Monday, October 18, 2010

Shattered Perversion | 'Dying to Speak' | Demon's Souls

Demon’s Souls never explicitly states that it’s a hard game (which is already a lot less boastful than most titles), yet everyone has resigned to parroting their collective frustration with it. This also applies to those singing praises in its name as well (I include myself in this category). There’s even a consistent tendency to announce what an acknowledgement it is to older games too. While I don’t think the game itself is an embodiment of older game design tenants (which would require an abundance of mentionable intent on From Software’s part), I do think that any one player’s interpretation of it now is proof that games are simply not changing as fast as their players are. Not only that, but the players are oblivious to this fact (which is key here). It’s in this respect that such a game should be viewed, not simply analyzing whether or not it’s too hard and/or if its difficulty should take precedence in any kind of useful analysis.

As I stated in the first section of this SP, games such as Demon’s Souls often get viciously lumped around and misconstrued by people who are at best, simply voicing a rebellion in the name of their own exclusion. This isn’t necessarily wrong on their part, but it’s an aspect of detailing that should always be up front in whatever discussion is going on. Mostly this is due to people being prone to forming identity around their ‘not being able’ to play a certain game. Whether or not they can play is certainly worth discussing, whether or not they will play is worth asserting to them, but whether or not they should play is something that’s always left in the dark. This is the most important piece of the pie too, yet it often (and ironically) gets ignored by ‘selfish advocates’.

To further illustrate this cacophony, I’ll use this vaguely similar confusion that has surfaced while viewing the Demon’s Souls as well, the survival-horror note. The second that any title sparks an even remote tie to mortality, the survival-horror genre gets called into question again1. Demon's Souls is a game that constantly whacks the player in the face with such a topic, and in spite of these things, the corollaries get cheapened by those looking to ‘relate’, be it the game to their own tastes (a subtle bias), their limited scope of play (which we all possess), or simply a subconscious form of the bandwagon effect (which isn’t something to be that ashamed of either).

There’s also an intense cultural schism people are quick to eschew as well2. It’s no secret for example, that the Japanese are often more ‘disciplined’ than Americans when it simply comes to playing through their games. Demon's Souls was developed by the Japanese, so trying to seperate their characteristic diligence out of the equation would simply be idiotic. This leads straight into the ‘hardcore’ can of worms though, and many wrap their identities and egos up in their button-mashing prowess. This is certainly fallacious, but it’s far more understandable (at least to me anyway) than those who are quick to run off to the opposing side of the spectrum. This side favors an impractical execution of widening audiences (often for that reason alone too).

The very idea that all games should aim to be all-inclusive is indeed an honorable one3, but it's a potentially threatening one as well. Anyone that's not willing to at least admit that either has some personal axe to grind or is embodying the same thing they're constantly accusing the ‘hardcore’ of, a superficial and egotistical fear.

“This whole hardcore gamer nonsense is just about protecting the egos of immature individuals. If still upset, consider not defining your being with a consumer product mass produced by employees for a company concerned with stock shares. That's what music is for.”

“I agree with that, though I could conversely offer that the 'let's all play' notion is an idealistic oversimplification that often masquerades as a valid criticism of certain games when it shouldn't. Everybody is not going to be able to play certain games, everybody doesn't have the same amount of time to invest, and we all certainly don't love the same titles. Those simple factoids will forever confuse the hell out of most gamers.”
---Palchez & myself, reddit4


Engagement between the player and the game happens on multiple levels in Demon's Souls. You’ll probably see this doted most often when concerning the somewhat sophisticated construction of its online setup. However, there's much more than just the connectivity at work in this game. The basic dialouge between the player and the game is pretty much a top priority in any title honestly. Demon's Souls however, specifically represents a type of game that wishes to debate with those who play it, to an almost excessive extent5.

Not only does Demon's Souls make it a priority to emphasize how weak you are in its world, but also how frail the people in the kingdom of Boleteria are as well. As easily as the player can die, its nothing compared to the NPCs around them. Players have to be intensely careful of the buttons they're pressing, as well as who they're speaking to. Just making the player aware of that connection (i.e. the buttons they’re pressing) is removed from simply making them forget about it (which most love to muse over as being the most exemplary state). Death carries some significant weight in this game, as crucial NPCs can easily be killed in a number of ways. The most prominent of these is accidently striking one of them. Most aren’t weak, and they don’t easily aggro, but they will die/rebel if hit by a strong enough player. Thanks to the way that the game saves progress, a critical NPC can easily be permanently killed off until either starting that game over entirely or making it to the end so that the world resets for the next go-around in the New Game+ cycle.

This almost insults the general relationship that the player typically has with NPCs in other mainstream RPGs, as they’re simply avatars that give them their shit to proceed. In Demon’s Souls, a new layer is added, allowing the player to engage such characters beyond them being item-for-currency ‘unlockers’. Granted the situation is still kind of hollow, but the frailty and degree of awareness that one makes when addressing say---Yuria6 for example, is resolute. If the player is a magic-build, they more or less rely on her and Sage Freke. If the player decides to get cute and strike her because they’re not getting a deal they want, don’t like her character, or are simply clumsy enough to drop the controller---they’ll most likely hit her. If it’s done enough to aggravate her, she’ll treat you as an enemy and any chance you had at cultivating that illusion of a relationship with her is destroyed, if only BECAUSE you can truly squander it.

The topic of morality in games is a relatively new and common one, but Demon’s Souls is one of the few to introduce finality into the mix as well. The player is very restricted in terms of dicking around with saves in order to ‘flesh out’ their experience (which is one of the reasons that the game gets the rougelike fanvotes), and any actions they pull off will likely be instantly saved if they’re not willing to hop up and shut the PS3 off in hopes of quickly backpedaling a mistake. Where other games feign consequence, Demon’s Souls actually demonstrates it. This is not the product of a binary or chartable character/dialouge option, it’s a fluid representation of interactivity, which is what games are majorly about.

Just placing up my own experience as an example here, I’ll use Patches the Hyena7.. This is a shady thief vendor who I instantly decided I didn’t like after he initially lured me into a trap. As soon as I was able to, I stuck my sword in straight through his back, killing him. After I completed the game for the first time, I learned of the items he’ll sell the player in the Nexus afterwards. Although I didn’t regret my choice, I was still surprised at how much help his items would have been in retrospect. The game makes it a priority to show the player that life and death is a key focus of its experience.

