Monday, March 21, 2011

Analysis: Demon's Souls


I've talked about Demon's Souls a few times before in a few different contexts, such as its armor design and its difficulty curve, but I've never really analyzed it as a whole before. Demon's Souls is pretty classic "dark fantasy" - a Gothic medieval design, a crapsack universe, and, naturally, demons all over the place. It's viciously cruel, but generally in a way that the player can overcome with skill and quick reflexes, rather than simply being stuff to screw with the player. Of course, as cruel as the game is, the world it takes place in is crueler still - not that this affects the player.

Setting & Story
Demon's Souls takes place in the Kingdom of Boletaria, which was once a great, thriving nation but is now overrun by demons. There's not a huge amount of backstory given in the game itself, but the general idea is that an ancient order of powerful beings sealed an evil god - the Old One - under Boletaria a long time ago. It is this god's presence that allowed for the use of magic, which caused Boletaria to prosper and grow. However, some time before the game starts, the King of Boletaria sought more power and awakened the Old One. This backfired, blanketing the land in a colorless fog that spawns demons and drives humans insane.

The player takes the role of an outsider from one of Boletaria's neighboring countries. Like many other heroes, their goal is to investigate what happened to this country, which apparently disappeared off the map. The player-character's origins and motives are up to the player; the only solid fact is that they have come to Boletaria (and are inevitably trapped there). The rest of it can be filled in by the player's imagination. There are many starting careers such as knight, thief, magician, and hunter, and there are four general racial archetypes (North, South, East, and West), so there's actually some room for the player to roleplay on some level even though very little information is provided. Like Half-Life 1, the player's "personality" is largely expressed through decisions about aiding or hindering others, rather than through dialogue.

One notable thing is that the game starts with the player as a fairly normal adventurer. However, after the requisite "first death", the player is tied to the nexus of power that binds the Old One, and hence becomes trapped until the demons are wiped out. In addition, the power of souls collected from the demons allows the player to become more powerful. These are the player's two advantages compared to the rest of the universe. It's interesting in a PvP/PvE way because it justifies why the player is "better" - and even with these advantages the player will probably die often. The difference is not that the player is superior to non-player characters, but that they have specific in-universe benefits.

Largely lacking in a concrete "story" other than "kill demons", Demon's Souls is more concerned about the setting in general, specifically when it comes to characters. The prologue establishes that many great heroes have come to Boletaria, and naturally the player is likely to meet (and, in many cases, fight) them. In addition, the worlds are littered with the corpses of adventurers much like yourself who did not make it (and do not possess the advantage of eternal rebirth like you do). Like the origin paths, I thought this did a good job in establishing that the world is larger than it seems - many great warriors from across the world had come to find out what had happened to Boletaria, and the only difference between you and them is your ability to "respawn".

Demon's Souls' setting is about a scale that humans cannot comprehend. Like any story involving the phrase "Old One", it is about powerful forces that make humans look like mere insects. We never see the cataclysm that engulfs Boletaria (since our character shows up after the fact), but it certainly seems horrific. Bodies are piled everywhere, and the presence of ferocious demons and monsters suggests that the average citizen or soldier did not stand much of a chance. Even the player, with the powers of the Nexus behind them, is hard-pressed to triumph in Boletaria. The world is cruel and uncaring, and even though we never see it, the transition from a gleaming kingdom to a blood-drenched warzone is a pretty jarring one.

Design and Aesthetic
Demon's Souls is "realistic" in that it uses materials and designs that are based on real things, but it exists in a scale that is largely unrealistic. There's metal armor and stone castles, but they're designed in such a way that they're hardly believable. This is a good metaphor for Demon's Souls in general - it's grounded, but it's also fantastic. It uses the "real" elements to make the "unreal" elements feel more powerful and impressive - a phenomenon I've discussed before. It's a world of giant monsters and dragons and magical beings, but the simplest elements (the way people move, the way the character reacts to damage, the design of normal equipment) creates a contrast.

Armor in DS goes from grounded, sensible stuff like leather, mail, and plate (all starter gear for different classes) to more stylized armor found in Boletaria itself, whether light or heavy. Even the stylized armor feels reasonably grounded in terms of material - it's the design that's unrealistic. Weapons are the same way - they start off as realistic weapons (like swords, spears, and axes) and end up as far more supernatural-looking weapons. A neat touch about the weapons and armor is that they require strength to use, and strength is gained through the justified process of "converting souls into better stats". This really adds a sensible touch to the process of "gaining more strength", which isn't just how much damage you do, but also the ability to swing a two-handed sword with one hand, or move around easily in heavy armor.

One important thing to note regarding design is that, unlike the armor, the weapons are generally wholly unnatural, rather than partially unnatural/implausible. The advanced armor looks silly, but it also looks like it was made by human hands - as in, a blacksmith decided to make a giant silly head crest (which isn't totally implausible). On the other hand, the advanced weapons generally look like magical artifacts hewn from some powerful being rather than "conventionally forged". Hence, it's plausible, but based on a different set of circumstances. It also clearly establishes that they're magic, or at least "not normal", using obvious visual language. Again, the grounded equipment makes the un-grounded equipment look more alien and fantastic.

