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In this post, I describe the ways in which Demon's Souls draws upon archaic game lessons regarding game structure and difficulty to provide a kind of immersion both powerful and unique, touching briefly on the issue of what makes gaming unique as a medium

Nick Creamer, Blogger

October 18, 2010

25 Min Read

There are many worthy games out there - games that provide pure enjoyment, games that tickle the human urge to horde or nurture characters, games that bring people together.

Hidden among these games is a much smaller subset, games which are not just a great example of the medium, but work specifically because they play to the strengths of the medium – not just a game which happens to be good, but something which could only really exist as a videogame, and is ALSO good in ways outside of the usual “fun” or “awesome” that some people would consider the highest calling of the medium.

Very, very few games do this, and that is probably because it a very, very difficult thing to do – the problem of narrative versus agency comes to mind, of course, as well as the fact that videogames are a hybrid medium where it is difficult to make the most of any one element (since they can draw from film, fiction, theater, etc), much less all of them in tandem.

When talking about games that use the medium not just to make a fun game, but because the medium of videogames best tells the story, people often bring up a few extremely “safe” choices – premier among these probably being Shadow of the Colossus.

There's nothing wrong with that – Shadow of the Colossus is quite likely the best videogame yet made, and the way it weaves the exploration of a world and the defeating of the colossi together, as well as toying with the idea of agency through a questionable and rarely joyous quest, is nothing short of unbelievable.

But beyond Shadow (and Ico, which does not achieve nearly the same synergy between its' gameplay, graphics, and narrative, but is an equally beautiful and satisfying game experience), there is little consensus on which games prove the worth of the narrative – at this point you can turn to other games that somewhat less gracefully deal with agency (Bioshock), or just excellent game experiences where the world is a fully-realized character you can become emotionally connected with (Half-Life 2, any Zelda game, etc).

Today I will talk about a game that, aside from creating a beautifully and coherently realized world and offering rich, compelling gameplay for countless hours, manages to foster an emotional connection and justify its' existence as a videogame through one unique feature – being really, really, really goddamn hard. That game is Demon's Souls.

Alright, so this analysis is gonna get long enough without describing exactly why Demon's Souls deserves to be a videogame more or less than any other videogame, so I think I'm gonna enlist some unwitting outside help here. A much longer and more precise analysis of what I'm about to describe can be found at http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=615 (incidentally, I would feel a lot more confident calling my blog the most hard-hitting game journalism online if Action Button didn't exist – they seem to be my only real competition, really (oh wait, Penny Arcade (oh wait, Gamasutra (oh wait, occasionally Kotaku (oh wait, I forgot that I'm not an internet savant who is aware of every single serious-minded videogame blog in existence (woops)))))). But anyway.

Videogames are a hybrid medium – they contain elements of fiction, elements of film, elements of everything. What makes videogames unique among mediums is they allow for viewer, or in this case “player” agency – you exert some measure of control over your experience. This is what defines videogames, what separates them from other art forms, what allows them to express emotion and thought in a different manner than any other art form.

Currently, very few videogames take advantage of this power in any way – most current videogames are not art, but entertainment (don't get pissed about this definition, I'm about to explain it). They are designed to create a pleasurable experience, not to create an emotional connection, not to raise the consciousness or cause the player to question their own sensibilities. The player is not supposed to be changed in any meaningful way by their experience.

This is not unexpected, or a condemnation of videogames as an art form – virtually any emerging art form goes through a phase where the motivation to produce is either profit or the novelty of the medium itself, and obviously there always will and should be room for videogames that are no more than joyous and well-crafted gameplay experiences. However, what this means for our current moment is that because videogames are considered essentially toys, and because their own very specific contributions to narrative power are so unexplored, most videogame reviews rate games based on either how good a toy they are (if it's a sandbox/mario game) or how well they co-opt the tropes of other medium (if the game is trying to tell a story or connect with the viewer).

Almost no attention is paid to whether or not the game needs to exist as a game in order for its' message to be heard, because videogames are simply too young and too unexplored by truly brilliant and determined creators (partially a problem of the impracticality of designing a game according to one person's vision, particularly if that game is going to be released by a major publisher) for that to be a realistic measure of success.

This isn't helped by the fact that, as the kind (well, they're actually sort of assholes, but anyway) folks at actionbutton.net explore, most people enter the videogame industry because they like videogames as they currently are, not because they have a message to express and feel videogames are the best conduit for that message.

