So that’s one demon, many souls?

by Tom Ingram


Steve wakes up as a half-dead spirit at the centre of a large, circular chamber. A message flashes onscreen, informing me that Steve is trapped in the Nexus and cannot escape. A floating, eyeless Maiden in Black chants over him. High above is a giant sword-bearing statue. There are others here—a couple of people huddling in one corner, and a blue glowing warrior sitting alone and forlorn on the stairs. Among the people off in the corner are Boldwin the blacksmith and a character named, I swear to God, Stockpile Thomas. These two serve purposes that could be filled equally well by a self-effacing nobody and a large wooden box respectively, but the game designers decided to give them personalities: Boldwin is dripping with contempt, and Thomas is sycophantically concerned for your well-being. The idea, I suppose, is to liven things up for you, but I think they actually achieved the opposite.

While, at first, the shopkeeper’s personality might be interesting (though it’s a long shot), after the 175th time you’ve spoken to them, you’d rather they behaved like a vending machine. It’s the Wal-Mart greeter effect: attempting to form a personal relationship makes commercial transactions more, not less, difficult and uncomfortable. Only two games I can think of have gotten around this, by two very different methods: the Sam & Max adventure games have Bosco, the colourful conspiracy theorist who runs the local Inconvenience store (and who you rarely have to deal with more than once or twice in a game), and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance has three different shopkeepers who respond to events in the game and change their dialogue after every dungeon (which is more or less every time you see them), so at least it doesn’t get monotonous. For most games, you can do much worse than barely human vendors.

The blue glowing guy is sitting in front of an archstone, a magical teleportation device that sends you to one of the game’s levels. All the archstones are inoperative except this one, the archstone of the Small King. I take it and find myself transported to the ruined castle of Boletaria. A dragon flies by, carrying the dead body of a horse. Slave soldiers wait for me behind wooden barricades. It’s not at all clear what the status of these soldiers (and the other enemies in the game) is exactly. They certainly look like they’re some flavour of undead, but the other soldiers later in the level do not, and I thought, based on the opening video, that the Boletarians were supposed to be friendly but embattled. There is probably an explanation for this somewhere, but the info dumps are few, far between, and horribly written. Whatever doesn’t get simply filtered out is forgotten, because the things you’re told in cutscenes have almost no bearing on the rest of the game. I feel like the developers put a lot of work into world building, but the game actually plays more smoothly if you don’t try to make sense of its scenario.

Now we’ve arrived at the beginning of the first level. Here begins the infamous part. I fight my way up to the front gate of the castle and get killed by a swarm of enemies. I start again from the archstone only to get killed again halfway up. For posterity’s sake I probably should have recorded the number of deaths. Suffice it to say there were a lot—too many, easily crossing the line between challenge and frustration. Frequently these deaths are the result of traps they could not possibly have expected me to beat on the first try. Too many deaths like that lead to a vicious circle of frustration and carelessness, which causes still more deaths. When you die you lose any souls (money) you have collected (though if you “touch your bloodstain” at the place you died, you get them back) and any items you’ve used are still gone.

Demon’s Souls is a game that prides itself on its difficulty. And it is fantastically difficult, in its way, which is a welcome departure from the prevailing practice these days. But as anyone who has played the game will tell you, there is good difficulty and bad difficulty. The difference is largely one of degree—too much difficulty is frustrating—but there are qualitative distinctions and Demon’s Souls is on the wrong end of almost all of them. For example, when you beat the game, you can play “New Game Plus”, which increases the “difficulty” by 40%. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the right kind of difficulty is not something you can measure with any great accuracy. The specific number led me to think that “difficulty”, for the developers, is defined entirely in terms of enemy numbers and strength. And this is the wrong kind of difficulty.

Proper difficulty should involve lateral thinking and scarce resources. There is no intelligence required to fight off a half-dozen barely killable enemies at once. It’s an entirely mechanical action at which you will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. There is no intellectual pleasure of having solved a problem to be had here. But the worst part about it is that it is shallow. If your game is difficult because the enemies have bigger numbers than me, as soon as I’m able to increase my numbers the difficulty evaporates like the will-o’-the-wisp it always was.

I spent at least two days in frustration before finally making progress. Eventually I end up on a segment of the castle wall. At one end is a red-eyed knight, a powerful enemy that effectively bars access to the giant door behind it until much later in the game. But only if you’re not crafty. My point above is bolstered by the fact that the AI in this game is shit stupid, and you can lure the knight into a bottomless pit for a tidy 2000 souls without much effort. Though I never did find the key to its door. In the middle is a blue-eyed knight, still difficult but at least beatable.

