Playing Demon's Souls when your life is already a numbing, beautiful cycle
Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
My psychology professor used to say that insanity is taking in the same stimulus, and doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. If that’s true, then Demon’s Souls (2020) is a pit of mindless recurrence that insists things will be different this time, just go again. No, really, it’ll be different. Promise.
The floors in my bathroom are faux ceramic: the eggshell tiles are uneven and coarse, ensuring that even the smallest flake of skin or hair or dirt will catch in the pores and linger. On my worst night, as three am passed me by, I stared at inky black sick as it ran from the toilet bowl, along the splash back, and into the grooves between the tiles, devouring the grout inch by inch. A sharp knife had taken residence at the base of my skull. My throat ached, taky with bile. I couldn’t feel my stomach. Food poisoning, that time, but I blamed the drinking anyway. I stared at the inkblot painted across the wall in stomach acid and blood and wondered, in an idle, feverish sort of way, if things could get worse.
The next morning I ached into existence. Lips cracked. Head spinning. Eyes thick. I poured a bowl of steaming water, added bleach, and sugar soap. I eased myself to the floor, almost falling as my balance failed. On my hands and knees I undid the mess one tile at a time. It took an hour. I closed my eyes twice, fell asleep once. But the tiles returned to their conspicuous whiteness, ready to collect the next stray hair or speck of dust from the freeway. I limped through the next few days, but I fixed it.
The Souls franchise convinced me to play video games as an adult. I’m still not an avid gamer, but beyond Halo 3, I had little interest in actually playing games. In the double-denim years of high-school, I played Dark Souls with Jon Jon, a fellow Youtuber, and I fell in hard. The esoteric lore. The beautiful, non-sequitos vistas. The punishment. But more than that, what drew me to Dark Souls over competitive games was the alignment of the world building and the gameplay: the literary parallel is intoxicating.
In Dark Souls, you’re venturing through a world so hostile to life that every human civilisation in history has crumbled, succumbing to the dark sign and the cycle of the undead. In Dark Souls, the world is hostile to life itself. And so too the games are hostile to you, the player. The Souls games murder you without blinking or flinching or saying sorry.
Took a corner too fast? Nope, stabbed in the face, idiot. You’re dead.
Tried to run past those low level guys to get to the boss? Got caught in a bottleneck, but you’re out of stamina. You’re dead, shithead.
Strolled back into the starting area to clear out those items you walked past and get a little cocky because these are just the starting--
Oh wait, you’re already dead.
To the extent that you can only learn about certain mechanics when the game kills you with them. The only way to learn that some chests are flesh-eating mimics is to get swallowed alive by one. After that, you will spend the rest of your time attacking every chest you see. The franchise has always asked you to be prepared for anything, because everything is out to ram a spear down your throat and watch you choke on it.
But this sense of ‘unfairness’ is why winning feels so great. Beating a boss in Dark Souls is a true achievement because you’ve overcome terrific odds to do so. As the franchise evolved, the creators focused on funneling players into the frenetic, fun mode of play where dodging and parrying create a beautiful combat dance as the distance between life and death narrows to the tip of a blade but god damn if dropping Father Gascoigne to his knees for the first time ever isn’t a religious experience. As he staggers, you dart forward, and drive your hand into his fucking chest and rip out a chunk of his health bar.
The texture of the Souls franchise is sandpaper. It’s manual labor in summer. It’s fun, interesting work, and before long you find yourself stalking the streets of Yharnam under a crimson eclipse, or traveling to the realm of the gods to fight a dragon in Sekiro.
And then, you return to Demon’s Souls, where it all started.
The mornings after the breakup were the worst. Snapping awake from the snatches of sleep a night to find the bed empty. Staring at the clock as it reads one forty. Two fifteen. Five thirty. Doing life but not really doing it, just play-acting. Being a human so the other humans don’t suspect the inky well in the heart of you that shows itself when you least expect.
Trauma is funny in that way. It goes into the circuits of your brain and rewires everything, kicks out connections, spills coffee on the consoles. Someone offers you a beer and you bite their head off. A client apologieses and you hide the burning anger that makes your fingertips too warm. Kindness strips the nerve endings from your skin and makes you cry at the oddest times.
You see her in every crowd. A pair of doc martens. A sweep of blonde hair. You miss. Hard, in that true, ugly, sort of way.
Bloodborne makes me feel like a hunter, equipped with a shotgun and a lethal weapon, stalking the streets for wretched beasts that demand I carve my way through their ranks. Demon’s Souls makes me feel like a toy solider lost in a maelstrom.
