Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Stories and Environments: a Comparative Look at the Environments of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls

        As of late, on the off chance I'd have a break to play console games, I've been devoting my time to Dark Souls, the acclaimed successor to Demon's Souls that I'm sure avid gamers, especially RPG fans are familiar with. I'm close toward the end of the game, much like my Demon's Souls play through, I began the game, took a several month leave of it, then returned and began to rush toward completion in a mad dash of sorts. And I'll admit, I'm having quite a lot of fun with it. The gameplay, specifically the peerless combat system, is just as solid as it was in Demon's Souls, the characters are quirky and memorable, and the boss fights(Though I find them, just as I did in the predecessor, fairly easy going and often a quick ordeal) are gratifying.
         But something seems odd in Dark Souls, something is missing. It lacks the enticing spark that drew me back to Demon's Souls time and time again after I had completed it, and completely engrossed me into the world, to such an extent that I even considered naming a band after one of the characters(I didn't, hah!). At first I didn't know what it was about the game that seemed to perturb me, seemed to prevent the same obsession with which Demon's Souls grasped me. My first thought was that perhaps it was the minuscule, but noticeable, change in graphical style, which turned out to be faulty, as I quickly grew accustomed to it and found it fine. After that, I examined the characters, perhaps it was a lack of life in them that made it feel weak to me? Again, I was wrong, if anything the characters are extremely well modeled and given suitable voice actors and dialogue, making their often blatant absurdity believable, hell, near plausible.  It was obvious from the get go that the gameplay was not the issue either, and even surpasses the prior series entry by retaining a bit more balance between combat styles(I think. IE: Magic isn't OP as hell, though Dark Souls isn't completely innocent of exploitative and "easy mode" play styles) Then I turned to what I saw as the only remaining factor; the environments, and I had finally nailed it.
       Now, it's not the environments themselves that sort of detract from immersion for me (if that has any sliver of sense to it.) But rather, I find, the lack of their cohesiveness. When I first started to have an inkling that the environments were the primary culprit for my disappointment in the game I determined to pay a visit back to Demon's Souls to see if I could accurately state that the difference in environments, and their respective presentation and handling was the barrier laying between Dark Souls and myself.

    Part of what I think really made Demon's Souls so great was the cohesiveness and rich implied history of its various environments. The game's zones made sense, they had a developed, yet underplayed backstory to them, it fueled the ability of the player to derive stories from the zone, to imagine its past, to ponder the events that led to its current state, and what events may be in store for them in this dangerous area. Take for example, Demon'S Souls 3rd zone, Tower of Latria. Here's an excerpt from the contents of the game;

  " The Tower of Latria was a shrine devoted to the Ivory Queen in the lands neighboring Boletaria. With her husband, Latria ruled her kingdom - encompassing a penitentiary, a church, and the great tower itself - to the great adoration and respect of her people. Latria banished her husband from the lands for unknown reasons, and when the fog bathed the kingdom, Latria’s husband found himself filled with a terrible and vengeful lust. He soon discovered the source of his mad desires - a beautiful and flowing golden garb that seemed to beckon his name. When he put the robe on, a rage filled within him. The old man returned and ordered his wife exiled from her own kingdom and her family imprisoned in the cells Latria formerly governed. In each cell block, the old man commanded inhuman guards to keep watch over the tortured prisoners for eternity. He oversaw the construction of an idol made in his wife’s image to give false hope to the inmates, and with the masses of flesh accumulated throughout the years, the old man has begun creating his own army of demons, among them the ravenous Man Eaters. Suspended from the middle of the tower is a large, mechanical heart, constructed in an effort to help maintain the old man’s own existence. The souls of the damned inside of the prison are used as life-giving sustenance to keep the heart beating. In time, the old man’s body began to whither and decay, and the golden garb - the true source of the old man’s demonic rage - beckoned a new host. With the old man rid of the robe’s life-force, he breathed his last gasp of air."

