In the wee hours of February 28, quietly and surrounded by only the closest friends, we lost a loved one. The fanfare that surrounded it was the kind reserved, deservedly, for an elder statesman; the trades offering early condolences before the passing knowing that its time was closing in. These terminal moments are only fleeting, they said, and we needed to sit by its bedside. Demon’s Souls cut its servers earlier this week around the world. Not in a bombastic grand final event, but in a sigh and then a silence.
The game will still be playable as a single-player experience—stark, mean, and coldly alone as it will be—but its revolutionary online experience has faded into nothing. You may think that the above paragraph is a bit heavy on the metaphors, so I’ll offer you this instead: without the online modes, Demon’s Souls is effectively lobotomized. As a video game, it will be functional, but it won’t be the same. Chunks of what made it a haunting ghost story are torn away, leaving only the shell of a game that was, up until only hours before, once great.
I have a complicated relationship with this game. At first, it was a breath of fresh air against not only a more staid, friendlier contemporary generation of high-budget games, but also a middle finger in the face of other games of its origin: RPGs made in Japan. It is demanding and exacting, bullying and fatherly. It’s eerily quiet, not content to rely on 20-minute exposition dumps and infantile party banter. Complex systems run underneath the hood that aren't readily grasped. It’s a steep hill to ascend on any player’s first trip, as it was for me.
By now, of course, there are precedents in place for how to come to grips with the various mechanics that Demon’s Souls pioneered as the series that it spawned have evolved and grown in prominence. In those early days, though, I barely knew how to play this game. Everything was earned. Nothing came easy.
But that was then. As life has moved on and evolved, I let go of Demon’s Souls, having not played it for several years at this point. The servers and the online connectivity shuttering gave me a reason to come back. At first, maybe I thought it was a call to arms. Now that it's over, I don’t think it was that at all. Not even close.
I needed to get back into fighting shape. For the last month, that’s what I did. I kept a sort of diary of my daily routines—the character builds, the online interactions, the feelings and emotion. I don’t know if it’s clever or narcissistic to think that you’d want more of my personal life in regard to this video game (yes I do, and it’s the latter), but this is one of the best video games made in the last decade. I don’t see a question in that. It’s been with me when I needed it, and when I didn’t. It’s time for me to make good on what I wrote for you on USGamer last year; to close the loop on a game that, for me, was both a coping mechanism and eventual albatross. Let’s do that together.
It has been more than five years, or maybe more, since I've played this game, which is a realization that came to me early in the morning before I would have a chance to sit down and play it. To some, and definitely when I try to look back on it, five years is no time at all. In video game release terms, though, five years is more like ten. Three Dark Souls and a Bloodborne later, I was wondering that morning how much I would recollect. There was a time that I literally knew the game backwards, but after inhaling this and the subsequent games, I had both a lingering fear and childish delight that while I won't be coming back to it from scratch, I won't recall as much as I would have a year or two (or three) ago.
Demon’s Souls is a game that rewards meticulous planning and forethought. I began to look ahead, but without spending the morning digging through wikis or message boards. What build should I make for my character? Most playthroughs for me were hybrid melee concoctions, so should I branch out? What about an archer? A priest? Will I have enough time to finish the game in the month that I have with fewer and fewer hours in the day? I can't mess with that when I have a deadline looming. I decide to compromise: I only played a magic build once, but I'm too much of a chicken to start with the mage class. I chose to start with the royalty class (essentially, the game's only sort of "easy" mode) for the special items it comes packed with and its malleable character growth potential.
The mechanics of Souls games are branded into my inner being now, but I don't think I've gone through the trouble of letting the game actually teach me how it worked. It felt right to start from the beginning, in this joke of an opening area. I even tried my hand at killing the Vanguard Demon at the end. That didn't turn out how I wanted, though, and I was really getting the sense that I was right to be concerned. Starting over again was going to be a rough ride, and I would see that no matter how much I may have loved this game, and how much it helped me through the hard times, Demon's Souls knows neither friendship nor loyalty.
Turns out, I was wrong all along.
For all the praise that From Software RPGs receive, maybe none are as apt as “tough, but fair.” Its games are like a good conversation; both sides need to be actively engaged for it to meaningful. They need to listen, be aware. At times, there’s even a fair share of push and pull. People forget that Demon’s Souls isn’t like this. In fact, there are times where the game, no matter how good you might be at playing it, gets bullshitty. Enemies oftentimes don’t adhere to the same set of rules that the player is subject to, such as stamina consumption or resource management. For every fascinating, fairly-built square off against the blob-like Phalanx or the puzzle-adjacent Tower Knight, there’s a couple of skeletons rolling up a hillside that will push you off the cliff. It throws your battle plans out the window, and can burn through precious consumable items at a pace that you’ll hate, and you may feel like cheesing it is the only possible answer. Other times, though, you know what kind of preposterous baloney you’re walking into. By this, of course, I mean the Maneater fight.
