(Minor spoilers for Demon’s Souls.)
People like me use the “about” of a game like there’s a tick up our bums. Demon’s Souls is “about death” I’ve heard a million times because it’s reputed as a difficult game where you die a lot. Critics were taking the piss when they said BioShock Infinite is “about shooting” because you shoot a lot (it’s not much about anything (sorry Ken)), but in every other game the action you do the most is sincerely thought by some to be its narrative focus. Demon’s Souls is about death. Presumably it’s also about rolling, shopping, and swinging swords, and when it rains the weather is about getting wet.
The first time I played it my console upped and died as if by a mummy’s curse, erasing all the progress made by my magician character, Bubbles. Years passed with no incident until I decided to give it another try; I had mourned Bubbles such that she was irreplaceable, so rolled instead a temple knight. Holy Boy could cast Heal. I now found I could go for long patches of fresh terrain without dying. Someone said the main currency of Demon’s Souls is the player’s time–there’s truth in that. Dying isn’t such a dreadful thing: it has benefits, and death is likely to be your natural state for enough of the game for you grow accustomed to it. So, the narrative of death is outweighed by impatience.
A few words of backstory: in his lust for power, King Allant of Boletaria awoke an ancient beast, the Old One. I know, I know. The kingdom prospered for a time, but soon it was cut off from the world by a deep fog loosing soul-devouring demons upon the realm. In the same way that demons gorge on souls and bloat with power, so too could humans feast on the souls of their fellows and assimilate them into their own. This ability is what Allant unlocked, and thus the price of the fog is a plague of demons. Now, as the fog spills out over Boletaria’s borders and threatens to consume the world, heroes volunteer themselves to venture into the doomed kingdom. Some go to return the Old One to its slumber and spare the world Boletaria’s fate, others to wrap themselves in the soul arts in their lust for power.
It’s a simple story obscured by being crammed into an opening two-minute cutscene, the usual wisened old woman throwing out words before I’ve the emotional resolve to listen. Honestly, that plus how you decide to end the game completes the whole plot. Because it’s tossed at you so carelessly it’s easy to miss, so most of the game is spent figuring out what your wan was on about. Over this skeletal plot is draped nuance of the world that’s invigorating to uncover, adding taste to the story like honey mustard on a ham.
The latter dichotomy of choosing to save Boletaria or to quest for power through the soul arts runs throughout as implication. Since you can swing your sword at any time, you can always swing it like so at the head of a friendly merchant NPC and see what he was carrying. The option’s there to be a dick, and if you’re really dickish you get the chance to start a quest to be a dick-at-large. For us Umbasa-oathing temple knights, a bit of constraint delineates the ethical path, tending the world to White, which means Good, because Obviously.
Although there are these kinds of decisions to be made, they largely reflect your table manners rather than your morality, because truth be told the whole business of consuming the souls of humans to gain power is a given. It’s a horrible, contemptible, evil act, made ordinary by being very blatantly practical. You won’t get anywhere by abstaining, you’ll hit an early wall against some poor mad chap with a better sword than you. Good luck saving Boletaria when you can’t even get past a normal soulless madman. Morality is literally for the weak, since all it takes to increase your strength is to feed a few thousand innocent Boletarian souls to a demon who lets you level up. I shall avenge thee and all that.
The typical lifecycle of a Boletarian warrior is as follows: They begin alive and healthy and soon are killed by a demon. They get “rescued” to the Nexus, a revolving door back into Boletaria. Every time they die they return here and venture forth–death is nothing to them. They farm the souls of humanity to aid their progress. Eventually they hit an obstacle they can’t overcome. They try and try and meet only failure, and grow frustrated, morose and nihilistic. They plant themselves somewhere and just give up. The phantom of their life fades away until all that remains is their soul, like a pebble on a beach. A passing warrior gathers it up and consumes it for themselves:
“Even if you leave this be, it will only become nourishment for demons. In which case…”
At one point I promised myself I would not feast on the legendary soul of the late Lord Rydell. He seemed like a nice chap, one of the few people with a little backstory to him and everything. Once they called him “Little Allant.” He had a wife he clearly missed. But later I needed another point in my Faith stat, so I chomped down some souls, and well… It’s not that I went back on my conviction so much as I momentarily forgot. Thanks, Rydell. It’s for the cause.
About the Nexus. When fresh heroes sally into Boletaria to die, they get whisked into the Nexus by the Maiden in Black, who preserves and supports whoever will Kill All The Demons so she can lull the Old One back to sleep. Archstones teleport you from the Nexus to the game’s levels littered around the world. You learn how the Old One awoke once upon a time far in the past, and that half the world perished before they could seal it away beneath this limbo. The platoon of Monumentals who achieved this victory gifted the archstones to six kings and rulers to bind the Old One away. Now only one Monumental remains, and the world’s archstones have been left to crumble through time, their purpose long forgotten by humanity. The unusable archstone of the Land of the Giants shows us what happens when a monolith breaks – its connection to the Nexus fails, severing a link in the chain that protects the world from evil.
So the archstones are kind of important in the mythos of the world, even though they’re the usual gameplay device of being a ‘world map’ or a hub so From Software don’t have to geographically link up all the levels.
