It’s easy to argue that Demon’s Souls is required reading for anyone who fell in love with the Dark Souls games, or with Bloodborne or Sekiro. It’s not too hard to argue that it’s seminal—that the shadow it casts is long enough, and its influences themselves important enough, that you can’t really understand this particular corner of video games without understanding Demon’s Souls. It’s effortless to argue that Demon’s Souls is even more urgent now than it was in 2009, what with its core themes of a spreading plague (and/or climate change), and leaders who failed, and regular people who are desperate for things to return to normal, despite the normal power structures having brought about the apocalypse in the first place.
It’s easy to argue that Demon Souls is worth your time. But it’s a lot harder to argue that the core design of the game is somehow perfect or unimpeachable or sacred.
Look, I don’t think I’m stepping on anybody’s toes if I say that the Dragon God sort of sucks. Only somewhat more controversially, the cliffside portions of the Shrine of Storms are a lot, what with their combination of rolling skeletons, narrow cliffs, and semi-random bolts of crystal, made more lethal individually and in combination by breakneck camera swings.
Shit like that gives the lie to the Souls games’ reputation of being hard, but fair. That’s been true from the very beginning to a degree, but it’s never been completely true. Some of what series devotees (myself included) think of as fairness is really just facility with quirky systems. We understand the rules, and we can thrive within them, but that’s very different from saying they’re fair. All of the Souls games make borderline-unreasonable demands on the player, and the earlier games make a number of flat-out unfair demands as well. That’s some portion of the appeal, if we’re honest.
What you see when you play Demon’s Souls, having already played From’s later work, are not so much better versions of the same ideas but purer ones. King Allant is Lord Gwyn and King Vendrick in one, with a little Queen Yharham thrown in. The Valley of Defilement is miserable and uncompromising in ways that Blighttown or The Gutter or the Road of Sacrifices, thank God, aren’t. The weapon upgrade system is more involved, complicated, and easy to fuck up, and its concomitant material grind is a deeper, darker rabbit hole, than any that followed.
And then there’s Tendency, a system that doesn’t quite work, and that From has yet to revisit, despite its clear potential. Basically, your character has a sort of Paragon/Renegade binary, but so does each region of the world. Kill a boss or a Black Phantom (the equivalent of an Invader) and the world shifts toward White. Die in Body form (the equivalent of being unhollowed, or enkindled) or kill a regular-ass embodied human, and the world shifts toward Black.
When the World Tendency hits Pure Black or Pure White, stuff happens. Enemies and NPCs appear, blocked paths unblock, and items and questlines become available. Beyond that, a Whiter word has easier enemies but worse drops, whereas a Blacker world has tougher enemies but better drops.
Now, dear reader, if you’re wondering whether summoning co-op partners requires you to be in Body form, just like it requires being unhollowed in other Souls games, then yes, it does. And if you’ve surmised that seeking help and then dying multiple times will therefore actually make that area significantly harder, then yeah, it will. There’s a sort of failsafe in the form of Primeval Demons, which will shift the tendency back towards White, and drop a ludicrously rare crafting material in the bargain—but that assumes you know to look for them, and that you can find them, and in any case, you only get one Primeval Demon per world per playthrough.
It’s important to understand is that all of this is only communicated when it happens, by the fact that it is happening. Without some painful trial and error (or more likely, some time on a wiki) you could end up screwed in ways both short-term (this boss you’re stuck on is now even harder) and long-term (you character is now weaker in co-op for your next two playthroughs).
Demon’s Souls is peppered with design elements like that: elements that reward knowledge and attention, elements that privilege tension and risk. There are real consequences to trying and failing to fight and explore in Body form, real commitment in deciding what to spend those precious Colorless Demon Souls on. The only way to respec is to let one particular boss delevel you repeatiedly with a spell called Soulsucker. It’s uncompromising, for better and for worse (and usually for both better and worse at once).
The remake maestros at Bluepoint said publicly that, although they would be changing the way World Tendency is displayed—the new icons are pretty clear and communicative, whereas the old ones were squinty unreadable nightmares—they wouldn’t be changing any of the underlying logic. They do seem to have blinked on that, a little. If you were playing online on the PS3, the “server median” of other players’ World Tendencies would affect yours. This meant that, in addition to functioning on arcane unspoken rules, World Tendency was also effectively random. Serious players would therefore play offline as a rule. On the PS5, you’re free of that restriction, because World Tendency is local to your own actions and your own disasters, even online.
This is a good change! It sucked, having to opt out of the game’s then-novel online play in order to make the most of its other elements. And Bluepoint has snuck in other, similar concessions to sanity. On the PS3, the aforementioned Primeval Demons had a high chance of dropping precious Colorless Demon Souls, but on the PS5, the drop seems to be guaranteed. Again, a good change! In theory you’re losing some risk and tension, but in practice all you’re losing is the need to backup your save before killing each Primeval Demon (though I did so anyway).
Likewise, the drop rate for pure bladestone is higher in the remake than it was in the original, which is the difference between killing the same skeleton a dozen times and killing it a hundred (if not hundreds of) times. We know this latter change is intentional, because in that same interview I linked above, project lead Gavin Moore says that “the grinding is part of Demon’s Souls,” and that therefore, “You can’t take that away. We will never do that. But yeah, we have improved drop rates.”
