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knutaf avatar 4:21 AM on 09.10.2011  (server time)
Consistency and Plausibility in Demon's Souls

As the release of Dark Souls approaches, I've of course been trying to wrap up my Demon's Souls playthrough. I'd started writing about my usual crazy exploits, but instead found myself gravitating towards this topic of the world building, level design, and attention to detail in the game's areas.

There are minor SPOILERS for the various worlds you visit. No plot points or too much about the enemies within. Just about the areas.

There are five worlds in the game. They are incredibly well put together, something I found myself observing almost continuously. It's not just their aesthetic either, but also their consistency. They have that kind of realism--no, plausibility--that so many games lack.

A sprawling stronghold

You start in a castle. Not just the kind of castle you see from afar and are all, "oh yeah that's a castle," but the kind that towers over you with massive scale and awes you as you walk under the portcullis. It's not symmetrical. It's not small, but rather huge and sprawling. It has towers; you see them from outside, then you walk right into them and climb up stairs within. Really, as I walk in the narrow, cramped alleys and stairs in one part of the world, I get the sense that the place was built, not created.

I love that from one of the earlier lookouts you can see along a sinuous wall (where the dragon strafes you till you burn) and see the next section of the castle. Then you end up going into it. I love that you can look up in certain parts of the third area, see walls and ramparts high above, and later actually be in those places. On many occasions I'd look down from some wall I'm walking along and say, "oh hey, I was down there earlier!"

There's just a large amount of the world that is not merely background, but real, playable geometry. Not enough games give you the ability to actually make it to all the places you can see.

Mine are the depths of the earth

The second area is a sort of mine. There's clanking, steaming machinery, waterwheels and pulleys and platforms on ropes, sluice gates and scaffolding and so on.

Walking through the area, again, I couldn't help but feel that every inch had a purpose to some entity in the world. You take an elevator on creaky platforms and ropes at one point. Someone probably needed access to the lower level, so built it there. But it's made out of cheap, portable material, because it's a freaking mine; you build it cheap so you can move on when it's dry. Later you find a waterwheel used for transporting filled carts of ore--a self-evident purpose. I challenge you to find objects or areas that have no plausible explanation.

Journeying deeper into the mine, you start to come upon creatures. Man-sized tunnels are bored in a mazelike fashion through the earth deep below, made not by men, but by huge beetles. By interacting with the beetles (read: combat), it's not hard to imagine that they dug the tunnels, from the way they walk and charge and use their claws.

And at the very bottom? You discover why it might be so lava-filled above. Hint: it kind of involves a dragon.

Captive of the night

The third area is another castle. A repeat? No, not by any measure. Whereas the first castle was clearly a stronghold or fortress, this one is more like a prison tower. Even though you can tell you're inside some kind of castle (from the cold stone walls and views of other parts of the massive building) the inclusion of rows and rows of cells, and of a kind of repetitious floor layout steer your conclusion toward its obvious purpose.

Not just the floor layout, but grisly furniture in the form of manacles, iron maidens, racks, and other torture devices. Along most hallways one or more illithid guards make their steady rounds. Just like a jail, each block has a key that opens a fairly predictable set of doors.

Not a minute went by that I didn't remember what sort of place I was in.

But you can escape the prison to the upper heights of different towers, erected carefully above a blood-swamp (my god, why is there a blood swamp?). There are two towers flanking a central one, in which hangs a massive, chain-bound heart. The chains wrap around it and anchor to the other towers, where magic-wielding slaves chant tirelessly to keep them secure.

Harkening back to the principles of the first area, from the very start you can see all these prominent places far off in the distance, almost impossibly far and blurred by the hazy night. But then via hazardous walkways you actually go to them, to each of the three towers, then finally ascending the larger one. I had hoped when I first saw it that I would get up close to the giant, totally rad heart and see it in detail. Of course, Demon's Souls did not disappoint me. It would have been so easy to make it an interesting set-piece in the background, but they did the braver thing.

Crashing against the bluffs above the sea

Seldom has any form of art, especially visual, captured the image of the windswept, rocky island above the crashing sea. You can imagine this sort of place, or you've read about it, but Demon's Souls has it in almost tangible detail.

The aesthetic principles of the fourth area, from what I can tell, are meant to highlight nature's disruptive forces on an island that suffers from exposure above all else. The rocks are barren. Only scant, patchy grass grows. The walls are in ruins everywhere (unlike the fortress world, which is in relatively good repair). It's like the land has been beaten and scrubbed raw by the wind until it kind of whimpers and crumbles under the pressure.

The underground portion of this world is less remarkable from this standpoint. Actually, it felt like maybe the weakest area in the game, in terms of level design, since it's basically a generic underground cave without any particular "theme" to it.

A vile place if I ever knew one

Of course, I've saved the best for last. The fifth world is a poisonous swamp (not to be confused with our good friend the blood swamp). In and of itself, that idea is no more interesting than the generic cave system in the fourth world, but the addition of sentient inhabitants really brings it to life.

The world is populated by strange goblins. They're mutated and weird, but still unmistakably humanoid. You never talk to them (only fight them, tooth and nail), but they've left their mark everywhere, and it tells a rich story.

The swamp has almost no visibility, so the goblins have planted burning torches on islands, which the game does a very good job of showing you blearily in the distance. For closer spaces, they have candles everywhere, their constancy lending credence to the idea of a windless, stagnant valley or bowl.

These creatures live in basically the most inhospitable place you encounter in the game. Somehow, with their rickety, nearly-collapsing constructions of splitered wood they've managed to make a home for themselves by hoisting off the ground, away from the foul muck. The look of their abodes reminds me of the tree-houses of the Ewoks, but more dilapidated. The way each triangular tent is assembled and the haphazard way the planks are leaned against one another just feels real to walk through.

As I waltzed through, a veritable demigod of power, slaughtering them left and right, I couldn't help but feel a pang of regret. Aren't they just defending their home?

These areas all, they're as important a part of the game as any of the other fine aspects. At first glance I thought Demon's Souls looked crude and lacked production values, but with a closer eye, I find there's real artistry there.

Screenshots mostly from the great videos by maxtrixandraia.

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