HIGH: Realizing that the game is so flexible and responsive to your actions that anything you try that logically should work, will work.
LOW: Turning into such a frothing lunatic every time you play that your cat tries to mail itself to Abu Dhabi the second you make for the controller.
WTF: Why are the scariest demons the ones that stand stock-still till you come up right up to them? And just what demonic train of thought is so absorbing that you don't see a halberd dancing on the horizon, aimed at your head?
People talk about Demon's Souls difficulty the way people used to talk about N.W.A.'s swearing--as if it were the whole story. I'm not saying that the overall effect of the art wouldn't be diminished, since no one who's not a 12 year old at Wal-Mart buy censored rap CDs. But if artistic revolutions can be made on F bombs alone, then every kid on the playground is Picasso, and if difficulty is the new good (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/2...e_New_Good.php
), then Contra III is the greatest game ever made.
Granted, everything anyone has ever said about Demon's Souls being hard is true (except those internet cretins who say it isn't hard at all). But the thing that's made me itchy reading the 'Net's spread of the game's reviews is that nearly everyone touts
"This game is hard but fair and therefore rewarding"
as the answer to the riddle of the Demon's Souls experience. A few nods are made in the direction of the game's other virtues--world design, arty bleakness, un-Uncharted pacing--but other than Brad hanging his hat on the immersion rack, every review I've read essentially says playing Demon's Souls is like having Satan punch you in the face over and over again until you get the gratification of punching him in the face even harder. Boom, game of the year (when Uncharted fans aren't around).
But Demon's Souls isn't its difficulty . . . per se. The real story is that Demon's Souls is the way every element of the game's design, including its difficulty, is inseparable from the overall experience. If anything, people should be talking about the way Demon's Souls uses
difficulty rather than saying over and over again that it's difficult.
Might as well run with that line of argument, since if the game really is the mandala-like whole I'm about to make it out to be, difficulty is as good a jumping off point as any other universe-holding grain of sand. Plus, even though I'm trying to push past it, skirting around how hard Demon's Souls is is like pretending Avatar isn't in 3D. So let's temporarily banish the "it's rewarding" argument to a hopeless land shrouded in monsters and fog and ask what Demon's Souls difficulty actually does for the game.
For one, it takes the issue of choice and consequence even farther than games like Mass Effect 2 do--games whose entire raison d’Ítre is to jazz-riff the phenomenon of gamers feeling the impact of their choices until everyone's in the front row of their own Miles Davis concert. The problem, though (and this may be pet peevish on my part more than anything else), is that in games like Mass Effect 2, choices are easily undone, and all it takes is a little judicious saving and a few strategically placed save states to see how a lot of the game could've developed otherwise. Granted, this gets harder and more time-consuming if you want to see how far down the line your actions really go, especially since developers like Bioware are getting so good at making players' choices branch and cascade that by Mass Effect 3 there might not be enough white boards in the world to chart every possible game path. But on a micro level, ME2 and nearly every other game out there let you instantly unwind every knot you make winding your way down the plot thread until the experience lands smack in the middle of "Prince of Persia Time-Glitch Oh I Didn't Really Want to Do That Vriiiiiiiiip" Land. And while it is titillating to try every scenario every which way (how many times a day do you say something you wish you could instantly undo, no matter how small?), this postmodern meta-game save-state carousel goes a long way to killing game immersion.
With Demon's Souls, though, it's different. The brilliance is in the difficulty created by the save system: because you only have one save per character, because the game constantly saves, and because your character is locked into a straightforward progression through the game where nothing can be undone no matter how many times you die, the experience of Demon's Souls becomes a reality coherent unto itself no matter how crazy (and video gamey) its world gets. Immersion doesn't break in Demon's Souls the way it does in other games, even though its "gameness" (health bars, potions, load times when you die) is as evident as the "gameness" of Mass Effect 2: your character can't undo accidentally killing a merchant anymore than you can undo telling your boss to go diddle himself, because you are
that character and you made
those choices. All the game can do at that point is all your boss can do: react . . . and, according to a set of rules you signed an agreement with, probably terminate you.
What's intriguing is that this type of difficulty is entirely different (though not disconnected) from the reaction-time based difficulty of fighting a skeleton who can kill you in one hit. It's the difficulty of being stuck with the consequences of your decisions--the difficulty of time, the difficulty of real life. Where the video gamey "fighting a skeleton" brand of difficulty comes in is if you want to see how your Demon's Souls experience could have been otherwise. To do that, you have to suffer through another playthrough, with an entirely different character living an entirely different, just as grueling reality. No matter how desperately you want to go Prince of Persia on your playthrough's Gordian knot, the only way you can is through the blood, sweat, and controller chucking of doing it all over again--yet another consequence of yet another decision about how you play the game.
Less meta but also cool is how Demon's Souls' difficulty works to make the game world near-unbearably vivid--amazing since on first sniff (compared to "Hi, I'll be your tour guide for the eveni--holy crap, look at that mountain!" blockbusters like Uncharted) the game seems stiff, cold, aloof, and lurking in a corner, all while working on a scale that feels appreciably small. But as much as it has a look, as much as it has a sound (or a lack of sound), Demon's Souls has a feel that pulls you into it, and that feel is the feeling you get when you're hiding behind a scrap of steel that's been slammed into by a massive, impossibly dense, juggernaut-esque force that you can maybe, barely, oh God please just let me, withstand.