This boss is infamous to Souls players. Essentially, you're on a bridge, and in flies a large gargoyle. It's a tough customer, and only made tougher by an environment that you can easily fall off if you're not spatially aware (or the AI just gets sick of playing fair and it bum rushes you off the ledge). Sounds kind of lousy, but negotiable with some practice, right? Well, smart guy, a second gargoyle flies in to double the fun when you get the first down to 50 percent of its health, or, if you're the cautious type, still flies in after a certain amount of time ticks by.
I suck at this. I start a new game and dread this fight like I just broke an antique vase and my parents are on their way home from work. There are times where I've finished it after only a half hour of frustration. Then there are times where it's burned whole nuggets of my happiness away. In a game that I love so much, I hate this fight like I hate Kid Rock singing the National Anthem. It's a urinal cake on top of an actual cake. It's the worst.
And yet, here we are in it the final throes of the online connectivity. I had been trying to pull in players since the first day of this whole odyssey, trying in vain to make use of the thing I’m supposed to be using. But Demon’s Souls has had a years-long problem with its servers. Without regular maintenance, the connectivity between players has been, at best, terrible. This was a most inconvenient place for the bullshit to mount.
I was running through the game at a much steadier clip than I anticipated up to this point. So fast, in fact, that I didn’t notice how the game’s simple but perfect online application was completely absent around me. Connected to the internet, the game leaves bloodstains that record and show how other players met their doom. Plugged in, it allows players to leave small messages on the ground to help (or even hinder) a newcomer with hints. When things are working as they should, a player can pull in other players for aid in a level or a boss fight. This would have been the right time for this to work. Of course, after waiting for close to an hour, and fighting with the connections through menus, I steeled myself, entered the boss fog, and found that yes, the Maneaters suck.
As the Old One was lulled back to sleep and the credits rolled, it was beginning to occur to me that if the servers were in such a shape, then maybe this was all happening for practical reasons. Perhaps there wasn’t personnel or resources to keep them on, and their age has made them deteriorate. I used to think (and still largely do) that Demon’s Souls and the games it spawned were all a Deep Theme salsa of personal growth, higher learning, and most of all breaking bad habits and old routines. Playing the game and then replaying it is an exercise in cyclical process. You can start it again with another character build, you can run through a New Game, and then a NG+ (or NG+++++), but you’ll eventually realize that the game never changes. No matter how you may try to alter the experience, you’re completing the circle for the circle’s sake, and the only way to win is to perhaps not play at all.
Now, it’s all feeling like a dopey metaphor for old age. Maybe I don’t have the reflexes that I used to (my 3rd Strike game can certainly attest to that), so it’s harder to get through some sections these days. I certainly don’t remember as much about this game or the larger series than I did in years’ past, though this first run was faster than I anticipated, clocking in just north of 7 hours. Slower than my fastest, maybe, but a fraction of the 75 it took my first time around. Now that I’m living with the server in the state that it’s in, though, it all feels a little decrepit. Maybe this is mercy killing after all.
"Why is this game shutting down? Why isn't the maintenance already done? Fucking-"
The voice on the other end of the microphone was cut off. We had finally gotten three people summoned in for the Armored Spider boss at the end of 2-1—an encounter that at least one of these people didn't think we'd win—and things were getting a little hairy. Not knowing the giant arachnid's tell for the area-consuming fire breath it was about to spew, my insistence that it was time to run to the safe zone at the back end of the arena was enough to shut everyone up. The sentiment was clear, though, and not exactly wrong.
Last night, I finally found players on the Demon's Souls Discord server to play online with. This was a welcome relief from the past few weeks' worth of blindfolded dart-throwing in the hopes of finding a more organic co-op experience. It turns out, doing it this way was both some of the better and worse adventures I've had online with the game.
It didn't take long to secure like-minded players looking for some jolly cooperation through the online chat system, though it looks like I may have just been lucky. One of them, we'll call him Nate, was ready and willing to start a new character and shamble through the game. He'd already finished it once, and it didn't sound like it happened in the most efficient way. Nate was looking to experience playing with other people before the door swung shut on the servers at the end of the month. Nate wanted me to get on voice chat, something I've only done a handful of times playing online games, so I dug out the crude single-earphone mic that came packed in with a PlayStation 4 and plugged it into my laptop.
