Some notes on Demon's Souls's bizarre social scene on the eve of its demise.
The Demon's Souls multiplayer servers are going offline at the end of the month. Soon, the game's unique online components (asynchronous messaging, death replays, and a mixture of competitive and cooperative multiplayer features) will disappear, leaving behind a game best known for its obscure systems and punishing difficulty. When I heard about this in April, I took it as a sign to finally embark upon my long delayed playthrough. One of the game's major draws was its online component, so I thought that I would burn through the game and have the complete experience.
A month and half and countless deaths later, it is becoming increasingly clear that I'm not going to beat Demon's Souls before June 1st. Even after all the hype, I underestimated how difficult and deliberately paced the game would be. I'm just glad that I'm getting a sense of the game's full potential, as some of the most memorable moments so far have involved the online components. It's hard to preserve a virtual world. After all, videos, walkthroughs, and written accounts can only convey so much. Still, I figure that the best way to remember Demon's Souls multiplayer is to make sure it lives on in other media. Here are a few of my travel logs:
Lessons Written in Blood
Demon's Souls lets you see the ghostly images of other players inhabiting the same level as you. It also marks the spots of their deaths with blood stains that you can touch to see a short replay of their last moments. It's a freaky sight, as you only see the player's body and not their attacker or the environmental hazard that did them in. Even so, I learned plenty of lessons from these blood stains.
Never underestimate the deadliness of a long drop with a sudden stop. Stairwells and bridges in Demon's Souls aren't exactly ADA compliant; if you get sloppy, you'll fall to your death without any help from the enemy whatsoever.
When you're in battle and you take damage, you should get to a safe place before treating your wounds. Time and again, I see people take a crippling hit, get up, try to pound a healing herb, and die before they can complete their eating animation.
Beware tight hallways and large groups. I've seen the most heavily armored knights crippled by what I later found to be a group of lowly zombies who happen to shamble their way into a dead end. These scenarios are simultaneously poignant, instructive, and hilarious. If you've played enough Demon's Souls, you'll recognize the tell tale panicky rolling, the desperate flailing attacks, and the ill-advised item use as actions you've taken in the pursuit of a lost cause. If you pay attention, these ghostly death scenes can tip you off to future dangers and help you avoid becoming a lesson for someone else.
My time in Demon's Souls has been pretty funny, albeit in a dark way. Players can leave written notes to one another in the levels to offer battle advice or clues to hidden items. There are rewards for highly rated comments, so there is an incentive to create constructive notes. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of joking around. I remember when I risked my life and a considerable amount of souls to inch out onto a narrow ledge to read a note. Surely, such a carefully placed note would be helpful? My death-defying feat was rewarded by nothing more than the cheeky phrase, "Did you think there would be a hint?" I turned around to go back to the path, promptly lost my footing, and tumbled to my death. I laughed because if I didn't, I would have lost my mind.
Some of the highest rated hints are the ones that add little moments of levity to the extremely serious game world. I routinely find messages simply saying "Hi!" underneath a piles of rubble. I once walked past the body of another dead hero and found a message along side it: "Poor guy," it said. I chuckled at the thought of expressing sympathy for an NPC in a game that so punishes its flesh-and-blood players. Demon's Souls is a sick joke on many levels -- might as well laugh along.
Of course, not all the messages that I've encountered were light hearted or silly. Some dramatically intensified the in-game drama. On my way to the mines, I stopped to read a message that said, "Listen well." Demon's Souls is a quiet game, so I decided to stand still for a minute to listen to the silence. Except, it wasn't so quiet. I could hear a constant buzzing that seemed to be getting louder. I soon realized that it wasn't just getting louder; it was getting closer. I realized what was going on just as the first flying bugbear was cresting the edge of the cliff. The swarm of armored, insectoid behemoths were trying to surround me. I ran deep into the mines, away from known danger and into unknown danger.
It's hard to describe how discouraging it feels to be using a melee character and come upon a note that says: "Use spells on the next enemy." I've had to weigh the options of grinding for an hour to learn a new spell numerous times to the point where I often think that I'd rather simply not know how ill-prepared I was. There are also tests of faith: is the message "Run straight through," letting you know that a courageous dash will keep you safe or is it just someone's sick joke to try to get you to run into a deadly pit? Do I actually need "a Soul Level of 60 ahead," or is the person who wrote that simply more conservative or less skilled than I?
I've come in more direct contact with my fellow players through the cooperative and competitive multiplayer aspects of the game. When you die in Demon's Souls, you're punished with the loss of your physical body and the full HP bar that goes along with it. Getting your body back requires the use of precious items or a show of fighting skill. You can offer your assistance to other players, helping them kill bosses in their game in exchange for monetary and stat-based rewards in your game. I've spent a lot of time in game sans body, and so have offered a helping hand to many different people fighting a variety of bosses.
The frequency with which I find myself in this situation probably says something about my skill, but I don't care. Teaming up with another player is a great way to farm experience. If I find a particularly strong player, I try to keep our alliance going for as long as possible.
Triumph and Hubris
I'm not always a leech. Sometimes I'm a hunter. Demon's Souls lets you invade other players worlds with the goal of killing them in exchange for getting your body back. I remember the first time someone invaded my game: I ran through the tunnels of Stonefang until I came to an open space. I took cover at the mouth of a tunnel and stood there patiently, obscured from my enemy's crossbow shots, daring the intruder to make a move. This person got impatient, came into the open, and drew their sword. We circled one another for what seemed like an eternity until my opponent struck. Unfortunately for them, they overestimated their sword's length and underestimated my dexterity. I rolled out of the way, equipped a long spear, and stabbed them under the cover of my shield. My opponent saw where this was headed and turned to run. I chased the sorry soul through the caverns, quickly caught up, and landed a killing blow.
My first battle was my first victory, but I later came to think of it as a curse. It made me confident, willing to invade other people's games as a black phantom. Unfortunately, my existence as a black phantom is often as dopey as it is deadly. I once lost a duel by accidentally backing into an open flame. An NPC enemy's well placed shove sent me off a tall bridge. One time I invaded another player's game, only to find that my opponent had already recruited two other human players. The three of them and I stared at each other for a minute, and then I bolted for the door. I made it about two steps before being impaled by a broad sword, roasted by a fire spell, and clubbed by a mace.
As if the social humiliation weren't enough, dying as an invading phantom costs you a soul level, which both decreases your physical defense and requires you to spend more currency to get back to the point that you reached before your failure. I've learned some hard lessons, all thanks to the game's online interactions.
I'll still finish Demon's Souls but, barring some miracle, I'll do so after it transforms into an exclusively single player game. The game features many isolated, dreary environments, but the latent multiplayer aspects have managed to create a constant buzz of community in an otherwise brutal landscape. Soon, this community will be extinguished and any potential salvation will come from outside the game world in the form of online FAQs and walkthroughs. My final push through Demon's Souls will reflect what the game is without the nebulous web of player interaction threaded through its world.
The end of Demon's Souls will be quiet, lonely, and difficult.