Jun 23 2010

Storytelling in Demon’s Souls

Before I begin this long diatribe, let me warn you that there are serious spoilers in this post.  Don’t read it unless you don’t mind having the plot of Demon’s Souls revealed for you.

Let’s make two distinctions: There’s plot, and then there’s lore.  Plot describes the sequence of events that occur during the player’s play-through of the game.  Lore describes the events that take place before or after the player’s influence.  In Demon’s Souls, the lore isn’t hidden, but it’s so subdued and obfuscated that it is often missed altogether, making Demon’s Souls seem like a challenging game play experience with only a cursory attempt at lore to lend some realism to the setting.  But like many other Japanese games, the focus in Demon’s Souls is not on complex politics or webs of intrigue, but on delivering a message on morality and the nature of greed.

Demon’s Souls is not dialog heavy.  That’s because it’s an action RPG, not a BioWare style, dialog driven RPG.  The complexity of the lore is not immediately apparent to the player.  Nor is the player able to affect a diversity of changes in the world: ultimately he will eventually “save” the world from the invading demons.  And while dying is almost always handled by most games with a cursory cinematic, in DS you have no save games to load, instead you’re told that your soul remains trapped, at which point you re-spawn and you have to play the level again, back to where you died, or loose your Souls.  In this respect, dying is not a viable resolution to DS’s plot; failure is not an available resolution to the story line.

As a result, it might be accurate to say that the plot in DS is not a central contributing element to the game’s experience because the player appears to have very little ability to affect the game’s world beyond the simple tasks of gaining in power and eventually defeating the last enemy available.  It is literally the most linear plot line possible: you either win the game, or you stop playing.

On the surface, the game’s theme is about the pursuit of power and how it can corrupt those who seek power by any means available.  It’s about where people draw the line, where they’re willing to compromise integrity and honor for power and glory.  We’re told the stories of several heroes of Boletaria who tried to save their kingdom and died gloriously in battle, only to have their bodies twisted into cruel parodies.  But the real message lies in the tales of the heroes who came to Boletaria after the White Mist arrived with the goal of gaining power through the consumption and domination of souls.

The King’s own bodyguards and knights were defeated by the demons and became twisted, ferocious images that mirrored their greatest attributes.  Rewarded for their power by the Old One, they are now roadblocks standing in the player’s way on his quest to discover and destroy the source of the White Mist.

Master Satsuki meets you outside the ruined walls of the entrance to the Shrine of Storms and tells you that he is seeking a powerful sword called “Magic Sword Makoto.”  There is no reasoning with this power-mad warrior; if you find Makoto and bring it to him he decides to test it out by trying to kill you with it.  If you keep it, he attacks you anyway, intending to kill you and take the weapon from you.  Demon’s Souls introduces this character to you with typical Demon’s Souls casualness: he’s just walking around near the first wall.  You can walk right past him and avoid any mention of combat or the Makoto sword.

The whole reason for the invasion of the White Mist and the Demons is due to the king of Boletaria.  King Allant XII dreamed of bringing riches and influence to his kingdom, and so he reached out to the Old One.  With his intense desire to achieve riches beyond imagining, he cursed his entire kingdom to eternal damnation.  What was his reward?  Replaced by a sarcastically bright and holy doppleganger, King Allant XII is banished to dwell inside the guts of the Old One, twisting into a pathetically weak slug of a creature.  But unless you’re paying very close attention to the lore, the False King Allant is simply a very tough boss at the end of a very tough level.  It’s possible, even probable, that a player will just fight this creature and either die or defeat him, moving past this obstacle like any other.

But the simple desire to gain power or find a weapon or item isn’t always enough to drive a person to evil deeds.  In the depths of Stonefang Tunnel you can find Wanderer Scirvir, who entered Boletaria with the intention of pilfering the riches of the deceased royalty, but got lost instead.  His dialog reveals him to be patently crazy, but if you show him the “Dragon Bone Smasher” sword, he rewards you with a rare soul.

Despite this somewhat optimistic portrayal of the maddening effects of the White Mist, another character, Patches the Hyena, tricks you into walking into lethal traps in order to further his own personal quest for power.  Both of these characters are also “optional” in the respect that you can complete the level without ever becoming involved in their little sub-plots.  Although Patches appears near an obvious “trap” and the completion of that trap is required to continue in the level, the player isn’t obligated to talk to Patches and learn about his dastardly plan.

