The soul of soulless conditions

by Tom Ingram

Previously…

Beating Phalanx opens up the rest of the game. The only hard and fast restriction is that you cannot progress past the second boss of the Boletarian Palace until you have completely cleared at least one other world. I could go through the remainder of the game in any order, and to an extent that’s what I did. This series is really a condensed and simplified account of what was a messy playthrough.

Though all the levels are open to Steve, it seemed logical to choose the one immediately next to the Boletarian Palace—the Stonefang Tunnel. This choice was also motivated by the fact that the level contains Blacksmith Ed, who is more effective than Boldwin at high-level weapon upgrades. Stonefang Tunnel is the mine level, a required box to tick in a certain type of fantasy game. I start outside the mine, high up on a mountainside. A merchant aptly named the “Filthy Man” sells supplies and ores near a campfire.

The entrance to the mine is not far from here. Inside it’s almost too dark to see, which remains an annoyance throughout the level. The enemies here are mainly “burrowers”, Morlock-like underground people who keep working mindlessly even though the mine is no longer in use. Most of them will not initiate an attack, and in any case they’re pretty useless as enemies, their chief feature being that they take very little damage from attacks not based on stabbing. For some reason they have bits of scaly metal embedded in their skin. Blacksmiths Ed and Boldwin also have this feature, which is, again, never explained. It makes more sense if you don’t think about it.

The game’s combat and controls are pretty well-designed. Swords, shields, and other weapons are controlled with the shoulder and trigger buttons, a layout I didn’t like at first. But it grew on me as I began using the two-weapon strategy. It allows for the smooth alternation between left and right that I need. R3 is to lock onto enemies, a feature that is indispensable (they’re hard to hit free-hand). Square uses items (the D-pad selects them) and triangle switches between a one- and two-handed grip on your weapon (which was irrelevant to me).

I strongly believe that a good control scheme is mandatory in games. Our presence in the game world is tactile; we exist only in our button presses. This is the bottleneck through which all immersion flows, and you must make it as wide as possible. Demon’s Souls is not without a couple of flaws in its scheme, however. Circle is by far the most frustrating; it’s the sprint button, but it’s also used for a host of special moves like, e.g., rolling. It’s easy to trigger these accidentally in the heat of the moment and cause your character to throw himself headlong into a bottomless pit in a frenzy of Kierkegaardian enthusiasm, when you meant to sprint away from an enemy to eat some sweet, sweet healing moon grass. The difference in the camera’s behaviour when you are locked on to an enemy can also cause problems. When you need to cut and run from a boss, for instance, the extra time it takes to adjust the camera after breaking lock-on so you can see where you’re going can be the difference between life and death. Although, to be fair, I’m not sure how you’d rectify this without eliminating the lock-on entirely.

This is the problem with an imperfect control scheme: it leads to differences between your intentions and your character’s actions where (presumably) there would be none in real life. It emphasizes that this is not you, you are not part of this world. Demon’s Souls gets it righter than most games, and the rhythm of it can become hypnotic after a while, but it’s not as good as it could be.

As I go deeper into the mine, I encounter wolves, well-known as underground dwellers. There is also a foppish sorcerer with what looks like a fireplace poker as a weapon and the ability to shoot fireballs at me. He throws back his head and laughs heartily; I stab him in the face with my mail breaker. This takes me into a more industrial section of the mine filled with machines that must surely be beyond the grovelling feudalists of this world. I have no great grasp of the history of mining technology, but I suspect fantasy writers know even less.

The industrial setting causes me to think of economics. With the monetary exchanges made frequently in this level, it’s an apt topic for discussion. The way deaths are handled in the game affects resource usage. In, e.g., Half-Life or Fallout 3, when you die you revert to an earlier point in the timeline, and everything after that point is treated as if it never happened. Your game has one unified timeline in which you never die; all your deaths are out of canon. This is not the case in Demon’s Souls; frequent deaths are explicitly part of the scenario. As a result, when you die, any resources you have used remain used.

This is not as unfair as it appears at first blush, because it also means that a number of beneficial things are retained after your death, e.g. the crucial level shortcuts that you’ve opened. But it forces you to be more conservative with resources. At this stage in the game they are scarce; crescent moon grasses are only available from Boldwin now that the vendor in the Boletarian Palace has moved deeper into the level, and only at an extortionate rate. There is a real chance of running out of healing items and being unable to get more without some substantial grinding (which will be difficult without the ability to heal). When you think about it, this is an extension of the lives system: there are infinite lives, but there are still consequences for dying a lot.* It’s frustrating at first, but the more you think about it (and the more you use it), the more elegant it becomes.

The game’s handling of money (and the extremely high likelihood of death) means that you never get a chance to build up enough capital to take over the world. In many RPGs, money eventually becomes irrelevant, but because you lose them after you die (and there’s no way to sell items, so you can’t dump your money into goods that will persist after your death), the souls in Demon’s Souls are always at least somewhat scarce.** It’s hard to tell whether this is good or bad. On the one hand, it means that there are some challenges that never go away in the game. On the other hand, it removes part of the sense of accomplishment as you progress: no longer having to deal with the frustration of being unable to afford stuff.

The mining setting calls to mind another game with which Demon’s Souls has quite a bit in common: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. The appeal of these two games is that they function as a baseline: they both represent a kind of generic, unadorned fantasy that is surprisingly rare. Really, in how many video games do you actually get to slay a dragon? Contrary to its pretensions, Demon’s Souls is devoid of originality. But I think that counts as a strength, in this case.

In the last section of the mine before the first boss, everything is suddenly covered in spiderwebs. This is ominous. Most games like to foreshadow the boss in smaller enemies throughout the level. Demon’s Souls does that, only without the “throughout the level” part: the foreshadowing enemies and scenery come immediately before the boss, and are therefore completely worthless. This looks like one of those bits of inept foreshadowing, and it is. It’s a concern for me because that means that one of the game’s demons is a giant spider.

I am a raging arachnophobe. I think that Charlie Brooker’s fears in this video are perfectly reasonable. This is not a joke: I cannot function around spiders or spider webs, I have difficulty looking at even unrealistic depictions of them, and even the word “spider” in print makes me uncomfortable enough to avoid touching it. I can just manage the spider sections in BG:DA. But the boss of this level is the “Armour Spider”, a giant arachnid in a very small cave filled with its webs. It has freaky red eyes. It can shoot fireballs at you. At this point I look away and let myself be killed from a distance. Thank you Demon’s Souls, but while my intrepid critical instinct will take me through Naked Empire and Narcissus in Chains, and almost through Lost Highway, there are some things I just will not do.


* And certain kinds of deaths are penalized more harshly than others: if you fall into a bottomless pit near the beginning of the level, the bloodstain (i.e. all the money/souls you were carrying when you died) will be easy to regain without dying. If you frequently die in combat, it will be harder. Stupid and accidental deaths will not disadvantage you as much. [return]

** At least until you get fed up and discover the duplication cheat. [return]

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