Around the mid to late 2000s, I began to notice that video games at large were becoming increasingly passive experiences.
Maybe part of this was a result of video games becoming a widely accepted and consumed medium of entertainment, leading to the creation of safe and easy to grasp material aimed at a more casual audience. I found myself playing games in harder difficulty settings if the option was available, having not been someone who intentionally sought out a challenge like that before.
All of this changed after the first time I played through Demon’s Souls, and I have since noticed its impact on video games in hindsight.
I remember being excited for the first Assassin’s Creed, leading up to its release only to be let down by how little the game challenged the player, instead opting to try and make you feel and look cool visually after you finished endless tutorials disguised as missions. It was like waiting for something to start up only to realize that you’ve reached the end; a trend that was adopted by many open-world-empty-map games.
Being a fan of Batman, Arkham Asylum was only enjoyable in its highest difficulty; I actually restarted my save from the beginning a bit after I first started playing as there was little to no enjoyment to be had with the gameplay otherwise. Even a series like The Legend of Zelda was heading this route, presented in the form of tour-guided moments in Twilight Princess.
Not only was the gameplay suffering overall, but, more and more game worlds lacked the imagination one would assume the advancement in technology would be able to help create. The worlds I found myself playing in were often derivative without intent to do anything beyond deriving, like a comic book super-fan mindlessly spouting out references without an intention to learn from or do anything with them.
From Software’s PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls, masterminded by Hidetaka Miyazaki, was groundbreaking at the time for not adhering to this trend.
Taking inspirations from the rich worlds created by classic RPG tabletop systems (and the illustrations featured in supporting materials) like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu (based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, whose other works might also have been used for inspiration), as well as King’s Field and the original NES Legend of Zelda, the world that you find yourself in in Demon’s Souls exists independently of you. There is hardly anything you know about this world and its history walking into it, but how the people you encounter talk, the descriptions of items you pick, and how the environments look tell you all you need to know. Most of the logic that governs this world is in form of a floating bunch of abstract ideas.
Instead of borrowing literally from what inspired it, Demon’s Souls appropriates concepts and visuals to form its own design. The result is a dark and twisted world with a character all its own. Instead of having to rely solely on gruesome ghouls or whatever popular media has decided is fashionable, the terror seems a lot more primordial. It’s a fear of scary things in the dark that are literal incarnations of pure evil. It’s almost clichéd, but these concepts are used, and occur, organically within this world to actually fulfill their tropes, instead of being used simply as decorative props to set the tone for something else –- something probably needlessly convoluted.
Seeing the kind of impossible creatures and landscapes from things like the early dark fantasy art of RPGs and such that I mentioned before, animated around you was the kind of treat sorely missed in most games of that specific time period. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for more visual and story-driven experiences – I consider Silent Hill 2 to be one of the finest works in gaming, and Firewatch to be an amazing narrative-based book-like experience — but the delivery makes a world of difference.
The best stories don’t have to act like they are smart; they just exist, and they definitely do not use their inspirations and references in such a way where nothing new is added aside from informing the audience of what they were — it’s not an amazingly unique or novel concept, but by creating a truly whole and cohesive world without a crisis in identity. Not worried about what had been established as the very narrow scope of how games were meant to be, Demon’s Souls became a true imaginative experience much like the ground-breaking trend-setters it took inspiration from.
Tied into the aesthetics of Demon’s Souls is the gameplay for which the series became popular, though for maybe the wrong reasons as far as mainstream attention is concerned. While often praised and criticized for its unforgiving difficulty, I never found the game to be intentionally difficult. Instead, the difficulty for players seemed to have been a result of the passiveness encouraged by other games at the time.
Demon’s Souls relied on the audience’s willingness to learn from mistakes and to understand that patience is indeed a virtue in this particular world, and adapt accordingly. No maps, no giant arrows telling you where you should go, no pop-up guides, no relentless button prompts telling you when to attack; all of these crutches introduced and standardized by games of that time were thrown away. That’s not saying that the game is only for “iamverysmart” people, but that it respects the audience’s intelligence and it encourages them to assert it.
An element of help, though, did come in the form of “Phantoms”: other human players who could join your game as White Phantoms and help you by sharing the knowledge they had gained instead of it simply being served to you. The price to pay for this benefit, however, was invasion from Black Phantoms: humans players assigned to kill you.
Additional elements of help included messages left by other players (written using a combination of pre-selected words and phrases) and bloodstained ghosts that show you the last few moments before another player’s death. All of these elements emphasized the need to observe and learn and when to consider risks; this is especially important as the currency of “souls” used in the game (which can be obtained by killing opponents and some consumables) is left on (or close to) the spot where you died. If you cannot make it back to where you died and retrieve your “souls”, they are all forfeit.
Today, a lot of games still follow the tired, by-the-numbers, hand-holding formula that stagnated video games in the mid to late 2000s. Games with rich beautiful open worlds, and little incentive to explore. And games that never want you to feel like you have accomplished anything if a dialogue prompt or trophy notification doesn’t pop up to tell you so. Despite this, it’s evident that the cult success of Demon’s Souls, which lead to its critically acclaimed successor Dark Souls, showed developers around the world that there is an audience that appreciates a challenge, wants to be involved in new unique worlds, and is willing to learn instead of quitting the moment their hand is let go.
Seeds laid by the Souls series are found in every single genre these days, with developers applying them appropriately and taking what they need to add to their games. Some games like Nioh and The Surge have taken very direct inspirations from Souls, meanwhile many design elements have been adopted and shaped to their own purposes within games such as Shovel Knight, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (ironically), Hyper Light Drifter, the upcoming Eitr, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Super Mario Maker, and a whole lot more.
These games adapt elements popularized, or re-popularized, by Souls to their own specific gameplay. Sometimes these elements are straightforward, but sometimes it’s more the philosophy of a fair challenge that has been deciphered. If anything, more developers more than ever before are inspired to make challenging games now that they have been shown that their audience can take it. Personally, I have seen a decline in hand-holding in games, and that is good.
On the other hand, unsurprisingly perhaps, the push to create “Soulslike” games for the sake of simple difficulty often leads to bad knock-off experiences, or at least experiences that feel like they got the wrong message (like Lords of the Fallen, Titan Souls etc).
For better or for worse, Demon’s Souls started a series that fundamentally changed aspects of how games are made and perceived. But, just like it happened with Demon’s Souls, those that adapt and make their audiences adapt with them are always successful, whether the success is measurable in monetary value or not. Demon’s Souls gave my interest in video games a new life, and it’s safe to say it did the same for many others, either directly or by proxy.
(Note: Demon’s Souls servers all across the globe are going offline on Feb 28th, 2018. If you haven’t ever had the chance to experience the game’s multiplayer offerings, now might be your last chance!)