Tag Archives: Demon’s Souls

Surviving and Thriving in the Grim Darkness: More Notes Toward the Daimonic Sublime

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about a concept in game design called the daimonic sublime: an experience of elation in response to infernal grandeur, derived equal parts from the fusion of Miltonic demonic defiance (“better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”) and heavy metal rebellion (heard in this 8-bit version of Opeth’s Grand Conjuration). The daimonic sublime increasingly draws together many threads of design for me, so where to begin in this network is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. I’ll start with two games at the top of my playlist and proceed backward to their roots in an ancient and unique CRPG, then move forward again in time to more recent concerns.

A particular thread in the tapestry of this concept relates to the games Demon’s Crest and Hungry Ghosts produced by Tokuro Fuwara. Fuwara is most famous for his work on Ghosts and Goblins, a series of side-scrolling platformers featuring an armored knight battling supernatural creatures through levels notorious for their brutally unforgiving difficulty. Demon’s Crest is a reboot of a sidestory or gaiden of the Ghosts and Goblins series featuring a red demon named Firebrand. Demon’s Crest is famous for its dark, melancholy atmosphere and intense difficulty, as signified by plunging the player in media res into a difficult and unskippable boss fight in the first moments of the game.  Hardcoregaming101 features an excellent review of Demon’s Crest that concludes by describing Demon’s Crest as “a combination of all the best elements from Mega Man X, Super Metroid, and Castlevania.” In addition to Demon’s Crest, Fuwara also produced a Japan-only horror adventure game for the PS2 called Hungry Ghosts (a.k.a. The Lair of the Hungry Ghosts), which exhibits several features key to my own ambitions as a player and designer. Specifically, Hungry Ghosts uses first person perspective for gameplay mechanics other than shooting—namely, interaction with a surreal and treacherous underworld using a hand that can be extended and retracted using the right analog stick. This immersive perspective and control scheme used to heighten involvement in a dark world evokes the earlier Thief: The Dark Project (a first-person sneaker) as well as the later Amnesia and Penumbra series made by Frictional Games. Yet, what little I’ve played of Hungry Ghosts suggests that it is much stranger than any of these games because, in part, of the alternate cultural background of Tibetan Buddhism and its peculiar vision of an ambiguous limbo between afterlife and reincarnation. Demon’s Crest and Hungry Ghosts are near the top of my own personal backlog, perhaps below the extended King’s Field series that I’m currently working through. Hungry Ghosts is an obscure Japanese PS2 game that taps into a deeper vein of the daimonic sublime, a nexus where mechanical difficulty meets evocative narrative and aesthetic darkness to produce an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

While I’m talking about the daimonic sublime and first-person perspective, I would like to mention a much older game at the heart of my own design philosophy: Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna. The first two Wizardry games pioneered the Western CRPG, with its wireframe dungeons and first-person exploration. The Wizardry series is roughly contemporaneous with The Bard’s Tale series and Ultima, all of which are in some sense direct computer ports of the core mechanics of tabletop RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. Early Wizardry is in some ways starker and more minimalistic than Ultima or The Bard’s Tale because of the absence of a top-down overworld and the strict adherence to wireframe dungeon graphics in black and white.