But player agency can be tied to the emotional effect and mood of a game in ways far more subtle than Bioshock managed, and I believe Demon's Souls harnesses the power of the videogame medium to grab the player in a way no other videogame attempts to, and no other art form could achieve. How does it do this? I already said, stupid. By being hard.

Demon's Souls is kind of a mean game, at least to start off. In the tutorial mission, you are gently introduced to the basic rules of combat while defeating a series of shambling zombies (I don't know if they're zombies (who cares)).

After a few claustrophobic hallways of this, you are introduced to the blue-eyes knight, a creature which, depending on your own fluency with the game's absurdly graceful stamina system (where combat could be compared to a Zelda-esque Z-targeting system, but all strenuous actions (running, attacking, rolling, blocking) consume a portion of your stamina, which only really recharges when your shield is down), will either provide you with a first taste of this game's endless fountain of satisfaction or act as an oppressor of humanity on the scale of the Third Reich.

If you are any good at anything, you will defeat this vile creature through a mixture of timing, agility, and luck, and stand crowing over his limp frame, exultant in your triumph. You will then turn the corner and have to fight another one, minus all the herbs you carelessly wasted the first time, due to your false assumption that life is a resource in this game. Life is not a resource in this game – if you are getting hit throughout the course of a fight, you may not lose that fight, but you will lose. Eventually. Once the level is finished with you.

Having vanquished this second mockery of all that is chivalrous and good, you will limp forward down the hallway and ascend some kind of dilapidated fortification, batting away the feeble strikes of mere common soldiers. Already the game is settling you in to the state of awareness it demands of you – distrust mixed with affection, a confidence the game will do nothing to directly cheat you of life mixed with the certainty the game will pull every trick short of cheating.

Soon you will come to expect zombies lurking with club upraised just inside doorways, or that any open-air confrontation is specifically designed to abuse your love of the roll-dodge, sending you tumbling to an inglorious death. But for now, you feel good. You feel powerful. You didn't beat those knights because the game taught you a new knight-beating technique just before you reached them – you beat them because you noticed blocking their heavy strikes left just enough time and stamina for a single strike and roll away, or because you had practiced the parry maneuver on weaker fodder enough to risk it on true warriors, or because you abused an unwise full advance by your opponent to sneak behind and slip a dagger softly between his ribs.

In short, you feel good because it was you beating those knights, not the game. With a spring in your step you jog lightly up one last staircase and through a milk-white doorway in time to see a looming demon size you up, find you lacking, and dispose of you with a single skull-crushing blow.

Welcome to Demon's Souls.

I am overselling this effect, but then again I am not. Demon's Souls is never an unfair game – every challenge remains the same for every run through of every level, so tricks that seem mean-spirited at first will grow to be familiar friends, and the much-touted “no save point” system is very gracefully circumvented through the careful placement of organic checkpoints and shortcuts.

But I also won't sugarcoat it – Demon's Souls combat system is much more unforgiving than any mainstream action game system in recent memory. If I had to summarize it, I'd call it the Zelda system for grown-ups. You lock-on to enemies and strafe around them while in battle, using one trigger to raise your shield and the other to strike. You have a health bar and magic bar, as well as the aforementioned stamina bar, which I will now explain in slightly greater detail, because it is both the key to this combat system and perhaps the single greatest innovation in action games ever. Seriously.

Any action that requires more exertion than walking (running, rolling, attacking, or blocking) uses up a portion of your stamina bar. If you have less stamina than would normally be depleted by the attack you are blocking, your guard is broken and you are left stunned, usually leading to immediate death.

This is a bad thing. Don't do this.

In order to avoid this, you must carefully manage your stamina, backing off and lowering your guard whenever you feel you don't have enough energy in reserve to deal with anything unexpected. Yes, not when you are “out” of stamina – when you feel it is unsafe and unwise to continue pressing your advantage. This normally happens about halfway through your stamina, but your mileage may vary depending on how you want to play the game, and how many controllers you can afford to break.

Stamina only recovers quickly with your shield down, so you will swiftly learn when it is safe to momentarily show the enemy your unguarded flank. This combat system rewards careful assault and a total understanding of your enemy's powers, much like the game's levels themselves.

