Difficulty, Disempowerment, and Demon’s Souls

The Souls games created by From Software have become synonymous with being inherently difficult, and are known as some of the most “hardcore” games in the medium. However there’s a lot more to something like Demon’s Souls than just being really difficult. While it’s true that Demon’s Souls is indeed hard, this notion that difficulty is the point of it is a tremendous disservice as to what makes the game special to so many people. Demon’s Souls became a cult hit because it acted as a shelter from the crippling restraints of modern game design, had a resolute goal of drawing the player into the world, and  it effectively used disempowerment to form an emotional connection with its audience.

*Spoilers for Demon’s Souls below, if you have yet to experience the game I suggest you go and play it before reading on.*

The biggest misconception about Demon’s Souls is that being difficult is the focus of the game. I know a lot of people that are wary to even try it because it’s garnered this reputation of being nothing but a really hard game that’s just out to punish people. It is true that Demon’s Souls is very difficult, especially when compared to most contemporary videogames that coddle the player to no end – but that’s really not the point. In almost every interview with the game’s director Hidetaka Miyazaki, he’s asked to comment on difficulty, and in every interview he gives a similar response. In an interview with Game Informer, Miyazaki said the following regarding the difficulty of Demon’s Souls:

“Having the game be ‘difficult’ was never the goal. What we set out to do was strictly to provide a sense of accomplishment. We understood that “difficulty” is just one way to offer an intense sense of accomplishment through forming strategies, overcoming obstacles, and discovering new things. Our goal of a sense of accomplishment was the basis of the game since the early stages of development, and we never strayed from that.”

It’s crucial to understand the mindset of the developers when discussing the design of Demon’s Souls so that the intent of the challenging gameplay can’t be misconstrued further. The game isn’t difficult just for the sake of it, difficulty is used as a means to pulling players into its world. The peaks and dips in difficulty exist to set up interesting and very climatic moments in the game. Take the fight with the Maneaters for example, they’re arguably the hardest boss encounter in the game and really highlight the aforementioned mindset of the developers. The Maneaters come at the end of the second section of the Tower Of Latria, a level that takes place entirely on narrow walkways placed on high pillars. Should you fall off these walkways, you won’t survive the fall; this section of the game becomes increasingly difficult as you have to deal with flying gargoyle enemies that love to pop up behind you and sandwich you between themselves. The tough part is you need to perfect dodging on these walkways so that you don’t fall off, and so that you can effectively deal with the gargoyles.

Now comes the fight with the Maneaters, which like the rest of the level takes place on a very narrow walkway that restricts dodging. Upon entering the area, the first Maneater (which itself is a giant gargoyle) appears. You’re then introduced to its attacks, which include a large pounce attack that forces you to dodge and a rare ranged magical attack capable of killing you in one hit. If you pay close attention, most of the boss’s standard melee attacks do very little damage, and using a one-handed melee weapon against it does significant damage in a single strike. The boss is designed to hit the you off of the narrow walkway or make you carelessly dodge out of the way of attacks rather than be a formidable foe in strength. What’s horrifying about this encounter is just when you think you’ve got a grip on the fight, a second Maneater appears, so now you’ve got to deal with two giant gargoyles trying to hit you off of a narrow walkway. This is one of the most tension inducing moments I’ve ever experienced in a videogame. In one of my attempts on this boss, one Maneater pounced at me and hit me, sending me flying just as the other also pounced at me from a different angle and sent me flying off the ledge. It’s easy to become a human hackysack for these creatures.

While this boss may sound ridiculously hard (it is) it is totally fair. If you employ timed dodging, are aware of the positions of the Maneaters, and don’t get greedy, you’ll have this boss down in no time. By “don’t get greedy” I mean don’t try to exhaust a large combo on the enemy and  use up your stamina. What’s so genius about this game’s design is its always preparing you for the bosses. Everything about the Maneater encounter is based on a style of play that the level has been subtly teaching you as you progress through it. In so many other modern games, there’s a good chance you would have to take part in a condescending tutorial or that you’d be given tips how to beat the boss between load screens. Not in Demon’s Souls, though; the developers respect your intelligence quite a bit more than most games. This is what I mean when I say the game feels like a refuge from the restraints of contemporary game design. Playing Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls can be a cathartic experience in that while it’s very hard, it feels liberating because player agency is never taken away and you’re not spoon fed every single detail of the mechanics. Miyazaki and his team knew that if you’re playing this game, you’ve probably played a lot of videogames –  they have faith in your abilities to actually learn.