So, wait. Wasn’t the whole idea here to change the presentation without changing the underlying design? If the iffy drop rates and the behavior of World Tendency are worth changing—and they are—then why stop there? Here’s where we need to take a step back and talk about what this kind of remake, like, means.
As with their philosophically similar remake of Shadow of the Colossus, Bluepoint’s approach to remaking Demon’s Souls at first seems intuitive, even natural, but rapidly becomes weirder the more you think about it: Simply put, the textures and models and animations they’ve replaced with more modern, AAA-of-today ones were part of the original games too. I’m hardly the first to point out that the original PS2 release of Shadow of the Colossus used its draw distance fog and its hazy, sometimes-indistinct imagery to set a tone—and that for their PS4 remake, Bluepoint jettisoned those gestures.
And fair enough, distance fog is certainly a compromise. The original Shadow of the Colossus uses it to aesthetic ends, but it’s an aesthetic born out of technical limitations. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the original game wouldn’t have used those aesthetic flourishes if not for those technical limitations. Except of course that it did. To square this circle, Bluepoint’s remakes attempt to draw a line between the (brilliant! classic! canonical!) decisions the original developers made and the (creaky… regrettable… alienating…) compromises they had to make.
To be fair, the Bluepoint team does acknowledge the gray area between these categories. In the Demon’s Souls remake, attack animations are shiny, new, and full of flourish—but they’re timed exactly like the animations from the original, down to the frame. Likewise, where the original soundtrack relies on MIDI-ass-MIDI synth sounds, the remake reimagines the same compositions with the lush orchestrations and copious chorales of later Souls games. Where the original has monster designs that are suggestive—of what? Well, read the item descriptions to find out, Slayer of Demons—the remake tries to embed the lore in the visuals; the lore says that the Old Monk stitched the Maneaters together, so now they look stitched together.
In all of these cases, the assumption is that there’s some hard kernel of design or intent (the melody, the timing, the monster concept) that is sacred and unalterable, but that the original execution was harried by compromise. We’re imagining a Platonic creative process wherein geniuses freely envision some wondrous, impossible creation, unfettered by practical considerations—and then, only then, do they descend into the muck of reality to author some diminished version of that vision.
Remakes operate on a foundational myth, namely that games start out as pure creativitystone and then suffer a Miltonian fall in the process of actually getting created. As such, let’s pause for a moment and consider the material circumstances of Demon’s Souls’ development, which is simultaneously the ur-example of this myth, and its opposite. Hidetaka Miyazaki famously took the helm of the a troubled game already undergoing the messy business of being made. As he once said:
The project had problems and the team had been unable to create a compelling prototype. But when I heard it was a fantasy-action role-playing game, I was excited. I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game, I could turn it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care—it was already a failure.
So here we have an auteur steering a project with his singular vision, granted the opportunity to do so heedless of commercial concerns or conventional good taste. This is about as close to the Edenic ideal of unfettered creativity as you’re likely to see in game development—and yet it was possible precisely because the project was already underway and its original vision, whatever that was, wasn’t working. Despite being utterly uncompromising, Demon’s Souls is a work of pure compromise.
Even if we assume a doe-eyed innocence and a boundless, impractical idealism at the beginning of a project, at some point the team does settle down and start actually making the damn thing, and practical considerations become inseparable from creative ones (if indeed they ever were separable). Maybe the Mirdan Hammer animations are timed like that, maybe the Leechmonger’s theme sounds like that, maybe the Maneaters or the Fat Officials look like that, because those were the choices that made sense given the limitations.
A few of the game’s animations remain functionally unchanged for this reason. The animation for popping healing grass into your mouth is quick and impressionistic for gameplay reasons—too quick to look much like a real person actually eating. So in the remake we have a now vastly more realistic model of a human being, touching hand to mouth with the same unrealistic rapidity as its PS3 predecessor.
Less frequently, but more jarringly, there’s a similar issue with character pathfinding, which is mostly unchanged from the original, resulting in real-looking people caught in hopelessly videogamey loops of unreality. And I want to be clear that I do find these moments of dissonance and failure genuinely charming. There’s magic in seeing the jank—the less well-negotiated compromises, the passionate failures, the camp you might even call it—peeking through the cracks in this AAA veneer.
I’d argue that bugs and glitches and just-plain-gaminess can be a kind of camp, “a seriousness that fails,” as Susan Sontag wrote. Anna Antrophy once maybe-more-than-half-seriously defined a AAA game as “a type of videogame that is only interesting when it breaks,” and for a prolific indie designer and educator to view blockbusters this way does, I think, constitute a kind of camp taste. (That’s not to say that Anthropy’s own games are camp, though some of them definitely indulge in camping, recovering retro conventions and fetishizing their excesses; Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars and A Very Very VERY Scary House come to mind).
To quote one of Sontag’s Notes on ‘Camp” in full:
Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.
