“To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods” – Thomas Babington Macaulay, Horatius
A knight dies for a predestined duty. Dies again and again and again. Each time the knight rises from the muck to run into battle once more because at the end of the journey there is a promise, and he will see to it that this promise is fulfilled in this life or the next. This is Infinite Themes and this week we will be exploring the central relationship in Demon’s Souls between the player and the idol they come to serve over the course of the game.
While Dark Souls depicted a journey in a much larger world with perhaps a more complicated mythos, its beauty lay in the sense of tragic decay that seemed to have already occurred and continued occurring concurrent to the journey through Anor Londo. In contrast, the world in Demon’s Souls has fallen into chaos but it feels as if it is in the wake of a ruin. While both games place emphasis on death and perseverance (as indicated with the famous tagline “Prepare to die”), only Demon’s Souls gives you the idea that one is working towards something. Furthermore, this reality is offered to them at the call of a fair maiden. And there’s a twisted happiness in dying for a lady.
Demon’s Souls wastes little time in introducing a purpose. A warrior, like countless of warriors before, enters the fog covering Boletaria in order to defeat The Ancient One and its demons. Rather than in Dark Souls where a history of cataclysmic events left it ready for salvage, the premise of the story in Demon’s Souls makes the recent tragedy in Boletaria a challenge for heroes to test their mettle. In those terms alone the story becomes like that of a champion, compelled by a destiny in all black, to earn a place in history. It’s a different tone than Dark Souls, one that recalls Arthurian legend or Hercules and his several trials.
It’s more triumphant in a way; thinking about the game like that. A different mindset that transforms it into more of a brutal myth. It’s about a knight given a violent burden that needs to be done. A [metaphorical but also very real] dragon terrorizing the land, the gallant warriors sent to defeat it. It’s something right out of the round table.
The structure of the world itself recalls the idea of arenas rather than a single unified world. A fighter enters the ring, fights through its trials and defeats the demon at the heart of the stage. They return to the Nexus victorious and are greeted by an audience who prepares the fighter for their next challenge. Demon’s Souls in that respect is a series of fights within a coliseum, and it’s all in service for the Maiden in Black.
She’s a figure that remains central to Demon’s Souls. She summons you to fight on her behalf and it’s hard for the fighter in this story not to grow attached to her. At the fighter’s service and the fighter’s service alone she greets each time they return to her. In this fairy tale the Maiden in Black is cast as the princess, only she’s a demon and perhaps the most powerful being in that world. Maybe princess is the wrong description here. She doesn’t need to be rescued, she is the absolute being that hands down the fighter’s divine work. She becomes more of an idol for the player. But that sort of dedication goes both ways and so while she delivers aid and baptizes the fighter with her blessing, her champions in turn take up their arms and run through a literal hell for her.
Fighting for the Maiden in Black seems a lot more rational than plunging higher up through narrow corridors only to go back down to dark depths to save a doomed country. Just like that, there is a knight kneeling at the foot of the maiden asking for her absolution and benediction. At some point, the game places you into a co-dependent relationship with the Maiden in Black as fighting for her sake seems to become more important than fighting The Ancient One. It mirrors crusades, old stories of chivalry, and in fact, two characters within the game itself: Maiden Astraea and her ever faithful knight Garl Vinland.
While Dark Souls expanded the world and isolated you as a lone “chosen undead”, Demon’s Souls revolves around the world belonging to two people, a demon in the nexus, and her knight.
I’ve romanticized my time with Demon’s Souls. I had to romanticize it because of the odd current that runs through the game. There’s a pervading hopelessness in Boletaria, it’s disorienting in the Tower of Latria, it’s suffocating down in the Valley of Defilement. There’s a nightmare in each world but every time the knight returns, there is a reminder waiting in the Nexus that the end is near, the Maiden in Black who promises your salvation. So that’s what the knight latches onto. Here was a knight fighting for a country in ruins, braving swamps and fire and cold all at the behest of the Maiden in Black. Perhaps stories of knights are actually about dependent relationships they confused with a misplaced sense of chivalry. But even as the knight marched through toxic rain and swamp there was a thought that maybe this will make the Maiden in Black happy.