This is also where it stumbles as well, being that of the things that Demon’s Souls blatantly trips on is not coloring death in particular with some sort of narrative (or more meaningful) intent. This could range from anything as simple as an aesthetic change all the way to NPCs treating player differently if they were dead. One can argue the relevance of the World Tendency system>8, but in my eyes that system is so distanced from what’s actually affecting it (i.e. the player’s death), it loses its relevance call here. The way that the game treats death is too ingrained into how the player can generally engage with it to not take better advantage of it too. This goes back to Demon’s Souls weakness in its narrative though, it’s just simply too reserved in some aspects. This is just one of them.

Designed to Destroy

It's hard trying to convince some people that sometimes, they just suck. It's hard trying to convince people that God FORBID, they may be just a smidgen impatient, under-skilled, or simply playing the wrong fucking game for themselves (proving that they have no idea who the hell they are). The trip to and through Boleteria is not a relaxing one unless you’re a certain type of player. Variability exists here of course, but it’s usually not going to be a wide enough margin to allow more than a niche amount of people to enjoy thoroughly, but I’ll play around with that notion further down in this post.

There’s a long running trend among most real-time combat games that the e-factor (exclusionary factor) is overweight. That Demon’s Souls features such combat is no doubt further complicating what some people already can’t handle. This is what alienates a lot of players from the more dedicated hack-n-slashers as well. There's just a baseline prerequisite in terms of mechanics, leaving many out in the cold. If a player decides to take pride in any aspect of this area, they usually get the lame time-based argument to oppose them. It's insultingly easy to apply the logic that 'if you pour enough time into it, you'll get good at it', but that logic also so vague and general, it can be applied to basically anything---in life (i.e. shut the fuck up). It's not moving the discussion forward; it's simply circling it to round up voices in a sort of makeshift demagoguery. The truth is simple: There’s room for both kinds of games you dolts. One side of the equation shouldn’t be so concerned with a selfish and integrity-smashing ideals and the other needs to let go of its unfounded ego trip.

There’s also the question of worth in Demon’s Souls’s specific type of combat. If anything, this aspect in particular opens up the discussion to critically look at some of the most basic mechanics and design details of the game. However, I’d also assert here that it’s the ones on the more favorable side of the e-factor whose opinion will be of more value at the end of the day. Hell, it's only logical. This is assuming quite a few things though, most notably that said person is reasonable enough to entertain a wide range of opinions on such a topic. It’s in this case that bias has more worth than critical distance (as the two essentially conflate to a more productive end). For example, I’m going to listen more intently to the criticisms of an avid player who may also be afflicted by the aforementioned ego-burdens concerning Devil May Cry, rather than the ‘axe-grinder’ who was simply frustrated that they couldn’t make it past the first marionette.

“As such, whenever I seek to find out the truth about something, I always look for someone who is strongly biased in favor of it. If I were seeking to find a religion that is practical and matches reality, I wouldn’t ask a Muslim what he thought about Buddhism, since he clearly remains unconvinced of the Buddhist worldview and therefore probably won’t offer good reasons for why I should accept Buddhism. But, a dedicated Buddhist monk, the most biased person possible, would be able to best present a sound argument for why I should accept his way of seeing things, since he truly believes that Buddhism is the most truthful and meaningful religion.”
---Silas Reinagel9.

Demon’s Souls is plagued with common problems inherent in all real-time combat games. Locking/fixed animations, cheap enemy behavior, environmental design, they’re all in the game. We can’t talk about these things though, because people just won’t shut up with the praise or frustration-ridden commentary. It’s one thing to raise a practical questioning of a game’s design, it’s another entirely to assert an inferiority complex and call it criticism. I stink at cooking and making music, but I'm not going to try and invalidate the activities of specific dishes and pieces as crafts (or even as art). I'm certainly not going to try and interject my own inadequacies into interpreting such forms unless the inadequacy is an inherent part of the discussion too.

I’ve not been able to find an official statement from Atlus or From Software, but I always come back to the same statement when running around forums in search of more Demon’s Souls discussion. The consensus consistently boils down to this statement:

‘They wanted the player to feel vulnerable.’

This is why ‘life’ quickly finds meaning in Demon's Souls (and why death struggles so hard to catch up).

From Software left clues all over the place for this to be discerned, here’s a few off the top of my head:

Stone of the Ephemeral Eyes – The only reviving items are an abundant but not excessive presence in the game (i.e. it’s likely you’ll only see about 20-30 stones in a single playthrough if not using a FAQ). It’s through their use that the player has a miniscule amount of control in terms of dictating when they’ll be in their body form or not. Whether they’re trying to play online or defeat a difficult section of a world, the stones play an integral part of how one experiences the game 80% of the time.

Boss Reward - This game gives you your body form back after defeating any area demon (i.e. boss fight). Why do this at all if the designers didn’t expect most players to spend a significant amount of time ‘dead’? This also helps force a working relationship in terms of playing with random people online too. You’re granted your body back as a form of accomplishment. It’s precise and it’s tactile almost each time it happens. It’s never something that the player takes for granted.

The Cling Ring – This gives the player about 75% of their max health, which is much better than the 50% players normally get while in their soul (dead) form. However, items like this also introduce a ‘gray area’ into the experience and they also contribute to why death loses some ground, as it actively detracts from the above-mentioned joy of gaining one’s body form back. If nothing else, Demon’s Souls is generally much easier due to the accessibility of this simple item (which can be found in the first level at that).

Death - The game has two levels of introducing you to death, one narrative-based, one game based. The two are in some ways interchangeable as well. The Vanguard’s tutorial death is more interactive and gives the player the illusion of control (as they’ll most likely die anyway). The Dragon God’s tutorial death however, is almost literally the game punching the player in the face (i.e. your death is mandatory here).

What constitutes as 'hard' in Demon's Souls?

