This generation has pretty much come to an end. I know there are still big games coming out for the PS3 and 360, like Grand Theft Auto V, Saint’s Row 4, Gran Turismo 6, and others, but I’ve decided that I’m no longer buying games for these consoles. I am in full-on next-generation mode and November can’t come soon enough. But before I say farewell to this generation entirely, I’d like to spend a few weeks looking back at the most impactful (to me) games from the last seven or eight years. Each week I’ll write about a different game and I’ll probably try to keep this up for three to five weeks. Please note that, as with my Game of the Year lists, the order in which I talk about these games is completely irrelevant; I consider them all on equal footing. Let’s get started!
The most striking thing about Demon’s Souls was that it was a bit of a shock. Apparently, a lot of people (including me) had really been missing the old days when games were not so transparent and were difficult enough to make you feel like you accomplished something when you won. The crazy thing is that we never really realized that we missed those days. When Demon’s Souls was quietly released (under the cover of bigger, equally excellent games like Uncharted 2), it was like everyone suddenly had this spark shoot through then and they realized that Demon’s Souls was the type of game they had been unconsciously wanting for a decade. But Demon’s Souls wasn’t just striking because of what it brought back but also because of what it created.
But first, what did Demon’s Souls bring back? We were a good ways into a generation of games that held your hand. Lengthy tutorializing and on-rails games that feigned freedom had subtly been turning gaming into something less intuitive. Gone was the feeling of having to think about what you were doing. Even more, gone were the days where the game actively punished you if you failed to learn a mechanic or system sufficiently. Demon’s Souls crashed us back down into reality. It dropped us head first into a world that, while being very bleak and dead visually, was very much alive. The world of Boletaria wasn’t just full of life in the form of enemies and gameplay concepts; it was actually active in pushing them up against you.
Beating the Phalanx at the Boletarian Palace may have just signaled you completing the first level of Demon’s Souls, but by the time you did so, it felt like you had beaten an entire game. That feeling then continued to pop up during several moments deeper in the game, particularly in the levels full of poisonous swamps. That sigh of relief and feeling of empowering joy after a white-knuckled boss fight had been missing from games for a long time; hell, well-designed boss fights in general had been missing from games for a long time.
A real sense of accomplishment and lack of hand-holding weren’t the only things Demon’s Souls brought back to gaming. It also harkened the return of something I thought I’d never see again: video game rumors. I don’t mean “rumor has it this new game will have feature blah blah.” Remember when people used to whisper at school about how you can totally acquire the Triforce in Ocarina of Time? Or how beating the Elite Four 100 times in the original Pokémon would open up a secret room beyond the ending? Or the purpose of the dock in distance in the first level of Goldeneye (which you could actually get to with a Gameshark, it turns out)? These are the kind of video game rumors I’m talking about.
When someone mentioned to me that you could actually kill the Red Dragon that constantly pesters you during the second level of Boletarian Palace, it blew my mind. Then I went and did it. I stood in the specific spot at the top of the tower and over the course of thirty minutes, I fired 200 arrows at it. Just when I was about to call it quits, the dragon died and I acquired its soul. That was the moment where I realized that Demon’s Souls was a game that was going to continually surprise me and catch me off guard, no matter how good I got at it. It’s effective because it adds that sense of mystery to the game, and hints that the game is a lot deeper than you might know. And it wasn’t incorrect: Demon’s Souls is a lot deeper than what you might initially think. Don’t even get me started on the first time I tried to wrap my head around how World Tendency functions.
So, then, what did Demon’s Souls bring to gaming that was new? If you’re familiar with either of the Souls games at this point, the bizarre form of online multiplayer is likely to be one of the first things you mention. At first glance upon release, the multiplayer in Demon’s Souls seemed straight-up broken. Why would I want to play with random strangers with whom I can’t even communicate? Why would I want to be invaded by other players and have to fight them off? As it turns out, the developers very smartly designed multiplayer to support the style of game that Demon’s Souls was. It was a game about small, difficult challenges over the course of a long, secluded adventure. It was not the type of game that would have translated well into a local coop kill-fest or online trash talk.
However, the most important thing about Demon’s Souls’ online features was the sense of community it created. Demon’s Souls is a lonely, bleak game where it feels like you are taking on untold numbers of hostile creatures with no backup. Yet, at the same time, the use of in-game messages and ghosts made it feel like you weren’t alone. The odd ghost of another player, equally struggling against the odds, encouraged you to keep going. Carefully observing the bloodstain of dead players helped warn you of impending danger. Glowing messages left between players provided help and hope, or sometimes unexpected death. Demon’s Souls made you feel simultaneously alone and not alone, and it worked amazingly well.
At this point you may wonder why it’s Demon’s Souls, and not Dark Souls, that I’m writing this article about. Yes, Dark Souls is mechanically a more refined and polished game. Yes, Dark Souls has the most well-realized and best designed open world I’ve probably ever seen in a game. Yes, Dark Souls takes pretty much every aspect of Demon’s Souls and pushes it further. Yet, at the same time, nothing that happened during Dark Souls could be as surprising or refreshing as the experience of playing Demon’s Souls. It’s likely just because Demon’s Souls was a known quantity and I had nearly mastered it when Dark Souls came out.
Dark Souls just didn’t feel as surprising or mysterious because the secrets of Demon’s Souls had all been uncovered. Also, I simply didn’t experience as many player messages or bloodstains in Dark Souls, which detracted from the experience a bit. Make no mistake: Dark Souls is one of the best games released during this generation, but compared to Demon’s Souls, I would never call it a “Game of the Generation.”
So thank you, From Software, for taking a chance on something like Demon’s Souls. Taking chances in the video game industry is difficult, especially in a largely uniform generation or in the somewhat stagnant environment of Japanese game development. Thank you for making the game that we never knew we always wanted. In closing, an anecdote: I bought Demon’s Souls from Best Buy on the day that Modern Warfare 2 was released. The employee running the register told me that I was the first person that day (buying a video game) who was not buying Modern Warfare 2. Here’s to the games that release quietly but are remembered for far longer than a year.