Demon's Souls: Challenge and Despair

"Do not be concerned, life is hardly as precious as one might think" - Yurt, the Silent Chief, Demon's Souls

[Post includes spoilers for the early part of the game]

Returning to Demon's Souls after a long hiatus feels like falling back into the arms of an intense lover. Part of me regrets ever leaving, but it's hard to maintain so much passion and focus. From the outside this affair might seem unhealthy, but it's a willing submission to a fair master who always encourages the best from me.

In the past I've written about the difficulty in Demon's Souls being far less than many have suggested. I still feel that way, but it was also a knee-jerk reaction to difficulty dominating the conversation. My lover is not cruel. The first word I'd choose to describe Demon's Souls isn't brutal, punishing, or (gods forbid) hardcore. I'd call it 'coherent' – every element serves the overall dark fantasy vision.

Challenge is an important part of that creation, true, but it's easily over-emphasised. Still, my claim that Demon's Souls isn't ridiculously hard is about as inadequate as throwing around exaggeration from the other side ("The hardest RPG ever made, with some of the most unforgiving rules ever to be enforced on a player", honestly?).

Besides, I'm not trying to be elitist, I just want to see more sophisticated discussion of game challenges in general. If Demon's Souls is so difficult, I want to understand the nature of its challenge. Especially given personally I find, say, God of War harder. Not the most rational assessment, maybe, but not wholly without reason either. God of War has a faster pace, more complex combos, and if I get stuck I can't just try out another level instead.

Difficulty in Demon's Souls is usually described in mechanical terms. Combat is precise, and occurs in a more considered way than your average hack-and-slash. Rushing in or making small mistakes can cost you a lot. The relatively harsh penalty for death means constantly weighing up the risk of continuing, and potentially losing the chance to spend your collected souls.

However, the difficulty in Demon's Souls is, first and foremost, not about reflexes and control-mastery. It isn't even about gathering knowledge and using smarter strategies (although that helps immensely). No, in my opinion the primary reason Demon's Souls is difficult is because it challenges optimism.

Dark fantasy is usually a matter of aesthetic and thematic style, like the blood splatters and intrigues of Dragon Age. But here darkness permeates the experience more deeply, and wants you to feel despair.

The Demon's Souls tutorial teaches basic controls, then smacks you fatally with a giant axe. Even this fight can be won, but it isn't designed with your success in mind. Thus, the tutorial teaches you to feel hopeless. This is also the point where you discover soul form, and have your hit points capped at 50%. Objectively, this isn't any different to displaying a short-but-full hit point gauge, as is common when just starting out in action games. But the psychological impact of seeing your hit points reduced by half is huge.

Much of the best survival horror can make you feel powerless, but it's rarely the intention of other action or roleplaying games. We're surrounded by so many power fantasies an alternative can come as a shock.

The first level is arguably the hardest level to face. Certainly not in terms of the layout or enemies themselves, or even the time it takes to find better equipment, but because you've just been smacked in the nose. And because you can't level your character until you've beaten the first boss. This makes the first level the most rogue-like (in the sense of losing character progress with death, although items are still retained). It's an achievable goal, but the set-up is bound to make you feel under-powered.

Beating the first demon Phalanx is a sweet moment of success. It unlocks the ability to level up, and you earn your body back so that hit-point cap disappears. (You also do less damage in body form, which is one of several reasons I often character-suicide after a boss fight, but people are less likely to mention that bit). You're a successful demon hunter now, and continue into the next part of the level with a new sense of achievement.

Success is likely to be short-lived. Clear a room, and continue on towards the castle. This is the point where many of those who haven't been forewarned will die to a red dragon, who torches them unexpectedly from the sky. If not the dragon, it will probably be something else. Your body is unceremoniously snatched away, and you begin the slow process of level mastery all over again. Swiftly taking away a reward as though to punish anyone who became too happy or complacent. Demon's Souls isn't going to let you forget that power has to be earnt.

In an information sense, Demon's Souls is very restrained, both with its story/characters and mechanics. Story is filled in by imagination. Mechanics are learnt through experience, which requires experimentation (and looking up guides, which is valid). Lack of information in general can make you feel inexperienced and vulnerable.

The community discussion surrounding Demon's Souls has also increased its infamy, and feeds the perception of challenge. For example, the statement "the game can get harder if you die too much." is technically correct, but gives a misleading impression without more detailed discussion of the world tendency system, especially if playing online. Word tendency is too involved to fully explain here (see the Wiki if needed), but the idea of a game that gets harder every time you die has coloured a lot of ill-informed discussion, even sometimes among those who have played the game.

Perceptions going into Demon's Souls are likely to be harsh.

The not-so-well-kept secret is that Demon's Souls' challenge can be overcome, and success feels all the sweeter for it. But tackling the difficulty curve is always an emotional challenge before anything else. That might not be comfortable thought, but to me it's what makes the difficulty most worth discussing. And perhaps why I'll persist here, while I avoid most games with a challenging reputation.