But even the just and the faithful are not immune to the corruption of the White Mist, if they are not diligent enough.  The story of Maiden Astraea is an excellent example.

Purity Faltered

Maiden Astraea is a sainted priestess who travelled through the White Mist in Boletaria to the Valley of Defilement, a vile place where the people of Boletaria discarded their aborted or abandoned children.  Wishing to bring peace to the poor souls who dwell there, awaiting death, she decided that either God did not exist or He would not answer her prayers.  In her despair, like King Allant, she opened herself to the Old One and begged for assistance.  Corrupted, her faithful servant, Garl Vinland, still protects her.

While Astraea’s tale is not well-hidden, like most NPC backgrounds (it’s in the text description of the Valley of Defilement), the way other NPCs speak of her is interesting.  Several of them accuse her of having the most corrupt soul in the world because she betrayed God.  While several other boss characters became Demons because they died in combat and became trapped and enslaved by the Old One, they at least became corrupted while trying to live honorably.  Astraea, despite being a holy woman of God, voluntarily allowed herself to become corrupted with a Demon’s Soul.  And of course, in doing so, she turned the Valley of Defilement even further towards evil.

In the meantime, in the Valley itself, many of the enemies can be seen worshipping her, in thanks for her sacrifice, or perhaps out of devotion because she was the one person in all of Boletaria that tried to save them.  Garl Vinland and Astraea remain humble through to the end, begging you to leave them alone, telling you that you are trespassing on a “sanctuary for the lost and the wretched.”  And if you slay Garl Vinland, Astraea tells you to “take your precious demon soul” before committing suicide, releasing her Demon’s Soul for you to use for your own means.

A Scorned Husband’s Revenge
The third world, the Tower of Latria, is an odd combination of prison and church, and if you speak with one of the NPCs there, you can glean a little information about the tower’s origins.  Once it was a tower dedicated to the Ivory Queen, ruler of the lands adjacent to Boletaria.  But when the Queen banished her husband for reasons unmentioned, he returned with the White Mist dressed in a strange golden cloth that gave him power over the demons.  After banishing his wife from her own kingdom he enslaved her relatives in the prison and became its ruler.

In the center of this world lies a tower with a gigantic beating heart, a monument to the great lengths some people will go through to extend their lives.  When the player severs it from its bindings it robs the King of the last of his strength.  By the time the player fights his way to his throne room he arrives just in time to see the King die, and his mysterious golden garb flies from his body and finds a new host.

This new “host” is always another Demon’s Souls player, and if they are not already looking for a PvP encounter with the Red Stone item, they are chosen from a list of players waiting to fight the ruler of Latria.  So instead of fighting the boss NPC, they become the boss, and defeating their opponent not only rewards them with the end of the level, the Demon’s Soul, and a return to Body Form, they also receive the golden “head collar” item, which increases their magic power.

So what is the game telling us?  The Golden Robe is clearly feeding the King power, but when he dies it leaves him and finds the nearest most powerful host it can find.  Clearly it has goals far more important than keeping its host alive.  And because the player may himself be “taken over” by the Golden Robe, it’s possible that the Robe is so powerful that it can take over other entities at will, without any fear of resistance.  We don’t “fight” the Robe before it takes us over, so we have absolutely no choice in the matter: the Robe is that much more powerful than us.  But it’s also possible that the Golden Robe might have taken over the King against his will, which makes him a far more tragic figure.

If we can take anything away from this encounter, it’s the lesson that there are creatures or entities in the Demon’s Souls universe that are so powerful that they can dominate us at will, and that our continuing survival is more a matter of luck than we might like it to be.

Hidden Treasure
It’s the many aspects of lore delivery in Demon’s Souls that really intrigue me: not just the fact that it’s not forced down your throat like in most Western RPGs, but that it’s not even placed in easily-accessed places.  Dragon Age gives you books you can read and “journal” entries you can access via the menu to learn about the background of the universe.  Another Bioware game, Mass Effect, gives you the option of examining items or areas in the game for much the same purpose.  But in Demon’s Souls some lore is hidden, buried in NPC dialog or in obscure, hard-to-find item descriptions.

