2009 Game Of The Year Finalist Debate: Demon's Souls

The brilliantly immersive Demon's Souls, unfortunately known better for its brutal difficulty than its rebellious game design, is my choice for the title most deserving of the accolade "Game of the Year".

From Software's original role-playing game is admittedly challenging. The constant cycle of death and rebirth is not the escapist entertainment that's often expected of the medium.

Instead, it is a mature, haunting and experimental horror game set in a living world warped by deaths as substantially as the player. That it features perhaps the most fascinating online multiplayer component I've ever experienced, where single and multiplayer, competitive and cooperative coexist, is just one reason I find it so fascinating. The lonely and limited online interaction between players and the dynamic World and Character Tendency systems offer something rare in an RPG - replayability.

Demon's Souls is an individual among games trying to be interactive movies. It aims only to be an immersive world for the player to explore. But that does not mean it is not engrossing or thrilling, for rarely have I had a virtual encounter that filled me with a sense of dread as did my battles with Flamelurker or Penetrator. Rarely have I become so immersed in a fantasy world's lore, thanks to Demon's Souls' demands on the player.

What makes for great fantasy and science fiction, I believe, is more than a well-crafted world. It is an established set of laws that govern a universe, from which the storyteller (or game designer) cannot waiver for convenience. Demon's Souls' atypical universe-defining rules, designed to upset player expectations - there is no pause button, no conveniently placed save points, no forgiveness for reckless abandon - are both what makes the game difficult for many and so refreshing amid its bigger budgeted, more preened and player-pandering competitors.

Those rules are what makes Demon's Souls a Japanese role-playing game, a genre I've grown accustomed to avoid, like no other. It's free from long winded exposition, angst, romance and grandiose attempts to mimic Hollywood action films. Instead of assuming the role of a glamorous avatar with fabulous hair, a blank slate amnesiac, you enter Boleteria nothing more than a man, with no foreknowledge of what danger awaits beyond the encompassing black fog. Its demonic fauna have not been conveniently transcribed upon collectible tomes. Its denizens are not a friendly group of archetypes ready to be allied with and lead. It is not a cliché.

See, I don't want my video games to be long form imitations of blockbuster action films or historical fiction dramas. I want them to continue to be video games, exploring what the medium offers better than any other. And that's what Demon's Souls does.

Luke's Reply

This one couldn't have been further from my shortlist for game of the year. I can acknowledge what makes other people love it - the "multiplayer" element and unique take on death particularly - but this isn't about acknowledging other people's opinions. It's about giving mine. And I hated every second I spent with Demon's Souls.

To me, Demon's Souls is not an exercise in exploring what the medium does best. It's an exercise in exploring what's worst about it. It is exclusionary, elitist even, and it is monstrously difficult.

Indeed, it sometimes feels as though it's a game that exists to satiate the desires of a howling minority, who harken for the days when video games were worse. When they were focused more on retribution and masochism than good times.

No thanks. Not my thing. Video games are meant to be fun, not hard work. And that's all Demon's Souls is: Hard work.

Fahey's Reply

Demon's Souls was on my shortlist for game of the year before I even had a shortlist. In my mind, the battle was between Assassin's Creed II and Atlus' unforgiving dungeon crawler, but the introduction of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves made it much easier for me to choose between those two.

If story were my sole consideration, I may have picked Uncharted 2. Conversely, if gameplay were my main concern, then Demon's Souls would have come out on top. Demon's Souls is what video games would have evolved into had challenge remained a core focus over accessibility. Like the quarter-eating arcade adventures of old, it's a game where you take two steps, die, figure out how to get around the situation that killed you, and then take two more steps. It's brutal, yes, but it's also a pure experience, and I can't help but admire it.

Demon's Souls isn't my game of the year, but it put up one hell of a fight. It has the gameplay. Uncharted 2 has the story. I decided to go with the game that had the perfect balance of both. Sorry Atlus, but take heart - there's no shame in being killed by a master assassin.

Crecente's Reply

Going into this debate, Uncharted 2 was my clear pick. But after Mike nominated Demon's Souls and passionately defended the game with story after story of his adventures in the unforgiving world, I was anxious to play it.

