Why Demon's Souls isn't GOTY material and other strange tales

Demon's Souls Screenshot

Forgive this bit of Scroogery on Christmas (hey, it's not my holiday).  I'm mostly reacting to Gamespot picking Demon's Souls over Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as Game of the Year for 2009.

It's a positive reaction to the action-RPG title that I've seen elsewhere, so I'm not entirely surprised. But I also feel it's the latest in a series of hyperbolic reactions calling the game "new" and "inventive," when what I really think people are reacting to—both positively and negatively—is the game's difficulty.

Here is my disclaimer: I did not finish Demon's Souls. I did not have the endurance nor the affordance of time to do so. I spent roughly nine hours on the game, about what it takes to finish your average console adventure, simply completing about three and a half stages (and I don't mean all of world 1 or all of world 2... I mean, for example, 1-1, 1-2, and 2-1).

But here is my other disclaimer for this post: I really liked it. I think Demon's Souls does what it sets out to do very well. It's beautiful, atmospheric, straightforward, and provides a level of achievement for doing even the most meaningless tasks that most RPGs do not for completion of their main quest.

Yet this latter trait is what I would call a side-effect of, not the main impetus for, the game's difficulty structure. Recently, I observed an argument on Twitter between a few bloggers whom I follow regarding Zero Punctuation's slamming of the game. The gist of the disagreement was that Ben Croshaw did not fairly evaluate the game because he lacked the skills and, I'm guessing, fairness to spend more time with it than he did. I assume a similar criticism can be levied against me.

I'm not sure to what extent you can take anything Croshaw says with more than a grain of salt. He's a humorist first and foremost, and it's hard not to smile as he rails into a game, even one you admire. The man is nothing if not a salty and vulgar insult comic that loves to dig into the finer flaws of modern video games. But I find there's always a certain amount of truth underlying Croshaw's zingers, and his review of Demon's Souls was no exception. Croshaw finds, as I do, that the system of sending you back to the beginning of a level with all enemies reset feels artificial.

Let's examine the reasons for creating such a system. And no, "masochism" is not one of them. We'll take this quite seriously. Fans of the game (or the King's Field series on which it is based) will say that such a system is in place because it better attunes a player to the raw challenge of the game: It encourages players to take their time examining the craftsmanship of the level, its devious enemy placement and assortment of traps. Stranding the player back at the beginning of the level with fewer items and "souls" (the game's currency) places greater importance on the one thing the player has gained in his/her previous attempt: knowledge. Applying that knowledge in such a way that it allows a player to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles is what accounts for much of the elation experienced by the game's fans. It is truly a form of game-system mastery.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Screenshot

And here is the opposing criticism: It artificially extends the lifespan of the game. Imagine how much shorter a game Demon's Souls would be if you could start a level over with all destroyed demons gone. Again, proponents of the game's difficulty would argue that this is essentially draining the game of its essence, but the player would still have a chance to experience every trap, every bit of graphical detail and atmosphere... just on a smaller scale. And I mean much smaller.

In my own experiences with the game, I elected to go with a Barbarian character. The lack of usable armor and weapons pretty much doomed my experience with the game from the get-go, although there is no way I would have known this without consulting websites or strategy guides beforehand. Isn't there something to be said for the fact that the Barbarian class exists in the game? That I was drawn to the idea of playing the role of this sort of character? This is a "role-playing" game, after all, no? Yet in the nine subsequent hours in which I ponderously crept through a few levels and got hung up on a boss, I had little to show for my supposed accomplishments. Only nine hours of spent time.

I appreciate Demon's Souls. I admire those who have the willpower and fortitude to stick with it. Perhaps at hour 20 the game becomes something quite manipulable, and the player starts to go back to old haunts simply to experience the satisfaction of dominating foes that once caused grief. I can imagine the immense satisfaction of overcoming obstacles and immense bosses I had not witnessed in my supposedly "brief" time with the game.

But that's the thing: Nine hours isn't brief. Not at all. And like Croshaw must have, I started to do a cost-benefit analysis of those nine hours in my mind. The structure of the game undid itself: It was the game's own worst enemy. Starting at the beginning each time, no matter what new shortcuts opened up, meant an additional investment of real-life time that I shouldn't have had to experience. Why? Because there's the unavoidable fact that the person playing those roles is a real human with real responsibilities. Because I appreciate a game that appreciates MY time just as much as I appreciate the overcoming of an obstacle and game mastery. And Demon's Souls does not appreciate its players. 100-hour games like the Elder Scrolls titles make those hours fly by because the game does masterful work to send you in without constantly pulling you back out. The same cannot be said of Demon's Souls. But then, Demon's Souls is a very different type of game... for very different players.