For example, the first boss of World 4, the Shrine of Storms, is known as the Adjudicator, a name only known by the player because it appears over the boss’s health bar.  But the boss’s appearance (a huge, bloated yellow creature with a long tongue and a golden bird on his head) is seemingly completely out of character for the level, which is dominated by strange silver, black and gold skeletons and flying manta-rays.

This boss remains an enigma until the player finds a rare shield called the “Adjudicator’s Shield,” which has the following description:

A large wooden shield that depicts a brightly colored scene of the deceased being judged. On the other side, an epigram is carved in old script: “”Cowardly acts and the eating of birds must not be the deeds of a Hero of Storms. If the one being judged displeases the Adjudicator’s master, the Golden Crow, the deceased soul will be gnawed upon until nothing but their bones remain.”

This is the only way the player can discover the origin of the Adjudicator.  And the location of this shield?  It sits on the ground behind a particularly tough and entirely optional monster in an obscure corner of the first section of the Shrine of Storms.  You could play the whole game without finding this item, and even still you may never read the description.

The Middle Road
None of this is to say that the player’s character isn’t important at all, but your character certainly isn’t the “focus” of the game.

My favorite gaming podcast, Idle Thumbs, has mentioned in the past that every character in every recent game has turned out to be “The Chosen One” in recent games.  Their point is that it’s sometimes more impressive if the main character or characters are just “normal people” in extraordinary circumstances.  Similarly, your character in Demon’s Souls is basically nobody; no different from any other schmuck who wandered into Boletaria and ended up as a corpse you find in your wanderings.  Other NPCs have back story and are great heroes and inherit their power from title or even obtain it through personal achievement.  So it’s interesting that when the game begins there is no indication to you or anyone else that you will do anything except end up dead in short order.  In fact, if you choose to play using a Soldier class as your character, your starting equipment makes you look practically identical to all the enemy Soldiers in the game.

But still, your character’s deeds and behavior are directly reflected in the game’s universe, in a characteristically obtuse way.  Using a system called the “World Tendency,” your character’s behavior can alter the very physical condition of the world.  If you do extremely well, you can reach Pure White World Tendency, at which point piles of rubble that may have blocked your progress before no longer appear, or dead NPCs are suddenly alive and willing to talk to you.  As the World Tendency nears Pure White, enemies do less damage, but this is a mixed bag: they also give less experience and some new monsters may begin to appear.

At the same time, if you die too often in Body Form, or kill innocent NPCs, the World Tendency will stretch towards Pure Black, and enemies will do more damage.  In extreme cases, you may even receive less Hit Points when you’re in the world.  The good news is that, as the world’s Tendency reaches Black, enemies will also drop better items and yield better experience rewards.  In Pure Black World Tendency, special demons called Primordial Demons will appear that, if you kill them, drop Colorless Souls, the rarest and most desired reward in the game.  But incredibly difficult enemies, Black Phantoms, will also appear that are sometimes tougher than the bosses you’ve been fighting.

But how do you know where your World Tendency lies?  There is a World Tendency section in the player’s UI, but the screen only displays the world markers for the five levels and a statue representing the player.  Unless you’re particularly observant, you may not notice the color of the masonry changing as you progress through the game.  Unless you’ve been reading up on message boards or whatever online community you’re participating in has also been playing the game, you’ll never know what you have to do to change your game’s World Tendency.

As if that weren’t difficult enough, your character also has a tendency that shifts independently of the World Tendency.  Achieving Pure White Character Tendency gives you the highest possible amount of HP available in the game, which is to say that your HP stat is no longer penalized.  You also receive a slight boost in attack power.  But upon reaching Pure Black Character Tendency, a character named Mephistopholes shows up in the Nexus and offers you various rewards for killing the innocent people nearby.  Since your Character Tendency reaches Pure Black by killing harmless NPCs or invading other games as a Black Phantom, you’re not being asked to do anything you weren’t doing already.  And so, once you’ve reached the darkest depths of depravity, the game rewards you by asking you to continue to murder and slaughter the innocent.

In essence, the World Tendency is the White Mist in Boletaria reacting to your actions. The more viciously you play, or the worse you play, the more the world tries to kill you.  The White Mist, controlled by the Old One, is not interested in helping you gain power and defeat the Old One.  Rather the opposite is true: it wants to weed out the weak.  Pure Black World Tendency is the only way to spawn Primordial Demons, and by extension it allows the player to farm Colorless Demon Souls, which are needed to upgrade the more powerful weapons in the game.  In a way, Demon’s Souls has told us that only the most evil actions can reveal the most powerful rewards.  A player who refuses to behave unjustly will never see the most deadly items in the game.

