How Demon’s Souls Restored My Faith in Games and Reminded Me How to Live Life

I am a willing victim of declining video game difficulty.

I loved the forgiving pre-battle checkpoints in Final Fantasy XIII and the permanent full-health my characters enjoyed between battles. I appreciated the Uncharted games making a checkpoint for me before and after every gun fight. I liked that Assassin’s Creed missions only took a handful of minutes to complete and could be replayed ad infinitum without penalty.

I’ve played a seemingly endless array of AAA titles on my consoles to completion, racking up a decent gamerscore in the process, but never feeling like I’ve earned most of the achievements. I have come to the sad realisation that the bloo-bloop sound of an achievement is a subliminal mind-control device that brainwashes into believing that you’ve actually achieved something. Gaming had become less fun somehow; even as the games got bigger and better made and flashier, as the stories and game mechanics got more sophisticated, somehow there was still something missing. It had become a mindless pastime for me, something I did out of habit more than anything.

Enjoyment of course was still there, but gone was that feeling. That intangible engagement you get, that irrepressible feeling that for some reason you can’t quite put your finger on, this is the best possible thing you could be doing right now.

Had games changed, or had I? I assumed I was just getting older, and that feeling had (quite correctly) migrated from video games to family life.

But then our very own Strange gifted me a copy of Demon’s Souls.

Here’s how Demon’s Souls restored my faith in games, and some of the lessons that it teaches for real life.

I can only show you the door. You must walk through it.

For a while, I missed having access to a minimap. I missed having a dynamic map in the pause menu, showing me where I’d been, and where I hadn’t yet explored. I missed having a GPS pointing me towards my goal. I missed being able to pause a game to catch my breath, check out the map, plan my strategy. But there is no map. I’ll say it again. There is no map. Playing GTA IV, I spent more time setting waypoints and watching the little GPS screen in the bottom corner than I did the rest of the screen. I could barely tell you anything about the city I was in, and I sure as hell couldn’t find my way around it without a map.

Demon’s Souls quite forcibly makes the gamer actually look at their environment. You get familiar with it by wandering around. There are multiple paths, and no guides. Boletaria feels like a huge neighbourhood that you’ve just moved into. You don’t explore a new neighbourhood by reading a GPS screen; you talk a walk around it, you get to know the trees and houses and people, get a feel for the dangers and safe spots. In this way, Demon’s Souls feels much more like an allegory for life than games steeped in ‘gritty realism’.

You must find your own way through Boletaria. No one will sell you a map, and your character won’t draw it himself. His memory is your memory. You are forced to engage your senses, to commit every aspect of the world to memory in order to traverse it safely. And although you might have help along the way, your life is still yours alone to live.

This is a game that prepares you for the solitary moments of life, the tough choices, the blind groping for direction.

Do or do not. There is no try.

A few months ago, I watched my little girl attempt to climb up onto the sofa while clutching her precious ‘Pink Baby’ doll. She struggled for a while, then fell on her bottom. The doll sprawled to the ground. Reasonably unfussed, she picked herself up and began again, remembering only when halfway up that she’d forgotten to pick the doll back up. So down she went, picked up Pink Baby, and started again. She struggled, teetered on the edge of the seat, and then triumphantly threw her leg over the top and climbed up. Then she got overconfident, stood up and bounced on the sofa, and stumbled. She stayed on the sofa, but the doll fell to the floor below.

If that’s not a direct analogy of Demon’s Souls I don’t know what is.

Most games involve some level of practice makes perfect, of training in the game mechanics. This is as true for easy games like Assassin’s Creed as it is for brutally difficult ones like Super Meat Boy. Somehow, Demon’s Souls seems to go beyond that. Yes, you have to get familiar with the gaming mechanics – of course you do, but you also have to train yourself. There are no forgiving checkpoints; again and again you will have to start from the very beginning of the stage, and work your way all the way through to the end. It’s the same kind of punishing training that Super Meat Boy brought to the gaming world, but instead of encouraging gamers to develop lightning reflexes and muscle memory, Demon’s Souls goes deeper.

You must unlearn what you have learned.

Patience. Persistence. Danger.

Three words missing from most AAA titles. You can’t play Demon’s Souls this way. Your mantra becomes patience, persistence, danger, or your avatar will fail embarrassingly quickly, falling at the first hurdle over and over again.

I am constantly reminded of the risk that is living. Of the bigger risks of chasing progress. Of the occasional triumphs, of the occasional defeats, of the considerable investment of time and energy often required to progress even a single step.

What’s it like to play Demon’s Souls?

Struggle. Defeat. Renewal. Trepidation. Caution. Triumph. Pride. Overconfidence. Defeat.

What does it mean to live?

Struggle. Defeat. Renewal. Trepidation. Caution. Triumph. Pride. Overconfidence. Defeat.

Again. And again.

Life. Demon’s Souls.

Follow Shane on Twitter, or visit his website.

3 comments

  1. Now I want to finish Demon’s Souls!

    1. You should. You get a sense of achievement that is far greater than what you should get from a video game!

  2. […] who knows me knows the extent to which these games have sunk their claws into my own soul. To me, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls transcend gaming. Not only is the experience of playing the […]

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