It was immediately lambasted. The second player, we'll call him Kurt, agreed with Nate that it was now the Year of Our Lord 2018 and that I should be using a proper headset. Poppycock, I silently said to myself while joining in on the gentle ribbing of the earpiece. Kurt was noticeably older than Nate, but I discerned over time that it wasn't by much. Both of them were intelligent and even quick-witted, Nate, something of a motormouth high school student, and Kurt, keeping personal info on the sly. They have been fighting with the game for online co-op for a few days, they said, doing battle with the janky server and its frustrating habit of disconnecting people from it and not telling them. We would continue this melee as the night went on.
Demon's Souls isn't meant to be played this way. The game has limited forms of communication by design to maintain a certain mystique. Co-op and PvP are entirely silent affairs with the exception of the series' famous systems of pantomiming gestures to show emotion, much to the consternation of players of more traditional online experiences. Personally, this was the way I wanted to keep things, too. But servers in desperate need of some TLC and a looming deadline for this story make for strange bedfellows, and heading to something like Discord and its "Skype for gamers!" modus operandi was a pill I had to swallow. Maybe I should have chased it with Scotch.
Maybe this is mercy killing after all.
We each rolled up a new character while going through quaint pleasantries, but nothing with any actual depth like where we are in the country or even to what time zone we might be adhering. The small talk, then, was all business as we individually took a new character—something that was agreed upon in Discord's text chat ahead of time—through level 1-1 so we could then be granted the game's personal permission for co-op play. We were assessing each other's knowledge of the game and, perhaps coyly, our individual skill. Kurt wanted to know how many times I had been through it before proudly proclaiming to have finished the Maneater boss solo. I replied with the fact that I have only once played this game online (outside of the last few weeks for this story) over the probably dozens of times I've completed it. He and I were therefore cordial with each other, but shared a mutually suspicious condescension going forward.
It became obvious through conversation that nobody was exactly new to the franchise, though maybe more green with this particular game. Upon return trips to the Nexus hub world, Nate began vocally berating the forlorn NPC Stockpile Thomas. "This fucking pussy," was his launching point. "Do you know this guy? Do you know the lore behind him?" A loaded statement. There's very little dialog in Demon's Souls. Getting to know a friendly NPC was a matter of hitting the "talk" option when in a dialog window two or three times. Yes, then, we knew Thomas' tragic journey to the Nexus and his guilt for leaving his wife and young daughter to die. Knowing the lore, though, means that Nate had watched his share of Souls-related YouTube videos; something that's become a cottage industry unto itself even adjacent to the normal (or maybe "normal") explosion of internet video celebrity. The further games in the Souls series purposely obfuscated not only overall plot but also minor characters' back stories, meaning that lore videos for Souls games were as common in hardcore gamer circles as crying Michael Jordan memes.
Kurt dug deeper and with a tone toward me that seemed to get more competitive. Nate obviously knew this game from a single run through and what he read on wikis. Kurt did his best to extrapolate on minor items of conversation with varying degrees of accuracy. I found it best to keep the inconsistencies to myself. Closer to 40 than I am 30, we had to get into gear. It was starting to get a little late and the elderly need their sleep.
I had relayed to Nate, and with Kurt's agreement, that we would run him through some more levels; we didn't need the extra help ourselves. The next target, shaky as the collective confidence seemed to be, would be level 2-1 and the Armored Spider. The topics of conversation were becoming looser at this point too. The "Best Final Fantasy"-type starters and "I don't want to go to Math"-style prestige. Kurt broke into a protracted, if impassioned screed regarding his Linux, Windows, and Mac machines. Nate took five minutes for an ice cream break, giving the two of us who remained some time to kibitz. "Are you playing the new Dragon Ball game?" he asked. No, I replied. It looks really good but I'm not sure I have the time to commit to learning it these days. "Time... to commit...? You don't have time for...?" Nate returned and promptly made a crack about living in mom's basement. One of us was conspicuously quiet.
Finally, the boss arena, and another 15 minutes of playing Ross and Rachel with the North American servers. All three of us, finally in-game, delivered the killing blow to the Armored Spider on our second attempt (somewhat vindicating Kurt and Nate's initial trepidation with the whole venture). On Nate's emphatic, though unnecessary insistence, someone else should be given a hand with level 2-1. We return to the boss, and got into it with the server once more. Flustered and tired, we eventually call it a night without stepping into the battle proper, one of my two ephemeral comrades exiting Discord gives a final "warning" against the potential danger of homosexuality. It was, somehow, a joke.
The plot of the game revolves around a greedy king and his kingdom. After pushing too hard to accumulate and harness the “power of souls,” it awoke something deep and ancient. It drove his subjects crazy. The Northern Kingdom of Boletaria is full of madmen.