At the very end of the game, you are told by the Maiden in Black to return to the Nexus while she stays there, in the heart of the Old One, lulling the monster back to sleep, and presumably removing the White Mist from the world and returning Boletaria to something resembling normality.  The player can turn around and walk off, and the end credits roll, a congradulations for saving the innocent people of Boletaria and for saving the world from unfathomable evil.  But again, Demon’s Souls holds a secret.  If the player turns around and slays the Maiden in Black, he steps over her dead body and becomes a slave to the Old One.  You become a demon of unimaginable power and terror; the Old One’s favored servant, as you’ve proven yourself to be more powerful than any of his other creations, and you are pronounced the ruler of the world.

The practical advantage to either ending isn’t obvious (beyond the slightly different end cinematic) unless the player starts the game over again in New Game + mode, which picks up immediately where he left off, his equipment, experience and items intact, except the world has been reset, as though nothing happened.  Different powers are granted to the player depending on which ending he chooses, but nothing seriously game-changing.  But the lore of those gifts raises interesting questions…

For example, if the player chooses the “good” ending of the game, and leaves the Maiden in Black to put the Old One back to sleep, he is rewarded with the Maiden in Black’s soul.  If the player chooses the “bad” ending and kills the Maiden in Black, he receives the Old One’s soul as a reward.  Isn’t this a reverse of the way it seems it should play out?  Shouldn’t killing the Maiden in Black give her soul as a reward?  Or is there something more unusual happening here?  The relationship between the Maiden in Black and the Old One isn’t explored in Demon’s Souls to much of any extent.  All that she says on the matter is that she has always existed in the Nexus, and that she and the Old One will eternally sleep when the player returns to his world.  Indeed, it seems as though the Old One obeys her commands, to an extent, like a pet.  Is she an aspect of the Old One?  Opposed, but inseparable, like the sides of the Tao?  Does this have anything to do with False King Allant’s huge, white angel wings?  Or is that just simple irony?

The Asian concept of duality shows itself in other obvious ways.  Two incredibly powerful weapons, handed down through the family of the ruling kings of Boletaria, are called Demonbrandt and Soulbrandt.  Demonbrandt becomes incredibly powerful if the player has achieved Pure White Character Tendency, and Soulbrandt the opposite.  Combining these two weapons together forms the Northern Regalia, a weapon that is even more powerful if the player has either Pure White or Pure Black Character Tendency, a fitting result of combining the Yin and Yang of weapons: the Tao of weapons, an object more powerful than the sum of its parts.

Rewarding the Faithful
All these various ways to deduce lore may not be individually noteworthy, but for a game to use so many different methods is certainly unique.  It’s certainly tempting for game developers to write a deep, rich background for their games, but after all that work has been done it’s hard not to arrange a mechanic that clearly presents that lore in its totality to the player.  I mean, you’ve written it all, why not let people enjoy it?  Yet Demon’s Souls has a dark, rich lore that the developers have carefully hidden from plain sight.  Why they would do this is a matter of speculation.  I hope that it’s because they hoped people would go looking for it, and that it would add another layer of reward for the time we invested.  But I know enough about the frantic game development industry to know that it might have also been due to a short production schedule that simply didn’t allow them any other means.  When an NPC’s unique weapon includes a reference to the “Witch in the Sky” that is never mentioned again, it lends some credence to the idea that From Software didn’t have as much development time as they would’ve liked.

On the whole, Demon’s Souls has a fantastic and rich lore that the designers have decided to hide under layers of obfuscation so that, even if the player is careful and records everything he sees and does, he will still have to put all the pieces together before he can see the whole picture.  Demon’s Souls’ popularity as a “community-driven” game isn’t so mysterious when you think about it.  In the end, when enough people compare notes, a deep and rich lore is revealed that rewards players who look for it.  And really, that’s what Demon’s Souls is about: rewarding the faithful, the diligent, the players who can steel themselves against unimaginable evil and immeasurable armies and survive to the very end.  And the rewards will match their methods, whether they like it or not.