Together In the Face of Death

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  • The first message I read when I step into the Valley of Defilement is disheartening: “If I only had some friends.” It has been left for myself and countless other demon slayers to stumble across in the desolate wilderness of Demon’s Souls’ unforgiving realms, to assist or comfort or warn of traps ahead, and sometimes to lull you into a false sense of security just before erring unwittingly headfirst into a mistake you won’t escape with your life.

    You never know what a message is going to be, written in a luminous, indecipherable runescript and found plastered like arcane tagging on every conceivable surface players might traverse, until you choose to read it. Anyone logged into Demon’s Souls’ online servers can anonymously leave one, cobbled together from a series of brief sentence templates, keywords and phrases. Without the inclusion of voice chat or other direct communication, this is the only way the battle-worn explorers of Boletaria can talk to each other. It necessitates a sense of community and even friendship among a large group of strangers struggling against the pitiless omnipresence of death that awaits past every blind corner.

    Generally speaking, friendship is its own kind of love – a form of companionship that I find unflappable when the connection is true. With my own skepticism and spotty romantic past, I feel like it may be stronger than the cultural archetypes we intoxicatingly tend to jump to when we hear the fruits of love being parted from one’s lips. In the case of Demon’s Souls, it becomes evident in a bond of fellowship that reassures you’re part of something bigger, something wondrously alive, and more importantly, something hopeful when staring into the conceptual void of such inhospitable environs. The specifics of how you’re going to die over and over aren’t as meaningful as knowing you’re all in there suffering together. And every time you die, your bloodstain will show up in someone else’s Boletaria, your red-tinted spirit an extant and cautionary imprint of how you met your most recent end.

    ———

    “At midnight on May 31st, the Demon’s Souls online servers will shut down forever,” Atlus’ PSA informs me when I log in. “Thank you to all of you, you brave adventurers of Boletaria, for your messages, your bloodstains, your alliances, your invasions. You made Demon’s Souls the amazing online experience it was.” I already know this is coming, having received an email from the publisher announcing the shutdown earlier this month. The word forever has a sting to it that catches me off guard; it could be I am just not ready to receive the news with such finality, staring me in straight in the face from my television. It probably doesn’t help that I’m feeling somehow guilty. I have never finished Demon’s Souls. Maybe I haven’t paid enough attention to messages or bloodstains of other players, or volunteered my services as a phantasmal ally to assist an online companion whose name I will never know, so they might best a terrible demon in their own game.

    Friendship is love is loss is emptiness. I slay the mad king alone.

    I’ve neglected the community, knowing full well somewhere in my brain that eventually it would one day be gone. I’ve become that friend who’s really bad at keeping in touch.

    Boletaria will still exist, as Demon’s younger brother Dark Souls’ Lordran one day will, after the servers are turned off. But new wanderers will be as pilgrims to medieval ghost towns. The spectral presence of other players adventuring simultaneously alongside you, glimpsed only for a moment before fading, will no longer be there. Special items that allow interaction with the online space will be rendered dead artifacts of a forgotten language, if they aren’t patched out of the game entirely. You will never be able to experience the profound horrors of a random player incalculable times more powerful invading your game as a black phantom for the express purpose of murdering you (just because they can), nor the triumph of slaying a huge boss with a brother-in-arms.

    As I make my way through the Valley of Defilement, I discover many messages left by other players that seem appropriate: “The next enemy’s weakness is in your heart.” “Beware of the darkness ahead.” It’s as though all of us still playing the game are all publicly mourning the impending psychological loss.

    With all that Demon’s Souls has been built around, the loneliness suddenly feels like a weight on one’s chest.

    ———

    Hours pass in Boletaria. I have braved toxic swamps in the titular valley as well as the craggy bluffs and ceremonial chambers of the Shrine of Storms, most of which I haven’t previously encountered, and at an alarming progression in one (admittedly long) play session. Somewhere along the way I’ve decided I’m not going to stop until I finish the game, and thus far have killed seven great demons. Only a few remain until the lands are cleansed, at least until they’re repopulated and beefier in new game+ mode.

    Along the way I’ve paid attention to my surroundings, reading many of the messages I come across, observing my fellow warriors’ ghosts and records of death. Without other options for interaction, I’ve made do simply with the knowledge that I am among other people – though this isn’t for a lack of trying. Like most Boletarians, I’ve spent most of my time without my corporeal form. You lose it on first death, where your health is halved. It’s only recoverable by taking the life of a demon or using a rare consumable stone.