I could go on about this system's strengths at much greater length (the gamble of consuming health items and what effect this has on boss fights, the beauty of a shield system that still results in chip damage like a fighting game, the ways you can define your style with your weapons and powers, the fact that arguably the most “powerful” setup involves leaving yourself at less than 30% health at all times, reinforcing the fact that you're not supposed to get hit) but I won't. Well, I wasn't planning on it, anyway. Woops.

So anyway. The combat system in Demon's Souls: hard, but fair. The fact that any single blow could kill you, that even the weakest of enemies could destroy you if your skills slip below what's expected of you, keeps you tense, keeps you sharp, keeps you exhilarated.

Although you technically do “level up” in Demon's Souls, this isn't like Oblivion, where a leveled-enough character's bare skin repels more damage than it actually absorbs. If a level 80 character is left to fend for himself, anything could happen – your character is just a shell. You are the one who has truly leveled.

The levels of the game match this principle admirably, providing a series of puzzles that, once conquered, provide satisfaction each time they are re-approached, symbols of your own power and mastery. At first they will seem unfair – brutally unfair, particularly in the way each level demands a constant measuring of risk and reward. Let me paint one more picture.

Let's talk about money.

The currency of Demon's Souls is, shockingly, demon's souls (maybe that's why they insisted on making a title with a nigh-unpronounceable apostrophe-s combo). These souls are dropped from all enemies you kill, and can be funneled into repair bills, leveling up, or the purchasing of equipment, spells, or new weapons. You collect these souls as you traverse the game's various worlds, and you virtually always end up spending them back at the hub world.

Let's talk about death.

When you die in Demon's Souls, you are returned to the beginning of your current level. Not only that, but all the enemies you just defeated are respawned. Not only that, but all your souls are stolen from you – trapped in a shimmering bloodstain upon the ground where you last drew breath, waiting for you to retrieve them. Of course, if you die before you get back to them, they are gone forever. But if you ever leave the level before beating it, the enemies respawn anyway (actually they respawn even if you do beat the level, you just won't care at that point), undoing all your work for the sake of saving your existing souls. And thus the cruel bargain of Demon's Souls is presented.

You find yourself in yet another smoky stone corridor, lurching slowly up stairs slick with in an unmentionable viscous polish. Your breathing comes sharp and ragged now, and as you reach the next landing you reach numbly for more moon grass, only to find your pockets empty. You slump against the wall and slide down, nearly defeated by this revelation.

It seems even the very walls of this damned place tense at your movement, greedy and hungry and swiftly losing patience with your incessant struggling. You raise a fist and shake it at your oppressors, wherever they may be, delirious with fear and the sharp, familiar ache of your wounds. The weight of ten thousand souls weighs heavily on you – precious, delicious souls, souls of the just and of the wicked, enough souls to repair your weapons and restock your inventory and perhaps even learn a new spell, something explosive and mean-spirited and just what this dungeon deserves.

But you're so close now, so near to glory and safety. If you can only hold yourself together for a few more minutes you're sure you'll be done with this place forever, or at least unlock some path back to safety. Though you can barely raise your shield, your hatred of this place spurs you onward. Unsure whether you've survived this far through precision or mere luck, you are loathe to abandon this forward position, this dingy ill-treated corridor deep in the belly of a hungry stone beast.

What further injustice that would be, to capitulate now and lick your wounds only to never reach this place again. No. You must move on. You will defeat this place, even if your health and spirit dwindles to none, even if blocking alone could now cause your death by inglorious chip damage. You've fought this dungeon's beasts, you know their tricks. Confidence. Resolve. You gulp in stale air and breathe, pushing down heavy uncertainty. When your choices are master your fear or be overcome, there is truly no choice at all.

The wall provides an unnerving degree of support as you rise, using your sword as a cane and pushing yourself towards the stairway, finding sure footing at last. Torchlight shines up ahead, yellow eyes faintly visible in the gloom. You swallow, and press onward.

This digression would work much better as a segue if I didn't have to explain what I am segueing from and to. Goddamnit. Anyway, the point here is that at every point in Demon's Souls, not only can you die, but there is much to lose for dying, and what's more you have a way to save yourself from that – if you're willing to sacrifice the work you've done in the level.

What makes this decision truly difficult is the fact that you can never tell exactly how much damage your enemies will do to you, how much leeway you have, because how difficult the path ahead will be entirely depends both on your own mastery of the challenges already presented and your ability to adapt and quickly master the challenges ahead.

