I’ve tread the dead streets of Boletaria many times in the past. I know the twists and turns of that decaying tomb well. Where dragons patrol the battlements, run straight through, and men howl like broken animals.
This dead place is anything but quiet. Nine years after its release the world still buzzes with activity. Pale phantoms fade in and out of existence. Whether you’re standing atop the highest ramparts of a crumbling palace, great view, or you’re slogging through poison mud, don’t go forward without a royal lotus, in a long forgotten pit. Bloodstains show where others have fallen to an unseen trap or a rusty blade. Most of all there are the messages from those reaching out for a connection. To let you know that you should use blunt attacks on the next enemy or to pierce the gloom with an enthusiastic Hi!
Today, February 28th 2018, Demon’s Souls’ servers will be unplugged and the dying kingdom of Boletaria will finally fall silent. This is it. All of its ghosts will be walled off from each other forever. The glowing red messages letting you know about the hidden passage will be erased and the walkways will be cleaned of their bloodstains.
This was the first game in what would become From Software’s much revered Soulsseries. It’s also the first of these games that will be losing its online features, stripping it of one of the core pillars that the franchise was built upon. Demon’s Souls remained something of a niche title, thanks to its exclusivity on the PlayStation 3. It’s started down a one way road now. Unlike the Dark Souls games, Demon’s Souls isn’t being treated to a remaster and it’s unlikely to make the jump to another platform.
Demon’s Souls won’t just be losing a limited chat function: its online features are interwoven into its narrative. At the heart of the game is a tale about the corrupting forces of greed. It can seem a little lean compared to Dark Souls, but Demon’s Souls was a rescue project. It wasn’t allowed to become inextricably lost within its own lore, which is the ultimate fate that’s befallen the later titles.
King Allant brought doom to his prosperous kingdom in his pursuit of power. Each world plays with greed in various ways. In world 1, the Boletarian Palace presents players with a lust for power through strength. Stonefang Tunnel on the other hand presents a critique of capitalism and economic greed.
The players themselves are also acknowledged to be complicit in this. Their stated intention might be to become Boletaria’s savior, but in your heart you know you’re here to take part. To do so you’ll need to fight. To be a good fighter you’ll need souls. So you’ll kill to amass more souls and become stronger. Don’t stop. So you can carry on killing.
From the beginning, the game acknowledges that all of the heroes were pulled into the Nexus of their own volition. One of the first characters you meet is the crestfallen warrior who became a staple of the series. Here he is distinguished by a blue glow. Blue phantoms are what players appear as when they are called to lend aid in another player’s world. Giving an NPC the appearance of another player is an explicit reference to how they are now trapped within an exploitive system that’s doomed to repeat itself. The true Demon’s Souls starts here.
The focused narrative of Demon’s Souls comes hand in hand with a very deliberate approach to level design. Each place says something specific. Dark Souls was later lauded for having an interconnected world that allowed players to see how far they’ve traveled and overcome its obstacles, but this ultimately feels like it was created as a playground for players. Unknowable domains of the gods lack tangibility. The spaces within Demon’s Souls are actively antagonistic and are often institutions that capitalist systems use to maintain power over people. The player’s journey will take them through prisons, palaces and religious temples. They always make sense but they’re imbued with the feeling you’ve stumbled into somewhere you don’t belong.
In one of the most memorable moments in the game, an end level archdemon will rip players out of their world and into theirs. The purpose being that anyone facing that boss will have to face down a human opponent, who is summoned as a black phantom into the arena. Here it is made explicit that you are at the mercy of the game’s systems at all times. This type of player interaction was later revived for a boss encounter in Dark Souls 3’s “Ringed Cit”y DLC, but even here players have to opt into being summoned through an in-game covenant system. Demon’s Souls had the confidence to wrest this kind of control away from players.
The worlds would also change depending on a system called World Tendency. This was supposed to take player’s good and bad actions into account and change subtle aspects within the environment. If soul tendency is white then this might mean there’s now a shortcut ahead. However, if soul tendency is black you’ll be up against a more dangerous foe. The system itself never really worked as intended, but it played with the idea of shifting perspectives to give players hints about the true nature of the world and its events.
I hopped into World 1-1, the Boletarian Palace, for old times’ sake. There was still a message in front of a sheer drop which read if you jump down here… Most are wise to that trick now, but the classics never go out of style. The bridge leading to the Red Eye Knight was still awash with bloodstains. They tell their own story. That black armored figure has cut down more players than even the toughest bosses. A formidable foe indeed.
Standing in the Nexus at the end of it all, my hearts breaking. I reached down and scribble one last message into the masonry.