An essay on Demon’s Souls
Demon’s Souls’ design is incredibly pronounced. For something whose world is centred around destitution and solitude, it’s packed with mechanical, literary, and historical substance. It’s the debut title from a series many of us hold up as having created multiple modern classics, but Demon’s Souls is remarkably unique in its own family of games. Like so many other marquee releases, Demon’s Souls is distinct despite being deeply informed by the history of games.
I won’t pretend to be a master of the lore of Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls; if you’re interested in that I strongly recommend VaatiVidya’s videos. They are excellent. What I’m looking to discuss here are some of the less tangible thematic qualities I’ve enjoyed from the Souls series’ first instalment.
One of the most striking differences between Demon’s Souls and the sequels that followed it is the game's very familiar version of humanity. The worlds of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls are filled with sorrow, but whereas Dark Souls’ world feels ancient, epic, and fantastical, Demon’s Souls’ take on great despair feels influenced by an almost religious sense of loss. If Dark Souls is a world post-humans, a new age of souls and dragons, then Demon’s Souls offers a world following the rapture. A land where the dead still roam, unsure if this is home, purgatory, or just the closest thing to hell. In an essay for TIME, Jared Newman illustrates the difference between the two games with a simple example, “The attitude in Demon’s Souls is that you’re not going to survive, so no one particularly cares about you. Dark Souls is practically the opposite. You are sometimes called ‘Chosen Undead,’ and many characters pray for your safe travels.” With no hope on the horizon, it’s easy to understand Demon’s Souls as a game about the end of days.
Unlike Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls is broken up into distinctly separate areas. Each one of these zones offers a snapshot of a shrivelled humanity.
Demon’s Souls opens in a fairly typical war zone, a sieged castle, and before long the game —infamously— sets the precedent that you will die, repeatedly, and your soul will remain in the land forever. What’s fascinating is that your death, in the grand scheme of things, is statistical. Beyond the demon who kills you at the start of the game, you spend most of the game’s first hours engaging with humanoid soldiers. And then, after struggling past legions of unnamed troops a dragon shows up and kills 10+ of your adversaries in a flash. This is one of the game’s many reminders that humans —even undead ones— can’t hold a candle to the encroaching shroud, the beasts of chaos let loose on the land.
The forgotten steel mills of Stonefang, the silent dragons who circle like crows over the Shrine of Storms, the plague riddled rot from the Valley of Defilement. In the context of a medieval fantasy setting, these are places of work, wartime armouries, and the final resting places of the dead. And though architecturally Dark Souls is made up of the same low ceilings and narrow hallways, the world of Demon’s Souls is distinctly suburban. It belonged to humanity — a scope revisited years later in Bloodborne (2015).
My favourite example of this is in the Tower of Latria, the game’s third area. The corridors of Latria are filled with deranged non-adversarial inmates and Cthulu-esque guards whose bell echo through the halls. At first blush, Latria isn’t a particularly unusual medieval-fantasy prison. However, once you’ve finally climbed its towers you are met with a surreal mishmash of industrial power lines and stained glass windows. Above all else the Tower of Latria is a church, one that is fuelled through pollution and —if the ferocious octopus guards are any indication— fear. Regardless of any rapturous shroud of evil that has cursed the land —or whatever lore has established conflict world— this space was architected by humans, made beautiful, and then hideous at the hands of human ingenuity.
It is through the marriage of these two ideas that Demon’s Souls’ world comes alive. On the one hand, humans don’t compare to the beasts who now dominate their spaces, and on the other a series of questions: Is mortal life worth saving to begin with? Is human life special? Are we blessed or damned? It’s with all these grandiose meaning-of-life questions that the game’s art direction starts to click. The mythological sensibilities of the opening cutscene, the Buddhist monks who line the walls of a cathedral, even the Scale Miners of Stonefang Tunnel who resemble popular culture’s version of homo sapiens. Demon’s Souls is a medley of human existence. Humanity’s ambitions, failings, and fragility all tie d together by a supposition of its end of days.
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