A lot of the genius of Demon’s Souls is that while it’s very difficult, it’s also accessible in specific ways. When you compare the actual combat mechanics of Demon’s Souls to a Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, or Bayonetta, it’s actually kind of simplistic. A character action game like Ninja Gaiden requires you to memorize incredibly complex button combos in addition to perfect timing to truly be great at them. Demon’s Souls on the other hand really doesn’t require you to do this sort of thing, it’s a much more tactical experience. There’s a lot of depth to its combat system, but there’s a lot of subtlety in how that depth is presented.

The stamina bar in Demon’s Souls factors into nearly every other facet of gameplay. All your physical attacks, sprinting, blocking, dodging, stance, and recovery is dependent on stamina. Actions like physical attacks and sprinting are directly influenced by the player and affects stamina. Something like absorbing hits by blocking is how NPC’s and invading players can affect your stamina bar, with a brief stun being afflicted if stamina depletes while blocking. Holding a shield up makes your stamina recover slower than it would if you’re not blocking, and standing completely still recovers stamina faster than moving. The levels are crafted in such a way that you’ve always got to be careful while sprinting; for example, in Boletarian Palace there’s a dragon that swoops down and breathes fire on the path you need to get across, and you need to time your sprinting/stamina recovery just right to get across. The stamina bar is probably the mechanic that works into that depth more than anything, and is arguably the single most well thought out thing about Demon’s Souls. On paper it’s a simple mechanic that’s easy to understand, but From Software really needs to be commended for building an entire game around stamina and making it work as effectively as it does.

While Demon’s Souls is an action RPG first and foremost, a lot of its level design it very much influenced by classic survival horror games. Playing through the game, I couldn’t help but notice the obvious parallels between something like the original Resident Evil. The environments themselves are not actually all that big, but they often feature so many closed paths that require you to really examine the levels to find shortcuts. There’s always a point in the levels where it feels like you’re miles from where you started and are terrified to die and lose all your progress, then you open a gate and you’re right back at the beginning of the stage. Much like the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil, the levels feel immense because you actually stand to lose something if you die; every step could be your last, and great moments of reprieve are to be had whenever you find a shortcut.

It’s not just level design that makes Demon’s Souls feel like a horror game, though. Much like a survival horror game, one of the goals of this game is to submerge you in its atmosphere and world, and there’s no level that highlights this better than the Tower of Latria. The first part of Latria is a prison that features some really thick atmosphere that shows you that Latria was a really messed up place long before all the demons came and took over. Any good horror game will feature some great sound design, and Latria is no exception to this rule. Latria is eerily quiet and upon entering the level I immediately noticed that there was no music. The strange thing about that observation is that none of the levels in Demon’s Souls feature music outside of the boss rooms. I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t notice this until this level, but a big part of it is Latria has as little non-diegetic audio as possible. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, non-diegetic means it does not exist within the game. In other words: if your character isn’t supposed to hear a sound, but you do, it’s non-diegetic (music usually, or menu sounds). It really heightens the tension of the level, and each times you do hear something, it’s terrifying. Particularly the Mind Flayer enemies: these creepy Cthulhu-like beasts carry around bells that chime every once and a while and reverberate throughout the environment. There’s tons of things that contribute to why Tower of Latria is such a scary place, but I won’t all go in to, all I can tell you is that it’s scarier than 90% of pure survival horror games.