The background story is simple enough. There isn't much going on, not much to digest, and yet it provides so much kindling for interest in it's accompanying visual manifestation; (Unfortunately there is a lack of screens of the zone on the web)
Now as I travel through the dark halls the though of the "inhuman guards" resonates in my mind. I encounter the first few shells of former men, the tower's prisoners... nothing but mindless corpses now, what have the guards done to them? I continue walking and suddenly, see one. One of them. The gaurds. Oh shit. It's grotesque, it's got a head resembling a squid and skulks toward me.. slowly. This is the same dude who decimated those prisoners, I feel fear strike me, not only because I know it's an enemy by nature, but I know why, I know his origins, I've seen the fruits of his labor first hand, all thanks to the environments accompanying descriptor making the whole experience so much richer.

In turn, I feel that Demon's Souls boasts a certain cohesiveness in it's environments, through their accompanying tales, and by design. Each world, feels like a specific area, one that's affected by the characters around it, each zone interplaying with the others. Each area also had a linearity to it, which some may find bland, but I found, as I said cohesive. It brings the zone to a close, making it feel the evermore like it's own entity, and as a result, like an excursion to the area as it's own grand adventure, internally tucked within the grander adventure that is the end goal of the game. 

    Dark Souls in comparison takes claim to neither of, what i consider to be positive attributes, of Demon's Souls environments.  The zone/hub system was exchanged for an open world, which i don't mind on paper, but I feel that when implemented, some of that cohesiveness I so loved in Demon's Souls, and sparked my interest in it's environments, their respective histories, and the adversaries they contained. Foremost, no such short descriptions of areas as were provided in Demon's Souls exist(At least that I'm aware of), which I believe, even though such write ups on areas were secondary in nature, greatly decreases the interest of each area of the world. No longer do I have any insight as to what I'm seeing. It essentially renders first encounters with enemies to little more than a jump scare. I don't know what they are, I have no idea, they don't make my heart pound like the guard whom I understood was capable of extreme treachery. In addition, I feel that, unlike in the predecessor, Dark Soul's environments feel rather "cut and pasted". What is supposed to serve as a traversable open world winds up feeling, to me, like a loose collection of regions. The areas seem to live as separate entities, as they did in Demon's souls, however in Demon's Souls these entities were always comprised of three smaller ones, that effected each other and were of similar topography and terrain, much opposed to dark souls where one suddenly comes out on a giant lake(Which I can't tell if it's implied to be underground or not) by going through a tree in a swamp. In fact, I feel that Dark Souls, in order to make the open world format work, while still clinging to a zone sort of formula, uses a fair amount of these transition pieces of sorts, such as trees that are strictly limited to interior views, gargoyles who fly the player over a wall, though to be fair, there aren't too many of them.

Anyway, I've gone on quite long enough, but I truly believe this is why I still prefer Demon's Souls over Dark Souls. What do you think? Do you agree with my sentiments? Is either game lacking in some other area in your opinion? Do you feel that the being dependent on immersion, or even desiring it through environment and related story is frivolous, either in general or for the particular game?

I'd like to hear what anyone who gives this a read thinks. I suppose I'm back to getting my ass handed to me while I chuckle at Knight Solaire.


  1. I've noticed that a lot of people I've talked to have taken that same sort of path with D Souls games: playing a bit, taking a long break, and then coming back and finishing basically without stopping, myself included. I think maybe it's just an aspect of the gameplay, there's a reflective quality to it, so sometimes just taking a step back is the best way to get a true idea of just what you're doing both narratively and in terms of techniques.

    As for the environments I agree. And it's not just that Demon's Souls really adds the backstory to the environments and enemies, but there's just a better impact to them. That comes in with the cohesiveness. In Dark Souls, the idea is that there is a streaming quality to it, and everything is connected, but I don't think From Software really gives us credit. We connect everything in Demon's Souls anyway. Everything feels of the same ilk. In Dark Souls everything may just be considered as more disjointed, as not everything flows together (going from the valley of the drakes to blighttown is a decided difference, and the transition isn't very transparent)

    But really it's just that I'm in love with the Maiden in Black and that clouds my judgement on everything.

  2. I can't blame you for being in love with the Maiden... I mean, who doesn't get all hot and bothered when it's time to touch the demon inside her?