But the nodes of archstones marking the landing spots in the world from the Nexus, aside from those spilt from the belly of a dying demon, are not as mighty as their purpose would hint. They’re lumps of rock shorter than your leg. Aye, they glow and hum and they’ve a lovely sword sticking out from each of them, but they’re nothing like the sentinels represented by their Nexus kin. Actually they’re quite sad looking, these magnificent statues that have locked away evil for countless millennia, because we know they’ve been left to rot through weather and time and human thoughtlessness. They are the physical manifestation of all humanity’s hubris, its delusional pride and self-destruction. It’s no accident that King Allant could now go about dooming the world: his greed stands on the foundations of eons of neglect and disregard.
This pathetic display is also what’s amazing about them.
The archstone at the gates of the Boletarian Palace stands beside a broken fountain atop a tall bridge much younger than the archstone could be. At first glance it’s the middle of nowhere, kind of just leading in to the entrance of the palace if you meander up and down the towers. Stonefang Mine’s entry point is at the foot of a narrow, pointless staircase leading to a road built into the side of a mountain. At your end of the road is the entrance to the mine, the source of Boletarian industry; I’ll bet the path traces hundreds of miles back the other way right to the palace gates. But at the mine’s door, this path runs over a crumbled monolith whose top has been shorn off to keep the road level. It’s the archstone of old and they just paved over it for convenience.
Finally videogames have their Hill of Tara.
These locations don’t quite mesh with the tale of legendary monoliths delivered thousands of years ago from on high. Wherever you teleport to from the Nexus you arrive at a lump of archstone that must have been placed rather recently. In the Tower of Latria, inarguably a more recent human creation, the tale is more on the nose: in a cell at the prison’s crown, a corpse cradles the stone. This person dragged it up as far as they could into the sprawling jail until every ounce of strength left in them expended and they died right there. Every single archstone was carried by someone and deposited to facilitate the mission of the demon slayers.
There’s two stories to the archstones representative of the narrative of Demon’s Souls: one of hubris, of a long past of foolishness and everyday human evil that finally brought madness to the world. This is the narrative of decay where shards of archstones are sold at extravagant prices by Patches, the murderous snivelling bastard, and shat out by plague-ridden rats. I’ve looked for a benevolent light in that one, the circle of life and everything, but all I arrive at is how did anyone let it get so bad that rats were allowed to chew away at a statue that protects the world from soul-devouring demons, of all things. In Dark Souls rats drop humanity more than any other terrestrial creature. Once is a metaphor, twice is a motif.
And more presently, there’s the narrative of reconstruction, of everyone struggling to survive in whatever way they can and perhaps contributes to the betterment of all of humanity. But it’s Demon’s Souls so the narrative isn’t all daisy chains and poetry. Encompassed is the merchant who trades to eke out a living and for you to go on living. He helps you, he’s a bit of a git but he helps you. It’s the remains of a storied soldier, charred to death so many times he just… gave up, and you pocket his soul as grit for the mill. The messages of other players voluntarily given to warn you of a disaster they met, and the involuntary bloodstains of their folly. They didn’t die to help you but help you they may. No-one died to help you. Still, you grind their souls to make your bread, using what you can of them to aid your progression in any small, unholy, unthinkable way because this is the grotesque necessity of being a human being.
Though there you may be selfishly drinking souls like you’re on the town, you the Chosen One who will Save the World (aren’t you great with your big head), you can’t help but participate in the narrative of humanity by virtue of you simply existing. Even the nastiest phantom bastard leaves a mark on the world that is their deaths, their knowledge, the challenges they put other players through from which they grow and learn and organize to condemn, weaving into the reconstruction of civilization. Even the poor unfortunate soul who leaves nothing behind to remember them, who couldn’t budge the archstone forward a mere foot, who didn’t even leave their soul behind when they vanished forever, plays their part in in the narrative of humanity. Such is life.
In an odd way, this weird sense of individualistic co-operation is structured into the game’s online as well. It’s always on, always present, always reminding you of the existence of other players and how they share in the struggles of living in a hostile world. Their ghosts phase into step beside you, untouchable, uncommunicable, before they dart off thither on some errand you’ve no doubt in the past run yourself. It doesn’t abate the loneliness but it’s oddly comforting to know they’re there. I stood by an empty doorway and waved to no-one in particular, but maybe someone saw me in their own world and waved back. I’m the Chosen One, wonderful me, but Demon’s Souls is non-existentialist just as it’s non-nihilistic, since it isn’t really about me or you, it’s about us: a narrative of human community, in as much a way as two people living thousands of miles and thousands of years apart can know a communal existence.
It’s not quite a narrative of selflessness, nor is it a narrative of life and death, since deathlessness and lifelessness have little to do with the Boletarian people. Demon’s Souls is like Amy Dentata’s A Night in the Woods: you gather up scraps of newspapers for a fire to warm you through the night. The papers’ headlines tell the story of the collapse of civilization, and you gather them up, and the notes left by more recent residents, and unceremoniously toss them in a barrel as tinder. All the sweat and toil of society, the last few emblems you can find of another living creature, are fertilizer for your needs in the here and now. The noble route of making a museum from them and leaving yourself to die of exposure does not speak of the walk of humanity.
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