Squaring off against this juggernaut means that no matter how good you are, your enemies will pound into you with ice-blooded abandon and your health bar will soon have a profitable sideline giving lecture tours on the virtues of negative numbers. But what's really important to the overall game experience is that your brain will get so fuzzy from endlessly repeating the same futile actions over and over again that before long it'll start confusing the rage-stroke inducing levels of frustration washing over it with the tactile sensations your character experiences as she wars her way across the game. After about thirty fruitless, endlessly rehashed minutes of creeping through Boletaria Palace or the Tower of Latria, you WILL feel the crossbow bolts hitting your shield, and you WILL feel like your guts have been pierced by an octopus-headed demon's tongue. But, on the flip side, you'll also feel like between your sword, your skill, your girlfriend-horrifying level of desperation, and your (thankfully upgradeable) luck, you can and you will beat them. . .in 90 hours or so.
In other words, despite being a fantasy, Demon's Souls makes you feel that your character is human in a way game characters rarely are: fragile, at the mercy of the elements, able to take an occasional beating, small, yet at times strangely powerful, maybe even brutal. It turns the power fantasy that most action gaming is built on inside out. Most of your time playing Demon's Souls is spent feeling more terrified and helpless than you ever have in a game. But then eeeevery once in awhile the fantasy flips its outsides back in again, and you feel like the only really crushing and demonic force in the game is you.
In the end, though, the most intriguing and unexpected aspect of Demon's Souls' design is the way difficulty reinforces and fleshes out the game's cosmology. Coherent as Demon's Souls reality is, it's a very weird reality, with very weird rules. Most striking for my souls is that, despite being based on Western mythology and Western fantasy literature, there are a surprising number of Buddhist cogs in the gears that makes the game's universe turn.
Christian mythology, of course (which would seem like the natural mythological backdrop to the game), is very linear: you're born, you die, you go to heaven or you go to hell. But Demon's Souls works in a circle: your character dies and is reborn incessantly, and, because of the difficulty of what you have to do, you'll spend hours of gameplay suffering through the same actions over and over just to make the tiniest scrap of progress. The dangling progress carrot plus the pleasure of fiddling with game's mechanics and monsters pulls you along, but glancing around the web, it's shocking how many highly scored reviews of Demon's Souls say the game isn't fun at all. Rewarding, sure. But fun? Don't 90% of the reviews have an S&M joke in there somewhere?
Demon's Souls isn't fun . . . per se. It's suffering. Incredibly varied, richly detailed, logically consistent, common video game trope subverting, all-around mind-blowing suffering. But it is suffering, it is frustrating, and it is hard. It's what my not-so-utilitarian minor in Asian Studies tells me Buddhists call Samsara: the agony of living in a universe where you're endlessly reborn only to do the same things over and over again, where only a few external features (history, landscapes, doors, the position of switches) ever really change, the whole cycle accompanied by massive pain (and HP loss).
The thing that keeps people going through this mess is their desire to break out of the matrix, provided they can keep their spirits up long enough to keep on keeping on. . .which no one in Boletaria except you, the player, has been able to do. Everyone else is either dead or, like the shades hanging around the Nexus trying to make a soul off you, they've given up.
All hope isn't lost, though. Buddhist cosmology is filled with countless parallel universes crawling with countless (wire-frame?) souls all trying to figure out the trap they're in, beat their surroundings, and escape. Each universe may be made up of countless levels of being, from demon to frog to human to god, but of all these levels, being a human is best, because though humans are more fragile than gods and less happy than animals, only they have the knowledge to break out of the cycle of suffering that makes up the universe.
It's a flight of fancy, maybe, but that's what Demon's Souls is for me: a hellishly difficult cyclical universe that you can only break out of by way of knowledge, by way of learning how the game world works, learning how to think your way out of it, how to bend it to your will, and ultimately how to crack it wide open. Demon's Souls has been called brilliant, it's been called game of the year, but . . . I guess I'm saying it leads to enlightenment?
Okay, I'm kidding, and that's enough cheap mysticism to last me fifty lifetimes (two Demon's Souls man hours). But one thing to Demon's Souls credit is that it's deep and brilliant enough to warrant such crazy interpretations despite (because of?) having no story other than the one the player makes up as she goes along. Along the way, it manages to take difficulty and intertwine it with countless other aspects of game design until it becomes such a tightly considered whole that you can see a plodding action RPG if you tilt it one way, a universe if you tilt it another. Which, granted, could be the ramblings of a crazed fanboy trying to justify going grands in debt to hear ex-hippies convince him that Jimi Hendrix is a manifestation of pure Buddha-mind (God bless you, Dr. Lopez). But this fanboy is crazed because he's had his brain blown . . . that, or his head bashed in repeatedly by a demon holding a sword the size of a lighthouse.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via shady Craigslist transaction with a man in a long, black cloak and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to massively single-player mode.
Parents: This isn't the most violent game on the market, but it is one of the most disturbing. Think of how your child reacts to movies that are unsettling-scary instead of jump-in-your-seat scary and go from there. Also, depending on your religious views, you might find the game offensive, but you'll probably have that figured out by the time you read the title.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The dialogue is subtitled, but during play audio cues are occasionally an important part in fending off enemy attacks. The game is so hard anyway that this might amount to tears on a river, but deaf and hard of hearing players will be at a disadvantage. Luckily, the game relies heavily on repetition and expects you to retry battles often, so I imagine memory and perseverance can make up for the lack of help audio cues provide.