The game only allows for four character slots. Most players, myself and the people I had met through Discord especially, keep a roster of them at various level thresholds. Since the game connects players over its network according to their respective levels, having a bench of a 20, a 50, an 80, and a 120 for PvP means that you can likely matchup with people when they need you or vice versa. Most of us knew the game well enough that we didn’t need the help. More and more, though, I was discovering players like Nate whom had only come to the game in these final fleeting moments. I found this curious.
Many of them had played the further Souls games and wanted to see how it started. Others were completely new to the series and were overwhelmed. If the Souls community is anything, it’s surprisingly paternal; message boards and wikis are easy resources to link to people for specific info, and about once an hour or so, a veteran player usually hops onto Discord with a blanket “who needs some help” shout out. I found a kindred spirit in an Atlanta-based player that we’ll call Mike. Like me, he was just there to give people a hand if they wanted a tour of the levels. Now that item duplication glitches and weapon and item farming methods have been cracked wide open, this player knew the game like few others I had spoken to (including me). He didn’t lord it over them. He just wanted to help them all see it to the end.
On the final day with the server, I grew a character artificially with the item duplication glitch to a meaty level 120 and took in the entirety of the game as more of a tourist, bludgeoning the levels and bosses—even the Maneaters—with impunity. I went toe-to-toe with the Flamelurker, maybe the hardest straight-up fight in the game. I took the time to kill the red and blue dragons; living roadblocks that are the only enemies of their kind. I met, and subsequently murdered, various NPCs, opening up the most nefarious quest in the game that literally sends you on a friendly character slaughter spree. With only hours to go before my 3:00am cutoff time from the server, I found a dark place within me to take these charming animated bits of code along to extinction.
In those final moments, we were madmen.
Other players were saying their own goodbyes. In the voice chat I had been participating in, some were perched in level 4-1, the preferred PvP arena for a game that had no dedicated space for such things, yelling with delight and fear as famous Souls YouTubers were invading them on streams that would attract tens of thousands of viewers. Others were doing their best to trade rare forging materials, eliminating the sometimes hours-long grind for specific stones drops to obtain their coveted PlayStation trophies. Mike and I, along with two other players, decided to try to glitch our way into certain boss arenas to watch the game end, however that would be. After about an hour of trying to no avail, and with time running drastically short, I decided to finally run through the endgame at 2:40am so I could simply summon them in to the first level of NG+.
This was poetic, in its way. 1-1, the first level of the Boletarian Palace, is perhaps the most iconic level in the game. Not because it has any particular spectacle or set piece (though they exist), but because it’s tough love. The tutorial of the game that takes place beforehand teaches a player the mechanics. It tells you what this button does and what these enemies can do. But it’s false security, as the boss of the tutorial, the Vanguard Demon, illustrates. It will kill most players in a hit or two. Even if they were to defeat this monstrosity, death in the tutorial is a scripted occurrence. Level 1-1 forces you to acquiesce to the demands of the game. You cannot level up your stats, and most weapons and items found in the level are either totally useless to certain starting classes or weaker than the gear they may already have equipped. It makes you learn.
The four of us, of course, were far beyond this point. We cleaned out half of the level without breaking a sweat before deciding that, with only about 5 minutes left, it was time to just hang out. Mike, who came in as a PvP opponent (the game only allows one host, two players to come in for co-op, and one invader), was asked if he wanted to fight. No, he replied. It was just enough to be there. We rolled around the environment like it was a circus audition. We littered the ground with whatever was in our inventory, making it look like the floor of a ‘70s disco. The universe wasn’t ending with a bang, but with a whimper. We ran around like children. In those final moments, we were madmen.
At 3:10am, the servers were still on. After a few jokes that someone might be asleep at the switch, we decided to head back into the rest of 1-1 to clear it. We dropped down to fight it out with Ostrava the friendly NPC again, making him aggressive. As he took swing after swing at me, my three compatriots doing away with other enemies around the area, the server disconnected, and the final message had shown onscreen. I didn’t hit any buttons, and though I couldn’t control what I was doing (or defend myself to Ostrava’s attacks), the other three players had another few minutes to run through the level since I was still technically hosting. One by one, four people of a wide range of ages and experiences were sent away from the game.
We made sure to drop a farewell sign in the game knowing that it wouldn't exist by the morning. We said our goodbyes on Discord, a litany of "Umbasa"—"amen" in Demon’s Souls’ fictional religion—from dozens of players in the text chat. I went upstairs. “All done, babe?” my wife asked. I must have woken her up accidently. Yes. All done.
I went to sleep.