Seriously, this is a question that not enough people are asking, and the game is already a year old. Most just relent at the fact that they've died and are somehow in a fatal error of the game's system. Some are even introducing ‘hard’ into a long-standing conflict that games of this type represent some sort of misshapen exclusionary force. The truth of the matter is that is that it does represent an exclusionary force, it’s not misshapen though---it’s congenital---inherent even. It’s extremely important to this game as an individual experience. The player must experience death in Demon’s Souls, it’s often not as much a mark of total failure than a mark of player-error. This game is once again---uncompromising and methodical first and foremost. It’s not porn-hard (no pun intended) and it’s not punishing you for dying repeatedly (you do subtly get punished for dying while in body form, but that’s a divergence).

The only genuinely poorly designed encounter in Demon’s Souls is the infamous Maneater fight. It’s not difficult, but excessively cheap10, (which fluctuates depending on your character build). It’s the only fight in the entire game in which the skills you’ve acquired mean little to nothing in practice (unless you’re ridiculously overpowered).

The fact that you cannot pause, that death is permanent for the characters around you, and the save feature is out of your manual control are factors influencing this game substantially. It’s something that not enough games have experimented with either.

Inclusive Difficulties

Plenty of games would, could, and should do much better by implementing more accessible gateways, I won't argue that. In case you haven’t picked up on it yet though, I’m of the mindset that Demon’s Souls simply isn’t one of those games. It’s earned that much for itself.

One of the largest reasons a title like Demon’s Souls is getting any praise at all is because games like it are quickly losing ground to the ‘all-inclusive’ ideal (or at least this is an illusion most dedicated players see as a reality). This means that it becomes a lightning rod for such players looking to grasp any number of cathartic releases (and they’ll recklessly defend it on that ground alone). This is also where most of the criticisms of ‘hardcore gamers’ are focused on too. Pride, status, and 'accomplishment infringement' are all becoming subject to more scrutiny as more people rally behind widening up the medium as a whole.

There’s also the question of not appreciating what’s already there too. As an example, to illustrate Demon’s Souls already including an ‘easy mode’ I’ll call this one out, as cheap of a blow as it is.

Turn your PS3 on with an online connection enabled. There, Demon’s Souls is now an infinitely more accessible experience. The soul levels scale to keep players within range of one another, while still providing a substantial challenge to players as they make their way through the level. Some people aren’t looking to actually honor the ideas they’re arguing for, they’re just pissed they didn’t get invited to sit at the ‘cool kid’s table’ (which is only a creation they themselves have contributed to).

The problem with most people attempting to affirm their experience is that they often stupidly stand on the on the resolve of others (in my case maliciously). Gamers especially are prone to oversimplification. Thanks to this, the whole 'easy game' conundrum that ‘hardcore’ gamers have bucked against since the 5th generation of consoles (that’s when I first began noticing its growth on an exponential level anyway) has been exacerbated and overblown by factors ranging from pride to outright laziness.

The trouble with the argument from bias is wading through a certain person's opinions and retrieving value and/or what constitutes as a sensible argument. It's probably wrong to shut someone out completely because they're whining about something, but it's almost equally as suspicious to let said decrier tie his or her identity around whatever topic is being discussed. I'm redundantly channeling the above passage of mine here, but once meaning is formed, base logic often gets altered too. This is an extremely destructive process, and something to be wary of constantly, especially concerning those ignorant to its effect.

As a whole, Demon’s Souls represents something that’s only semi-new. It represents intelligent difficulty---it’s just so basic and rudimentary that people can’t see it. Since they can’t see it, they project whatever they wish onto it instead. Just as an amusing metaphor, I’m a pretty reserved kind of guy in person. I easily notice the rate at which talkative or even normal people will often project their own assumptions and statements out of me to compensate for feeling socially isolated, especially if I’m only giving one-word or simplistic responses. I’m completely removed from the equation in cases like these, in lieu of them talking to themselves for themselves, BY themselves. If you take one lesson to take from this post, I hope it’s the recognition that Demon’s Souls is trying to speak for itself, and gamers simply won’t let it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The White Van Speeds Off | Sonic the Hedgehog 4

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is an interesting game in quite a few contexts, I mean that. Before I start ranting though, I should open up with a few things.

After completing it for the first time today, I'm even more adamant that Sega either has absolutely no idea what they ever had with the series to begin with, or their perspective has developed into a radically sick sense of humor (in the latter case, BRA-fucking-VO). I personally 'gave up' on Sonic a few years ago, as even if I got the game I actually wanted, my apathy would likely take precedence anyway. I'd much rather learn how to make my own ripoff of it than bitch too righteously about Sonic Team these days.

You see, many have come to rest at Sonic's status of never being that good, hence his troubles now. This is usually lazy thought processes at work though, as the arguments presented behind these stances can typically be used to tear down the likes of any platforming series period. Yes, Sonic was actually good at one point, get the hell over it. If you didn't like the damn game, that's on you. Trying to use arbitrary rulings to justify why the entire formula is broken is just plain idiotic.

I should give the game some praise though before I attack it, so I'll admit that while I hate most of the soundtrack, some of the music actually does mesh with the rhythm of the levels' play. Mad Gear and Lost Labyrinth in particular get away with this successfully. The entire package did eventually come together for me, but still only managed to leave a mediocre taste in my mouth.

The game proves that at even such a level, it can maintain a certain spark that can't be crushed when Sonic is running around in 2D format. The only problem is that it's in such a decayed state at this point. This is where I'll begin bleeding things into a rant, as the game is just Sega tossing an elaborate comforter on top of it all and telling us it's pretty.

If one can play through this game and tell me there's no difference in palpability between it and the games it's trying to pay homage to, I'd love to hear their statements (seriously). The game does get pretty fast, but the premature complaints of it being floaty and 'weird' weren't off the mark at all. It took me about an hour to get used to how Sonic even moved. It takes him a full three seconds to actually get going, and this becomes a very big deal for some of the platforming too. He comes off feeling rather clunky as hell, so it's not really all that nit-picky given how much it bleeds into the basic flow of the game.

