Demon’s Souls critique 2: Primal fear and isolation
I’ve never been a big fan of survival horror games, although I am familiar enough with the mechanics that they use to elicit fear in the player. I believe that Demon’s Souls outdoes most of the games in that genre in regards to enlivening a primal sense of fear in the player. This is usually done not through cheap scare tactics, but instead is accomplished through an almost overbearing sense of creeping dread and isolation, in addition to the fear of loss in its most tangible forms.
First off, there is the atmosphere of the game. It is dark in more ways than one. When first playing, the game prompts you to turn down the brightness for the ideal experience. In game, this translates to dark corridors sometimes only barely illuminated, and often only within the range of your reach. Not being able to see things in front of you until you are nearly upon them does nothing but add tension.
Another part of the atmosphere is the visual design and look of the game. Boletaria is not a happy place. Corpses abound, bloodstains are everywhere, and there is no instance that I’ve seen as of yet where bright primary colors dominate the area. A lot of jaded gamers complain about this generation’s games having the propensity to drown the player in shades of brown and gray for a “gritty realism.” Demon’s Souls is the first that I’ve seen this gen where the muted color palette in use does not seem like a cliché, and would make the game a completely different experience if it was not in use.
More traditionally, there are the standard “horror” tropes like iron maidens and other forms of torture. And in one of the midgame areas, slowly descending into an unlit swamp filled with constantly moving tentacles and some of the creepiest and most grotesque monstrosities I’ve ever seen in a game makes the early level battles against gargoyle-esque beings in a gothic setting seem like a fight outside the pearly gates by comparison.
Finally, the sound design plays a major role in supporting a sustained sense of dread. Instead of a continually looping orchestral soundtrack, the musical cues are usually minimalist or completely absent altogether. In the first area of the prison “world,” as an example, the predominate sounds consist of moans, unseen beings begging for help, and an extremely unsettling tinkling bell that gets louder and louder as a source of many untimely demises gets closer and closer. In the outdoor or cavernous areas, sometimes the only sound is one of echoes or an empty gusting wind.
This is, of course, only scratching the surface of the many details that all add up to give rise to a feeling of brooding desolation and hopelessness. And within this lies a feeling of being alone, of being isolated even as you are constantly surrounded by other players. Some of the reviews of the game complained about not having the ability to use voice chat, and not being able to get together with people on your friends list for a co-op session. In my estimation, the inclusion of either of those would render the carefully crafted atmosphere of the game moot. Yes, there IS cooperative multiplayer in the game, but it consists of relative anonymity and a scant few basic gestures to make any sort of greeting or plan. Even though at times you are in the presense of another player who is cooperating with you on accomplishing the same goal, you are still for all intents and purposes by yourself. You need to trust that the other player understands the best tactics for any given situation, and need to focus only on your own abilities. Once the goal is achieved, the other player disappears back into the nebulous ether, and chances are you will never see that person again. Or if you do, it will be in the form of a barely-glimpsed and unrecognized shimmering white figure making his way through the level in his own self-contained gameworld.
So the isolation inherent in the game eventually becomes one of its strongest touchstones. You never lose the feeling that others are experiencing the same things you are, but you also never lose the feeling that you are all alone in a harsh world where survival becomes an end unto itself.
Your ability to survive this harsh world, though, is entirely dependent on how deeply you succumb to the primal fear that the game engages in your amygdala, the primitive, animalistic area of your brain. This is where the fight or flight response originates, and confronting this response without panicking is sometimes extremely difficult. As mentioned in my first critique of the game, the difficulty of the game is in all reality contained within confronting your habits and human nature, and being forced to change these. This is probably one of the most difficult undertakings to succeed at. Demon’s Souls is a prime example of the phrase, “Old habits die hard.” The element of fear in this game works in virtually the same way. Again, as alluded to in my first critique, one major reason this game succeeds in everything it sets out to do is because for once, there is something at stake. There are consequences for failure. And due to these consequences, you are constantly in a state of tension and fear.
Fear in this case is brought forth in two ways. As enumerated above, the atmosphere of the game in and of itself puts you on edge, and drives home the same sense of fear that a traditional survival horror game does. But Demon’s Souls takes that to the next level by, again, placing in you a constant fear of loss. As there is no resetting or reverting to an old save, loss is permanent. And this loss is multifaceted. First of all, there is the time investment. Each time you die (especially during a boss battle), you lose sometimes upwards of an hour of time with oftentimes nothing to show for it. Yes, it is true that for each death in this game, you learn the level and the enemy movements and tactics better as you are forced to continually replay the same areas. But for me, my human nature takes over yet again, and I pay almost no attention to any of this, especially on my eleventh run-through of the same level. I just want to get back to my bloodstain to retrieve the 9500 souls I died holding as quickly as possible. And as mentioned in my other critique, in this game, haste usually includes sloppiness, and sloppiness gets you killed, usually before returning to your bloodstain.
So the cycle of time loss continues, which makes you more fearful of losing more time each and every time you die. And of course, there is the constant threat of losing one of the very few tangible barometers of progress that exists in Demon’s Souls, which is the amount of souls you’ve collected.
When you couple both of these fears with the fear of the unknown, and the underlying sense of tension that the game brings forth, a manifestation of an almost primal fear is engaged. I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve died because I made one sloppy mistake, and an enemy I had defeated at least ten times before without a problem suddenly is at full health, with myself at one quarter. Due to not foreseeing a problem, my quick inventory selection is set to something other than a healing item. And it is at this point that I begin to panic. Panic only heightens the fear, and results in sloppy play.
It’s been so bad at times that even though I’ve currently spent more than 35 hours with the game, the panic makes me forget which buttons I need to press. As an example, in a panic, I’ll switch from a shield to a talisman (the item that allows healing miracles) and try to heal myself as the enemy is almost upon me. But I realize that I did not have enough MP to heal, and by then it is too late. If the fear and panic had not gripped me, I’d have noticed that my MP were getting too low for healing, and would have untargetted the enemy, rolled away from it while switching to a healing item, and used the healing item once I was far enough away. I’ve played the game enough to know that this would have been the logical thing to do with my lightly armored and agile character. But the animalistic, primitive, and primal area of the brain supercedes that of logic, and forces you to make snap decisions and poor choices.
So in order to succeed at Demon’s Souls, you need to confront another deeply ingrained part of your humanity, the fear and panic centers of your brain, and overcome them. You need to overcome them to the point that your logical and tactical brain is in full control, and you begin imprinting new instincts, new habits, through repetition.
And again, we come back to the sheer genius of Demon’s Souls, and the brilliance of its developers. Taken on a literal level, this is, as many other reviews mention, a brooding dark fantasy game. But beneath the surface is a game that profoundly taps into areas of the brain and the psyche that no other game has ever touched.