It is a pandora's box waiting to be enjoyed, admired, unraveled. But it leaves an indelible mark of time on its players. It exists, not to be entered, not to immerse the player, but to be planned-out, strategized, gazed at from afar before being conquered with a killing stroke (or luck). Every time I was plucked from the game due to a clipping error (I remember a particular part in which I kept on being killed by dogs who nipped at me from beyond a staircase wall) or unwieldy combat controls, I was left to, not feel immersed in the intricate game world, but rather stare at my clock near the PS3. The game said, "challenge." The clock, unfortunately, said, "You have other things to do." And sadly that is a very real cost-benefit analysis that every gamer on Earth must come to terms with. Even if it means missing out on some very pretty, very interesting game content.

Demon's Souls Screenshot

The reason I can extend my own cost-benefit analysis to other gamers, however, is for three simple reasons having to do more with the nature of Demon's Souls than with my own time allowance: 1.) It is not an immersive experience. 2.) It is not a role-playing game. 3.) There's really nothing very new or inventive about it.

Demon's Souls revels in taking a player out of the gameplay experience. Again, rather than immerse the player in its stunningly crafted world, the game is meant to shock the player out of immersion. The player is always beholden to the design, not the other way around. Nothing about the game outside of aesthetics and the mere idea of "conquering a challenge" is designed in service to the player.

Thus, it is not a role-playing game. There are no roles to be played, save one: the one that manages to get the player from point A to point B with the least amount of grief. Role-playing games, as I understand the term, are about immersion and fantasy. Yet Demon's Souls makes you aware of its contrivance at every turn, from the drawn out spectacle of its bosses to the artificially inflated difficulty and length.

Lastly, there's nothing really inventive about any of this. Not unless you consider the whole "starting out with all the enemies reset" new. And even then, it's not. Such a system is a relic of the NES and Commodore 64 era, when design limitations rendered such repetitive challenges rote. Perhaps it affords modern players a chance to experience the delights of conquering previously frustrating challenges, yes, but it is not in and of itself anything new.

You can point to the notes system, which is little more than a makeshift strategy guide filled with joyless spoilers and often useless dribble. You can point to the sometimes cooperative and combative nature of the online features, which are largely supplementary. But they adorn a game that is, at its core, a 3D version of the Ghosts 'n Goblins series. Take that as a compliment or insult if you wish, but let it stand as an observation regarding Demon's Souls core gameplay: It's something very old indeed.

And so I come back to my own time cost-benefit analysis, extended now to the larger populace of video game players: Is each hour of Demon's Souls worth it? It may seem a ridiculously subjective question to ask of so many individuals, all at once, and in many ways it is. Yet this is the sort of question that game reviewers and critics ask implicitly and explicitly all the time. And this is my best guess: No. It is a good game. A very good game. But it requires a preponderance of time not at all equal to the amount of pleasure that can be derived from its uniqueness, sense of immersion, or inherent delight. It is grinding incarnate. But then, here's the catch: Not every game player values those things. And those players who do not, and who do value the singular moments in which a particularly tough game seems to bend to the player's will... those players love Demon's Souls. I'm not one to disagree with that kind of logic, even if it's not mine. I do not own a level 80 character with superior armor and mount in World of Warcraft. I have not completed the original Final Fantasy. I am not beholden to the grind. For me, it is largely the antithesis of why I play video games: to experience something joyful and special.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Screenshot

It's worth repeating at this point that this is a game I liked. Those nine hours, misspent and offputting as they were, allowed me to experience a taste of what I think other people see in it. And that taste grew into appreciation. And despite the constant drain on my nerve and willpower, I saw in the game many of the same outstanding qualities that others have: the gorgeous graphics, the chilling atmosphere, the elegantly simple hack-and-slash interface (albeit saddled with some ineffective dodge controls). It is undoubtedly a well crafted game.

But it is also a game that defies the praise that has been heaped upon it, let alone labels of "dark fantasy RPG" and "innovative adventure game." I don't write this to discredit or undermine others' enjoyment of the title. Who am I to argue that someone else did not enjoy Demon's Souls more than any other game this year? Only the person in question knows how they feel about a game.

On the other hand, if one is trying as hard as possible to build a semi-objective comparison between the qualities of, say, Demon's Souls and those of critical darling (and my own pick for GOTY) Uncharted 2, there are some stark differences to be noted. Both games succeed at doing what they set out to do: Demon's Souls is an action game for players with time and patience. Uncharted 2 is a cinematic action spectacle. They're both equal parts straightforward A-to-B romps and intricately detailed gamescapes.

