Stray Thoughts on Demon's Souls
It is well-worn territory at this point, but the Souls series bear an awful lot of similarities to older 8-bit and 16-bit era games. Our own Olivier Bouchard described Dark Souls II (2014) as feeling like a sequel to the original Legend of Zelda (1987) from an alternate reality. And he’s not wrong. There are obvious comparisons to draw between Souls and games from the early 90s. For instance the series’ focus on difficulty at a time when most AAA developers have been striving for accessibility, or how its secrets often manifest in delightfully unconventional ways (hell, just having secrets is pretty special in this day and age), but Demon’s Souls —even more so than its successors— feels especially like a take on an older style of game.
Like Super Mario Galaxy (2007), Demon’s Souls riffs on old fashion level-select screens, presenting a linear progression within each of the games ‘worlds.’ On paper, this isn’t very different from the gameplay loop of any of the other Souls games, but psychologically it changes how we engage with Demon’s Souls’ spaces. A linear stage-based progression has a built in crescendo, as a player you’re constantly aware of how tension is rising and falling, you know when to be on the edge of your seat, and when to breath. Conversely, Dark Souls tries to leave you wondering what’s around the corner constantly, with baited breath at all times. This creates a much more organic universe, however maintaining that kind of escalation is much harder to sustain. At some point, a subset of players is going to relax permanently and lose their fear of what’s to come. Demon’s Souls’ on the other hand, affords every set piece a chance to be the centre of an arc. This structure makes each and every zone historic as if these are pivotal areas in a greater conflict.
Possibly due to financial constraints, Demon’s Souls has a very distinctly uncluttered aesthetic. Scenes are set bare, which makes each and every focal point pop. This is used to great effect as a diversion, creating situations where players will be fixated on the right half of screen right before an enormous dragon bursts into the left side. It’s a smart way to create rich moments and iconography without wasting artists’ talent on insignificant details. It also allows the game’s art to stand out; for example, a thoroughfare with a single statue is ominous while a group of twelve statues used as pillars is background. The empty spaces are also used in the game’s level design. These days designers tend to show the player to points of interest through HUD or more subtle colour palette and lighting cues. Demon’s Souls, however, uses the repetitive elements of its textures to highlight aberrations that help steer the player — think bomb-able cracks in the walls of Link to the Past’s (1991) dungeons. Ultimately this design allows mostly linear levels to feel wide open and spacious. Demon’s Souls is packed with dead ends, but without a blinking quest marker telling you where you should be going, the game’s sense of discovery remains intact.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘hard’ is an empty way to describe the Souls games. They’re so much more layered and interesting than just being reduced to a modern equivalent of Contra (1987). In fact, this mediocre adjective is at the core of why I never played Demon’s Souls back in 2009. I’m not usually one for games whose challenge is their main appeal, and while Souls is far from being the impenetrable juggernaut of difficulty it is made out to be, there’s a reason it’s so regularly compared to something like Mega Man (1987). The Souls games are designed for you to learn their ins and outs. Each enemy, area, and animation is constructed for players to internalize, but part of the brilliance of the series is that it is an RPG, so player progression allows you to circumvent challenge by exploring other activities and levelling up. They create an exceptional balance between patience (in terms of play and strategy) in additional to skill. Most players will —of course— employ both.
Demon’s Souls leans more heavily into vintage game design than other titles in the series, but it feels like a necessary internalization of the games it takes its inspiration from. There is so much love of videogames packed into Demon’s Souls. At times it’s as if you’re playing a Zelda game or exploring Castlevania; it has moments of thrill that are reminiscent of Contra or Super Mario Bros. But it’s all purely inspirational because Demon’s Souls and its sequels are completely their own. From Software aren’t creating renditions of old ideas, they’re iterating and designing using as many ideas in the canon of games as they can, and they have truly made something great.
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