I’ve been spending a large amount of time with Demon’s Souls lately. It has reminded me of an important truth I had forgotten, thanks to the excessive hand-holding provided by modern video games: I can get chewed up and spat out with alarming speed.
I entered Demon’s Souls with an arrogance about me, an arrogance that was soon replaced with a humility not felt since the NES days. My enemies pulled no punches, provided no quarter, and didn’t give me a chance to retreat and magically re-generate health. I learned quickly that each encounter had to be handled carefully.
This was not God of War — there is no tapping the attack button as quickly as possible, and my character cannot take five hundred hits to the face with a batwing axe. He can take about two hits before lying down for a rest. And by “rest,” I mean that he’s dead. All the souls I have collected stay where I fell, for me to fight my way back to.
This frailness makes me love Demon’s Souls. The game’s unrelenting hatred of you — the player. The way that it doesn’t respect you until you have proven yourself.
Demon’s Souls is not out to give me a Call of Duty-style cinematic adventure. It’s not trying to make me feel like a warrior who rises to challenge the Gods. It’s throwing me into a world where I am just a vulnerable as the creatures I am fighting. I may be some sort of chosen one who will slay the soul-eating Demon, but it’s going to be one Hell of a time getting to said Demon.
Why am I so enchanted by a game that could easily be accused of being repetitive? Because it puts my skill on trial. Some games talk about their “deep combat systems” when they mean “smash x to kill everything, and don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” In Demon’s Souls, I am expected to use my shield, and to time my swings just right. Dodging is tricky, and it’s all too easy to catch a face full of getting stabbed in the eye.
Demon’s Souls asks you to invest time in learning the ins and outs of its combat system — no more, no less. Then it kills you while laughing in your face.
After hours of relentless abuse, why am I still playing Demon’s Souls? Because I got a virtual trophy. I normally sneer at games recognizing “accomplishments” that are just menial tasks, but when I got my first trophy from Demon’s Souls at the moment of the first Boss’s death, it felt like I had truly earned it. It was more than just a digital “certificate of completion,” it was recognition of the fact that I had worked hard to fit into the world of Demon’s Souls. It wasn’t easy, but victory was mine (by the skin of my teeth). The first Demon slain!
From a storytelling perspective, this challenge is the character development in Demon’s Souls. The “hero” (also referred to as “pincushion,” “punching bag,” or “victim”) is a blank slate, and his emotional journey is my own. Does he share my frustration as he is over run and hacked to death? Is he aggravated when he accidentally ends an evade move with a fall off a high staircase? Is he furious to the point of seeing red when an enemy pulls off a one-hit kill? Yes. Yes, he is. The magic of Demon’s Souls is that it lets you be the character, feel for the character, and tell the character’s story through your own suffering and gradual improvement. No ham-fisted exposition needed.
Demon’s Souls isn’t a game for extended narratives. It’s just you, your weapon, and the haunting knowledge that you can be gutted like a fish at any second. As you rise again, far away from where you were, you can take a brief second to ponder what just happened. Then you go at it again. And this time, you’ll be the one doing the gutting.
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