Demon’s Souls: Another attempt

Consider this take 2.

A year ago I had a plan to play several video games and write in-depth expositions of them. I never really got round to playing more than one game because around the same time I fell into a deep depression. The effort of mind needed to choose what to play next was beyond me. I still had the idea in my head that I was going to do a written Let’s Play of the idiosyncratically titled 2009 PS3 game Demon’s Souls, but it was going to be a more elaborate, multi-part deal.

If you have experienced a similar emotional funk, you probably know what happened next. I spent my mornings sleeping, my afternoons reading websites and wishing I was practising the clarinet, and the evenings drinking rum, eating jujubes, and playing Demon’s Souls. None of this time was spent writing, and I didn’t even take notes as I played.

Finally I broke down and spent a week away from home to collect myself. I had no computer and no Internet access. All I had was a stack of illicit CDs of classical music and a variety of pens and notebooks. I slept on a mattress on the floor and spent my days either reading books on CBT or writing. I finally finished the first two parts in my Demon’s Souls series, but it was long, pretentious, and poorly written. It was also disturbingly vague because by that point I had played through roughly half the game and forgotten a lot of my initial impressions. I continued writing the series, but it fizzled out some time around mid-October. As I write this the abortive attempt at Part 7 (of a planned 12-13) is open in another text editor tab (Notepad++, represent), and has been since that time.

Needless to say, I still hold out hope for the idea. I am not always persistent, but when I am, it’s usually in pursuit of something stupid. Consider this a manifesto.

Why the last attempt failed

So first, a bit of a postmortem. I am no stranger to failed Let’s Plays—my Half-Life retrospective fared better, lasting until partway through Opposing Force, but is currently at least tentatively dead. By this point I think I know what the problems are.

First of all, you have to take notes. I am averse to note-taking on principle because I strongly associate it with taking notes in school. I hated (and still hate) taking notes in school because it’s an objectively terrible idea. It took me a long time to figure out that the reason I always seemed to remember things from classes that no one else did was that I was sitting there half-listening, remembering vague impressions of what the instructor said (with the frequently emphasized points stronger in my memory), while everyone else was letting the words bypass their thoughts entirely while they scrambled to write everything down, unfiltered for importance. If they ever went back over the resulting mess, there would always be more anal details then broad generalizations in their notes, so they would assume that the anal details were the most important stuff.

90% of a music history lecture, for example, is musicological minutiae that you will never be tested on and you will never have to remember offhand unless you plan to specialize in that area (in which case you won’t have to make any special effort to remember it). But note-takers are so busy trying to write down what year JS Bach’s father was born that they miss out on big-picture ideas, like why we should care about JS Bach at all. Of course the professors are complicit, because they usually give you odd looks if you sit there with a close notebook and capped pen, and some of them refuse to give out their PowerPoints for reasons that have not been properly thought through.

This kind of naive jotting is not very useful, but I must admit that there is some value in recording your impressions as you go through a long-form work like a video game, even if you don’t end up using all of them. For instance, Demon’s Souls is, when you start out, a very frustrating game. This frustration is so marked that it is the dominant impression for the first few hours of your play-through. Eventually you get used to it and it just become standard operating procedure. If you have no record of your thoughts at the time that you started, then you will have to search for vague memories that are contradicted by much more recent and vivid ones. The end result inevitably feels false.

Because of this, it’s also helpful to keep your writing more or less parallel to your playing. This is difficult because a half-hour section of the game may require several thousand words (several hours) to properly capture. So you can end up taking big breaks from gameplay to write, and this is not very fun. It can also dull your memory of the game a bit. It probably helps to establish a routine and make sure you write fast.

Perhaps most important is that, while a game can take you on a timescale of weeks to finish (depending on how you play), you probably can’t devote attention to this kind of writing project for that long. Most of us are not Wagners; when something is a month old and unfinished it feels pointless to continue. So the project has to have a definite timeline, and you should try to finish it more or less in one go. This is very difficult to do during the school year for me; the only people more busy than orchestral musicians are orchestral music students. That’s why this kind of project will always be a hobby for the summer, when no one listens to music anyway.

So with this attempt, I’m going to do a lot more planning and scheduling and make sure there is a definite end in sight. I’m going to record my thoughts as I play (probably with my camcorder so I don’t have to keep pausing). And I’m going to try to keep writing and playing in sync.

With that in mind, let’s discuss some of the goals of the project.

Why a Let’s Play?

Why write about Demon’s Souls in this specific genre, rather than a review or some other kind of article? Surely if I want to get at what makes the game interesting, then all the stuff about economics and depression is just distracting, isn’t it?

