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...