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Ghosts in the Machine

Brendan Main | 22 Dec 2009 12:07
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This transience is not limited to ambience and philosophy. It informs the very space you occupy and the ground beneath your feet. Though Demon's Souls is chiefly a single-player experience, it is designed to allow glimpses into other players' games. You can scrawl short messages alerting or misleading others to the dangers ahead. Bloodstains litter the ground, each one announcing where a fellow doomed soul has met their end. When investigated, these spatters play back the hapless player's last few moments in ghostly pantomime. It reminds me of the Irish folktale of the fetch, an apparition that appears to you in the way that you will die. This could all be taken as a paranormal camaraderie - a resistance beyond the grave. But for me, this spectral communion has the opposite effect, driving home the experience of isolation even further. Demon's Souls may not be the scariest game I've ever played. But it may be the loneliest.

On the face of it, it seems paradoxical: What could be lonelier than being alone? I've spent thousands of hours of game time by myself, but seldom think of it as solitary. I am occupied and engaged in a way that precludes isolation, perhaps in the same way that, for Douglas Adams, "one is never alone with a rubber duck." There is that solipsism of the hero: the myth of importance. Taken as a strictly single-player experience, Demon's Souls' gloom could be palatable and even welcoming - yes, the world has been crumbling into a demonic abyss, but now I'm here, and I'm kind of a big deal. Alone, I can entertain the notion of being that last spark of light in a dying world. But being connected, even peripherally, belies this illusion. Witnessing those countless others slaving away at the same quest spoils the isolation, and any hero-fantasies I might have entertained seem idiotic and quaint. Though my quest may be private, it is not unique. I am not a beautiful snowflake. I am grist for the mill.

Multiplayer gaming has its own myths of importance. In a massive environment, I may not be worth much as an individual, but I am part of something larger, a force greater than the sum of its parts. We assume that games will organize us in relevant ways, and this allows us to array ourselves as we see fit. Demon's Souls has different plans for us, however. I've spoken to many people who love the game, but wish that they could play it with their friends. This seems to be precisely the point: In such an alien place, friendship is impossible. Temporary allies may be summoned from the ether, but they're less heroic alliances than fleeting moments that coalesce and then disperse.

Space in Demon's Souls is seldom to be shared.

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In another game, if I saw a fellow player fighting the good fight against a horde of monsters, I could swoop in and help or slink behind him and stick a knife between his ribs. In Demon's Souls, the moment is past long before I witness it, an echo of an echo. And then, not every point of connection is a welcome one. Later in the game, you may choose to enter another person's game as a black phantom with the intent to stalk and kill him, siphoning your victim's soul like some digital Dracula. These invasions are unmarked and unannounced, lending to the constant threat that some stranger is prowling through the sacrosanct space of your save file. Starved for contact, the very push to connect becomes somehow craven and predatory.

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