Wizardry IV intensifies these darker tendencies dormant in Wizardry and turns the mechanics of a dungeon crawler on its head in order to produce what several players, including CRPG historian Matt Barton, have called the most difficult CRPG of all time. Specifically, the game reverses the scenario of the first game, in which a single player controls a party of adventurers who descend through a ten-level dungeon to recover an amulet from the evil wizard Werdna. In The Return of Werdna, a single player takes the role of Werdna himself, who must ascend through the same ten-level dungeon in order to recover the amulet stolen by the part in the first game. Stripped of his powers, Werdna fights his way through a dungeon prison that has morphed into something exponentially more difficult than what he first faced. Whereas the dungeon of Proving Grounds was a standard orthogonal maze that could be fairly easily mapped on graph paper, Werdna’s prison culminated in a vast and ever-changing three-dimensional Rubik’s cube of corridors, chutes, staircases, and teleporters. (The director of the excellent film Cube was either deliberately inspired by this concept or unintentionally evoking it; either way, the Werdna concept has the same existential resonances of the film, in which a perpetually changing maze serves as a metaphor for pure disorientation and a desperate struggle to survive by only one’s wits). Werdna also featured save points in the form of pentagrams which re-set all the enemies on every level and served as the game’s only opportunities to gain back Werdna’s library of spells. The game actually featured a keystroke logger that invisibly recorded player’s every typed character and then penalized them for wasted strokes by only granting the Grandmaster ending to those who finished below a number of keystrokes. Werdna rewards caution and cunning, eking out every possible advantage from a system of RPG mechanics that have been exploited to produce complex and subtle puzzles. Unlike many CRPG series, Werdna does not simply extend or expand the world and mechanics of the previous games in a way that would be accessible to a newcomer. Rather, the game assumes and demands knowledge of the series’ gameplay systems (“for expert players only,” said the box cover) because it uses these systems to twist and subvert the conventions of the dungeon crawler, turning an RPG into a twisted puzzle adventure game.

And this shift in difficulty accompanies and resonates with an accompanying inversion of the storyline to become darker and more evil. Evil is as evil does, and a diabolical narrative and art style should naturally be accompanied by equally insidious difficulty in mechanics. This is one lesson at the heart of Demon’s Souls and its upcoming sequel, Dark Souls. The difficulty level of the game is inseparable from the grim darkness of its world as reflected in its narrative, art style, and audio. Moreover, part of the difficulty of the game stems from determining exactly what is evil. When players are deliberately prompted to identify with the evil nemesis they themselves defeated in the first game, the world has become topsy-turvy and ambiguous. Who ultimately is more cruel: an evil wizard quietly lurking in the bottom of a dungeon, or the opportunistic adventurers who blithely stole his amulet and left him imprisoned in a torturous prison? Which is worse, a demon king Allant, the demon-possessed Maiden in Black who spurs countless souls to struggle against him (for reasons never entirely explained), or the players who harvest the souls of monsters and other player to fuel their own doomed quests? “Evil be thou my good,” says Milton’s Satan, just as Clive Barker’s puzzle-wielding cenobites dub themselves “demons to some, angels to others.” To succeed in the world of the daimonic sublime, we must either become demons or develop a sympathy for the devil.  It’s a hard lesson to forget.

When I first read an interview with lead designer Andrew Greenberg (whose reversed name is encoded in Werdna), Wizardry IV became my second archetypal game, the Platonic Idea that has governed virtually everything I’ve read, played, or designed for many years. (The first archetypal game was Brian Fargo’s adventure game, The Demon’s Forge, which has recently been rebooted as the modern dungeon crawler Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. Hints of the daimonic sublime were already in the original Demon’s Forge, in which a player must escape from a surreal dungeon ruled by a demon by solving a serious of difficult and twisted puzzles. The game must have sparked much of my early feeling that the universe was a prison that could only be escaped by solving its puzzles and mysteries).

Cue the King’s Field franchise, a series of notoriously difficult first-person RPG’s for the Playstation, of which Demon’s Souls is the avowed spiritual successor. King’s Field privileges exploration and caution over blind monster-slaying. Reading through the reviews of the series from its fans, the devotees of King’s Field consistently stress that the draw of these games is their darkness and genuine mystery, the way that players slowly solve puzzles to move forward through cryptic labyrinths, meticulously mastering relatively small levels in order to make incremental but exquisitely satisfying progress. The King’s Field series sows all the seeds of Demon’s Souls, and I’ll observe that King’s Field II (King’s Field III in Japan) may do the most to sow these seeds more successfully. I would argue (and will argue in a later blog) that the King’s Field and Shadow Tower series are crucial and iterative approaches toward Demon’s Souls, so close that they together almost constitute a shared world or set of parallel universes across which the soul of the franchise has been transmigrating.

