Demon’s Souls: Class Warfare

A textual note:

In the summer of 2012, I played Demon’s Souls for a written Let’s Play that I never finished. We’ll call this Playthrough Alpha. I produced a few complete instalments before losing steam. This past summer of 2013, I returned to take care of unfinished business, in an ultra-quick run we’ll call Playthrough Beta.

Rather than pick up directly where Playthrough Alpha left off, which would be rather awkward, I have elected to make a condensed and heavily edited account of both playthroughs that incorporates some text from the original articles. Additionally, due to time constraints the straight playthrough articles were cut from the series, so this is more of a thematic Let’s Play. Each separate instalment focuses on a particular topic, rather than a particular section of the game.

Due to the temporally confused nature of the series’s composition, certain time-anchored references may be anachronistic.

Playthrough Beta was recorded in my audio notes, which I intend to publish in edited form later on. Some additional gameplay and commentary was provided by Doug and Ian Ingram.

The game’s third level is the Tower of Latria. The first section is the “Prison of Hope”, a clammy dungeon full of wailing undead prisoners. In the outdoor areas, you can see shadowy outlines against the night sky, hinting at something unspeakable above. Inside, there is not much floor space. Each cell block has narrow walkways against three walls and a bottomless pit in the middle. Anyone attempting to escape will have trouble eluding the Cthulhuvian sorcerer-guards.

These creatures are nasty, especially early in the game. Their magical attacks, which they can deploy quickly, will drain most of your health in one hit (except for the one that paralyzes you, opening you up to the other attacks), and at this stage in the game they take quite a few whacks with a sword before succumbing and descending into some slippery nautiloid hell. Getting off the first attack is crucial, and not letting the monster get a word in edgewise even more so. Not being seen is therefore paramount. The Tower of Latria demands stealth. This fact is a little problematic.

It has often been said that the stealth sections in otherwise non-stealthy games never come off well. This is because stealth as a mode of gameplay requires certain mechanics in order to work properly. You have to be aware of how alert the enemies are. You have to know, not just graphically, whether the game considers you to be concealed or not.1 The level design and other details need to follow suit: you have to provide a challenge without creating a level that is impossible to be stealthy in. Gadgets like Sam Fisher’s sticky cameras are also helpful.

More generally, your dominant mode of gameplay (melee fighting, shooting, stealth, avoidance, etc) is the star around which everything else orbits. Your levels, your mechanics, your character models, everything must serve this central concept. It might actually be impossible to make a good job of switching between modes. Certainly so much would have to change that levels involving different modes would not be recognizably part of the same game. Great games are usually highly unified in this respect: Half-Life is a shooter through and through; the Legend of Zelda games are strictly about hacking and slashing and suffer whenever they try to incorporate anything more than the crudest projectiles.

This level, so carefully designed to be a stealth level, will ultimately fail because the rest of the game is not designed to accommodate stealth. You will bumble through gracelessly until your character is strong enough to take out the mindflayers (as I later learned they are called) in one or two hits, at which point stealth is irrelevant.

Even more generally, the class system favoured by many RPGs might be flawed at a basic conceptual level. Demon’s Souls has a bevy of poorly differentiated classes that can all be grouped under familiar headings: warrior, thief, wizard, etc. But here’s the problem: each one implies a different style of gameplay. Even beneath these headings, there is a not inconsiderable amount of difference between playing as a knight and playing as a wanderer (as I did).

I learned this when I saw my brother playing as a knight. The reason that the knight enemies in the Boletarian Palace are so difficult is that they are designed to be fought in a certain combat style: big swords and shields, lots of parrying, long one-on-one fights. If you play as a knight (as the creators evidently assumed you would), then there is no problem. But if, like me, you positively relish the idea of being Fifth Business and choose a less-played class, you’re fighting an enemy that was not designed to be fought by you, and it just feels frustrating and senseless.