    The social context is somewhat jarring. You can’t summon allies in so-called soul form, though you aren’t susceptible to invasion from black phantoms, either. I could put down a summon sign for another player to call on me, but since this doesn’t benefit my progression much, I don’t. Does this still make me the bad friend? I don’t know. Without consciously realizing it, I turn away to some degree from the community I am ultimately saddened to lose. (In the future I will tell myself this might be part of my grieving process, though I’m not sure I buy that.) When I reach Boletaria castle, the last bastion of the demons, I think about being logged in when the clock strikes midnight on May 31st. After getting kicked offline a few times over the course of the night, I realize that it will almost certainly be the same glitchy mid-animation stutter with an error message, the plagued kingdom now a tomb of history. Love, almost inevitably, turns to loss.

    Between expeditions from Boletaria castle and the earthen ruins of Stonefang Tunnel, I find myself at some point in the Nexus’ hall of records, tucked away up a narrow, easy-to-miss staircase at the highest point of your gothic interdimensional safe haven. Remembered here are the top Demon’s Souls players – those who have slain the most black phantoms, greatest uniters of the world, those who have harvested the most souls (used to power up your character) or acquired the most trophies. Names appear on the screen next to spinning avatars as I solemnly observe the stone markers: Deadman279. melvinDRFT. RaidenTR. Kilg78. All names that will vanish without a trace.

    What will happen to this room? Will the developers just quietly seal off the entrance? Or will it echo with the silence of a flourishing society buried by the collapse of time, only remembered by those who were there? I’m not sure which is worse.

    ———

    The next several hours are painfully slow. I trudge back and forth from the heavy fortifications at the end of Boletaria castle to the mineshafts of Stonefang in somewhat vain attempts to say goodbye to the living Demon’s Souls in the time I’ve known it. At intervals I have used stones to recover my body in hopes of finding comrades to help me dispatch a massive blue dragon that’s come to roost on the castle ramparts; ironically, I’ve only been invaded by black phantoms. Even in this late hour (and when they are at their most disruptive), I’ve come to appreciate these cat-and-mouse interactions.

    Paralyzed with fear when I see the flash of red text explaining to me that a phantom has found its way to my game, progress is temporarily halted. Should I hide? I usually try, but these monsters have a preternatural sense in sniffing me out, somehow tracking me down within a few minutes of their arrival. Upon sight of their quarry, they often attack with superhuman speed or cast frightening magic I’ve had no previous knowledge of. If you’re somehow concealed when you see their glowing red forms, it’s especially nerve-wracking; most players I’ve seen like to slowly patrol the area where you are, as though they know that’s where you’re hiding. It’s a mind game, and it works terrifyingly well. Twice I am beset upon after making serious progress with the dragon.

    Death by a black phantom is practically guaranteed – it’s just a protracted struggle to regain control of your dwindling stamina meter or roll out of the way of the next attack. Sooner or later they always win. These are the bullies of the Demon’s Souls universe – their raison d’etre is to make one’s life a living hell. It would be a lie to say that I’ll miss that. Regardless, that they are other players is part of what makes this community so special. There is also an unmentioned duality at work here: To become powerful enough to obtain black phantomhood, they’ve had to walk a mile in your shoes.
    Eventually, I opt to stay in soul form while fighting the dragon.

    ———

    I have failed to find allies in my toil to kill the accursed blue dragon. It is finally vanquished by my hand, with no small amount of exhaustion and spent nerves. Nearly all that remains is to kill the false king that has claimed sovereignty over Boletaria. Despite the mortal terror of black phantoms, I concede to regain my body once again. The shades and messages around me shimmer with life, and no one is there to be my friend.

    Friendship is love is loss is emptiness. I slay the mad king alone.

    ———

    The Nexus seems somehow more populous when the world is birthed anew with demons in my first minutes of new game+. Instead of a handful of ghosts seen one at a time, there are several milling around, paying fealty to the soulkeeping Maiden in Black, buying items, talking with NPCs. Returning to the castle, things feel as they did before. The gloom of absence is gathering.

    In his poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Lord Alfred Tennyson reflects at length on the death of his close friend, the poet Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem itself is arguably best known for Tennyson’s line ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all, allusions to which today are usually relegated to cheap and categorically Hallmark sentiments. I may have to accept this philosophy with Demon’s Souls, taking some comfort that director Hidetaka Miyazaki is still at it and that, in the loss of its online world, Demon’s Souls’ forum elements will live on in the minds of its fans, its social functionality now a result of the conversations between players yet to come. Dark Souls, too, is at once a salve and a distressing inevitability, as all things must eventually pass.

    When I finally log out I’ve left 97,000 souls at the site of my bloodstain near the turf of a lounging red dragon. Maybe in the coming weeks I will send out my own plea looking for friends; it’s something I would hope to do, as I would enlist myself as aid for others. But more than likely when I return it will be past the cutoff, the paths and countryside vacant, as if that camaraderie had never existed at all.


    Steve Haske isn’t always so downtrodden on Twitter, where you can follow him @afraidtomerge.

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