Is the urge to push forward hard-earned confidence, deadly arrogance, or simply desperation at the thought of conquering this level one more time? This mocking question is present at all times in Demon's Souls, a large-scale reflection of the self-awareness and caution combat demands.

I said earlier that life is not a resource in this game – that is not strictly true. While it is true that in battle, life acts as more of a safety net than a resource, a last line of defense whenever you are truly caught off guard (or a punishment for entering a room without checking for traps or ambushes), in a more meta-game sense life does act as a resource – as a currency with which you buy experience. Not XP – experience.

The kind of experience that tells you “when this enemy lunges at you, he may make himself vulnerable for a moment – but he may also follow up with a deadly sweep attack. Best to wait for that moment to pass before counterattacking”. The kind of experience that, if you actually pay attention, will keep you from ever falling for a certain “unfair” trick again. The flip side of this game seeming very unfair is that it is, in reality, one of the fairest games of all time – enemies will always spawn in the exact same location, and always have the exact same set of abilities that they can use in the exact same way.

Every piece of knowledge you accumulate in this game will be useful forever, and because life is not plentiful enough for you to be continuously trading blows with an enemy, it is strongly encouraged that you learn everything you can from each enemy encounter. This design choice makes the game stronger on both sides of the skill spectrum – it increases the challenge, fear, and drama of the game as a new adventurer, but consequentially it also increases the pride and feeling of mastery as a seasoned warrior, since, as I've established, it is you leveling, not your character. It turns the game into a continuous conversation between the levels and the player, where each level does its best to sharpen the players' instincts before throwing something at the player that tests those instincts in the meanest way possible. It's fun. Really.

Because the player character is so stupidly, ridiculously powerful (and if not powerful, at least safe – that is, their death is divided from you by at least thirteen hearts and a freaking fairy), most games end up having to rely on the physical appearance of enemy characters to provoke a reaction. This is what I'll call the “Serious Sam” school of shock and awe – if you're fighting a monster twenty stories high, you're not gonna feel powerful regardless of your own overwhelming strength.

Because Demon's Souls grinds in your lack of invincibility at every turn, and makes you pay for every character weakness countless times, it can avoid this power-creep phenomenon and use enemy designs that both make physical sense and provide subtle clues to victory. The Flame Lurker, for instance, is one of the earliest bosses in the game, and essentially acts as a skillcheck, showing both that you've mastered the physical actions and risk-reward combat system, as well as taken some time to explore the game world (because blocking waves of fire is never easy with a shield made of timber).

The Flame Lurker is physically imposing, sure, but not ridiculously so – it stands maybe twice as a tall as a man, has a horned skull for a face, and is on fire. Clearly not good times, but as far as thrice-damned hellspawn go, it could be worse. However, its' physical appearance will be the last thing on the mind of a new warrior freshly facing this beast. The lessons of Demon's Souls firmly in mind, the hero will stare in horror as this creature breaks the rules of every prior boss.

The Flame Lurker will leap forward with unheard-of agility and the player will think not think “whoa! Cool!” but, “I can't outrun that. I can't escape to rest. Damn”. The Flame Lurker will slam its' fists into the ground and raise a wall of fire, and the player will think “I can't block or parry that. How can I hit it? OHGODROLL” and then there will be less thinking and more swearing. Because the combat in Demon's Souls is brutal but absolutely fair, and because it uses the same tricks combined with the death-reset system to ensure the player must learn these tricks one at a time, whenever the game messes with your expectations you will feel the fear.

But of course, it's not good game design to simply aggravate players. There must be a purpose to difficulty. Within Demon's Souls, I see several strong justifications for the difficulty, all of which tie neatly into the game design. Although I've touched on all these points, so far I've been less clear and more gushing-y, so I guess it's time to come clean. Firstly, the game wants you to very nearly give up hope.

Basically every fantasy RPG or action game takes place in a tortured world in need of a savior – however, you rarely feel the effects of that personally. Within Demon's Souls, heroing is a thankless task, with townsfolk who question your motives and enemies who endlessly stab your back, laughing as they do it. You feel the weight of distrust and grief upon this world, and your victories are all the more precious for it.

