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Demon's Souls and Permanence

Love it or hate it, Demon's Souls makes an uncompromising statement that hits you like a sledgehammer - and then it keeps on hitting you with it like it's the most natural thing in the world. In an era of single-player games that hold your hand and protect you like a fragile newborn, Demon's Souls dares to shrug its shoulders and say, "Deal with it."

One aspect of its cold-hearted design that other games could learn from is the permanence of player actions. In Demon's Souls, every decision, action, and mistake is effectively permanent to your current character. If you don't like the consequences of your actions, all you can do is start the game all over again. No, you can't reload an earlier save - the game doesn't let you. Once you've done something, you've done it for good. And the game allows you to make some serious mistakes. A striking example of this is the second (of two) blacksmith that you meet. MINOR SPOILER ALERT: When you first meet him, it's not terribly obvious that he is friendly. So if you kill him (yes, the game lets you kill important NPCs...), then guess what? You can't upgrade your weapons anymore. Yep - you read that correctly.

Why should any game ever copy such an unforgiving, sadistic mechanic? Because it completely changes how you approach the game. It is no longer just a light-hearted romp that you can half-focus on and pound through without a care in the world. You become way more careful about every single step you take (the game has no "safety railings", so you can easily fall off any cliff), and that makes it more real and more immersive. Having said that, I do not think every game should do this. Many games, if not most games, should just be light-hearted romps that you can half-focus on and pound through without a care in the world. That's a certain type of game. But I think another type of game - one that we don't see as often these days - could benefit from such a mechanic.

I'm talking about games that try to be more than just fun - games that want to make you experience something you normally can't experience. And I don't mean experiences like flying or exploring some alien planet, but experiences like disarming a bomb, or being in a war where you never know if you'll live another day to see your family and friends again back home. These are more - for lack of a better term - "serious" experiences. I'm arguing that such serious experiences cannot be fully effective unless the player is forced to truly care about the situation, and permanence of actions is one way to accomplish that.

Imagine a game where you have to disarm a bomb in 60 seconds. If you fail, you and your military squad all die. But this is a "well designed" game, so if you fail, all it really means is you just have to reload your last checkpoint - which the designer has already auto-saved for you - and try it again. This is nothing like the real experience of disarming a bomb.

Now imagine a different game, where if you fail, you truly lose your squad. Maybe the game doesn't end completely, but that squad is dead (imagine a strategy game of some sort), and there's nothing - literally nothing - you can do to bring them back, short of starting the game all over again. You can still finish the game (you can still beat Demon's Souls without upgrading weapons), but not with that squad. Now, I'm not claiming that this is exactly like the real experience of disarming a bomb, but I am claiming that it is much closer to it.

Random aside: I want to give Atlus huge kudos for sticking to their vision. I used to develop for the PlayStation 3, and one of Sony's requirements for all games is that when the user presses the PSN Button (bringing up the cross-media bar), the game must pause. Of course, this would have ruined Demon's Souls lack of pause ethic, so Atlus must have insisted that they be given a pass on that rule. Kudos to them for doing that.

Another random aside: Permanence wasn't invented by Demon's Souls. Other games, such as Steel Battalion, have used it as well. There was another small experimental game where you're basically executing someone, and if you go through with it and play the game again, the dude's just starts out dead - the name escapes me. Of course, you could argue that old-school games that didn't even have the technology of save/reload all exhibit permanence. But I do think Demon's Souls embraces the idea like no other at an unprecedented scale.
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About stevesanone of us since 11:25 PM on 02.22.2008