play for a couple of hours you can sort things out. The game teaches. It doesn’t need a big manual. That would spoil its wonderful obscurity.

  7. You all have bad thumbs.

    The lot of you.

    Wanderer is a tough class. I ran most of Demons Souls with a mage. A Royal if memory serves.

    Waypoints — haha

    You’re adorable.

  8. Dark Riley drew me and kept me reading. That has to be the be the best Buffy reference I have read.

    I probably won’t play Dark Souls I just don’t have the desire to get destroyed like that. I quit playing shooting games if I have a rough day online. No way will I make it through this.

    Thanks for the Game Mode tip on pinball. I’ll try it. I probably won’t do better.

  9. You know I think the truth of this is somewhere in the middle. The game, if you’re observant and patient, does seem to contain everything you need to know sans a manual. And there are times when the player does just need to be press forward and be patient and let the game reveal itself to them, but at the same time it really could be better at judging when you need some knowledge.

    I really wouldn’t have stuck with it at all if I hadn’t been told so much on the side from people like you and Bill. I mean it’s hours of gameplay (assuming you die a lot) before you learn that souls can be used to level up your guy. That’s a lot of time where you’re just racking up souls without really knowing why they’re at all important beyond equipment repair and buying stuff you presently don’t really need.

  10. You know, it would be cool to have a moratorium on discussing the psychology of the players who like these games. I know it’s tongue and cheek and all, but jesus. It’s a hard game. Get over it.

    Demon’s Souls is a poking a prodding game, and one that works in two modes.

    Second statement first: You’re either learning the level, or you are farming souls. Never the twain shall meet. Do. Not. Look. At. Your. Soul. Count. Not unless you’re actively gathering them for something, and in that mode you should be in well trodden locations only.

    First statement: After you kill Phalanx, the world opens up. I recommend you spend all your souls, then spend some time looking at each of the 5 worlds, and seeing what you can do in any of them. Not only can you find some good gear that way, but it’s useful for you to get used to that poking and prodding gameplay. Move forward until you meet too much resistence, then move elsewhere and come back later. That red eyed knight in the first world in a really good example. That guy is mid-game minimum, unless you cheese him in specific way. Another example: while you certainly can proceed to section 1-2 right after phalanx, that’s not necessarily the best approach. For me, for example, it was 4-1 followed by 2-1. Don’t get too attached to mulish progress against too much opposition. And look at some online docs or ask here if you hit a wall.

  11. Well, two things I’d say there. One, it’s really about my psychology as much as it is anyone else’s. I’m skewering myself as much and more than anyone who loves the game.

    Two, hey, man, if I can’t write what I’m thinking then I can’t write and I had as much fun writing that post as I’ve had in quite awhile. Not gonna throw it out because I’m worried it’s not gonna hit everyone’s sweet spot. I’d never be able to post anything here again and none of us wants that. Right? RIGHT?!?!?!

    Also, thanks for the tips. Tempest (username here at NHS) has tried to tell me much the same about how to approach different world areas. I just need to listen.

  12. Here is what you do. You wait for the game to go on sale cheap. You play it once, for about 20 minutes just to realize that it’s not for you. Then in another month or two, when you’re not playing anything else, you’ll decide to pull it back out. Then you’ll play for an hour and think, “Maybe I can play this,” until you have something particularly bad happened and you quit for awhile. But then you’ll be back and the speed with which you quit will slow and the speed with which you go back will quicken and then it’ll be all over for you.

  13. More than that- the game is actively telling you “you are _not_ ready for this”.

    But that doesn’t mean you can’t try…

  14. Oh, no bitching intended. It was just a comment, not a complaint. And as someone who is just in the process of restarting Dark Souls after reaching level 50, I certainly empathize.

    Those were some pretty general tips, so if you want something more specific:

    Go to 4-1. You’ll be attacked by a single enemy almost as soon as you come in. Try to kill it. If you have problems to do it, restart the level. 4-1 is extremely useful as a combat training area: sparse but strong enemies, excellent soul rewards once you get the hang of it.

  15. Observance and patience- those are two key skills here, aren’t they? It is about the game revealing itself to you…but yes, I agree, that does put up a certain barrier to entry, so to speak.

    But I’m willing to have that barrier for moments like the first time you see one of the crystal lizards. You’re like WTF? What was that? Then, later on, you learn. Same with the demons’ souls and the “bundles” you pick up. You learn not to waste them.

    Beating Phalanx, as someone else suggested, is really a turning point in the game. I think if you make it there, then the barriers slip away and you really start digging into it. “The true Demon’s Souls begins here!”

  16. “The true Demon’s Souls begins here.”

    That’s a comment I saw in one of the glowy hints you find on the floor near the Phalanx. That doesn’t fill me with hope. It makes me want to weep.

  17. The observation thing is absolutely key. You can call it a design flaw if you want, but neither of the Souls games care if you forget something, or fail to write it down.

    Dark Souls, for example, does have a plot, and playing through the first bits on New Game Plus, I realized that the people who tell you where to go give the accurate names and general locations of your current objectives. BUT:

    -no mini map
    -no objective marker
    -no reminder text when you load a saved game
    -no requirement for the player to actually trigger the cutscenes that give the objectives
    -with the Master Key initial perk, you can walk right into restricted Super Death areas right away.

