Establishing an Iconic Challenge With Demon’s Souls
There are plenty of difficult video games out there. They may take our patience and resolve to their limits, but a game being hard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. A good hard game should compel you to beat it and give you the tools to do so even if the right path is narrow. It shouldn’t be broken, but more importantly, its systems and design should be appealing enough to push you through its trials and guide you just enough so that when you taste sweet victory, it feels like an elating accomplishment all your own. There are few who understand this as well as FromSoftware does. After all, it was today in 2009 that Demon’s Souls came to North America, introducing a new kind of action-RPG games that would challenge players to survive brutal, yet rich gothic worlds with the Souls series.
FromSoftware began early with a desire to create something similar, yet different to another FromSoftware series, King’s Field. King’s Field featured many elements of Souls games, including its gothic, dungeon-crawling style and brutal difficulty, but Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and Producer Takeshi Kajii wanted to move on from the series to try something new. When Demon’s Souls was revealed in 2008, Kajii clarified his position, stating that while he was a big fan of King’s Field, making another King’s Field would have limited the studio creatively. “If this was a new King's Field game,” said Kajii. “There would be areas we wouldn't be able to touch since they're part of the series.” Therefore, it was decided early on that Demon’s Souls would be a spiritual successor in order to avoid such restrictions.
Demon’s Souls is set in a fictional kingdom known as Boletaria. When the elderly king of the land seeks power through occult means, he awakens an ancient demon that shrouds the kingdom in fog and unleashes numerous other demons upon the inhabitants of the land, devouring their souls and leaving those who still had their bodies violent and insane. Many warriors come to the fog shrouded Kingdom, some trying to save it and others attempting to use the demons and the souls for personal gains. You are one such warrior, though your motive is unknown, venturing into the fog of Boletaria to either vanquish this evil or wield it as your own power.
Despite the iconic difficulty of the Souls games, difficulty wasn’t the goal, but rather a consequence of the game FromSoftware was trying to make. Miyazaki wanted players to feel real accomplishment from facing truly daunting tasks in a punishing environment. He also wanted the players to feel real dread and fear from the threats in the game. The souls currency system is heavily indicative of this. Players kill enemies and collect souls in order to level up various attributes and become stronger. They can store as many as they want, but dying drops all unused souls at the place of death. Players must then reach the place to reclaim the souls amid respawned monsters and enemies. This created ever growing stakes where crushing loss could be but a misstep away and great relief when a mighty enemy was defeated or souls were cashed in for rewards.
Of course, the Souls games also have a reputation as giving players numerous tools to ease the burden of the quest if they so choose. Demon’s Souls introduced players to the iconic message system in which players could leave messages of interchangeable, yet pre-determined text as clues to guide other players along. Furthermore, players who died would have their place marked as bloodstains for other players. Touching a bloodstain would allow players to see the actions of another player just before death, allowing the opportunity to avoid suffering a similar fate. FromSoftware built this somewhat minimalist system of communication to ensure that while players had help, there wouldn’t be an overabundance of chatting that might otherwise take players out of the experience.
Love it or leave it, Demon Souls established something rather extraordinary. It created a new foundation that FromSoftware would return to several times over the next few years via the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne. Each one brought players into a new and rich tapestry of danger and doom with dark, beautiful worlds populated by various monsters and mayhem, as well as a handful of trustworthy faces to give players solace from time to time. The games would evolve, but that core of immersive and challenging gameplay mixed into lore rich worlds that make the player scratch for every moment of victory remained a staple that would give the Souls series a faithful fan base for years to come.