The game would have been a much easier pill to swallow if it weren't 2.5D (or whatever the hell this is) either. Did I miss something here though? Is it just harder to design such a game? I'm not a programmer, I honestly don't know---so somebody needs to enlighten me here. Would more resources be required to use something like handrawn animation to bring Sonic back to life instead? And yes, the whole initial green eyes post-2000 look backlash by fans was excessive in the complaint department, but it wasn't necessarily unwarranted. This is mostly because Sega touted the same bullshit since the game was first announced:


Adopting a true 2D aesthetic would have actually honored the hype that the fuckers built up. Instead, it appears as if everything was meant to scream this instead:


The HUD, Sonic's basic appearance, and even the layout of the levels just feels cheap and forced. Here's my brief breakdown of the entirety of episode one, just to further illustrate my point here:

Splash Hill - This could be the culmination of any of the generic 'vegetative first zones', but mostly it just apes Emerald Hill in feel (Sonic 2), while masqurading with a Green Hill Zone disguise. It concludes with the obligatory swinging-ball fight that's from Sonic 1's Green Hill Zone.

Casino Street - This one jacks Sonic 2's Casino Night zone almost completely, with the same exact boss (with one dumb new move of course to spice things up!).

Lost Labyrinth - Yup, the Labyrinth Zone from Sonic 1, complete with mine carts and torch lighting. It half steals the boss fight from Sonic 1's Labyrinth Zone with a pinch of the game's Final Zone encounter too.

Mad Gear - This apes Sonic 2's Metropolis Zone and end-act boss. It's actually one of the better levels, but still suffers from a lack of imagination like the rest.

The final zone rips off (out of all things) the Mega Man franchise, with a boss rehash Sonic has rarely seen before, complete with a nonsensical difficulty spike. Oh yeah, it also climaxes with the same damn robot we fought at the end of Sonic 2 (you just have to hit it like thirty more times now...).

All of these levels feature cheap touchstones that are meant to harken back to the 1990's era Sonic games. The trouble is that they do it arbitrarily and specifically, so it feels insanely forced. An example would be the Lost Labyrinth's Zone's 'infinite fall', in which Sonic keeps sliding down the water surfaces until the player jumps to hit a switch in order to change the layout.

It's creepy, it's one of the creepiest fucking games I've ever played. It tries to appeal to me in such a way that's not unlike a child molester's tactics1 (get the relevance of the title now?2). Is Sega really trying to transcend time and creepily appeal to the child in me? I can guarantee you that kid would tell you to fuck off with this too.

I could go into the aesthetics of Sonic as well, but do I really need to bring up the whole Dante thing
again3? Most of those same rules apply here, so just go read that instead.

Many have tried fruitlessly at satirizing, addressing, or expressing indignation at claims similar to mine, but most (i.e. all) have failed miserably4.The problem there is that fans can rarely articulate any kind of dialect to make a worthwhile point, so they just wind up ranting about rampant subjective perversions instead. This lets the indignant silly-heads win, as they simply appear as the more rational beings. Granted, Sonic fans are insane, but wait a minute---can't the same be said about Nintendo fans too? Or let's put it this way---fans of anything?

You see, the classic defense mechanism for such claims usually revolve around the methodology of derailing5 otherwise worthwhile topics for some personal idealistic nonsense and exaltation of thought-terminators6. Just what the hell is it with people doing that anyway? I'm going to chalk it up to some spineless need to avoid conflict. It's not all that bad to be hostile and you know---raise standards. God forbid you make yourself look like an ass to someone, can't have that.

I'm going back to Boleteria now. Just make me another Rush game next time Sonic Team/Dimps, don't waste my time with episode two if it's just more of this.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shattered Perversion | Maiden Astraea | Demon's Souls's Largest Narrative Boast

I know I'm not the only that took the Valley of Defilement's Archdemon as a slap in the face1. I hinted in the prologue entry that this would probably stand the test of time as Demon's Souls's strongest narrative moment. Here's how it affected my perception of the game overall.

I suppose if I cared enough to actually put a spoiler warning would go---oh fuck it. If you're reading this already, you likely don't care.

Maiden Astraea is the final demon of world five, the Valley of Defilement. Up until meeting her, the player is forced to fight a large boss made purely of leeches in addition to a monstrous form of decrepitude that is only referred to as the 'Dirty Colossus'. While navigating between these two precursor levels, the player treks across old wooden structures overhanging a chasm to which only darkness can be seen in. After that, they finally greet the bottom of the valley by crossing a poisonous swamp they're most likely going to be poisoned in (it's nearly mandatory too). It's almost Silent Hill-esque in the style of descent that's made. It's raining, there's constant moaning, and the only other sounds heard come from the player's own feet making the wood creak. The moaning comes from the enemies, who are mutilated humanoid figures that aggro whenever the player gets close enough to be smacked.

However, after the player defeats the Dirty Colossus, they'll soon make their way even deeper into the core of the world, and they're introduced to Astraea. This is done via a cutscene in which she wishes her knight and bodyguard (and also speculatively her lover) Garl Vinland good luck as he rises from her side and walks off. Astraea appears radically different from everything else in world five. It's not mind shatteringly new or anything (it's actually a pretty classic trope), but it's almost always a good juxtaposition to place two opposing aesthetics beside each other. In a world that emits nothing but decay and death, Astraea is an almost purely white figure calmly sitting on a root she seems somewhat embedded into. She's cradling a glowing white orb and she doesn't appear to be too concerned with the player's presence as they first enter.

Demon's Souls Soundtrack - 'Maiden Astraea'

As the player does pass through the fog gate into her area, they see that the enemies they've have been slaying for the two previous levels are no longer concerned with them at all. They're making worshiping gestures towards a faint white glimmer light off in the distance below---Astraea. They don't even attack if the player walks right up behind them and starts smacking them off the cliffside. A somewhat chilling organ track begins and Astraea begins to talk to the player with a calm, but firmly melancholy tone:

"Leave us, slayer of Demons. This is a sanctuary for the lost and wretched. There is nothing here for you to pillage or plunder. Please, leave quietly."

-Maiden Astraea

The player can then begin making their way down the side of the valley here, but they'll come across Garl Vinland as they near Astraea's resting place. He laments on the player's resolve to go forward and stands his ground, cementing his place as a necessary force to overcome if the player wishes to confront Astraea. Garl makes no real offensive attacks, but if the player comes within a few feet of him, he'll quickly send them flying back with a swing of his Bramd hammer/mace2. Throughout the fight, he'll make some disdainful remarks concerning the player and their motives, and proceed to demand that they be left alone, as they're both humble and at content. If they are in fact stong enough to kill Garl however (who fades away with Astraea's name on his last breath), the player can then begin walking the rest of the way to where she's still sitting, gazing somewhat passively at her orb (which I'm assuming is her soul).