Demon’s Souls (2020) is hard (hard as the original, harder maybe), but conveys its challenge differently than the other titles in the series. Oddly, Dark Souls III and Demon’s Souls have the most in common: both ask you to overcome a series of mostly linear problems, where you must respond to specific circumstances the developers have created.
And the game is severe. The first area, the Boletarian Palance, asks you to learn the mechanics and master crowd control. Enemies punish you in new and fun ways each time you attempt a run. The Shrine of Storms asks you to juggle competing pressures: projectiles, fast-moving swordsmen and small walkways. As you progress, different muscles arch into use. It’s why the game feels harder and harder the more you play, not easier. Each area doesn’t just throw a new mechanic at you and call it a day. Instead, it demands you take an existing mechanic and master it. Then master it further. And further. If you don't learn to dodge overhead sword attacks early, The Old Hero will obliterate you so thoroughly you'll consider scalping your playstation on fucking ebay.
The act of hitting your head against a wall until it breaks, only to come upon another, similiar wall, is maddening. But as you see the cracks in the surface, the game slips under your skin. The raw, orgasmic rush of victory is underpinned by that quiet voice reminds you it’s only going to get harder. But the small victories are so glorious you keep going. As the Maneater boss threw me from the battlements for the twentieth time, Ostrava’s words lingered, ricoceting against the inside of my skull over and over: is there a single sane person left in Boletaria?
Drinking helps. It shuts things down, erases the vortex of heartache, boredom, disappointment and isolation. The way whisky slows your thoughts, gives them weight. The way beer makes you relaxed, almost fun again. And soon enough you remember how good it is to slip into the nothingness. It’s the only time you aren’t conscious. You don’t rest, exactly, but for a brief, six hours, your mind is blank.
Complete oblivion. For a long time you do this. It becomes like a sermon, once a night, on schedule. But you go through the motions each day. Pretend to be someone who goes to work. Someone who walks some evenings, runs sometimes. You keep doing it. The black fragments never escape your rib cage, but you grow accustomed to the way they jostle you at four in the morning. The way they make you avoid that band. The way you try not to think about that party where you got too drunk and your childhood trauma took over and you made fun of people for taking drugs because who wants to spend time with boring people who trash their lives for fun.
The desolation feels unique. You convince yourself no one else is suffering the same way, that you’re alone in this endeavour because how could anyone look at a perfectly normal life and see the wasteland you’re living.
The game was getting to me in a way the others had not. Perhaps months of not sleeping, maybe the stress of my job. Maybe I’m just older, my reflexes fraying. I love the Souls games but Demon’s Souls had stopped being fun. I bathed in my frustration, turning the console off and on multiple times a session as I convinced myself that actually, I had better things to do.
Whatever the reason, halfway along my journey, after being schooled by the skeletons beyond the Shrine of Storms, I realised I needed help. I started touching summon signs. Calling on strangers. Because for all the ‘get good’ nonsense that ‘true fans’ spout, Souls co-op is great. You never just instantly beat the boss or the baddies, but it feels a little like evening the odds against the oncoming storm. Running down the narrow path toward three skeletal warriors, holding my breath as one swings at me, but before it’s blade can connect, an arrow skewers it through the chest and it falls into the chasm.
Even if you still lose, it feels like enough. The demons still kick you three ways to Sunday and some days it’s still too god damn hard to execute on your ideas or even play at all, but when there’s someone else there, everything feels easier. A blue phantom with the same tools as you, just trying to survive. Even if you lose, you’re doing it together.
One day, you go to a friend's house. Sit on a stool, cry, talk about how your mind is eating itself. How you miss her. You go drink beers in the city with a friend, talk about nothing and then you talk about it. You play pool with a friend and her wife and get too drunk and it’s okay because you’re together.
And one day you take a call and you don’t just exist, you’re alive. Grinning. Laughing so hard you’re crying. And she’s pretty and kind and very different indeed. You like her laugh and her nose and the way she twirls her hair when she’s flirting. You like the way she’s different too, and you like being around her. And you forget, just for moments at a time.
And that’s courage for the next time. And the next time. And inch by inch, you drag yourself back. Mend the knife-marks until they’re silver scars. Mop the floors until the tiles sparkle, and you do that once a fortnight now, because their shitty off-whiteness that collects far too much dirt and dust won’t beat you. You fix the small bits, one at a time.
When you look back, you see the trail of black, oozing sick that you’ve tracked from the pit, all the way to here. It’s been a long, brutal journey. And yet, looking around, you’re shoulder to shoulder with your people, who have the same tools and same luck as you. You beat the odds, inch by inch. You haven’t won, not really, there’s no such thing, but you’re alive. You get to keep going.
This piece is in dedication to my family: Cameron, Lucy. Ruby, Laura. James, Collin. Sam. Patrick. Kate. You continue to save me.