This effect is mitigated somewhat in party-based games like the original Final Fantasy. But its classes give only an illusion of variety. Whether or not you provide for them, you will need the ability to fight, heal, and magick. There is some latitude in which specific combination of classes you choose, but by necessity your party is going to function pretty much the same way no matter what choice you make.

Unless the gameplay changes on a pretty basic level depending on the class you’ve chosen (as in the 3D Sonic games, which are bad, but for entirely different reasons), or there’s not much difference between the classes (as in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance), you’re going to have at least one or two classes that are utterly useless. It’s not that they’ll be weak, it’s that their strengths are not tailored toward the game’s difficulties, and their unsuitability will manifest itself at the most frustrating times. Neither condition prevails in Demon’s Souls, and so the farther you get from the knight class, the worse off you’ll be.

All this talk of classes puts me in mind of economics. The unusual in-game economy was one of the things I found most striking about Demon’s Souls on Playthrough Alpha. The way deaths are handled in the game affects resource usage. In, e.g., Half-Life or Fallout 3, when you die you revert to an earlier point in the timeline, and everything after that point is treated as if it never happened.2 Your game has one unified timeline in which you never die; all your deaths are out of canon. This is not the case in Demon’s Souls; frequent deaths are explicitly part of the scenario. As a result, when you die, any resources you have used remain used.

This is not as unfair as it appears at first blush, because it also means that a number of beneficial things are retained after your death, e.g. the crucial level shortcuts that you’ve opened. But it forces you to be more conservative with resources. At an early stage in the game they are scarce; crescent moon grasses are only available from Boldwin after you beat the first boss, and only at an extortionate rate. There is a real chance of running out of healing items and being unable to get more without some substantial grinding (which is difficult without the ability to heal). When you think about it, this is an extension of the lives system: there are infinite lives, but there are still consequences for dying a lot.3 It’s frustrating at first, but the more you think about it (and the more you use it), the more elegant it becomes.

The souls, which function as money in the game, are taken away from you if you die. If you touch the bloodstain at the place you died last, you regain the souls you had when you died. If you die again before reaching the bloodstain, the money is gone forever. The game’s handling of money (and the extremely high likelihood of death) means that you never get a chance to build up enough capital to take over the world. In many RPGs, money eventually becomes irrelevant, but because you lose them after you die (and there’s no way to sell items, so you can’t dump your money into goods that will persist after your death), the souls in Demon’s Souls are always at least somewhat scarce. It’s hard to tell whether this is good or bad. On the one hand, it means that there are some challenges that never go away in the game. On the other hand, it removes part of the sense of accomplishment as you progress: no longer having to deal with the frustration of being unable to afford stuff.

This illustrates the delicate balance of challenge and frustration, which Demon’s Souls frequently upsets. The first level, the Boletarian Palace, begins with a long bridge up to the castle’s front gate. This is filled with enemies hiding behind wooden barricades. The first time that you pass through this area, you have time to savour it, to fight each enemy individually, to be taken in by the surprises and the difficulty. By the thirtieth time, it’s no longer that difficult—the enemies are at the level of annoying but still dangerous insects. You really just want to run by them and get back to the later parts of the level, the parts you just died in. Because the game is designed in such a way that you die like a chump every couple minutes, this grows to be extremely frustrating.

As you get more frustrated, you become more impatient and more careless. So you don’t kill all the enemies at the beginning, which means that they follow you, catch up with you when you reach the gate, and swarm you. This drastically increases your chance of dying like a chump, becoming more frustrated, and starting over again. It’s a vicious cycle. Frustration begets frustration, so it’s best not to be frustrating in the first place.

But how do we tell what is challenging and what is merely frustrating? To some extent it’s a matter of degree: a challenge that is so great that you cannot reasonably expect the player to overcome it is frustrating. This is true, but I believe there’s more to it than that. For instance, there are some challenges we can reasonably expect a player to be able to overcome, while still finding them frustrating because the player should not be required to overcome them. To illustrate this point, allow me to use a metaphor.