Here is the sad fact of the matter, however: Neither game is anything really innovative or new. I've already made this case for Demon's Souls. Uncharted 2 is largely the same game as its predecessor, although that can be seen as a plus given that the first title was quite stellar in its own right. And the same "complaint" can be levied against many of the so-called "GOTY usual suspects": Assassin's Creed 2 possesses many of the flaws and strengths of its predecessor while adding on a lengthier quest and some meager side distractions. New Super Mario Bros. Wii revels in nostalgia and classic gameplay. You'd have a hard time convincing me that Dragon Age isn't the same BioWare game they've been making for almost a decade, complete with spectacular dialogue and laborious party management.

If any two games truly innovated their genres this year, I would argue that those two games are Dead Space Extraction and Half-Minute Hero. But nothing in me really wants to call either of those games "best." Dead Space is wonderful but it is also somewhat insubstantial, weighed down by many of the constraints plaguing the light gun genre. Half-Minute Hero is as much a lightweight distraction as it is a joyous re-imagining of the JRPG.

This suggests the question central to my post and its (likely) incendiary title: What exactly makes a game "best" of the year? A nebulous range of criteria, to be sure. Here is my best stab at answering an undoubtedly precarious question: The best game in a given year is that which is most likely to both reward and delight, and to the largest degree, those who experience it. That isn't to say that reward cannot lead to a sense of delight, nor that delight isn't itself a kind of reward. Rather, I consider reward to be a sense of accomplishment, and delight to be the carrot that dangles in front of the head, leading one towards accomplishment. And yes, even games that do not seem on the surface "delightful" (e.g., Manhunt or the board game Train) can delight in the sense of offering new ways of seeing the world or new forms of introspection.

Demon's Souls Screenshot

In that sense, Demon's Souls has the reward part down. Down cold. The game is all about challenge and reward. Delight? Well, you've read what I have to say.

Uncharted 2, while by no means anything new or genre-busting, is a fully-formed game of reward and delight. The plethora of spectacle and surprise (namely the sequences in which you are tasked with input while seemingly cinematic events unfold—the falling of a bus or the destruction of a building) delight... the challenge, length, story, and multiplayer reward.

Ideally, the year would have yielded a game like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Fallout 3 that combines a great sense of reward and delight with something genre-bending (in the case of MGS4, the octocam suits and vivid blurring of cinema and gameplay; in the case of Fallout 3, open-world gameplay mixed with an inventive and deep combat system). But it didn't. So I'd argue that the best we have is Uncharted 2 (which is still pretty damn good).

This is the part where I defend Uncharted 2 against what I consider to be largely unfair criticism: It's a cinematic game. So the hell what?

There seems to be a misunderstanding or bit of fallacious reasoning in some critical circles that games are so much a beast apart from cinema and literature that anything resembling those media in modern games is leading to some kind of game design apocalypse... or at the very least, a lack of ingenuity.

Why is this incorrect? Because it would be just as unreasonable to assume that gaming as a medium has developed in a vacuum as it would be to ignore that it is in many ways a medium apart. Games are a product of a blended, synthetic culture. Modern movies incorporate aspects of interactivity and gamesmanship, just as the classic Atari games invoked cinematic spectacle. And games like King's Field and Demon's Souls are nothing if not interactive references to high-fantasy literature. You are welcome to argue that narrative can sometimes take precedent over gameplay; the mistake would be to argue that the two are somehow self-contained in all of modern gaming. Some games, yes. Not all. And even those games that lack distinct narrative possess undeniably literary or cinematic qualities.

Video games are what they are because of their relationship to previously existing media, not in spite of it. Literature, comics, film... all sorts of classical narrative development... are inextricable from the DNA of video games.

So why the urge to punish Uncharted 2 for marrying the cinematic roots of gaming with enjoyable immersion that cannot be found in a movie? What's there is undeniably game. It is no more a movie than Night Trap is a role-playing game.

More importantly, people obviously enjoy what's there. Why the backlash? Why the need to dismiss what is obviously a great achievement in game design? It's as if the great horde of players who enjoy their time with Uncharted 2 have indulged in a kind of digital transfat that is impoverishing or cheapening the whole of video game production.

To say that something like Demon's Souls is somehow more of a game than Uncharted 2 seems to me a form of critical elitism. They're both interactive. Neither one is particularly innovative. Both are undeniably deferential to the roots of modern gaming.

I simply feel that Uncharted 2 offers greater quantities of reward and delight. That it does so with a nod and a wink to Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones is part of the charm (or at worst an inoffensive footnote to the gameplay), not a major detraction.