I die several times before I discover that you can equip weapons in the left hand, and thereby come up with the deadly combo: in the right hand, Steve’s accustomed falchion, a reasonably fast and powerful slashing weapon, and in the other hand the mail breaker, an extremely fast stabbing weapon. If you get the first hit in with the left hand, you can keep alternating and never give the enemy a chance to attack. I upgraded the weapons eventually, and replaced the mail breaker with the longer estoc and the falchion with the heavier kilij, but I retained this strategy throughout the game.

At the far end of the rampart is a tower which, I later discovered, leads down near the beginning of the level and lets you open a shortcut. The game does throw you the occasional bone, though it is weak tea as you play through the first level.

One thing I’m forced to admit is that the game looks pretty good. Its graphics probably aren’t very high-tech, and Steve looks like he’s been photoshopped into the frame, but the landscapes give an impression of a wide-open world, even though the levels feature the kind of narrowly manipulative paths that I like so much. The castle is of suitably imposing height, the decaying horse corpses set the scene well, and the enemies look good. Even as I cursed the frustrations of the game, it had a certain quality that kept me coming back. The combat slips into a hypnotically rhythmic groove after a while, and it’s easy to lose yourself in it.

Just past the blue-eyed knight I see another knight standing still. I jump down to fight him, but it turns out you can talk to him. He is Ostrava of Boletaria, one of the game’s NPCs who are shown but not explained in the loading screens. The screenshots for the loading screens really are baffling. Half of them cut off the characters’ heads, and some of them are taken at such strange angles that it’s not clear which limbs belong to which body (Ostrava’s is an example of both types). Ostrava fights all the enemies in the lower level while I fight the ones on top of the walls. And I get all the souls. But his presence is confusing and the purpose of the NPCs is never adequately divulged, even in independent supplementary materials like the Demon’s Souls Wiki.

After fighting another blue-eyed knight, I come to a bridge loaded with soldiers, with the red dragon flying over at intervals. The dragon doesn’t distinguish between friend and enemy, luckily, and if you time the flyovers it’s not difficult to make it across unscathed. On the other side I find two things of importance: a lever that opens the big gate at the beginning of the level, and another tower, opposite the previous one, that leads down to where I began. Inside the tower it’s dark, so when some monster I don’t recognize from earlier in the level begins attacking me, I don’t quite know what it is or what it’s doing. It looks like some kind of purple…thing hiding behind a shield and throwing knives. I have to kill two of them to reach the bottom and open the gate back to the beginning of the level to fight the boss.

Before we finish of Part 2, I want to take a brief detour to meditate some more on difficulty. Because a difficult game makes both developers and fans look good, there is a lot of putting on airs in discussions of difficulty. The difficulty of Demon’s Souls is almost entirely pretension. How do we separate true from false difficulty? A fully worked out theory does not, to my knowledge, exist, but let me make an attempt. Jeffrie Murphy argues that criminal punishment, in order to respect human dignity, must speak to the rational part of the criminal. Thus death is not in principle ruled out as a punishment (though he objects to it on other grounds)—he cites the death of Socrates as an example of a dignified execution that addresses the “criminal” as a human being—but torture is. The analogy here may seem a touch overblown, but I believe Murphy makes a distinction that is crucial. We have, roughly, a rational nature and an animal nature. The wrong kind of difficulty is that which appeals only to the animal nature, the systems of pleasure and pain, reward and punishment. A real challenge should be both intellectually and viscerally satisfying.

The other important concept is ownership of failure. When I fail as a result of my own mishandling or poor planning, that’s a mistake I can own and it is fair and right that I should start over. If I fail as a result of bad controls or poor level design—situations in which, no matter what my skill or merit, I cannot but fail at least some of the time—that is not a failure I can own. Nor is it if I have many failures, each one fair in itself, that when added up suggest the game is rigged against me. The failures I can own are the ones that respect me as a rational, dignified being capable of planning and pursuing my own projects—as a human being, in other words. I cannot own repeated failures due to inflated enemy stats, because the only way I can be expected to beat them is by level-grinding, an activity that is intellectually empty. I will probably go into more detail on this toward the end of this series.

Getting back to the game, the first boss is the demon Phalanx, a large blob that is not dangerous in itself but is surrounded by the monsters from the darkened tower—smaller blobs, as it turns out, with shields embedded in their bodies and spears for throwing. The difficulty, if the word applies, is in waiting for an opening, smacking the crap out of Phalanx, and retreating. As a “final exam” (to use Yahtzee’s phrase) of the unbelievably difficult level it follows, the fight with Phalanx is quite disappointingly anticlimactic. The later boss fights are just as easy, with shorter and simpler levels leading up to them. After Phalanx, the game becomes radically easier, with only a few persisting frustrations.