Yet, the cunning struggle for survival of Werdna , King’s Field, or Demon’s Souls isn’t necessarily morally evil, although options abound to pursue that Faustian path of greedy destruction. Rather, the games thrive on players who face the grim darkness in which they are thrown and then thrive on it through caution and cunning. There is a place where difficult mechanics, diabolic puzzles, a gorgeously dark color palette, an infernally twisted storyline, neoclassical heavy metal, and an immersive first-person perspective all meet. That’s the place that I perpetually strive for as a player and a designer. It’s a place that subverts and transcends genre, turning RPG’s into adventure games, adventure games into survival horror, and survival horror back into into RPG’s. These games teach us that when we are are thrown into a grim and cruel world, our best response is to fall back on our wits, becoming cunning and methodical. The eponymous Dark Project of the first Thief is literally the Trickster’s attempt to give free rein over the world, but it is also the dark project in which Garrett and, by extension, the player engages in order to survive in this world of shadows and deception. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Stay tuned for Chaos magick, Hassan i Sabbah, William S. Burroughs, and Assassin’s Creed . . .

Retro Gaming and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Tower of Brass

The Tower of Brass

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of nineteenth-century English artists who chose to emulate the style of painters before Raphael. This stylistic choice was a deliberate, countercultural move that involved eschewing the muddied, realistic style of painting taught in contemporary art schools in favor of an ideal of perfection derived from early Renaissance, neo-medieval, and Byzantine painting. Art schools of the time encouraged their students to use a dull palette of grays and browns, even going so far as to prescribe the use of a wash or “gravy” to create a uniform and supposedly “realistic” appearance in landscape and portraiture. The Pre-Rapahelites rebelled, favoring a palette of rich reds, golds, blues, and greens reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics, as well as a set of lighting effects often involving an otherworldly golden glow.

Above is a painting by one of my favorite painters, Edward Burne-Jones, which exemplifies that color and lighting.  Rather than attempting to render nuances of shading in the folds of the red cloth, Burne-Jones uses a pure glowing red that pops against the golden background: a trick used to great effect in the art direction of Demon’s Souls and its precursor, Shadow Tower: Abyss.

The Pre-Raphaelites exerted a powerful influence on some twentieth-century fantasy artists, such as Robert Gould.  Gould, one famed illustrator of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion saga, formally organized a circle of artists who would emulate the Pre-Raphaelites.  The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is readily apparent in this cover art from The Knight of the Swords, right down to color palette, lighting, and the crisp rendering of cloth in a neo-medieval scene.

The Knight of the Swords cover art

The Knight of the Swords cover art

There are many connections between videogames and the Pre-Raphaelites, including Irrational Game’s recent declaration of gray as the “color of girly-men” in their E3 manifesto on the art style of Bioshock: Infinite.  A videogame with a deliberately Pre-Raphaelite art style would be an interesting alternative to much of the gray murk found in RPG’s and shooters, and careful use of cel-shading and lighting could no doubt create a haunting, otherworldly experience in a fantasy RPG.

That said, the Pre-Raphaelites are ultimately less interesting for their specific stylistic features than for their deliberate decision to emulate a past style for a particular aesthetic effect.

Matthew Weise, the lead designer at M.I.T. Gambit whose insights I never cease to quote, has observed that indie game designers often see the art styles of games from the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit era as valid stylistic choices rather than limitations.  (Think Cave Story, Braid, or symphonically stirring chiptunes).

It’s because of the extended stylistic palette afforded by retro-gaming that I’m often more excited about discovering strange, obscure, or otherwise unique PS1 or Dos games than I am about playing recent current-gen games, and I find my backlog from 10 or 20 years ago much more urgent than the one from 1 or 2 years.  I’d rather be playing Thief: The Dark Project than Dragon Age 1 or 2, and a refrigerator box full of unopened Dos adventure games holds more wonders than most of IGN (as does the Japanese-only PS1 remake of Wizardy IV: The Return of Werdna and Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom that I accidentally discovered while researching this post).

