On May 31, a huge door will close for the modern gamer. This will be the day that the servers for Demon’s Souls, the little dungeon crawler that could, go dark after numerous extensions by publisher Atlus.
Even if you haven’t played it yourself, if you follow games then you’ve likely heard of the spiritual successor to the King’s Field series that was released in October of 2009. Developed over a period of two years by From Software, the nihilistic tale of a lone adventurer in a decaying world let you craft your own character and slaughter demons, harvesting their souls to upgrade your own personal attributes along with your weapons and armor. What set this game apart, of course, was the hair-pulling, controller-throwing, bottle-breaking difficulty level.
For the uninitiated, let me give you a quick walkthrough of what to expect from this game if you decide to give it a run before the servers shut down. You spend a good ten to fifteen minutes, depending on your obsessive tendencies, creating your character. Everything is adjustable, from the arc of the nose bridge to the exact tint of eye color. Once done, you’re given a quick backstory on Boletaria and asked if you want to run through the tutorial. You had best say yes.
You’re told what buttons to use for attacks, blocking and parrying. You’re told to collect souls from each demon you kill. You start to think, “Okay, I like the tight controls and the melancholy fantasy atmosphere. Let’s get into the game itself.” You then walk through a portal, and the first boss of the game, fifty times your size, kills you with one swing of its club.
During my first time playing the game, I wasn’t sure what the hell had just happened and was convinced that I turned a wrong corner somewhere. How could I be dead seconds after the game had just taught me how to parry? I was dumped into the Nexus, the hub of the game, where you begin to piece together the fact that you’re going to spend a lot of your time like this – dead. After getting started in the first world outside the castle gates, I continued to be educated further as to what type of game I was playing. To put it simply, Demon’s Souls beat the high holy fuck out of me. Waving it’s phallic tentacle in my face, it stripped me naked, strapped me in leather, chained me to a wall and put lit cigarettes out on my nipples. It then asked how I felt, and despite turning it off at first, I begged my master for more and continued to endure the kind of mental beatings normally reserved for Guantanamo Bay.
Some would ask “Why do you do this to yourself?” and part of me doesn’t have an answer for that. I don’t know why I must collect every star in Super Mario Galaxy, then do it all again as Luigi. I don’t know why I had to unlock the entire Krypt in Mortal Kombat. What I do know is that when I was broken down in Demon’s Souls, reduced to a quivering heap who felt like I couldn’t even operate a controller anymore to save my life, I finally faced a boss and killed it. To attempt to describe the elation I felt to a non-gamer is akin to describing the nude female body to a man blind since birth: you can do it, but feel a slight sympathy that they’ll never truly grasp what it is you’re describing.
The accomplishment of slaying a boss in Demon’s Souls is noteworthy not just because you overcame such a difficult task, but because these games simply aren’t made anymore. Just playing this game and not taking a sledgehammer to your PS3 puts you in the same elite class that has beaten Ninja Gaiden Black, The Lost Levels of Super Mario Brothers and the unlockable difficulties peppered into many big budget releases such as the Gears of War and Dead Space franchises. If you stop and watch what is being displayed in front of you, nothing in the tutorial for Demon’s Souls will tell you anything you couldn’t have found by simply opening up the instruction manual and reading about the basic controls of the game. This is not a plea for the “good old days” that every kid in thick-framed glasses likes to do while drinking PBR on a rooftop. I actually think it is much more user-friendly to simply weave a basic explanation of “what button does what” into the opening of a game. What’s incredible is that even after a demonstration as well as reading of the manual, you have nobody holding your hand in this game. There are no lines, arrows or markers to tell you where to head next. If you’re a skilled gamer, you’ve got a long road ahead of you; if you suck at video games, Demon’s Souls may make you reconsider every putting a disc in a drive again.
I can only imagine Atlus’s shock and subsequent joy when this game, alienating as it is, went on to become a high seller worldwide. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Worldwide Studios, had much the same experience while first playing the game and called Demon’s Souls “…crap. This is an unbelievably bad game.” Thus, Sony passed on publishing the game and must be cursing themselves for not sewing up exclusive rights to the game and its successor Dark Souls, which has now sold a million and a half copies around the world.
Playing Demon’s Souls (I’ll confess to having bested several bosses but have not beaten the game myself) has had a reigniting effect on me when it comes to finding challenge in a game. People set goals for themselves in all walks of life – marathons, power lifts, careers, school, etc. I see no reason why gaming cannot be a driving force in one’s life in the same way. Last summer, I spent so much time conquering Catherine that I literally began to dream about climbing the tower of blocks just like Vincent. When presented with the new Normal difficulty in Gears of War 3, I tossed it aside and went straight for Hardcore, thanks to all the merciless beatings the same setting had given me during the first two entries. Games are their own form of mental exercise through reinforcement: die, die, die. What did I do wrong, and how can I fix it? How much you must learn on your own is left up to the developers, and as nostalgic as it may feel when playing something like Demon’s Souls, the fact is that we don’t live in the 1980s anymore. Games are no longer a hobby for a niche market next to other collectors. Just like films, we now have major blockbuster titles that take the spotlight and contend for our money each year. What is cool about such a massive industry – as well as the rise of services like the Xbox Live Arcade – is that a small developer can scrounge together the money to give us something like Super Meat Boy, and those of us who crave such a challenge can seek it out for ourselves without having to listen to the Call of Duty legions scratch their heads as to what a “meat boy” is.
As mentioned in the beginning, Atlus will finally be pulling the plug on the servers for Demon’s Souls on May 31. What this means for the player is that summoning a friend, old or new to help you take down that boss you just can’t seem to get past will no longer be an option. On June 1, you will truly be on your own in the land of Boletaria. I plan to focus a lot of my gaming time there until that day, and yet a certain masochistic part of me can’t help but look forward to being cut loose from the safety net of blood splatters that warn me of incoming danger. I have my own list of other tasks to attempt in the near future as well, not the least of which is climbing my way to Master Ninja in Ninja Gaiden Black.
Oh, that Mr. Perfect achievement in Mega Man 10? Complete the game without taking any damage? You’re sick, Capcom. Really, really sick. And I love you for it.