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!).

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"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."

—DanteDyas3

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."

-Ashelia4

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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).

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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.