    It’s actually a more pronounced phenomenon in Dark Souls than in Demon’s Souls, which makes it definitely intentional. But let me ask hypothetically: if the designers know from experience that players will build wikis, and they even encouraged that behavior by starting one on the Atlus website, isn’t that meta-experience valid? If you have the optional ability to get hints from other players in-game by playing online, wouldn’t that just make wikis another part of the meta-game?

    And Todd…do try to start Dark Souls within a year. I actually found the more active presence of online griefers in Dark Souls to be strangely entertaining.

    In Demon’s Souls, most players who leave fake messages that prod you to your death have left the server long ago. (“Should I jump off this cliff? Well, the message suggesting it has zero up-votes…hmmm…”)

  18. As I work my way through Dark Souls (and I’m enjoying it much more than Demon’s Souls; the fact that you don’t have to farm herbs/spices is a major plus for me), I find myself turning to the wiki often. It feels to me like the wiki must be part of the meta-game, just because of the sheer amount of information that you could never access by yourself on a single play through. Your comment about the wiki being an extension of the in-game collaboration mechanics is spot on. The game encourages collaboration more than any other game I’ve played. I’ve actually not seen ANY message griefing in Dark Souls because the Humanity reward for someone uprating your message is a huge incentive to leave good messages. Again, the Humanity reward for co-oping with someone on a boss fight is a huge incentive to do that (plus it’s fun.) The mechanics in Dark Souls feel refined to a razor pitch; everything is balanced to the nth degree (and they’re releasing patches that will further that process.) The fact that the game is so well constructed, but still provides nearly infinite options for you to play the way you want to is simply incredible. It is a thing of beauty, and rapidly becoming one of my favorite games ever.

  19. I haven’t touched Dark Souls for a week or more now, thanks largely to Exterminatus, finishing my 2nd run of DE:HR, and now Skyrim.

    But this game reminds me a lot of another – Tekken 3 and 5 – survival mode. As you progress the challenge of performing ever more flawless, demanding techniques triggers something in my head. Failure is met with the instant desire to retry, to topple that huge Demon blocking my way. And when that happens, when the beast is felled with only a little health remaining, oh the blessed dopamine release! I sit there for a moment, revelling in my victory… then I die a few seconds later.

    I’ve died so many times, the Taurus, the Capra and his dogs, the Stone Golem, the Witch Spider, every single thrice-damned ‘easy’ mob. And the clincher, I’ve collected so much loot. It’s greed and ambition that drives me ever onward.

    I finally made it Anor Londo, but I will never pass the 2 Black Knight snipers. Like the relatively useless NPCs that litter the worlds ‘safe’ zones, my character will haunt his bonfire until the end of time.

  20. Now you’ve gone and done it. I love me some “Souls” games, and feel the need to contribute to the conversation. I had a friend who rented Demon’s Souls years back, and complained about his rage quits all weekend. I was intrigued so I looked it up, and it sounded interesting in its risk vs reward, and death as a teaching lesson style. I love this game, and nearly have my platinum trophy, just need 1 more run at the Monk in 3-3 to make a wand in my NG+++ that I’m currently in, but Maneater in 3-2 has other plans. I hate those bastards.

    Oh, did I mention I hate myself? Well, hate it a bit strong, but there is a definite need to punish myself mercilessly in life and in games. So yeah, I’d say you nailed the description of people who enjoy this game, at least for me. Demon’s Souls fills this quota and then some. I don’t play it to have fun, or to relax, nope. I play it to have my ass handed to me, and when I do manage some small feat of survival or vanquish a tough foe (Maneater) I feel a slow small smile crawl across my face for a moment. I will always remember the first time I defeated the red eye knight in 1-1 with my spear and backstabs. It was a moment of legend for me. Then I put down the controller, ate some antacids, and wiped the sweat off my face. Obviously that victory was erased shortly thereafter, but it’s all good.

    Just a short description of how I play Demon’s Souls for anyone interested. I am a hyper Clever Rat Ring, dex build. The glass cannon so to speak. I get hit once, I die. But the same goes for the enemies I face. I can 5-7 hit kill bosses with my +5 Sharp Winged Spear, or even less with my +5 Spider Compound Bow/Morion Blade (right hand). Of course, if they breathe on me, I die. But if I’ve been paying attention, I should have learned the queue’s for their moves, and react accordingly. Easier said than done though. But when you pull it off, damn does it feel good. I’m good at this game, but I still die all the time. I just don’t let that stop me from progressing.

    I’m sorry to have to disagree with the posts here about when the “real” Demon’s Souls begins, but for me it was when I beat the game and started NG+. Oh god It is brutal!

    As for Dark Souls, it is both easier/harder at the same time than Demon’s for me. I leveled up too high and it got too easy for me so I started over. Now I’m stuck in Anor Londo fighting Smough/Orenstein as a pyromancer at soul lvl 20 with a +5 Quelana Flame and appropriate Chaos covenant spells. I refuse to lvl up to beat them! Damn that is a tough fight at that lvl. They were so much easier at lvl 75 and all my heavy armor/2H weapons. But I wouldn’t want it any other way, no matter how many rages it sends me into.

    I love/hate every moment of it. Just like myself.

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