Friday, September 16, 2011

Notes on Demon's Souls

These days I am primarily interested in two types of games: ambitious ones that attempt to tell a story, and games designed to feel like the acquisition of an art.

Most games are, in theory, designed to do at least the latter. The pleasure of playing a good game is that it feels as if you are mastering a skill. It feels as if the skill was difficult to master, and it feels as if there are meaningful rewards for demonstrating mastery. This is what life would be like if it were better designed. One day you would decide to master the art of ninjitsu, and then within a couple weeks you would be effortlessly slaying ninja left and right with your various weapons and ninpo. In real life I spent seven years formally studying writing and do not have, as yet, a published book. That is reasonable, that is normal, but I like the video game way better.

And there is this: when you have a full-time job like a real adult, you don't have a lot of dramatic triumphs. Mostly you try to manage your energy and interest effectively such that your average quality of work is high. Mostly you try to keep all the chemicals in balance.

The games I find myself liking now are also those that screw with the chemicals. The ones that become a job in themselves, but that job doesn't matter. All this is to say, I recently bought Demon's Souls for $20 at Target. We were also buying a bookshelf. Some of our books are now on the shelf, which makes me feel good. Maybe one of your books is on that shelf, if you have written and published a book.

Maybe the most surprising part of buying Demon's Souls was getting carded. The cashier asked me for ID as if this were normal, and as if I weren't clearly a 25-year-old man with a rather full beard. Demon's Souls is rated M for Mature, which is something I never worried about even when I was too young to legally buy an M game. So it was a shock. I think she thought I was annoyed? I wasn't: I was delighted. It was so weird. I handed her my license. She probably thought I must be a pretty lame guy to own a game called Demon's Souls, which I guess is probably true.

So the idea of Demon's Souls is basically that you are playing a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler where death is so constant that you don't so much try to avoid it as try to save it for the right time. Whenever you kill a guy, you get some souls from him. (I don't know why he has several souls; I haven't paid a lot of attention to the story.) These are currency as well as your means to leveling up. When you die, you lose all your souls: but, if you can get back to where you died before you die again, you'll get the souls back, and you'll also have probably double the souls because you had to kill a lot of guys on the way there. But, because this is where you died last time, odds are quite strong that you'll die here or very close by. So you'll lose all your souls, and it's a lot of souls now, but you can get them back, if only you can make it to that same spot again. And if you do, guess what's going to happen.

If it sounds a little bit like trench warfare then that suggests you are paying attention.

The art you master while playing Demon's Souls is basically the art of having the patience to play Demon's Souls, which is actually maybe a skill more applicable to real life than most. Have I improved recently as an editor of test materials? And if I have, does it have anything to do with my newfound ability to wait patiently for a guy to charge me, deflect him with my shield, and calmly move in for the kill? They say anything is possible and I don't have a good reason to doubt it.

Admittedly the game is clumsy. You die if you fall a long way, which makes it unfortunate that it's so easy to just sort of walk or roll off any given precipice if you look away for even a second. The combat basically consists of blocking attacks, rolling away from attacks, and then responding with your own attacks, healing regularly (assuming you can find the necessary items) because no matter how good you are at blocking and rolling someone is eventually going to hit you, and once he starts his friend will probably take a shot too.

There are a lot of interesting things about the game design-wise, and maybe we'll talk about them, but for now I'm mainly thinking about the fact that for all its goofiness I find it maybe twice as successful as BioWare's much more ostensibly artistic and narrative-driven Mass Effect 2. The latter is a good game (though I'm surprised how many people don't seem to realize that its endgame sucks), but it tries to solve the problem of telling a story the way games generally do, which is to throw a lot of words and cinematics at a medium that doesn't really need them. BioWare's version of "Dialog Tree" is pretty much the best implementation out there, but the fact remains that the most interactive sequences in the game -- the shooting -- only tell one story: you run through a corridor until you see some stuff that looks like cover, you duck behind the cover, and then you shoot the dudes that coincidentally appear behind their own bits of cover. And that's a stupid story.

The story of Demon's Souls is the story of learning how to survive in a hostile environment. It's the story of what I do in a game that arguably doesn't want me to play it. It's the story of coming up against a problem and either solving the problem or dying both suddenly and horribly. It is the story of a world and a player. (And, in something I might write about later, it is also the story of how players interact with each other as they learn about a lonely world.)

A little bit of atmosphere goes a lot further than language or cinema ever can in games, and Demon's Souls is hobbled by its low production values but they make up for it with smarts and a healthy respect for their own game's limitations. When you first install the game, it makes you adjust its own brightness until you can barely see one object on the screen and cannot see the other at all. It does this not to help you see the game better, but to blind you: the world of Demon's Souls, properly installed, is dark, mysterious, and menacing. You often see only a few feet in all directions. There is often an ambush waiting for you just outside your field of vision.

It has a certain lunatic conviction rare among games. The opening sequence is goofy, ridiculous, overwrought, and in places sort of painfully stupid. It is also -- thanks in large part to the game's excellent minimalist-maximalist unhinged, somehow very retro score -- more effective than the self-serious RPGs out there.

The first boss you face takes some time to reach. You have to navigate a castle on several levels, pull several switches, and open a large gate. When you do successfully open the gate, you see a very brief cinema wherein a massive spear launches out of the gate's darkness and wedges itself at a sharp angle in the stone steps outside the gate. What threw that, you wonder? You'll have to go in and see.

I don't want to spoil the surprise, but the truth is I barely saw the boss myself. I know it bristled with spears. I know it slowly surrounded me. I know its body and the body of its offspring glistened. I know that now, even in death, it haunts me: the dank chamber where it lived, through which I travel daily, is slick with some hideous bodily slime from the creature: its blood, mucus, urine, other, or all. Whatever it was, that thing made me feel real revulsion.

You see a lot of people talking about how games need to move beyond shooting and stabbing and so on. And certainly I would like to see them branch out. But every medium is better at some things and worse at others. They twist what they have and they shape it to make the art they want to make. Demon's Souls is a weird, goofy creature, but in its shameless game-ness it seems more effective as an art than most of the art-games out there.

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