The Horror That FromSoftware Lost Between ‘Demon's Souls’ and ‘Elden Ring’

Within an hour I wasn't sure I'd touch Elden Ring again. Demon's Souls 2020 winded me, reminding me so completely what these games were before the internet got ahold of them that Elden Ring, built to address a decade of fan engagement, instantly felt less unique, more the actual dark fantasy RPG everyone always claimed they wanted than the mad experiment in religious survival horror inflicted on an unsuspecting public over a decade ago. Elden Ring might be a masterpiece, but it doesn't make me fear God or Hell the way Demon's Souls did, as it still does.I may never finish Elden Ring. Not because it isn't a great game. It's obviously some kind of masterpiece, a synthesis of everything From Software has learned since they created Demon's Souls 13 years ago. That sleeper hit gave way to their mega hit Dark Souls and its many sequels/spin-offs, creating a new subgenre and leaving a mark on the industry that hasn't yet faded. There is nothing else like them at the AAA budget level: nothing as weird, as singular, as committed to eccentricity, to their own mad gameplay and narrative logic, which are often one in the same.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/epz95k/the-horror-that-fromsoftware-lost-between-demons-souls-and-elden-ring
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Mmmmm, a Demon’s Souls article on a Monday morning. Waypoint knows what content people crave!

One thing I love about Demon’s Souls is not only does it traffic in horror and fear, but it’s precisely this horror that makes the game so difficult. Coming back to it as a souls veteran, it is astonishing how mechanically simple this game is compared to what followed. With no real hesitations to their moves, and with the addition of all-way dodging in the PS5 version, it’s trivially easy to roll through an enemy attack and back stab or smash them with a heavy two-handed weapon. But going into Demon’s for the first time, the player doesn’t know that, and the brooding ambience and scary traps engenders a timidity in the player of which the game is happy to take full advantage. At first I thought this was because Demon’s was my first From souls game, but seeing a friend currently struggle with the game after beating Elden Ring reminded me how potent the horror and mystery is in selling this “difficult” experience.

It’s also interesting to see how From could never really replicate this effect in their subsequent games. Dark Souls II tries very hard to capture the weirdness of Demon’s, and while it does do that, the lack of horror makes it so that I’m more excited to see the fucked-up vistas rather than dreading it. And while Bloodborne is maybe the most overtly “horror” of From’s efforts, the empowerment given to the player by being essentially the apex-predator of Yharnam kills a lot of the dread the player would otherwise feel. Of course, that’s not to say they never get there; I’m sure we’ve all felt some sort of apprehension entering a new area with little health and few supplies, but it never felt as oppressive as it was in Demon’s.

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This is ultimately why Demon’s remains my favourite Souls title. Having never played or interacted with D&D before, Demon’s was my first encounter with going way too far down into places you shouldn’t go, to find and kill things that should be left alone. The truly alien nature of the the Worlds beyond the first Boletaria stage, coupled with the fact that that the game expects you to tackle those early stages with a fairly basic toolset, feels like you’re playing something you shouldn’t.

For all their misery, the Dark Souls games are often quiet and beautiful. Demon’s is just ugly in a fashion unlike any other From game, and Bluepoint’s hack attempts to beautify it for a console launch robbed it of its greasy, unpleasant look and feel.

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Hmmm I never finished the OG Demon souls, but now this article has got me thinking that demon souls will most likely be the first game I play when/if I get a ps5. I definitely fall in the camp of not liking Bluepoint’s aesthetic choices, but I’ve always heard that the combat feel and systems seem to feel pretty faithful. Not a bad compromise.

Considering how hard these games are, they could be Candyland themed and I’d still be too scared to play them.

It’s really nice to read an article that so effectively ties together everything these games try to do with religion in a thought-out and nuanced way, and I find the way Weise breaks down the requisite environs of Demon’s Souls into the sections of the kingdom they serve to be illuminating. I hadn’t really thought about it that way before but it makes perfect sense. And the survival horror connections feel tangible; I think I’m a half-generation too late to have strong feelings about Resident Evil and Silent Hill as genre-defining pieces, but when I think about games like Detention and Devotion, SOMA, even Subnautica that riff on the genre, I can see where those connect. Really good read.

That said… there are several points at which I felt like certain claims were, while not exactly untrue, maybe weighted in favor of setting Demon’s Souls apart of from subsequent From games in ways I do not think hold up to examination. For instance—

No other From game has the courage to just not give you a challenge and have it be a moment of pure reflection.

While it’s maybe true in the most literal sense, I can definitely think of moments where subsequent Souls games play with the things that Demon’s does with Allant’s final form (fwiw, I am also unsure about calling Dragon God, Astraea, and Old Monk “non-bosses”). Dark Souls 2, in particular, has Vendrick, and the Ancient Dragon (which does make sense in this framing, as DS2 is maybe the closest From came to trying to make something like Demon’s). If Dragon God’s fight is about understanding that the thing you’re trying to destroy is a trapped, lonely beast that can’t defend itself, how is that exactly different from Ebrietas in Bloodborne? Weise makes a point later on that every final boss of every souls game is a “sad version of a final boss” — and, sure, that’s true for the ones with Dark in the title… but you can just let Gehrman chop your head off and roll Bloodborne’s credits without a fight.

Basically, I think these games have found other ways to engage these kinds of moments — that From has iterated on the idea of not giving a challenge to force a moment of reflection, by deciding to make the player contemplate whether choosing the challenge of a particular fight was a right and justifiable choice. Which is all to say, I don’t disagree with anything in this piece. I also don’t think this stuff he’s identifying is as absent from the subsequent games as this article makes it seem.

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Hmm, I’ve introduced several friends to DS after they became interested through Elden Ring and virtually none of them had any issues. I think it’s pretty well-recognized that DS has some of the easiest combat in the series. The only time they were nervous was the their initial time in the prison and King Allant.

But that’s an anecdotal experience of like 3 people (including myself), and I’m also probably an outlier because Demon’s Souls did not strike me as being any where close to as weird or interesting as Bloodborne or Sekiro. It seemed like a pretty typical creation of a JRPG world in concept design down to the “diverse biomes.”

I definitely put the game down for some reason after encountering the hanging spider. I’m not sure if it’s just because I couldn’t see it and subsequently figure it out.

This article has made me keen to pick it back up though.

I think there’s an element of “you had to be there” with Demon’s that isn’t present with other Souls games. The moment where you encounter the first boss of World 4 with that cleaver stuck in its side, the tongue and that fucking bird are indelibly lodged in my brain due the surprise factor.

Similar moments exist in Bloodborne and Sekiro like the fight with Ludwig and the Demon Ape, moments that still elecit that “what the fuck” response, but those moments aren’t anchored in the subversive. Demon’s starts out as traditional sword-and-board fantasy and every layer you peel back reveals something weird and uncomfortable.

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