Penalties in games (such as death or loss of points) can be understood as a form of punishment. You fail to accomplish the goal the game gives you, so the game takes something away from you in retribution. The American legal philosopher Jeffrie G. Murphy argues, in connection with criminal punishment, that “an autonomous person has a right that his punishment be addressed to that status—to those unique features of his individual, responsible conduct that occasion the punishment.” In another book, he argues that “in a rather technical sense, the criminal may be said to have willed his own punishment.” In order for the criminal to “[will] his own punishment”,4 the punishment must reflect what the criminal actually did, not something else (e.g., society’s dislike of him).

Apply this line of reasoning to video games (with a few modifications), and we learn something new: the punishment or penalty doled out by the game must reflect a failure in something the player did, something she has conscious control over—and therefore something high-level like strategy or resource management. And, conversely, it cannot reflect mechanical failures like accidental button presses, glitches, poor level design, or being thrust into situations she could not reasonably expect to fight her way out of. Failure due to a poorly designed class system, for example, or the number of enemies being ramped up to an absurd level, is unfair because it does not address the thinking, strategizing player.

When you beat Demon’s Souls, you are given the option to start a “New Game Plus”. The first NG+ boasts a 40% higher difficulty. Under my view, however, difficulty is a quality that is impossible to quantify with any precision. This suggests to me that the game designers’ view of difficulty is defined entirely in terms of enemy numbers and stats. This mechanical view of difficulty can only breed frustration, and frustration can only lead to one place.

In both my playthroughs I took advantage of a bug in the game’s code to duplicate items, which allowed me to get as many souls as I wanted so long as I was willing to go through a tedious process. This effectively gave me unlimited level-ups. In Playthrough Beta, this was because of my tight schedule; I just needed to play the game a bit to refresh my memory and it was easier if I could get to a high level quickly. But in Playthrough Alpha, this was out of a sense of frustration and futility.

In a recent Zero Punctuation review, Yahtzee said the following:

I always think it reflects bad design when you turn to save scumming. You can’t blame someone for breaking a window if the only door is in the roof.

Save scumming is, of course, a mild form of cheating. Cheating in a single-player game is not a big moral issue. But there is a sense in which a playthrough involving cheating feels false. Most people have an aversion to cheating in a story-based single-player game and will not do it unless forced to. What could force someone to cheat? Persistent failure is not enough in itself. How many times have you been stuck in a difficult spot in a game, only to experience a feeling of intense relief when you finally pushed through? No one would want to miss out on that unless there was some other factor at play.

It just so happens that there is another factor at play in Demon’s Souls: that of frustration. Not only do you fail repeatedly, but you fail in ways that do not seem to come down to tactical mistakes you made as a player. Rather, they seem like the products of a system that is designed to make you die. There is a sense in which a designer who puts the door in the roof is not just causing people to break windows, but actively encouraging them to do so. He has, you might say, willed his own punishment.

There are people out there who can play and have played Demon’s Souls without cheating. But for the average person who’s not especially good at video games and does not have a lot of time to pour into them, the game surpasses the threshold of frustration. Ultimately it is difficulty, which is what the developers were going for, but it’s not the right kind of difficulty.

  1. The Splinter Cell games, which have very well-designed stealth mechanics, have the occasional graphical oddity where a dark spot isn’t registered as shadow and a light spot is. This is why the light meter, which tells you infallibly what the game considers hidden and unhidden, is indispensable.
  2. It seems to me that this is more common in PC games and recent console games, where there is an actual file containing the game’s exact state at the moment it was saved.
  3. And certain kinds of deaths are penalized more harshly than others: if you fall into a bottomless pit near the beginning of the level, the bloodstain (i.e. all the money/souls you were carrying when you died) will be easy to regain without dying. If you frequently die in combat, it will be harder. Stupid and accidental deaths will not disadvantage you as much.
  4. The first quote is from Murphy and Jules L. Coleman, The Philosophy of Law: An Introduction to Jurisprudence, (Rowman & Allanheld, 1984), 147. The second is from Kant: The Philosophy of Right.