It's necessary at this point to walk into the large plague swamp that forms the ground level of the entire area. It's wisest to avoid this section entirely until after Garl is defeated, as touching it almost instantaneously affects you with the plague and begins to drain your health. Not only that, but the swamp itself is infested with an area-exclusive enemy, plague babies3. Unless the player has a stat build that allows them to fend off these things, they will quickly surround and kill them despite that player's strength. These things don't tend to pursue beyond the final twenty feet of where Astraea's is sitting, so it's somewhat safe to walk through the swamp towards her. It's also important to note that the swamp slows your movement as well, so this pretty much forces the player to walk right up to her.

Upon reaching her, she sadly remarks that the player has killed Garl and then accusingly acknowledges their victory. She remarks that she will not try and fight back then sardonically offers her soul up to the player---then she kills herself, completing the world encounter.

There's a couple of variations depending on who and how you attack first (e.g. Astraea will use a powerful area effect spell if you ignore Garl try and attack her first), but the entire battle always equates to one big guilt trip in the end.

It's certainly on the top five list of moments for me in the game, if only because it extravagantly snaps Demon's Souls's three most exercised components:

Silence - Part of Demon's Souls's desolate manner comes from the near-total lack of music. The game does have a pretty well done OST, but they're mostly reserved for boss battles and 'big moments'. Make no mistake though, the majority of one's time with this title will be spent listening to howling winds, enemies' roars, and various sounds cues that help play towards recognizing attack patterns.

Maiden Astraea Encounter >> None of the bosses up until this point in the game vocally engage the player. Astraea isn't the only humanoid figure either. Foes like The Fool's Idol, The Penetrator, and even King Allant are all silent antagonists, preferring to talk with their tools instead. The first thing the player hears after entering Astraea's area however, is her---softly telling you to leave.

Solitude - Yes, for all my rambling on in the previous entry of how Demon's Souls is basically an MMO4, it's also a pretty lonely game as well. Unless one has an obsessive need to play through levels with others by use of blue eyed stones, they'll spend most of their time figuring stuff out on their own (as opposed to just running around the place whacking crap until it dies). This also goes a long way towards nurturing the game's ambiguity. Even if a player is being invaded by others constantly, they're still prioritizing their well-being first, with no real interaction other than conflict.

Maiden Astraea Encounter >> Again, all the boss fights up until this point have been pretty far removed from being 'social'. There are certainly demon encounters in which the player confronts multiple bosses at once, but Maiden Astraea still stands alone in that she has her 'questionable' knight fighting on her behalf. There's a relationship continuity in the fight that carries over to transferring guilt onto the player. Even if one doesn't wonder about the nature of Garl and Astraea's relationship, their devotion to the area and each other was suggested. The player isn't treated like an idiot in regards to what they are, and it pays off.

Simplicity - The game also makes it a point to give the player the bare necessities and have them make what they will with them. This is that old trick of less being more, as the game can easily get complex as hell once one understands the core concepts of playing. The simple nature of two handing your melee weapon for example, can make the difference between winning an hour-long boss fight or getting slapped across the room to your death.

Maiden Astraea Encounter >> This is also the only encounter where many factors are being presented up front. Most just pit you against a huge or formidable creature which you must adapt to merely surviving. Maiden Astraea's confrontation is a mixture of rich aesthetic, musical, and narrative underpinnings. The fight and mechanics themselves are elegantly gliding under the surface at this point. Typically, the health bar appears on the bottom of the screen and you know you're in for some shit in the coming moments. Astraea is the only one in which that effect is just turned on its head.

Not only was it this fight that actually comepelled me to look at my actions within game under a different 'light', but also it was the first to have me go back and analyze my encounters with every boss encounter beforehand (and given that I tackled the levels roughly in order my first time through, Astraea was one of the last I faced).

Most will quickly state that Demon's Souls falls into the practice of 'emergent narrative' as well, but it does so with a subtle twist. I'd even argue that the game doesn't so much let you 'make your own' story as it simply sends you into a dark room. You know you're in a room, you don't know exactly what's in it, and as your eyes adapt, you can pick out small things here and there to make sense of for yourself as you navigate. There's no point in 'turning the lights on' in Demon's Souls, as part of the appeal is how dark the room is. The game's lore operates off ambiguity and detail. The player may find the corpse of an important figure in one area, but this only goes so far for one to notice that the game is only faintly outlining what that person was to Boletaria. The title rarely explicitly states such events and figures, it just makes a multitude of implications.

The degree of the variability present is also one I should make note of as well. One of the largest examples I can make here is how the game is structured in a mock-open world way. I tackled my first playthrough purely offline and the levels in order (with the exception of 1-3 & 1-4). The player can almost go anywhere they wish after defeating the first demon in 1-1, and it will affect their entire perception of the game too (keep in mind that this is all also supplemented by the game's infamous 'difficulty'), but the small story hooks set in place will be there---in the same places all the time. As stoic as Demon's Souls actually is, the playtime with it is satisfyingly (not to mention ironically) flexible.

Dynamics of NPC Interaction

There have been quite a few notable steps forward in how player characters interact with their narrative counterparts this generation (e.g. various Bioware titles). However, even in something as simplistic as Demon's Souls, the same potential lies in wait, and people will quickly ignore it for what it is. The difference is how much of the above muscle gets flexed, how egregious it's presented to the player. There's far more room for manipulation of the player in games rather than striving to write some self-crushing epic tale, or some open world make-it-what-you will cliche. Demon's Souls certainly isn't the champion of such a concept, but it is one of the few making note of its existence at all.