The levels and architecture share a similar concept: basic, grounded designs escalated to unrealistic or unfathomable levels. There's castles made of stone and mortar, and shanty towns made of wood, but they're so huge that it becomes amazing when you think about it. Actually, I should say that if you don't know about castles or the process of assembling stone into structures, it might not be that impressive - but if you do, or you can imagine what goes on in the castle-building process, then the sheer scale of things becomes astounding. The ability to comprehend the "real" process helps make the "fictional" process more fantastic, and without that it's just another video game level.

Naturally, the foes and enemies of the game operate on the same principles. The game starts in the Boletarian palace, a very "human" area, and then branches out to shrines infested with the undead, tunnels full of worms and giant beetles, and sickening plague-villages filled with goblins and ogres. The "real" base provides the foundation, and then the other things are allowed to be more fantastic because of it. It also provides a brief moment of assessing a new situation: you're going from fighting logical things like "a soldier" or "a goblin" to fighting some sort of Grim Reaper or giant manta ray or something.

The bosses are represented especially well. Going from intimidating (but still human) knights and soldiers to the gargantuan tower knight really gets a sense of scale across. The larger bosses suffer from the usual "big creature moves slow" thing, but their giant reach and damage potential sort of makes up for it. There's one important exception to the "big & slow" rule, and that's the Flamelurker. The Flamelurker is a creature that's emblematic of Demon's Souls, to me - it's got a recognizable pattern, but even when you know it, it's still reasonably difficult in terms of reflexes and managing your endurance. It's not a pushover, but it allows you to bring your skills to bear against it. That's the important part.

Gameplay and Combat
Demon's Souls, unlike a lot of fantasy games, operates on rules of physical space and movement. Shields are based on intercepting attacks, and weapons are swung or thrust. This sounds simple, but it's actually pretty rare in games, and contributes a more concrete sense to what's going on. Things rarely clip though the environment (weapons scrape or bounce off of walls if their swing impacts it), and in close quarters the difference between a swing and a thrust can be vital.

There's some limitations, naturally - every weapon basically has a light attack and a heavy attack, and that's about it. That's a limitation of the control system, and it does make some artificial problems (like swinging too hard and sliding off a cliff). On the whole, though, weapons attack in ways that make sense.

In addition, Demon's Souls has a pretty good movement system, with dodge rolls, sprinting, and, most importantly, stamina. There's a sense of weight to things: diving out of the way of an attack feels like effort, especially in heavy armor, and even in light gear you can't leap around indefinitely. Even if you manage to block an attack with your shield, it still impacts (affecting your stamina) and you can only keep your guard up for so long. The modeling and animation feels natural, and it adds a physical element to the proceedings when your character moves and behaves like a real person.

An important aspect of the game is that location matters. Combat in Demon's Souls is about preventing enemy attacks from hitting you, and hitting enemies in whatever way is best for the area. It's got a lot of "physical space" to it, whereas in some games the graphics are fairly static animations that have nothing to do with whether an attack hits or not. The basic objective is: stay out of the way of attacks. Dodge, roll, block - whatever you have to do to prevent an attack from hitting you. Shields are useful for the same reason they're useful in real life: they're a thing to put between you and an attack. It's not some arbitrary bonus, it's portable cover.

One thing I'd like to comment on is the fact that regular human enemies, such as guards and knights, are probably the most interesting enemies in the game, because they have tools at their disposal. Like the player, they can block or (in some cases) roll. They have plausible attack patterns. Some can even heal with items or throw firebombs like the player can. Their diversity makes them more interesting threats, because they're more unpredictable. In contrast, the most boring enemy in the game is a giant slug that lives in volcanos and takes like five solid minutes of whittling down. During this time, its only "attack" is an occasional stab with its tongue. It's the exact opposite of the human fights - slow, tedious, and simplistic. It's just two sides swinging at each other.

Conclusion
Demon's Souls is one of the rare games that tries to make the player feel like a human being in a fantasy situation. You're not a "level 5 fighter" or something, you're a human being who's enhanced by the power of souls. There's as little "meta-game" as it can get away with while still being an RPG. It's an action game first and foremost - better stats don't win fights, although they certainly help. Everything about the game seems designed to reinforce the idea of being a normal, but augmented, human. The scale of things is such that the player is meant to constantly be simultaneously amazed and on guard. The grounding elements help establish the transition from "real" to "fantastic" by easing into the concept, instead of starting out with fantastic and having no way to connect to it.

So, To Sum Up
1) Demon's Souls is a prime example of grounding fantasy well. It uses its realistic elements to make the fantastic parts more awe-inspiring.
2) Gameplay in Demon's Souls feels more "real" than many other games because it's based on concepts of physical space as well as concepts of human limitations and endurance.
3) Neither of these things would be anywhere near as important or impressive if the game was easy, because a human who can take 500 sword blows to the face is not actually human.

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