I never did quite get the NPCs in Demon’s Souls. For one thing, the world is supposed to have been taken over by the demons, and yet there are a surprising number of non-demonic people kicking around. You see them in the loading montages long before you meet them in the game, and this gives them an aura of mystery. This is intensified by the fact that the characters are all photographed from bizarre angles that distort their proportions, and some weirdness about character names (“Blacksmith Ed and Boldwin”, “Patches the Hyena”). Some of them are friendly and some of them are hostile, and it’s not always the same ones. You never know on approaching them.
Some of them seem to be completely superfluous—the apprentices, for example—and only serve to crowd up the Nexus, weaken the siege mentality, and make the player character seem even more insignificant than they already do. Some of them have a specific role but it’s not clear how you would discover this if the Demon’s Souls wiki didn’t exist, as must have been the case at one time in history. In general the NPCs tend to wander around the world, appearing seemingly at random. Their paths are predetermined, of course, but they are predetermined according to a set of rules that is mind-bogglingly complex and never adequately explained: World Tendency.
I have, through years of dedicated study, just begun to understand the concept of World Tendency. Essentially each area can vary on a sliding scale from white to black. Dying in body form in that area will push the world tendency toward black. Beating a boss pushes it toward white. In other words, full black world tendency is fairly easy to get, but you can only achieve full white a limited number of times.1 There are certain events and paths that are only open in certain tendencies. Some characters only appear when the world tendency swings one way, and some will turn into hostile black phantoms at certain tendencies.
Perhaps I have been spoiled by tutorials that assume I am retarded, but I didn’t get World Tendency until after my second playthrough and a lot of reading. Part of it is that I couldn’t believe it functioned the way it claimed to: it seemed horrible to think that whole chunks of the game were permanently closed off to me due to quirks in a system that was never explained. Also, some of these quirks were different for me than for most players because I played exclusively in offline mode; I loathe online games and in any case was not going to wait for an update to install so that I could play a single-player game.
World tendency makes it so that the whole world is never revealed to you at once, and this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for some very subtle storytelling through scenery and little details. On the other hand, these story details are disseminated (or not) almost at random2, which means that you only ever get an incomplete picture of the story. This gives the impression of a very big world, but this impression is at odds with the game’s other tendency toward portraying an increasingly small world on the verge of collapse.
It’s good that some of the story is told through these little details, because the written portions of the game are infuriating. Everything is written in the standard pulp-fantasy tone full of faux archaism, awkward grammar, and ill-advised Tolkienisms. The voice acting is shockingly bad in some cases as well, which does not help.
The bad writing and acting can at times be hilarious. For example, an opening narration takes the unfortunate line “Brave soul, who fears not death” and emphasizes it in such a way that “not death” seem like a unit, as if you fear the negation of death. We get some bathetic messages when bad things happen to you (“YOU DIED!” or “YOU GOT THE PLAGUE!”). Then we get some thees and thous in the mouths of people who really ought not to be saying such words.
The word “bane” recurs fairly often, which is telling. This is the bad fantasy watchword—the easiest way to identify a book that’s not worth reading is to look at the number of times “bane” or variants appear in it (I could have saved myself several weeks of reading the works of Stephen R. Donaldson in this way).
These foibles add some amusement without detracting much from the central gameplay—though they make the game seem horrendously stupid at first—and I think the best way to take the game is as a kind of fantastic summa: it distills all the elements of fantastic fiction into a whole of ineffable purity. This includes much that is good, or at least fun to play, but it also includes as undeniable elements some terrible writing and stock situations and characters.
An essential part of fantastic fiction, which the best of it must embrace and play off of, is the shittiness of it. This shittiness has a piquant flavour all its own, which is probably the reason I keep coming back to Stephen Donaldson despite myself. The best fantastic games, like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and Demon’s Souls all revel in this shittiness and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- A slight complication: in online play world tendency also shifts according to certain global rules that apply across different people’s games. But I never played in online mode, and in any case the servers have been shut down.
- That is, assuming you do not already know how world tendency works and how best to exploit it, which is likely if it’s you’re first playthrough and you haven’t pored through the Demon’s Souls wiki.