Living in Demon's Souls as the Servers Shut Down
When I begin Demon's Souls, I am not alone. My avatar's character model is overlapped by a ghost. It runs out ahead of me, raises a spectral shield, and charges into the unknown. I wish it luck, and creep carefully forward.
This ghost is another player, and for the time being Demon's Souls is full of them. If you enable the game's online functionality, they fade in and out of the world, fighting, exploring, dying. They're you, the player, reflected back at yourself, experts and newcomers alike echoing your own successes and failures, fellowship via haunting.
This is my first time fighting here, struggling to find a foothold in the dark fantasy world Demon's Souls takes place in. The ghosts, like so much of the game's online element, make the difficult parts of that quest feel more bearable. Like all Souls games, Demon's can feel capricious and cruel to new players. One of the primary functions of online play in these games, all developed by From Software with the guidance of creative head (now company president) Hidetaka Miyazaki, is to encourage the player to persevere.
But not for much longer, at least not in Demon's Souls case. The game's servers will soon be shutting down, removing all of the PlayStation 3 game's online elements for good. In the meantime, here I am, rusted sword in hand, trying to claw my way into Boletaria as the doors close.
When it was released in 2009, From Software's Demon's Souls was transformative. Initially ignored, growing in sales and esteem via word of mouth and a surprising amount of interest in the West, the dark fantasy game garnered a cult following and an eventual surge of critical acclaim, spurring on the development of a sort-of sequel, called Dark Souls, which used its predecessor as a template to solidify a burgeoning miniature genre.
These games thrive on the twin pillars of adversity and community. On the one end, they are demanding in a way most modern games aren't. They center around combat that moves slowly, does high damage, and punishes inattention. Experience points to grow your character and enhance your weapons are tied directly to player performance: If you die, you drop all the experience you're carrying, and can only reclaim it if you struggle back to the spot where you died without perishing a second time.
But alongside that challenge comes a community dedicated to making the game both easier and harder. Alongside player ghosts, the online functionality records player's deaths as bloodstains in the world. If you touch a stain, you see a brief reenactment of how that player died, a warning, but for the grace of the server go I. It also allows you to leave messages on the ground, in the form of canned phrases strung together, letting the intrepid communicator give warnings, offer advice, or even troll. Bottomless pits tend to have messages next to them, excoriating the nearest sucker to try jumping. On the more sinister side, players can engage in combat with others, sometimes against their will: Certain items allow you to invade the worlds of other players, making yourself one more unexpected obstacle to conquer. These invasions can range from honorable contests to glorified hazing rituals, and they offer a peculiar flavor to the space, the unpredictable sense that the worst can always happen, anywhere. Yet invasions can also be made by invitation for the purpose of helping other players, summoning allies to help take on particularly tough encounters and bosses.
All of these functions are reliant on servers run by From Software to function. Now, their days are over—they were shut down yesterday—and there's no way to restore them. Much of the functionality of these servers is private information, and I have no idea how, say, the game decides which messages to put in any individual player's world, or how to connect players for invasions or cooperation. From Software is exceptionally tight-lipped, and even if they weren't, there's no legal way to restore servers to a game once the game's owner shuts them down. To do so would require hacking the game to function outside of official authentication, a breach of copyright.
The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) is fighting for the right to recreate centralized servers for the purpose of education and research, arguing for an exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for that very purpose. So far, however, MADE has been unsuccessful, with the Entertainment Software Association, representing major game publishers, serving as unlikely opponents in the fight. The ESA argues that exemptions like the MADE's would serve no research purpose and would, in fact, simply be used for recreation.
Until such time as the US Coypright Office sides with MADE, or the ESA changes its tune, there are no legal ways to restore deactivated servers. That means Demon's Souls servers are shut down for good. The dark world of Boletaria, which is already haunted with monsters and specters of all varieties, is going to see its most unique ghosts depart forever. Demon's Souls, a game about the end of the world, is suffering its own sort of apocalypse.
Message in a Battle
So, to eulogize the world before it ends, I went into the game, for the first time, to see off the Demon's Souls community. As the days drew closer to the end of February, the multiplayer became quiet and sparsely populated. I couldn't find any players to summon to help me, and I wasn't invaded once, even after going into the later game where those occurrences should be more common. That's the way with apocalypses like this: Digital worlds die slow, as the populace moves on and the technology becomes outdated.
Here's what it's like, though, as a part of Boletaria is winding down forever: The foggy air is still, and quiet. I cut through undead soldiers with a short sword, ascending toward an abandoned castle. Ghosts of fellow warriors go on beside me, dancing to dodge invisible enemies. I see some of them fall, and die. Messages, glowing text on the ground, warn me of ambushes around nearly every corner. I walk with my shield raised, watching the signs for danger.
One peculiar thing starts to happen as I go deeper, up through stairwells of flame-wielding, emaciated walking corpses, under the shadow of dragons. The messages on the ground take on the candor of a distinct set of other players, making this journey with me. There's a sense of personality to them, as if one person left a large batch of them as they went. They celebrate successes, and lament repeated defeats. A few simply ask for other players to rate the message positively, as doing so confers healing, a much-needed boon in nasty fights. Even though I'm playing alone, I can sense this person beside me. In a cold world, it's a warming feeling. It keeps me going. I figure this player, like me, is playing through this game for the first time. We're newcomers at the end of the world, together.
At one point, a message tells me to strike a flimsy wooden wall. I do it, and a line of boulders roll out, down the ramp I'm standing on. They nearly flatten me, but somehow, I manage to barely avoid being killed. The trap, however, is a lot more effective on the long line of enemies further down the ramp. They all die. I chuckle, knowing I'd never have figured that out on my own, and keep going.
Soon, I reach the game's first real boss, a soggy mass of flesh covered in crawling, living pieces of armor. It throws spears at me, and I burn through its vestigial limbs one by one with fire spells. It's a disgusting creature, and though I know how to handle it I can imagine it being exceptionally difficult for players new to Souls games in general. I think about my possibly imaginary companion and wonder how they're doing.
I fight for what feels like a long time. When the boss finally goes down, I realize the battlefield is littered with messages. They're almost uniformly celebrations. Exclamations of "Yes!," guarantees of impending rest at the save point, or, simply, "I did it!" In this oppressive, strange place, I feel a moment of pride, and peace. And not just for myself.
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