It’s not that older games are “better,” whatever that might mean, but that some of them have powerful design lessons to teach. The first lesson I’d like to look at in a future blog post is that first-person perspective can be used effectively to increase immersion when players are allowed to do something other than shoot. From first-person dungeon crawlers like Wizardry blossoms a lineage that leads to Thief, the extended King’s Field franchise (including Demon’s Souls), and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  And that’s why I temporarily rolled my nVidia drivers back more than a hundred releases this morning, because such a hardware nuisance is worth it to play a gem like Thief, even though I know I’ll have to roll them forward again everytime I want to work with 3ds Max or Unity.

More soon . . .


What profiteth it a man if he gains the world and loses his soul(s)?: Reflections on Demon’s Souls

Demon’s Souls is a dark, mysterious opera whose theme, expressed through gameplay and the unfolding of a powerful narrative, is the lure and peril of Faustian bargains. By opera I refer not just to the game’s occasional bursts of swelling sound, or even to solely to its understated yet epic narrative. Rather, I use the term in the same way that Richard Wagner envisioned an ideal future form of opera as “gesamkundstwerk” or “total artwork,” in which every aspect of music, libretto, costuming, and set design fused together to create an interactive, participatory mythology.



Demon’s Souls strikes me as operatic both in its overarching structure and its minute details; I first noticed this aspect of the game when looking at the loading screens between the game’s areas. These screens are a joy to pore over, as they provide larger-than-life full portraits of the game’s various characters, each dressed in some variation of black and gold. The characters’ costumes, lovingly rendered with the lush visual textures made possible by the PS3’s high-end graphics capabilities, look more like opera costumes than the typical orcs-and-elves garb. And, as in the best opera, these details contribute to a larger aesthetic and thematic end that manifests partially in the game’s black and gold color scheme. From the first moment in the Nexus, the game’s central quest hub, the shining obsidian walls glow with overlapping layers of golden sigils right out of some arcane grimoire. As we discover through the game’s hard-won fragments of narrative reward, gold is the color of demonic magic or “soul arts” in the fallen kingdom of Boletaria. This visual symbolism lends a dark edge to one character’s reminder to the player: “you have a heart of gold . . . don’t let them take it from you.”

Many aspects of the game resonate to the tune of an overriding aesthetic principle, expressed in disparate parts working together. This principle takes the form of a question, which might be formulated with the Biblical question “what profiteth it a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?” In the case of this game, the “soul” of the verse might be better modified to “souls,” since the demon’s souls of the title are the currency of exchange in Boletaria and the only way of increasing stats, leveling up, buying items, and acquiring spells. Demon’s Souls is an arduously, unrelentingly difficult dungeon crawl in which success is possible only through the tireless trial-and-error of multiple deaths and the careful cultivation of community knowledge and cooperation. Other reviews, such as those of Michael Abbott (a.ka. the Brain Gamer) and Gamasutra, have offered excellent analyses of the game’s innovative online features and their close relationship to game’s educational element. I’ve also briefly written about some of these features in comparison and contrast to other online games in an interview with Randolph Carter at grindingtovalhalla.com.

In this entry, I’m less concerned with these features and more with a resulting experience of gameplay: the experience of temptation. While Demon’s Souls is unquestionably a game that challenges, it is also a game that tempts. Because each new corridor and secret passage bristles with difficult-to-reach exotic treasures and haunting encounters, the game constantly teases the player with the dilemma of continuing onward to fresh challenges, or retreating while one still can with one’s stock of souls. One misstep sends an unwary player back to the very beginning of a level and strips her of all unspent souls, creating a very powerful and excruciating form of negative reinforcement. One often knows, naggingly, in the back of one’s brain, that discretion is the better part of valor, that one should stop while one is ahead and cut one’s losses by returning to the Nexus after accumulating any sizable chunk of souls. Yet, the game quietly whispers in one’s ear: “come on, go just a little further, there are untold wonders around that corner.” More often than not, listening to that voice, to the suave devil on one’s shoulder, leads to the disaster of losing one’s souls.