The methods in which the characters of Demon's Souls interact is stilted and somewhat limited, but consistently enough, it will play up to the player's imagination while still holding some authority for itself as well. Some of (*coughmostofcough*) the lore in the game involves cross-examining information with various NPCS and information written on the archstones before you enter the various worlds. While encountering characters like Yurt, Miralda, and Mephistopheles, the player will easily notice how these characters make use of playing off the other NPCS too (especially if the player is ignorant to their motives without using a guide/FAQ beforehand). One of those characters begins assassinating others (this includes people who you unlock in the game's main hub world) in a somewhat random order after you rescue them from their encounter point. Demon's Souls biggest flaw here is what I mentioned in a few posts ago. It has an agonizing tendency to not follow through on some of its otherwise rich framework, preferring the give the player a minimal reason to proceed and/or form meaning.

The Colossi were dumb as hell too but...

Giving the bosses some kind of vocal presence wouldn't really achieve what I'm after, but something should be supplementing the universally lauded (albeit gruesome) boss encounters. On the surface, this runs the risk of cheapening encounters such as Astraea, but I'm merely asking for the bosses themselves to have their individuality punched up. Their importance in this game easily rivals that of Wander's sixteen slain5. The driving force behind this is due to the ambiguity of the lore and the presentation of the bosses as well. Astraea should theoretically be the weakest of the bunch, but she stands out above the rest for a rather cheap empathy call instead. For the more intense fights, the AI is rather---stupid. Yeah, it's stupid as hell. I'm pretty sure the only reason I defeated the Flamelurker the first time through was because he kept getting himself stuck in various areas. At first, I thought it was simply the thief's ring causing him to lose track of me, but he got stuck whether I had the damn thing on or not. Astraea avoids this because she doesn't technically do anything, and Garl just tenaciously attacks in her stead, which elicits said empathy.

In fact, it's the Astraea fight that highlights Demon's Souls being at its strongest when the player isn't fighting some hulking beast. Most of the humanoid fights were just as intense, but the only 'bigguns' I can recall not being totally wasted on me as fodder for my attacks were the Old Hero and the Storm King. The notorious Maneater fight is only memorable because it's the only fight in the game that's just genuinely cheap. The bosses of this game deserved far more personality than they were given, much like the characters---speaking of which...

NPCs = Not Particularly Compelling...

For a game about the unfathomable consumption of people’s souls, each character in Demon’s Souls has a disturbing and distinct presence. It’s extremely faint, but it is a change from what I’m used to seeing with games of this type. Particularly this is because Demon's Souls is kind of an original concept, while at the same time being somewhat of an updated revision of old focal points as well6. Part of this originality involves the failure of some of its NPCs too. Typically this comes in the form of the vendors that the player can find and unlock. People like Yuria and Freke are always in same area, but are opposed in the soul arts they practice. Yuria specifically seems to express remorse and insecurity for her aptitude with dark soul arts. Freke seems like the middle ground of specialty, with an apprentice who snidely comments on your involvement with him. Saint Urbain is on the opposite side of the spectrum, being a devout follower of the game's form of God (i.e. Umbasa). He even talks down on Yuria when the player engages with him.

There's rarely any kind of movement around these relationships, the player is just given food for thought instead. This is kind of disappointing too, as the game clearly knows how to handle such characters. People like Patches move in and out of worlds seemingly acting on their own ends and even the Maiden in Black wanders about the Nexus, performing idle animations while awaiting to aid the player in his or her quest. This is a small minority though, most of the characters don't play up to the illusion of 'their own will', and the game ultimately suffers for it (when it could have been much more powerful instead).

It's also an odd and yet humorous observation to dwell on the schism of just how many people forgo or eschew the discussion of the Astraea fight in particular on forums and such by quickly devolving into talk concerning 'pure mechanics' instead (i.e. "omg, you sux, use the midrian hammer and garl is nubsauce"). It's a darkly humorous string that one can see everywhere in the gaming community these days and it's also one that's pretty easily extrapolated into the somewhat passive narrative vs mechanics war for games at large. The point is that the discussion can be fused, it simply takes a little more work to articulate it. Gamers would do well to emulate (if even only in thought) the people that are busting their ass to make games with that goal in mind now . Yes, I actually just defended developers for once. I hope you brought ultra balls to capture the moment.

Will continue this sometime later in the week...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Shattered Perversion | 'Difficult Loneliness' | Demon's Souls

Demon's Souls is a game meant to be played online, yet it got judged and praised by gamers such as myself for the torment that is playing it offline. This is somewhat ironic coming from me, as I'll most likely continue to tirelessly bitch about the growing necessity of 'multiplayer' in games.

Demon's Souls isn't Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker however, it isn't hindered by an obtuse structure of unfair design inherent in its boss encounters. It's a pseudo-MMO, to the point where that genre's lexicon becomes framed around typical actions in the game (e.g. farming Storm Beasts1). Like the narrative in the title, there's a focus on fundamentals, which become hangers on which the player can put whatever they wish. The aforementioned farming of Storm Beasts for example, represents a player-response that's as old as games themselves. This is the circumvention of the system. This hacker-esque credo is also the progenitor of what has come to be known as 'cheats'. Demon's Souls almost invites this sort of play, while also mocking it at the same time. The most prominent 'ridiculer' here is how the difficulty grows with each successive playthrough2. The initial New Game Plus mode is probably the most noticeable one (it's a 40% spike in difficulty).

The problem with this setup is the noise pollution caused by people who play Demon's Souls without exactly knowing what it is. True ignorance, both on the gaming/audience side and the marketing/journalistic side. It's confusing, as the word-of-mouth presents a very mixed message. The most prominent deception here is the constant labeling of it as a 'hard game'. It's not really relevant that the game is 'hard'. What does matter is that it's methodical, almost against its own end (and perhaps one of the most I've ever played). It's not a very 'feel-good' game, and for some perspective---as a collective whole, we still have morons arguing over whether or not the medium at large should be entitled to the 'art' moniker. This makes Demon's Souls' very presence appear as a very timely launched spike right into the back of videogame players (not too unlike a certain enemy I just mentioned). Some people can only get irritated at such a presence, and some are wired to ask why and how they're being shot at in the first place (some of us even fight back!).


"This is probably due to the word of mouth popularity on the Internet causing the wrong people to pick up the game. Demon’s Souls isn’t for everyone. There are people who like to play games to relax after coming home from work and turning their brain off, which is fine. But Demon’s Souls is literally the last game you should play if you’re that person. It’s refreshingly minimalist, only giving you what you absolutely need and nothing else, requiring you to pay close attention to everything that’s going on."


