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.