Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dungeon Crawling in Demon's Souls

The term "dungeon crawling" refers to the act of carefully and painfully slogging through dozens of floors of dungeon within a video game. As you go through endless traps and monsters, one vainly hopes to gain some treasure worthy of the arduous descent. But oftentimes, this just isn't worth it; the tedious grind bores and frustrates; and thus do treasure and glory lose their luster.

Danger and Intensity

Yet now I can say that the game Demon's Souls has done the impossible. Dungeon crawling in this game is actually fun. But why is that, you ask? How is it that a game set in murky, gritty dungeons and against standard dungeon-fare managed to do this? Well, all I have to do is point to the title of this section. Demon's Souls has that which most all dungeon crawls lack. Danger and intensity.

First, a little background. Demon's Souls is a game legendary for its difficulty. The monsters hit hard. Traps will kill you. When you die in this game, you risk losing it all, potentially losing hours worth of progress. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape that has you as a lone adventurer versus thousands of demons spread across a scarred and forsaken land. And gigantic flying manta rays spawned from the pit of hell impale you with titanic javelins and laugh in your face.

To most, this does not sound fun. Most people quit before they get past the first level. But, honestly, this is not a game for only the hardcore. Instead it is a game for those who are prepared to think, prepared to learn from their mistakes and prepared to adapt to a hostile environment in order to overcome it. Nowhere is this more clear than with the monsters you face. Take the average skeleton, for example. They come at you with massive swords, often rolling like madmen across the ground to get to you, stunning you with the sudden onslaught. If you aren't prepared, they kill you in seconds, and you have to start the entire level over again.

Yet I would argue that this danger is what helps keep you pumped and glued to what you are doing. The consequences make every intense moment and victory matter. And what makes this fun is the learning process that applies to every creature that you face. Once you know how it will try and kill you, you can react accordingly in order to catch the creature off guard. Once you recognize its "tells", or when it is about to swing at you, you can dodge out of the way or parry the blow aside. Consequently, if you are cautious, thoughtful, and resist running ahead, you can deal with anything that comes your way.

Planning Ahead

Much of what makes the dungeon crawling amazingly fun is this need to plan ahead. The pervasive danger requires you to treat it almost as if it were real. If you see a dragon lying on a hill in front of you, you avoid that hill like the dickens. When faced with a row of archers, you can't just charge in and expect to live. The first thing you do is look for alternative ways to attack. Essentially, the danger causes you to be far more cautious than you would be in any normal video game, and it becomes all the more rewarding for it.

The environment itself also requires a careful eye. You might step on a pressure plate, dooming yourself to a volley of crossbow bolts from behind. If you don't see thin planks of wood holding back boulders and strike it by accident, then you will be killing yourself. Seeing what lies around every corner becomes an engrossing experience, as you hope for treasure yet want to be extra careful to insure you don't get ambushed.

The ability to allow your friends to join you in the game makes it even more rewarded. Working together to take down massive supernatural beings is great fun, and still requires a great deal of cautiousness. Even with three adventurers the game keeps things interesting, especially as you try to take on creatures you wouldn't have dared to if you were by yourself.


All in all, the difficulty of the game is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. This is because the difficulty arises in a way that allows you to learn how to defeat it, instead of making each fight a luck-based affair. One never feels that the monsters are unfair in the way they take you down, instead it drives one to be better prepared next time, or to try a different approach.

Thus it is that Demon's Souls is one of the most intense games I've ever played, with dungeon crawling that is impressively addicting. The sense of accomplishment one gets from defeating a monster that, by all rights, should have destroyed you is incredibly rewarding. Yet, sadly, it is this facet of the difficulty that goes over the head of most of the gaming population. Most people would rather play a much easier game, and then are unable to recognize why the inevitable victories in other games feel hollow.

That hollow feeling arises from the lack of meaningful consequences. The effort to swing towards "casual players" has, in effect, served to castrate the majority of games. Victories fail to resonate when they come easily, and it is now hard to find games that are challenging given the focus on targeting the casual demographic. Nowhere is this more clear than with the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). But that is a debate for another time.

Demon's Souls manages to do the impossible in creating a game that is difficult, yet one that allows for intellectual consideration and planning in order to overcome the challenge (instead of one requiring increased reflexes). And I hope that future game designers will recognize this impressive accomplishment and include it in the games of the future.

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