I spent a good part of the week doing just that, and now I'm conflicted.

As any game developer I've talked to and knows, I'm a big fan of bringing back tough love to gaming. I think today's video games do way too much hand-holding, so Demon's Souls harsh nature struck a chord with me.

As a product of its unflinching take on death (those no mid-level save points are brutal) and its use of cooperative gamer ghosts, Demon's Souls delivers a haunting world. You play it with the eerie feeling that you're constantly being watched. And on some level you are.

But Mike's point about a developer sticking to the laws of their universe is one of the issues I have with this game. On it's surface it appears to be a genre-bucking, unforgiving game, but the developers actually do waiver in the end. Sure, there are no save points, but there are short cuts you can unlock as you play through a level. And the game has the middle-of-nowhere stores, the hapless good guy in need of rescue, the higher power looking to as the world's saviour.

This half-approach to bucking the norm doesn't kill the game for me, but it does muddy the waters a bit for its game of the year chances.

Totilo's Reply

The game McWhertor described up top would be the Game of the Year. The game Atlus actually sells, stamped with a Demon's Souls logo, is not. I happily join the praise for Demon's Souls genius multiplayer, a system that 1) rewards players for being helpful to others (brilliant), 2) inverts normal online game designs by putting early adopters to work making the game easier for latecomers (brillianter), and 3) makes lying and treachery - griefing, essentially! - an in-context gameplay element (brilliantest).

But, Mike... Flamelurker. I killed him on my who-knows-what try because he glitched himself on a staircase and I just spammed him with spells. Earlier, I beat the spider boss by standing behind a post and spamming it with spells even though it couldn't reach me. I won by glitches. And, damn it, I died by glitches. Glitches or shoddy game design, whichever way you want to put it.

The Demon's Souls designers snatched the years-old habits of gamers to give each other hints on Internet forums and made that part of this game's gameplay. But did these designers miss the years-old agony with lock-on systems and cameras? They made a game that in its exotic mysteriousness and eerily dangerous terrain might be the truest sequel to the original Zelda yet made. But they seem to have skipped the lessons of Zelda's Ocarina of Time, which instilled in its hero the horse-sense not to fall off cliffs because of twitchy character movement and which never cost me precious virtual life because it locked me onto the wrong enemy. Innovation suffers when it can't depend on solid fundamentals.

Owen's Reply

Demon's Souls is off-putting to me as a GOTY candidate for the same reason a dense art-house film arches eyebrows as an Oscar nominee - its lack of accessibility. It would be more forgivable if that lack of accessibility were limited to one terribly difficult boss, but they all are. It would more forgivable if the inaccessibility was due to balky combat and camera mechanics. In this case, Demon's Souls' crushing, proud difficulty represents the barrier. I suspect it is a game a lot like Moby Dick is a book, something a lot of people wish to say they've experienced, but few actually do.

It's intriguing to me that a game with relatively easy gameplay will be tut-tutted for its repetitiveness, but when such repetitiveness is borne of a colossally difficult challenge, well, then that's some uncompromising pure experience. If Demon's Souls is not a repetitive game, then the word really has no meaning. I also find nothing to celebrate in the lack of a pause button, which is almost a gratuitous eff-you tacked on in the game's relentless double victimisation of its lesser players: First, that you're such a poor gamer you struggle even on its earlier levels, and second, that you're so unsophisticated you don't appreciate that unreasonable demands and lack of basic gamer assistance are actually artful qualities to be admired.

Among my core standards for game of the year is one that may not be a sufficient condition, but it is absolutely necessary: Is it fun? Demon's Souls, for me anyway, was not fun.

McWhertor's Final Response

Before I saw The Light - shining from an Augite of Guidance, perhaps - I was like you, Luke and Owen, lamenting my experience in Demon's Souls as labour, wondering where the "fun" was. I'm not sure I ever found "fun", instead enjoying the atmosphere, the sense of discovery, the thrill of every major demon battle.

