Demons in their summer souls…

by Tom Ingram

When you pop the curiously titled 2009 game Demon’s Souls into the PS3, the first thing you see is an impressive introductory video of armoured ciphers putting sharp things through their enemies’ guts. These enemies (and their guts) get progressively bigger, culminating in a roaring Clash of the Titans-style monstrosity that promises to provide an impressive spectacle. This is one of the few times I’ve been impressed by the superpowered graphics of the current generation. If the entire game revolved around fighting these giants, it would easily be one of the best games of the past few years. Unfortunately, as we shall see, this is not the case.

(The video also includes music, and I should take a moment to note, in my official capacity as a classically trained musician, that the music in this game is incredibly bad. Luckily for us, there’s not much of it, and the whole experience is vastly improved if you play some Tchaikovsky over it.)

What I expected going into Demon’s Souls was something like a low-rent Shadow of the Colossus without the moral angle: simple, guilt-free murdering of large demons in a rich high-fantasy landscape. It might seem unfair to judge a game harshly for being fundamentally different from what I was expecting, but this is not the case. There is not that great a distance between the actual, hit-and-miss concept and the potentially awesome concept, and someone should have noticed this while the designers were still spitballing. Slight changes in focus here and there might have improved the final product dramatically. As it is, depending on how well you do, it could be days before your first, inevitably disappointing, battle with a giant demon, and that’s just not fair.

The second thing you experience when you start the game is a series of notices asking you to sign up for the Playstation Network so you can play the game online. Yes, Demon’s Souls was designed to be played online in single-player mode. I never tried this out, so I can’t speak to it directly, but it seems to me that if this feature is not actually detrimental to gameplay (which I doubt), it’s at least gratuitous. As I understand it, you don’t interact with the other players in any meaningful way, so the only functional difference between online and offline play is the possibility of lag, that ultimate bane of modern game design.

Next, you come to the character creation screen, which offers the creepily detailed customization characteristic of recent games. My character is named Steve, and he comes from the South (presumably meant to be African—I wanted to make Steve a black guy, and he appeared to be on the menu, but once the game started he appeared an unnatural red, maybe even pink). He is a wanderer, which seemed to be the class offering the best balance of stats. Other than making Steve bald to avoid the disturbing-looking hair, I didn’t change his appearance at all. Gender theorists will no doubt be interested in the character creation screen because it has a slider along a male-female axis, so you could create a character at various points between the two.

Once your character is created, the game begins with another video, this one designed to be expository rather than impressive. Instead of music, it features narration. I was extremely critical of the voice acting at first, but on reflection it’s really not that bad. The problems with voice acting in games are often inseparable from the problems with writing: not all actors—not even all good actors—have the Hackmanesque ability to make completely ridiculous lines sound convincing, and some of these actors do much better than I would have done in the same situation. In other words, while the game’s voice acting is no worse than usual and maybe even a bit better, its writing is uniquely awful.

The backstory imparted by the video is something like this: the formerly prosperous kingdom of Boletaria was, suddenly and mysteriously, surrounded by a colourless Deep Fog (much is made of the fact that the fog is colourless; I can only assume this will be important later) and beset by a plague of demons. Steve is only the latest in a long string of adventurers who continually make expeditions into the fog, but never return. The demons do something with their souls—the significance of the souls is not quite clear. As the game begins, you discover that souls are used as a form of currency, but the video seems to imply some other function for them. In general this game is not good at explaining its concepts; I’ve played through a fair chunk of it and I’m still not clear on what world tendency is or what it means to memorize a spell (as opposed to simply learning it). Luckily, most of them don’t matter, and the experience isn’t improved much by attempting to make sense of the scenario.

The game’s setting is a Tolkien ripoff with delusions of originality. Lately there seems to be a tendency toward darker fantasy settings spurred on, I understand, by George R. R. Martin. But A Song of Ice and Fire is best understood as what you get when Tolkien learns the F-word, rather than something genuinely new. “Dark Fantasy” (as Wikipedia calls it) still, to quote Terry Pratchett, “rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic.” It stomps on the armchairs and rips their upholstery, but they’re still the same armchairs.

My point is that there’s nothing particularly original about the setting, and the writing is not even fanfic-quality. There are thees and thous, and at least one prithee. All this pseudo-archaism is funny in itself, but for every “we a plague of demons faced”, there’s a blunt onscreen message like “YOU DIED!” or “YOU GOT THE PLAGUE”, and the juxtaposition is hilarious. There are other moments of unintentional humour, too—while selling a single soul is a chilling Faustian bargain, using souls as currency on a massive scale is just comic. When you “touch your bloodstain” (itself a phrase that sounds faintly dirty), collecting any souls you lost when you last died, the message, “YOU HAVE REGAINED LOST SOUL” flashes onscreen, bringing to mind images of James Brown.

When the video ends, you reach the tutorial level and finally begin the game proper. This level is a short sequence in which you fight through a string of easy enemies only to get killed by a big guy with an axe. This is unavoidable—you’re supposed to die at the beginning—but more than any other moment this death summarizes the experience that is Demon’s Souls.