Mar 3 2010

Accidental Awesome

I beat 4-1 last weekend.  That means I got to kill that big, fat boss with the tongue and the bird on his head, as pictured in the previous post.  The lore explaining such a bizarre creature is a little hard to find, but I’ll get to the lore of Demon’s Souls later, because it’s phenomenal, both in content and method of delivery.

The point of this post is to speculate about the future of the Demon’s Souls franchise.  There’s almost certainly going to be a future, considering the stellar reviews DS got, as well as the fact that the game had a huge return on investment (it didn’t cost much to make).  In fact, several poorly fueled rumors have started circulating that Demon’s Souls 2 is in development.  It’s impossible to speculate about the plot for a Demon’s Souls sequel.  It might involve a return of the Colorless Fog, it might even involve the broken Sixth Archstone that is unavailable in the first game.  But what would Demon’s Souls 2 play like?

There are essentially a few basic game play “themes” that work their way through Demon’s Souls.  I could probably dedicate a whole post to this kind of analysis (and I just might), but in short, it’s something like this:

  • Don’t rush in to any situation.  Move slowly and take great pains to assess every situation.  If you don’t have the opportunity to analyze a situation, expect to die, but make sure you learn from your mistakes.
  • There’s an order to all things.  If an area is giving you too much trouble, you might benefit from attempting a different one.
  • Death can be avoided.  The cautious are rewarded.  However, souls are transitory and can always be earned back, so dying shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
  • There is no “cheap” way to defeat an opponent.  Defeat them with any means available.
  • Anything worth attempting is going to be dangerous.  Even the easiest boss must still be reached, and there will be a long and dangerous road ahead of you should you try.
  • Contrary to most games, doing badly in Demon’s Souls makes the game harder.  The only way to move further in the game is to become better at it.

In short, Demon’s Souls 2 is going to be hard.  The King’s Field series, to which Demon’s Souls is considered a spiritual successor, are certainly rough on the uninitiated.  But I’m worried that this aspect of Demon’s Soul’s appeal might not be entirely by intentional design.

Take Starcraft, for example.

Starcraft is, for a variety of reasons, the most successful competitive video game in history.  But the reasons for its success are hard to pin down.  Certainly Starcraft is one of the most complex and well-balanced real time strategy games ever conceived, but it’s not easy to credit Blizzard with such a monumental achievement.  Much of Starcraft’s “depth” is actually a result of undocumented, un-patched bugs that were discovered and exploited by the Starcraft community in an effort to regain balance between races, between units, and even between players.  Some of these glitches are considered legal in some competitions and illegal in others.  But even though Blizzard last released a patch for Starcraft in January of 2009, they refuse to patch some of these glitches because they have become part of the playing style of the game.  So when we consider Starcraft’s success, its depth of gameplay, its dominance of “professional gaming,” can we attribute that success entirely to Blizzard?  Or was it luck?  Surely no human endeavor could produce such perfection.

So was the excellence of Demon’s Souls mostly the result of luck?

I’m quite confident that Demon’s Souls 2 won’t be reviewed as kindly as its predecessor.  A Metacritic score of 89 is usually reserved for far more mainstream, user-friendly games that are certainly less brutal.  And while other elements like the multi-player component might have seemed clever and original in the first game, critics might not find it so charming in a sequel.  I suspect the original Demon’s Souls benefited from being one of the few RPGs available in what was, at the time, a limited library of available games.  It’s also possible that a kind of cascade effect occurred, where the gaming press decided, without any formal agreement, that the game was excellent despite its notorious difficulty and, at times, unapproachable plot.  It was as though some sort of subconcious group-think was pointed at a game that might have been nothing more than the right game in the right place at the right time.

Unguided, new players will often cast the game aside as an obtuse Japanese RPG with poor translation, a cryptic plot, and a level of difficulty that only appeals to a hardcore Asian gamer with Aspies.  But a few helpful suggestions and a sympathetic tone is all it takes to bring these reluctant players back into the fold, and after enough play time they begin to see the genius lying beneath the thorny exterior.

Of course, that’s assuming that we’re not all just fooling ourselves, and that Demon’s Souls isn’t genius, but just accidentally awesome.  A flash in the pan that can never be reproduced.