Does a game need to be fun (or at least conventionally entertaining) for it to be great? Owen's reference to Moby Dick - a book I've never read - is in line with my counter-argument that art, including games, needn't be accessible or without challenge to the viewer/read/player to genuinely deserve high praise. How many great films or novels are emotionally upsetting, sometimes physically draining to experience? I was just recently revisiting the poisoned Valley of Defilement, slayed again and again by Meat Cleaver wielding Black Phantoms and Giant Goblins. What a nightmare. But I can't wait to go back to that world, now smarter about its dangers.

Demon's Souls, despite its exclusive difficulty and technical quirks - hey, I fell to my death far more often in both Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed II, Totilo! - is great. It elicits fond, fearful memories of other brilliantly designed, but less technically refined games like Shadow of the Colossus and Silent Hill, games that establish a sense of immersion and wonder like few others.

And that is why I chose it for my game of the year. Demon's Souls is the game that stayed with me most in 2009 and will continue to do so for a long, insufferably difficult but ultimately enjoyable time to come.


    For me Demon's Souls toed the difficulty line quite well. The game presents to the player a no BS world, it says to you here's the world, here's your character, and here's the enemies which are almost as strong as you - off you go then.
    Because this game is such a challenge I find myself investing more interest into the story and atmosphere than I would grant most games.

      Seriously, most everyone besides McWhertor has some ****ed up opinions on GOTY. Assassin's Creed 2 as GOTY? Wow, what a shallow game. I've fallen to my death so many times in that when I shouldn't have, yet you mark Demon's Souls down for that when you don't even have to use the lock on system.

      Demon's Souls deserved GOTY because it was a long adventure with much replay value and wasn't mediocre shooting crap like every other easy game. Great online and single player experience that we need more of. Not these short shootem games like U2, FPS, etc.

      Also, Demon's Souls isn't very difficult, so it shouldn't be marked down for it. At least it isn't so easy like every other game.

      And LOL @ Luke. Most of you guys have crappy taste. kthxbie

        Yeah, I'm sure everybody that doesn't share your exact taste has crappy taste. Listen, most of the time people like you who rant on about other people "simply not getting it", or "not being hardcore gamers" or having "crappy taste" - whether it be games, books, movies or music - are simply immune to mind numbing repetitiveness that bore the living crap out of normal people.

        Demon's Souls is the most repetitive game ever created. Killing the exact same weak enemies over and over again, running through the same boring scenery over and over again, just so you can be killed by some boss in a few seconds isn't what I call fun. If you find that fun, that's your right, but don't go beating your chest and proclaim your love for having the exact same experience multiple times superior to somebody elses preference for progressive, engrossing story-lines that allow you to mostly skip over the easy bits you've already been through.

        Demon's Souls has potential, and I really wanted to like this game. I've been a gamer all my life and I've finished many, many games on all platforms. Unfortunately the many technical glitches in the game combined with the extremely boring nature of its repetition spoils it for me. Compared with something like even Ultima 7, now very old, this game comes off as a toddlers drawing hanging on the wall of an art gallery.

        I'd give the game 8 / 10 if it wasn't for the mind numbing repetition. Instead I'll give it a 3. Boring and fun aren't synonyms.

    Excellent use of "next-gen" technology and has really grasped the concept of a good RPG. However it is too flawed and very imbalanced. The game tends to lean towards users of arrows and magic allowing them to make short work of all enemies due to the bad AI in the game. Melee users, which the advertises as the best classes, are left to grind their way through extremely tough and cheap enemies.

    I mean why learn how to dodge and parry attacks when you can just hide in a corner and spam arrows?

    I find Owens response very interesting (that is about repetativeness in games).
    I havent played the game so i cant give my opinion on it, but having a games stand out feature being its ability to kick your butt eight ways from sunday really a feature? Or even a good thing?

    I am all for a challenge ( i play most games on their hardest difficulty) but if i had to keep replaying the same piece of level over and over again (even while learning new things and new strategies) i dont think i would enjoy it as much as a game with a lesser difficulty. This amy make me a pansy but i dont care :)

    For me an extreme difficulty would detach me from the game. The plot and gameplay would take a backseat to annoyance and frustration on why it was made so hard.

