The PS3 action RPG Demon’s Souls has managed to turn itself into a niche hit with a strong cult fallowing. After recently playing and completing the game I can see why. In its heart the game manages to escape some of the trappings of modern game design while sacrificing some of its accessibility in order to provide a very unique experience. Using a limited set of resources the game manages to capture the player in an engrossing atmospheric world which never lets go.
This is achieved in no small part by the very smart integration of the game’s core mechanics into the fabric of its world. Instead of providing an abstract set of rules that the player must follow, the game meticulously makes sure that every mechanic is used not only to provide entertaining gameplay, but also to enhance and build up its atmospheric world.
Souls are the main currency in Demon’s Souls and are used for practically everything - from buying swords and arrows sold by vendors, to leveling up the player’s character. Souls and the way they are obtained and lost are not only an integral part of Demon’s Souls gameplay, but are also deeply rooted in the foundations of the game’s world and lore. An excellent article about the essence of soul collecting in Demon’s Souls can be found here: Analysis: Demon’s Souls And The Poetry Of Greed
All souls that the player has accumulate can be lost if he dies and during his next journey through the level is unable to return to the bloodstain left by his dead body. Such loss of progression can be extremely frustrating for the player. In order to offset this somewhat, the developers have devised items which can be found by exploring the level and can be consumed by the player in order to gain a fixed amount of souls. As the player does not lose any items when he dies these ensure that he has access to at least a bare minimum amount of souls, in case of an unfortunate death.
Demon’s Souls finds a superb way to represent this mechanic in its world – the items are actually the souls of the fallen heroes which have faced the foul demons prior to the player’s arrival. Overcoming perilous obstacles and collecting souls from the bodies of adventurers who have failed where the player has succeeded helps to create a sense of achievement and empowerment.
World Building and Character Progression
Character progression in Demon’s Souls is achieved by giving souls to an NPC in the game’s main hub named The Lady in Black (a mysterious young maiden who is actually an ancient demon). She then uses these souls to grant strength to the hero and increase one of his attributes. The more times a player goes through this process, the more expensive the next attribute increase becomes. At first glance this is a fairly basic system which is not all that novel. What is interesting here is how the system is flavored in order to enhance the overall feel of the world the player inhabits.
In contrast with most other games where the player betters himself as he “experiences” the world, here he is directly dependent on another character for his progression. This fact becomes painfully apparent at a point in the game when The Lady in Black becomes unavailable, leaving the player without the means to level up! The fact that the character has no control over the way he acquires his power creates a feeling of “living on borrowed time” and adds up to the game’s already tense atmosphere.
The maiden’s motives are unknown to the player, as he only knows that the mysterious girl is actually a demon, no different than the ones he has to defeat throughout the game. According to the game’s lore demons feed on the souls of the humans they devour. Does this mean that while the player is becoming stronger thanks to the maiden’s power, he is also becoming more of a demon and less of a human? The game never states outright this fact, but often alludes to it during its course.
Also worthy of note are the phrases The Lady in Black uses when the player seeks to gain power from her.
When the player seeks Soul Power:
“Soul of the mind, key to life's ether.
Soul of the lost, withdrawn from it's vessel.
Let strength be granted, so the world might be mended.
So the world might be mended.”
When the player leaves:
“I shall await thine return, slayer of Demons. I am here for thee and thee only.”
These turn the otherwise simple process of “leveling up” into a kind of ritual, which reconfirms the player’s place and final goal in the game’s world.
One of the greatest achievements of Demon’s Souls is the unique and atmospheric world it manages to create. Some games use a huge art budget and an army of writers in order to create an engrossing world. Demon’s Souls manages to do this with a few voiced lines of dialog and game mechanics which are not only functional, but with their masterful presentation, bind the player to the game’s world and never let him go.