Secondly, as I have already elaborated, the game wants you to feel fear. This is perhaps the game's chief feature and greatest success, so I'll spell it out one final time – virtually no current games make the players themselves feel less safe. Even if your avatar dies, you will respawn quickly and painlessly. Even if your avatar dies, you lose nothing of value. By tossing these basic rules of non-aggravating game design out the window, Demon's Souls harnesses true fear in the player, and provides the opportunity for actually difficult play decisions.

This only works because the game is completely brutal and yet completely fair – you always know, more or less, what's hiding around the next corner. It's just always going to be horrible. Knowing this, do you risk trying to beat this level on half health, or do you scurry home and burn your souls, hoping a few more soul levels will keep you at full health the next time?

When a boss kills you in Demon's Souls, you don't get angry at the game – it's never the game's fault, it's the bosses' fault. They're the ones you get angry at, the ones you develop bitter yet almost affectionate rivalries with. In summation, the honest fear Demon's Souls promotes in the player not only leads to a unique emotional connection with the game, it also strengthens and defines its flavor.

Thirdly, the game wants you to feel powerful. This seems completely at odds with the desire to make the player feel powerless, and in fact it is – the second emotion is replaced by the third throughout the player's time in Demon's Souls. In most action games, it is rarely the player himself who is powerful – it is simply the character they are portraying, blessed with a million horrific combo moves designed to turn slaying the forces of evil into a spectator sport.

In Demon's Souls your victories are vicious, desperate, and well-earned, and the combat system is simple and perfectly designed in such a way that every successful fight grinds the lessons of careful combat into the player's skull. After enough hours of this vicious grilling, the player will truly become a motherfucker – wielding carefully custom-made weapons with merciless precision, effortlessly slaying hordes of enemies not because the character is strong – because even at this point, a careless assault would lead to immediate death – but because the player is strong. As you can guess, it is a much more rewarding feeling to defeat a boss because you are a master of a games' combat systems, rather than those systems themselves being a master of all the enemies in the game.

Finally, the game wants you to feel triumph. This is not the same as feeling powerful, as attaining mastery – this is the feeling you get when you survive despite knowing you could have screwed up at any moment, when you beat a boss down to its' last sliver of health for the umpteenth time and just barely roll away from its' next attack, when you stab it once, twice, and then back off, no longer willing to be surprised by its' inevitable counterattack, when your shield and stamina only just contain the force of that obvious counter and allow you to roll once more, regaining stamina and resetting your stance, when a final roll ends with your sword in its heart, when a creature twice your size and absurdly beyond your power level falls because you were careful, you were quick, and you were very, very good.

When you want to kick your television not because you are so angry, but because you are so awesome, because you are not a fated hero, just some guy who wanted it badly enough. When the game shows you the difference between pressing the series of buttons that kill the big monster on screen and actually killing that big monster with your own weary, bloodstained hands.

Most action games cannot hope for true immersion, and so settle for more or less the opposite of immersion – vicarious awe. No real hero cheers when they see the next horrible monster they're going to face, or thinks “this is awesome” – they cheer when they look upon its body and know it will never, ever be able to hurt them again. Demon's Souls knows this, and wants you to know it too.

Movies can shock, and thrill, and make you jump, and make you think – but they can never truly make you feel trapped, and they can never recreate the joy of conquering your own personal demons. Demon's Souls creates an experience entirely (at least to my experience, and please offer other examples if you know of them) unique not just among videogames, but among art forms in general, and for that I honor it, and am thankful for its existence. Demon's Souls has one foot in the past and one in the future, drawing upon the long-lost videogame art of actually being hard and building a world to best feed off and reflect the emotions such a game would foster. As much as I enjoy the freedom of theatricality provided by modern game design (and by modern game design I mean quick time events (and by quick time events I mean yeah, God of War had some good ideas, it's a shame no other action game developer can think of any)), there is something to be said for building a combat system you can trust absolutely, and then wringing it to the choking point. For drawing absurd degrees of emotional connection and innovation from the most obvious and least explored aspects of game design, I honor Demon's Souls with my very first GG.

GG, Demon's Souls. WP.

(Yes, I just made up the Good Game award there, and there is no standing protocol for its bestow-ment. This is my blog, I do what I want.)

-Nick out

P.S. A good friend suggested I mention this is a repost from my critichit.blogspot.com site, where you can find more of my ramblings, so, there's that. Cross-networking ftw.

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