Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Rules of the Game [Demon's Souls]

Earlier I wrote down some thoughts on Demon’s Souls having played through only about ¼ of the way. One of my main complaints was that it seemed to be getting too easy, but now I must seriously retract that opinion. Up to the second stage of the first world, yes it was. But since then it has become pretty #$@ difficult once again! And I am glad.

On to today’s topic—game. Demon’s Souls has game, and lots of it. While it is an RPG with a story, most of that story has faded away (I’m still not that far so I could be putting my foot in my mouth again) and what’s left is an adventure that follows many very old-school game rules. Please note that this is no way makes the game boring or dull—in fact I argue that the clear and consistent adherence to said rules is a large factor of this game’s success.

Rule #1 Consistent enemy engagements makes learning fun

Harking back to the days of insanely difficult Nintendo games, encounters with Demon’s Souls enemies are totally predictable, as they always appear in the same place and attack using the same strategy. Sorry, I mean predictable after you’ve fought them half a dozen times. The first time you encounter an enemy, it may very well scare the shit out of you if you’re playing in the dark on a big screen with a nice surround sound system. After it slices you to shreds, the second time you approach that fateful corner of the dark, well-trodden tunnel, you won’t be as shocked, but will still probably die. But then you’ll also start thinking about why you died. You were using a long axe, but it clangs off the narrow walls—a smaller weapon is needed. He pauses after shooting fire, so if you block first and quickly counterattack, that may wear him down. And so on. Eventually you’ll die enough times that you see what the enemy is doing, and learn when to attack, when to block, when to dodge, and when to run. It may still be a difficult battle, but the consistency of the experience is what teaches you—repetition is nature’s greatest instructor.

Rule #2 The world is a tightly confined space

In addition to enemies reappearing exactly as they were every time you re-enter a world, each world, as is true of almost any game today, sets clear limits on where you can and cannot go. This is accomplished either with bottomless cliffs, insurmountable rock ledges and walls that for seemingly arbitrary reasons you cannot climb over. But the reason for these limitations is not arbitrary—where you cannot go, there is no reason for you to go. So when the game does suddenly let you jump over one wall ledge, but not another that’s exactly the same height, it’s telling you there’s something there you need to do. Because you can pretty easily see when there are areas you need to go to, finding those secret places where you can jump the wall is not really a problem.

Rule #3 Simple controller configuration, wide range of attack strategies

Controller simplicity was a necessity for Nintendo games, where pressing A was almost always attack and B jump (For games that reversed this—why??). Battletoads was the game that perfected the two-button controller dance, building a control scheme that offered a surprising number of entertaining attacks.

Created for a system that gives gamers 14 buttons and two joysticks, Demon’s Souls manages to stay pretty simple despite putting all those buttons to use. Press R1 to attack. R2 for a heavy attack. L1 to block, L2 to parry. There are also buttons for switching weapons, using items and magic, and dodging and rolling, but you can accomplish quite a lot with just those attack buttons and some fancy footwork. The really important factor in most conflicts will end up being your stamina and blocking—the attack is just the icing on the cake.

Rule #3 The game is never deliberately unfair

I say deliberately because there are times when the controls or at times wonky camera lead to your demise, but I don’t  think this was intentional. What I mean is that the world of Demon’s Souls is not designed to trick you into dying. Even if other players couldn’t leave you hints, which appear as pinkish blobs of mist on the floor and provide extremely useful info, the game still gives you ample warning. The underlying message is very simple, actually: proceed with caution. Doing so will save you from the clutches of yet another death probably 85% of the time. The only situations where the game sets you up to die is when it’s boss fighting time, but even then you have plenty of warning that you’re about to enter the boss arena, and could easily turn back if your testicles (or ovaries, as you can play as a female character) have suddenly shrunk. There are many areas where you can fall off an edge or get ambushed from behind, but most if not all such situations can be avoided or handled successfully by not running around everywhere with abandon.

The danger of lust, importance of caution (a side note)

And this lesson in caution, despite being so simple, is often the hardest to follow. It’s understandable. You venture deep into the bowels of the earth, rack up enough souls to level up at least twice or thrice, and then a demon knight pops out and impales you on his massive blade, sending your soul back to the beginning of the stage, and leaving all those souls in a pool of blood that you only have one chance to recollect. If you die again, all is lost. The first journey took an hour to achieve; it’s late, you’re tired, you should sleep. But you want to get those souls back, feel some measure of progress has been achieved before your head hits the pillow. That lust is your mistake.

Your exhaustion fills you with urgency, and you rush back in to collect your lost souls, and it’s not the demon knight that kills you, or even the peons near the beginning. It was that stupid ledge, the one you forgot lay there in the darkness waiting for the reckless. Normally you’re aware, carefully examining the floor as your step forward tentatively, but then it’s there, and there’s your hero, now a fool, falling, falling.

And all your hours spent that night are for naught. In Demon’s Souls, lust kills, caution saves.

Is the game too ruly?

The criticism I see coming is that the game relies too heavily on “game” rules and not enough on the rules of reality. To this I say, meh. Part of the joy of Demon’s Souls is discovering the rules and finding ways to take advantage of the limitations those rules create. Demon’s Souls has its own reality, a reality that succeeds because it is consistent. A consistent, fairly obvious game world rules result in a game that teaches you how to play as you go—very little tutoring is needed beyond what buttons to press—and teaches you not just how to defeat enemies, but the value of patience and cooperation as well. Cooperation? Yeah I didn’t talk about that here, but it’s coming in my next post, where I talk about the game’s most fascinating element—multiplayer. This isn’t an ordinary multiplayer game by any means, so stay tuned.

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