From this perspective, a whole lot of unconventional but familiar ways of enjoying videogames are adjacent to camp, from preservationism (wherein failures can be just as interesting as successes) to kusoge (wherein the more failure, the better) to masocore (wherein the passionate failure you’re celebrating is your own). This list should also include finding spectacle in realistic worlds betraying their unreality, especially if in doing so they puncture the immersion of the moment—which is to say, if their seriousness fails.
What all of these sensibilities have in common is that they appreciate (Sontag’s word) those aspects of games that conventional taste would find off-putting, or embarrassing, or shameful. They see the beauty in flaws. They see the virtue in failures.
There is, conversely, a deep embarrassment endemic in remake culture. The implicit premise is that some games are sacred, but that those same games are unpalatable and unpresentable until fixed. Remakes aspire to be unfailingly serious, like the anaerobic superhero movies made in opposition to Schumacherian camp. They mean to disavow camp, to remove what’s shameful from games that once gloried in their shamelessness. Remakes can feel texturally muddled, I think, because they hold their source material sacred while also finding it mortifying.
A while back, Dia Lacina righteously eviscerated Sony in particular for the anti-preservationism inherent in removing access to old games:
“See those old games? They’re trash,” is what Sony hopes their consumers will come to believe. Because the more they bake “Newer, Better, More Expensive” into their own personal worldview—the better for Sony’s ongoing sales of new hardware and especially first-party games.
She wasn’t talking about remakes per se, just the simple fact of delisting PS3 and Vita games—but the Demon’s Souls remake being a console launch title, for fuck’s sake, is certainly an extension of the mindset she was excoriating—the one exemplified by Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan’s less-infamous-than-it-should-be assessment that games a few generations old “looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?”
You could describe the Demon’s Souls remake as looking and sounding the way you remember the original looking, and doubtless, that’s the intent—but the remake also sort of relies on this process working in reverse: Your emotional response to this more naturalistic, more detailed version relies on you simultaneously remembering its less naturalistic, more stylized equivalent. It works best if you can manage to see both at once, layered and blurring.
This isn’t a problem if the remake is supposed to augment the original, but if the remake is supposed to replace the original—which this one clearly is, since only the remake has active (official) servers, and only the remake runs on a console you can currently (hypothetically) purchase—then the problem is obvious: To achieve its full effect, the remake demands at least a passing familiarity with what it’s replacing.
So to go back to what’s being replaced: I’m not saying that the original Demon’s Souls is camp through and through. I think its seriousness succeeds more often than it fails, and that its failures are interesting because they don’t generally take you out of it. When the woeful spirit of the fearsome knight Garl Vinland stands at the edge of his movement radius, unable (or in the fiction, for some reason unwilling?) to take a single additional step forward, and when you can thus fell this mighty warrior by poking him a-hundred-or-so times from a just-about-safe distance—the goofiness of that doesn’t exactly break your immersion, because your engagement with Demon’s Souls wasn’t contingent on Garl Vinland acting like a real person.
These are the rules of this game, and if you want to exploit them for a cheesy victory, have at it. Cheese Garl, or Selen, or Scrivir. Some of the black phantoms are so instantly lethal, and such shameless HP soaks, that these sorts of tricksy tactics will be the only path to victory for some players—and hell, sniping from a safe distance is the only viable way to attack the Maiden Astrea directly, or to attack the Blue Dragon at all.
But the degree to which Black Phantom Garl Vinland fails to act like a real person is nonetheless ridiculous, all the more so because the encounter is intended seriously and is otherwise so absolutely, successfully serious, and visceral, and harrowing. You can’t untangle the ways in which Demon’s Souls is bizarre or busted from the ways in which it’s a masterpiece of wild, stubborn confidence. It’s too much in a million ways, and I love it for that.
It’s not all camp, but there’s a lot in it for a camp-adjacent sensibility to enjoy, because its beauty lies not only in what it accomplishes but in what it fails to accomplish. The multifarious cruelties of Tendency might be camp. The weird pathfinding is definitely camp. The cliffside sections of the Shrine of Storms might also be camp, though it would probably be equally correct to call them masocore.
Regardless, this leaves the remake in a strange position. The camp in the original Demon’s Souls is authentic, because it arises from genuine shortcomings and earnest commitment to bad taste, moments when the game couldn’t quite rise to its lofty, sometimes inexplicable ambitions. When the new Demon’s Souls repeats some but not all of these failures, it does so on purpose. It’s camping, in Sontag’s terminology, or else it “plays at being campy.” And I do think it does so affectionately, and even playfully, as well as reverently.
But it can’t quite outrun the ugliness of replacing the thing it reveres, the baked-in attitude of remakes toward their originals that ranges from mild embarrassment to open hostility. I’m enthusiastic about this enormous, beguiling, spectacular production being a version of Demon’s Souls, but I’m uneasy as hell about it being the version of Demon’s Souls, and about the future of those vital, ancient games that are never going to get dressed up and legitimized and remade as flagship blockbusters.
Demon’s Souls might well be worth incorporating into our sense of conventional good taste. But more importantly, it demonstrates how much there is to appreciate that, at any given time, exists outside of and runs counter to conventional good taste.