Think about the novel Infinite Jest. I loved this book. From the very first chapter it made me “feel less alone inside” (to steal one of DFW’s phrases). For those who are not aware, the book is about a thousand pages long and includes digressions into topics as diverse as AA spirituality, pharmacology, and game theory. There are endnotes and endnotes within endnotes. Some of the chapters are written in voices so impenetrable that it is difficult to follow the action or even tell who’s saying what to whom. A lot of the connections between events are beneath the surface, mentioned only obliquely and left for the reader to piece together.

My mother is (or was) reading Infinite Jest, and she hates it. It comes across to her as whiny and self-indulgent. The asides, rather than being integral to the structure of the novel, are irritating. One of the main characters is insufferable. I doubt she’s reached the parts where the AA spirituality kicks in, but I don’t think she’d approve of that, either.

With its sprawling nature and oblique but dense interconnections, Infinite Jest is a novel of the Internet age before its time. Some of us want to read this sort of thing; it speaks to something deep within us and verbalizes things that we’ve always felt but never been able to express. And besides, some of the asides are just interesting in themselves. Rambling self-indulgence is, for some people, an aesthetic value.

The genre of the written Let’s Play (as opposed to the video one, which is a different animal altogether) is interesting. A Let’s Play is not just the story of a particular game, but a particular play-through of that particular game. Elements of memoir and creative nonfiction are thrown into the mix. You discuss the technical features of the game and some game-specific stuff like controls and interfaces. There is almost always a bit of philosophy and literary criticism—it’s hard to escape ethical questions, and there are also more metaphysical questions about how we relate to the events in the game, not to mention straight-up reading of the story. Then there’s also the music and art, which we generally mention only in brief asides, but still adds another dimension to the writing.

Video games themselves sit at a confluence of intellectual ley lines that might even be more interesting than that of music. Film is the obvious comparison, but the addition of interactivity changes things drastically.

It’s a genre that’s very interesting but still little-exploited. There are, to my knowledge, no professionally done and widely publicized written LPs, and I’m not aware of any fan-made ones that have achieved particular acclaim (though I would welcome examples in the comments). This is not to say that I can do better than everyone else—probably I can’t, but it’s not impossible and I think it’s worth a shot.

Why Demon’s Souls?

At first glance, Demon’s Souls is a middling fantasy game from a debased console generation that we’re not even interested in anymore. Why bother with it? Aside from its reputation for being difficult (which is exaggerated) it has nothing to set it apart. There are dozens of games exactly like it. Why not one of them?

The first answer is of course that Demon’s Souls is special for me, and I’m the one writing it. It’s a game that feels about me the way I feel about myself. Playing it is a sort of personal journey. Since, as mentioned above, a Let’s Play is willy-nilly a memoir, this is sufficient. If the memoir is good, it doesn’t matter if the game is, and if the game is good but the memoir isn’t, the whole project will lack a certain something. This answer is good enough for me, but I don’t expect it to convince many others.

The game is difficult, but as we will see, it’s mostly difficult in cheap ways that cause the need for a lot of repetition. At first this is annoying, but it gets to the point that it’s simply rhythmic and meditative. This, again, ties in nicely with the memoir angle.

The bland swords-and-sorcery setting may be unoriginal, but I like to think of it differently: Demon’s Souls is Western fantasy distilled to its essence. All the stupidity and all the awesomeness are right there for all to see. This takes a kind of courage, and it is refreshing. Think about it: when was the last time you actually fought a real St. George-style dragon in a game? When was the last time this kind of boss fight was difficult? Perhaps it’s a stupid form of integrity, but it is integrity and you have to respect that; it’s been conspicuously absent from gaming since about 2006.

The game is also fairly solidly made. It doesn’t break down or have any major bugs. The combat and controls work well, and once you slip into the rhythm of it it’s infectious. It’s basically a fun game, despite its frustrations. This is compounded by the ever-present bathos; the game takes itself very seriously indeed. The dialogue is a thing of beauty, and some of the in-game messages (YOU DIED!) are hilarious.

Demon’s Souls is based around the concept of fighting really big monsters. This is a good concept and I wholeheartedly approve of it. But it goes to waste. The fights are few and far between. Most of them don’t take very long, and the monsters aren’t even that big. They had their chance and they squandered it, in other words, and there’s a lot of wasted potential evident in the game.

Essentially, Demon’s Souls is generic-looking but interesting when you look closely. Remember the lesson of “Funes the Memorious”: it’s only by forgetting details that we can generalize, and no two things ever look the same up close. Even a game that seems like bland bargain-bin trash can contain multitudes.

Now that I’ve outlined the goals for this project, I suppose it behooves me to actually do it. I promise that I will at least make a very serious attempt to make it happen.

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