And that is the classic Faustian bargain: recklessly seeking power and knowledge at the price of the most precious spiritual essence. The game quietly but insistently reminds players that such bargains are by their very nature losing games in which even apparent success can be as damning as failure. When one does efficiently spend souls, one can gain tangible power—power in some cases so great, as in the high-level spells earned through defeating a Greater Demon, that it intoxicates. Yet, the wisdom of this method of gaining power through the harvesting of souls (sometimes of demons and sometimes of their wretched, addled victims), seems dubious at best. Soul exchange is especially risky given the backstory element that Boletaria was corrupted, and the archdemonic Old One awakened, through the use of Soul Arts. There doesn’t seem to be much escape from Soul Arts for, while a pious priest condemns the use of magic as demonic, and his magician counterpart preaches the glories of humanistic progress over binding superstitions, both magical and priestly arts involve trading in souls. As Matthew Weise has pointed out, there are subtle but strong metaphysical implications in the game systems, through dialogue and other clues, that magic and orthodox religion are both highly similar in their methods and moral (or immoral) valuation. They are also both equally useful from a gameplay standpoint: priestly miracles serve the standard healing and protective functions, while magic provides a variety of offensive and defensive effects.

(On a sidenote, the priest’s self-righteous, monotheistic glorification of the “God of this world” at the expense of other spiritual traditions evokes a mistrust in me that no doubt comes from many places, including a background in some Gnostic traditions, in which the apparent god of the visible world turns out to be synonymous with the demonic Archon. I’m anticipating a Lovecraftian switcheroo in which the priest turns out to be worshipping the Old One. I also notice slight implications that religion and solipsism may be mildly intertwined with each other, since the most costly Banish “miracle” allows players to negate the PvP aspect of the game, driving off the Black Phantoms of other players.)

Sage Freke

Sage Freke

However, I’m also fairly sure that, despite my class decision to be primarily a magician who totes a miracle talisman in his left hand as a healing insurance policy, the more esoteric and humanistic ambitions of Sage Freke the Visionary are just as dangerous and reckless; the exchange of souls for magical power is, after all, the classic Faustian bargain. Even if a fighter-class player managed to avoid the lure of both talisman and wand, religion and magic, he would still have to level up. And every attempt to level is accompanied by a haunting question from the Maiden in Black, the game’s central quest-giver: “Dost thou seek Soul Power? Then touch the Demon inside me.” Based on observations of other characters, major and minor, who have had congress with demons, the results don’t seem pretty. The presence of a character named Mephistopheles in a loading screen (I haven’t encountered him yet) suggests that these Faustian parallels are quite intentional and self-aware on the part of the developers at From Software. How deep or sophisticated these intentions ultimately go is less important to me than the way that insinuations and implications emerge from the synergistic fusion of the game’s mechanics, aesthetics, and narrative, from the single-player and social interactions that develop from the game’s intricate and beautifully, if somewhat sadistically, balanced systems.

I haven’t finished Demon’s Souls (I’m 59 hours in, not counting 10 hours spent on an abortive character), but I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I’ve been mulling over for a while now, reluctant to seem rash or fanboyish. Demon’s Souls may be the best game I have ever played. (There is still a bit of a running competition with my other favorite game, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which remains an example of top-notch design that may even bear some aesthetic and gameplay resemblance to Demon’s Souls.) Each (comparatively rare) time I progress in Demon’s Souls, new mysteries open up, and these narrative discoveries are buoyed up by the inherent pleasures of persistent challenge, intermittent reward, and aesthetic gorgeousness.

Tower of Latria

Tower of Latria

(Possible spoiler alert): Last week, at the gloriously and disturbingly nightmarish second portion of the Tower of Latria, I suspected that Demon’s Souls may have finally reached the threshold of my expectations for inspired level design. Last night, during an unexpected sequence that resulted from a mysterious narrative backfiring of the now-routine attempt to summon a co-op player or Blue Phantom, I became pretty sure that this is a game like no other. I can’t describe the sequence without entering full spoilerdom, but I will say it involved a room full of chairs and a large orange turban.

It is a testament to the design of this game that it can both inspire enthusiastic accolades and a cautious reluctance—the feeling of falling into a trap, a metaphysical and moral conundrum that insidiously creeps up on unwitting players and then pounces, to a soundtrack of blaring brass and sweeping strings. Like the voice of a demon. Like the sound of an opera.