    I love games for their story, the ability to suck me in and involve me in whats happening (which is why i dont really like fighting games). If a game like Uncharted 2 had a difficulty so brutal that you had to replay a level over and over again numerous times, would it have made your GOTY?
    Personally, it would make mine.

    Totilo and Owen have it right. I wouldn't go as far as Luke, I have enjoyed it off and on, but I'm maybe halfway through Demon's Souls and will struggle to bother continuing. Too many bosses and fights in general are stupid-hard if done in melee and stupid-easy and glitchy if done at ranged. The game is generally very repetitive. The difficulty is often caused by the camera and targeting; I've lost more high-soul-count bloodstains to stupid falls than I care to think about.

    The innovative stuff and the glee at the game being hard, to me, does not make up for any of this stuff. Even stranger to me is the way the positive reviews of Demon's Souls do not mention this at all, as if they have an unglitchy version of the game and mine is faulty or whatnot. It's very "we're so jaded that we'll latch onto anything we've never seen before, no matter how poorly executed"

    I can agree with every-ones comments on this game and I'll tell you why.
    I've been a gamer since Atari and subsequently, played most anything I could get my hands on. From every genre and age since then, I have always looked for a 'fun' game but also a real challenge. Playing marathon 1 hour matches of 'Giant Gram 2000' on the Dreamcast until I thought my thumbs would fall off were some of the most memorable of my time as a gamer.

    But in recent years, I have found that gaming has been tailored (for lack of a better word) to the mass populace of Americans, which, judging by what television has shown us, isn't that intelligent or in depth. Peoples attention span has been 'Soul-formed' or halved to where anything longer than 2 min videos or 2 paragraphs are responded with TLDR. However there IS a market for games other than FPS' and driving sims, and Demon's Souls has really pushed the envelope as far as a 'new' gaming concept.

    I bought Demon's Souls because I was told it was extremely difficult, and I doubted that.....how wrong I was. I played the first level for hours wondering if I had missed something or why I kept dying. Maybe a week of sessions until I put the controller down and thought the game would be a dust collector, because no game is supposed to be that hard, right?
    Well never the one to admit defeat (outloud), I got back on the horse and tried to tame that wild beast.

    Never have I played a game that was so brutally difficult but so immensely rewarding when you just stick at it. The options for customization are insane, and the level design is magnificent.
    If you were one person that had to battle a WHOLE FRIKKIN CASTLE OF DOODS, you'd better not die because you only have one life! That's the thing about this game, if you need to pause, just run away.....I'd do that in battle if I needed to reassess.

    Anyway, I'm an advocate for this game but I can appreciate the criticisms of it too. I think Demon's Souls isn't exactly 'fun' either, but man, I really, really, really enjoy it. *****

    When it comes down to it, a person will pick either Uncharted or Demon's Souls depending on whether they find punishing difficulty a fun challenge or an annoying chore.

    I personally never found learning by dying very fair and thus my natural pick would be Uncharted but I can see why many chose to side with Demon's Souls. Like Owen, I do believe that a game should be accessible to many if it to be placed in a position of high praise. I think a good game is a game that can be enjoyed by many instead of being restricted. There is no doubt that DS is a good game, it's just that Uncharted is better in that enjoyed by many aspect and because of that, rated higher on my list.

    I think the strength of Demon's Souls is not in its punishing difficulty, but in how intricately the levels are designed. The issue for many is the need to keep whole sections of a level in your head to be able to react to what's coming and the game constantly demands this. For me, that makes the ability to open up shortcuts a justifiable reward, not a cop-out.

    There is a sense of discovery in Demon's Souls just because everything you do is a risk. You're meant to be able to risk your life running along edges for rewards because that's the balance of risk and reward advanced gaming is fundamentally based on. Opening up a level or discovering the ability to change things by what level the world is at is the real revolution for me, aside from the camaraderie of having others around to help or hinder me as they choose. The ability to lie to other players in stock phrases which may or may not be true really ratchets the tension of stepping off a cliff on to what may be a reachable platform.

    The difficulty is hard, but not abominably so. Most people simply aren't used to the idea of mooks being a challenge and many of them are in this game, they die quickly enough but they can easily kill you first.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now