Another big factor as to why Demon’s Souls often gets compared to old school survival horror is the penalty of death. If you die in the game not only are you sent back to the beginning of the level, but your max health bar is halved, all the enemies have respawned, and you lose all the souls you’ve accumulated. This is part of the reason the game feels much more difficult than most; the developers punish you for making a mistake and dying. All of your actions carry so much weight in the game, and there’s an extra sting in defeat because of it. Even in Resident Evil you lose all progress if you died and reverted to a save.  In Demon’s Souls the game actually gets even more difficult as you die. Though this all ties into the sense of accomplishment Miyazaki mentioned earlier, as when you do succeed and overcome the trials of the game it only serves to help further pull you into the world.

Demon’s Souls is a game that likes to regularly subvert the player’s expectations and present you with difficult decisions. Disempowerment remains one of the constants in the game, and there are a few instances where this feeling is evoked by non-conventional or mechanical means. The story, lore, and particularly the characters are all just as strong as the game’s mechanics, and as such the developers like to turn this affection against you.

*The following paragraphs are going into some massive spoilers for the game, last chance to turn back.*

To really understand what it is I’m referring to in the previous paragraph, I need to talk a bit about a bit of the backstory and lore of Demon’s Souls. In this world, there is an immensely powerful being known as the Old One that unleashes a fog filled with a demonic horde onto the land of Boletaria. The Old One has an insatiable hunger for the souls of humans, and appoints several archdemons to help it gather souls. Our goal in the game is to defeat these archdemons, as killing them and taking their archdemon souls will open a path to the Old One so that we can lay it to slumber and prevent its demonic fog from engulfing the world.

One of these beings that serve the Old One is the Maiden Astraea, a saint and former member of the church now turned archdemon. Astraea inhabits the Valley of Defilement, a filthy place where all the things humanity wants to forget reside. When Astraea was still human and a member of the church, she and a party of knights ventured into the valley to confirm the awful rumors of this place. Turns out the rumors are true; the valley is home to outcasts, the deformed, the diseased, and even aborted children. Living or dead, this is literally where all the unwanted people of the world reside. When the Old One unleashed its fog upon the world, Astraea renounced her faith and embraced the fog and became a powerful archdemon in order to use that power as a means to help these people suffering in the Valley of Defilement. She brought hope to people that the rest of the world had condemned, and because of that the people of the valley worshiped her as a Christ-like figure.

You as the player venture into the valley in order to kill Astraea and obtain her demon soul. This plays into how Demon’s Souls likes to disempower the player by non-conventional means, for the more time you spend in the valley, the more you learn of all the good Astraea has done there. Once you reach her boss area at the center of the valley, the tone of the fight is very unlike the other boss encounters in the game. Astraea pleads with the you to leave and wishes no harm on you, her knight and childhood friend (possibly lover) Garl Vinland is also there and will only attack you if you try to approach Astraea. This is the moment where the game asks you to commit a great evil. For in order to stop the Old One from destroying the world, you must kill Astraea to obtain her demon soul, but in the process you condemn the people of the valley to suffer forever. It’s a very powerful moment, and one of the most emotional moments in a videogame that I’ve ever experienced. You feel incredibly helpless in this moment, and if there was any way to proceed without killing Astraea, most players would probably take that route. I haven’t touched on the multiplayer in the game at all, but it bears mentioning that in Astraea’s boss area, the ground is littered with messages from other players like “The next foes weakness is your heart” and “My heart is breaking”.

A lot of videogames claim to be about heroes, and making difficult moral decisions that come with that, but Demon’s Souls is one of the few that actually delivers. You wouldn’t expect an encounter like Astraea’s from a game that up until this point has thrown one formidable foe at you one after the other to suddenly make you feel terrible about facing a boss. For me, this was the single most disempowering moment of the game despite the fact that it wasn’t a difficult fight at all – again difficulty isn’t the point of this game. So, hero, take your precious demon soul, so that the world might be mended.

Demon’s Souls is an artifact of great game design from top to bottom. It can be an incredibly thoughtful game, and it deserves so much more than just a reputation of being really difficult. Despite the fact that it’s several years old now, much of the ideas it brings to the table make it feel incredibly fresh even now in 2015. If you have yet to experience the game, toss aside that title of “filthy casual” and enter the land of Boletaria.

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