[Gamasutra contributor Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us, this week comparing Demon's Souls to a game of poker.]
In arguing for the beauty and artistry of games, Area/Code's Frank Lantz, in looking for power in the simpliest and non-digital of games, spoke of the power of poker in articulating human greed.
“We live our lives subject to greed,” he said, “and poker is a strange ritual where we amplify these things and also dissolve them. Greed becomes present to us in very large way [in Poker].”
Greed comes to us so vividly through poker because it is a game with no alternatives. You must be greedy to play it well, and if you try to buck the rules you'll find yourself not only bored, but parted from all your money.
This is a game that forces greed, and all experiences with poker will be variations of it.
If poker is a poem about greed, that would make Demon's Souls
something like an opera. Demon’s Souls
is rare in that its mechanics are both a feature of its fictional world as well as a feature that insidiously offers a Faustian bargain to players without even asking their consent.
It takes an inverted narrative approach to the techniques commonly used in story-centric games that try to give players the strongest illusion of freedom possible.
, like poker, is full of millions of choices that all lead down the same path. This narrow focus allows Demon's Souls
to speak clearly and distinctly to the human condition. It's the opera of greed to poker's haiku.
Again, Demon’s Souls
is rare in that its mechanics are both a feature of its fictional world as well as a mechanic that insidiously offers a Faistian bargain to players without even asking their consent. The titular demon's souls are the game's currency and experience points, mechanics that are glazed over narratively in pretty much any other RPG.
In Demon's Souls
they're the central focus of the narrative, and the reason why the player is trudging through legions of demons and the insane is because the king of this country couldn't contain his lust for their power.
The final bosses of the game and many of the strongest enemies are people just like the player, or literally are other players invading your game from online. Victimizing others with your greed or becoming the victim of someone else's is one of the many poker analogues of this game.
adds a bitter taste to the very premise of character advancement that pretty much every other RPG embraces. When the final boss of the game is someone who did exactly what the player is doing, it makes you as a player question your actions. But Demon's Souls
is also a game that denies you the chance to repent.
To play at all is to be forced to confront your greed, and in this way it's much more powerful for not allowing the moral choice and instead allowing players the option to choose the right way out. Players need to spend time with their greed to play Demon's Souls
. You get to know how far you'll go for it, and how much fun it is and how good it feels.
Like in gambling, Demon's Souls
gives you the chance to understand how much you covert what you have by giving you the chance to lose it. In Demon's Souls
, you can only cash in your accumulated souls by returning home, but to get more, you have to risk death in its highly lethal combat. The loss of huge numbers of souls would be powerful enough, but Demon's Souls
pushes it further because you get one chance to get them all back.
Like the man who bets double or nothing to get it all back, the tension of players desperately running to their point of death is the essence of pure greed and fear. Unlucky players can find themselves trapped in an endless cycle this way, wondering as their collection grows larger if this will be the time they die twice but too dazzled with the accumulated horde to care.
What’s so perfect about the metaphor of demon’s souls comes at the end, when you have the option of either setting the demons to rest or gaining even more power. It's perfect because the choice doesn't make a difference: there is no way to play the game without experiencing the lure of souls.
doesn't let you avoid experiences but confront them head on. Even the ending is like a cruel joke, as the game sends you right back to the begining for a newgame+ no matter what you choose. The most efficient option after that point, of course, is to choose the bad ending over and over.
is about addiction and playing it makes you an addict. It’s a World of Warcraft
that lays bare its inner workings and invites players to understand themselves through them. It doesn't hide what it is, on the contrary, the game is devoted to the discussion of it.
What makes Demon’s Souls
art, or at least, more art than poker, is awareness and articulation. In the setting of a casino, for example, poker is all about fooling the players into getting lost in their greed. The lessons a casino wants its players to learn about poker are nearly the opposite of what the game itself actually teaches. Unlike unscrupulous games that fool players, Demon's Souls
uses its setting of fantasy not to cover up a skinner box but to display the system for what it is.
There is much more to Demon’s Souls
than greed, but the message is clear. And this is the power of constrained game design. But maybe the term “focused freedom” is better. Demon’s Souls
doesn’t give players the freedom to ignore or dilute the game’s message, but it gives players full freedom to explore its boundaries. No coincidence then that this is the same we would expect from a novel: the story is rigid, but the way we interpret it is our own.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames for the most part, and can be reached at [email protected]]