Demon’s Souls is a third-person action role-playing game developed by From Software, a Japanese video game developer most famous for the Armored Core and Tenchu series. The player controls a customizable hero and has to explore and make his way through stages set in five major locations. The game has garnered accolades for its brutal difficulty as well as its deliberately-paced and challenging combat system.
Despite Demon’s Souls breaking almost every game design “rule” in modern big-budget games with its relentless combat and labyrinthine level design, it succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of the original Japanese publisher Sony Computer Entertainment Japan, which admitted it had made a mistake not publishing the game in the North American market. I will examine the game through a consolidated set of 4 related lenses: Judgment (20), Skill (27), Challenge (31), and Punishment (41) and a fifth unrelated lens of Infinite Inspiration (11) and point out what Demon’s Souls did that accounted for its success.
Looking at how there are situations where the player can go from full health to zero while being unable to do anything, anyone who has read the hundreds of articles and books on game design would cry out at this blatantly terrible decision to make the game inaccessible and the difficulty curve a difficulty cliff. Yet Demon’s Souls is unforgiving too in its judgment of the player. The game assumes the player does not need mollycoddling and every mistake is penalized. The game judges that the player’s pride would not let him give up at being instantly killed by a swarm of weak skeletons and insert another game into the console, because he knows he made a mistake. The game judges that the player understands that accomplishments require struggle and effort. And most importantly, the game judges that the player can figure out where he went wrong, by heavily emphasizing deliberate action and punishing button-mashing and rash decisions.
Fairness in the game’s judgment comes from highly telegraphed actions from the game’s wide variety of monsters, fixed level design and monster placement, consistency in its feedback to player actions, and freedom in allowing the player to customize his equipment to suit each stage and playing style right from the beginning of the game. As an example of Demon’s Souls consistency and deliberate pace, most weapons have a relatively long “swing time” where the attacker is unable to take any action. So, if a player were to rapidly press the Attack button, he would be left vulnerable if his attack missed. However, the same applies for all enemies – they do not have the ability to interrupt their attacks in mid-swing too, allowing players to safely attack during those considerably long attack animations. So, punishments are applied fairly to everything.
This is one of the skills that Demon’s Souls cultivates in the player as he makes his way through the game. The game tests the player’s observation skills and positioning skills: each enemy has a massive ‘tell’ before each attack that the player can take advantage of to avoid damage, and the many environmental traps like long falls or even a stray pillar can cause your death if you roll carelessly – or the enemy’s if you manage to lure him off or get him stuck in a pillar. Knowledge is another aspect of Demon’s Souls that a player will learn is necessary for survival in the bleak world, be it knowledge of enemy placements and level layouts, weaknesses and attack patterns of monsters, or even the most effective weapons to forge and craft. The most important skill tested is probably patience in many various ways: trial-and-error is the main form of progress, taking on enemies requires you to wait for the right gap in timing or chink in armor, and careless repeated deaths can take away an entire day of progress. While in-game progress can be lost, the player’s knowledge of the game can only increase as he plays, and the game’s mechanical depth work such that the more knowledge a player has, the better he will do. The avatar’s skills just give the player more leeway in making mistakes – it is always the player’s skill that allows him to win, and this is one aspect Demon’s Souls executed perfectly.
It can be argued that Demon’s Souls’ challenge does not cater to a wide variety of skill levels, although certainly there is a wide variety of challenges themselves ranging from those in the game (environment, monsters, bosses, level design, inventory management, player invasions etc.) to outside the game (the player’s own fear or nervousness as he enters an unknown area leading to poor decision making…) But that does not matter, because Demon’s Souls was never a mass-market game by virtue of its brutal nature that expects a lot of investment from the player’s side, and thus never needed to cater to different skill levels. For the player who is willing to learn about Demon’s Souls, the payoff is huge as every challenge overcome provides an overwhelming sense of satisfaction many games do not provide in the interests of “creating flow” or “not breaking immersion”. In exchange, Demon’s Souls sets a baseline of skill and does only a few things to mitigate that.
One such thing is drawn from the lens of infinite inspiration. One much-lauded feature is the ability to leave messages on the ground for other players to read. These include warnings like “Be wary of a fall ahead” and hints like “Use spells on the next enemy”, which provide all the help the game is willing to explicitly provide. In an interview with Eurogamer, director Hidetaka Miyazaki says the inspiration for that feature was his car being stuck on a snowy hillside. The cars behind him slowly pushed him safely over the hill, but he could not stop the car to express his gratitude to the people behind. The essence of simply helping out other people through mutual adversity is relayed in this unique message feature. You do not know who wrote these messages, and if you wrote one you know you will not receive any gratitude (although in the game you can “recommend” a message and if a recommendation comes while you are playing you get your health fully restored), but you simply do it anyway because every little thing counts in Demon’s Souls and you want to help (or harm) your fellow players. I think this is a perfect example of capturing the essence of an experience and putting it in a game.