This is actually why I was a fan of Final Fantasy XI (and why I'm quickly losing interest in FFXIV). Having a multiplayer title exude a state of genuine lonliness is rare. There's certainly a point in which things can be taken too far4, but it's not something I've ever really been intent on finding until it started breathing down my neck in Demon's Souls. Fortunately, Demon's Souls conveniently avoids such a complication by being a single-engagement experience first, with a multiplayer component that's competently prioritized in the background. Just for the uninitiated however, I should explain basically how Demon's Souls works. As long as you have your PS3 connected to the Internet, the game automatically logs you into Atlus's servers each time you start up the game. As you go through the game, you can see other people playing as well (usually about one or two at a time), but only as faint white ghosts. One can't directly interact with these ghosts, but players can leave preset messages on the ground to warn other players (or deceive them) of upcoming traps, enemies, and weapons to use. You can also interact with various bloodstains left throughout the levels where previous players have died. Touching these bloodstains allows the player to see exactly how said players met their end (which can be useful or just plain funny).

"The isolation I felt was the most polarizing experience I’ve ever encountered in any game, especially in an MMORPG where being surrounded by people is the game’s raison d’ĂȘtre. To this day, I’ve never felt that same sense of loneliness while playing a multiplayer game–or at least, I hadn’t, until playing Final Fantasy XIV last week."



The more traditional form of multiplayer comes through the use of colored stones, which allows a player to directly invade, help, simply fight with other players. There's still no voice/text option or anything of that matter, which helps keeps up a barrier between you and those you're playing with. There's simply a single list of emotes to be expressed and nothing else. This also limits the social aspect of the game somewhat elegantly, as most people would use such features to let the can-kicker effect6 run wild. In this respect, the game keeps the focus on you as a player first. The collective pot runs second to what you experience first, and it lets the game continue to identify as a single player experience before anything else. There have been various attempts to make a system like this work over the years, particularly on consoles. However, there's always a problem with the practicality of the experience. Examples include the highly esoteric Final Fantasy XI (PlayOnline was a fucking whore mind you), and the abysmal failure that was Resident Evil: Outbreak (which I still have kind of a soft spot for sadly).

Demon's Souls is one of the few titles to even remotely get the damn thing right. Still, with the above mentioned 'effects' (i.e. 'noise poluution, can-kicker, etc.) still eating away at the audience at large, it's kind of a small miracle that the game ever gathered the attention it did to begin with. Like I stated before, the 'difficulty' of this game has confused the hell out of some people7. Usually, the most symptomatic presentation of this issue manifests itself in those who are worthlessly trying to compare the game to various hack-and-slashers. Demon's Souls certainly has some relations with those types of games, but it never initiates an actual relationship with them. It's sad how many gamers are only concerned with the amount of times they die in the game, without ever discerning the meaning behind what death actually means in such a game (we'll get to that in another entry).


This title is one of the very few to remind me what type of gamer I really am8. Ever since I've been old enough to walk, my first response to playing with other people has been outright disgust. With the exclusion of a select few (i.e. I can count them all on my hands) I've always preferred to be alone in my room, working shit out by myself, for myself. A game like Demon's Souls illustrates this, and allows me to keep that innate-yet-healthy urge for human connection with my distance still intact. That's a fucking accomplishment to say the very least. I don't mind multiplayer at all in games like this, which is quite the statement coming from me.

This is part one, the next should be up this weekend sometime...hopefully.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Light & Darkness | Kingdom of Souls & Demon's Hearts

I've been having quite the itch to play through Kingdom Hearts lately, and at first I couldn't really figure out why. Obviously it was intertwined into my recent playtime with Demon's Souls, as I've been obsessively plundering it for the past week. It was a specific animation that I identified in the end though. This was that I was holding my Great Axe in a similar manner to Sora and how he typically wields his keyblade. After realizing what was causing the itch, I began to draw comparisons between the two. I was kind of stunned by what I found.

Contrary to what some may easily assume, this is not merely a response to a similar comparison I've seen this week1. I've just been slowly eking this one out since last week (though I am startled by the coincidence and appreciative of it as a supplement). The main factor that slowed writing this down so significantly was---well, let's just say I broke 100 hours in Demon's Souls earlier today.

I'm actually a big fan of the first Kingdom Hearts title. To some extent, I still harbor some love for the second game as well, but I've had no intent or desire to pick up any of the new games beyond Chain of Memories. Why? Well because KH2 easily allowed me to see where things were heading, and I've been angry as hell at Square-Enix ever since.

If one looks at Kingdom Hearts's' general fanbase/haters now, they'll generally boil down into two distinctive camps:

  • The obnoxious and overzealous fans who are hellbent on selfishly defending their own meaning and experience without any regard to criticism.


  • The worthlessly pretentious RPG elitists who are simply bewildered as to why such a franchise has the above following to begin with.

    Of course we could identify these in a substantial number of other titles and franchises as well, but Kingdom Hearts stands out for the intensity that both parties tend to exude. It's not really all that hard to discern 'why' when meaning has been found, this is why the elitists are just as moronic as the unquestioning. Simply watching or indulging pretention as it gets stuck on such a question is akin to getting enjoyment from listening to a broken record skip. It's very rare for any 'story-based' experience to not confront a certain line in which pandering narrative mechanics are called into question (this is different from, but not the same as 'jumping the shark'). Kingdom Hearts formally accomplished this confrontation with the second title, and the roots were presented in Chains of Memories.

    This is what leads me into Demon's Souls, as it's another game where the common descriptors often rely on the basic assumption that it is a storyless game. This is a fallacious claim, just as it is to call KH strictly narrative-based. The problem is that the two titles are truly at diametrical odds, each to their own detriment. Kingdom Hearts relies on its narrative when it's often questionable whether or not it should and Demon's Souls exercises an almost unbearable amount of restraint in terms of how its lore unfolds to the player.

    If we're looking at this from a strictly narrative basis though, it's almost as if the games are exhibiting a Dunning–Kruger effect2 for themselves.

    Insecure Games

    Kingdom Hearts appears to be lost in its own darkness, as since Chain of Memories, superfluous instances of narrative scale simply take all priority from the game proper. An example of this is the degree of linearity inherent in each Disney world that can be explored within the games. It's arrogant to the point where it seems disconnected to the very same narrative it's trying to tell.

    Demon's Souls on the other hand, seems almost overly focused on the most stubborn glimmer of light that's ever been seen. This is what makes actually playing the damn thing so addictive, it just comes off as a timid dungeon crawler basically. The illusion that the game is empty is also further obfuscated by the now-infamous thick haze of challenge provided through the game's ruthlessly uncompromising nature. Some people just simply cannot get over a game kicking them in the nuts and tits when they do something stupid.

    Social Simulation

    The characters in Kingdom Hearts are all handled rather haphazardly considering their origins. This includes both the Final Fantasy cameos and the Disney ones. Most people got so enamored with having the potential of the two world's juxtaposition in front of them, they never really noticed how odd it got at times (I count myself among these). It's really the original characters that the player should be focused on (Sora, Riku, Kairi, etc.), but the games are quite comfortable with hiding behind the cacophonous reality that is slamming Simba next to Sora instead. It's also mildly amusing to note that the Final Fantasy protagonists got dark fangirlish makeovers for their appearance in the game. Yeah, Cloud was NOT that cool. I actually liked him in Kingdom Hearts, thanks for the crossover confusion though.

    Demon's Souls gets described as an intensely lonely game and for good reason. There is a definitive social aspect to it though, even when looked at in a pure offline context. The trouble is that From Software designed most of the characters to be engaged at highly impenetrable times (mostly through the World Tendency system, which I'm still not sure I get the point of). The ones that can be accessed without the world tendency prerequisites hint at the above restraint once again. As an example here, there would have been nothing wrong with giving Yuria an abundance of dialouge (especially since there is a 'Talk' option for most 'unlockable' NPCs anyway). Almost every confrontable character in Demon's Souls is interesting in their own respect, but they come off as just hollow and lightly designed characters when closely looked upon.

    Narrative Nitwits

    Kingdom Hearts as I mentioned above, is obsessed with itself. It prefers to unnecessarily adorn its own world with worthless characters, predictable tropes, and fuckyeahfriendship thematics that almost make me sick. This is actually a betrayal of both the Disney and Squaresoft worlds that most of the characters originate from, especially since most of them stand the test of time by including some of the more darker sides of life within their overall messages (the extent of how contrived THOSE are is another story entirely).

    I don't know why people say Demon's Souls is completely devoid of a tale though. Yeah, it's certainly hiding, but it's not exactly doing a good job of it. The game stumbles upon how this is presented to the player in almost every world. On one hand I can see how this was designed and purposeful, on the other---I just see an awkward implementation that would have been far easier and worthwhile to just fix. There's one popular instance (which I'll get to in the next post), in which everything about the players' motives gets called into question. A certain boss who is almost a pure embodiment of 'light', must be murdered.

    Boy/Girl & Women/Men

    Kingdom Hearts comes off as an action RPG 'for the kids'. On default settings, there isn't one specific encounter in which I couldn't imagine my preteen niece not being able to simply 'mash x' through. The sense of accomplishment in the game is very minimal, often traded completely in lieu of Sora and co. superficially yammering on about 'the darkness'. It consistently takes backseat to the story it's trying to convey, which in tandem with the actual play---just makes the entire experience come off as obtuse (paticularly the second title).

    The first thing anybody's probably heard about Demon's Souls however, is most likely that it's a nigh sadomasochistic experience. What's actually up with this game is that it's uncomprimising, nothing more---nothing less. If one walks into any fight simply 'mashing x' (in Demon's Souls case, R1), the enemy will quickly light your ass on fire---even the Dreglings, the lowest peons in the game, adhere to this rule.

    "The Daddy Mac will make you..."

    I have a bad habit to immediately form a liking for any game that simply lets me jump around, which is why I'd assume I'll never be able to completely let go of any Kingdom Hearts game. Jumping is inherently part of maneuvering the worlds and even if the platforming is questionable at every turn (which is being generous), I'm rarely left in the dark trying to navigate the environment. It's a cognitive connect I've perverted since I was a kid.

    The bitch that is Demon's Souls does NOT let you jump, and yet there are instances of platforming in the game. Mostly this is done through simply letting your character fall off cliffs to reach small alcoves below for treasures, secrets, and shortcuts. The most notable one is in Stonefang Tunnel, which presents an optional route to the Flamelurker boss that would otherwise take ten-twenty minutes if the player decided to take the less dangerous path instead. Demon's Souls continually makes use of dropping off into a a pit of nothingness to explore some dim light shining some 100 feet down.


    This was actually part of much longer post, but I’ve decided to split it up over the next few weeks as I continue to play through Demon's Souls's ‘plus modes’. I’ve also currently hopped on the Minecraft train as well, but I don’t see myself slowing down in Demon’s Souls anytime soon. So I think I’ll just cut my audience some slack and just break the posts up into digestible chunks instead, as I come across new concepts to articulate and whatnot.

    The point of this post however, isn’t to hate on Kingdom Hearts or even Demon’s Souls for that matter, but merely to express my perspective that Kingdom Hearts as a franchise has prematurely become messy. It will continue to sell as well, because it has its hooks in enough people to do so, which is the greatest tragedy. It will descend into oblivion3 as that continues too. This is once again, in stark contrast to Demon’s Souls, which has done fairly well for itself given the type of game it is---in the landscape of gamers that now exists. From Software is even keeping its oath4 which was 'voiced' with Demon's Souls mere existence, by developing a spiritual successor5 to the game.

    I'll seal this entry off by acknowleding how pointless it's become to simply argue over the 'emergent vs authored' narratives, and I’ll quote Michael Abbott’s post speaking on that specific note:

    "For what it’s worth, I don't see the question as simply emergent vs embedded narrative because that binary frame oversimplifies, in my view. Parts of Etrian Odyssey III's story are authored, parts emerge from the player's experience, and parts seem to fall somewhere between the two, provoked by the game's design, but interpreted by the player in individual ways."

    Demon's Souls fits in that quote as well, and I intend to voice why over the next few posts.

  • Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer, 'Impotent narrative'