The Kingdom of Boletaria is eerily quiet and lonely now. With the announcement that Demon’s Souls is getting a remake for PS5, a new generation will soon find themselves scaling its crumbling walls and battling glowing-eyed knights in the darkness.
This is a welcome development, as with the closure of the original Demon’s Souls servers back in February 2018, Boletaria became a much emptier place. The stretches of vacant halls and deep caverns were no longer filled with the ghosts of those who came before you. There were no more notes from players casting their soothing glow into the gloom. No bloodstains from other fallen players hinting that danger may lie in wait. No cooperation. No invasions. Just the general murmur of a hostile, doomed land.
To borrow the language of the Dark Souls series, it felt hollow.
While the concepts of Hollowing and Humanity were not in place throughout Demon’s Souls, we did see aspects of these thoughts in the closure of its servers. Humanity, in the Souls series, represents life. It represents purpose, with players and NPCs fighting to leave their mark on the world through their humanity. They aren’t content to just exist and haunt these places when Human, but to enact change. Bring chaos. Do something with their lives. Once an NPC is Hollowed, they simply sit, waiting for something to trouble should it pass by.
The world of Demon’s Souls used to be filled with this kind of Humanity, or hints of it. In its most basic form, the player is an agent of humanity in Demon’s Souls, as they mean to change the way the world works. This runs counter to the Hollowed creatures who inhabit it – beasts whose sole existence is spent lying in wait or wandering halls. Dragons sit on grassy hills, scanning for an eternity for something to fight. Soldiers stand eternal on the parapets of the Boletarian Palace, waiting for an enemy who may never come.
They exist in perpetual waiting for the one thing that gives them a reason to do anything. Without that humanity, in themselves or from the player’s presence, they have no motivation or purpose.
The player themselves may find their own motivation and drive broken by these lands, though. Demon’s Souls is, arguably, the Souls series at its most vicious. Routes to safety are much farther apart, tending to be protected by bosses that can cost hours of progress for a single failed attempt on them. Foes are clever and are positioned to easily dispatch the careless. The broken lands themselves are filled with pits and traps, snatching the lives of the unwary. It is a hostile place, designed to break the spirit, a fitting setting for the themes of lost humanity and sundered motivation.
A player could easily lose themselves to this very cruelty, becoming another ghost that haunts the halls through their abandoned avatar. However, through Demon’s Souls’ online features-–its means of reaching out into the world of humanity-–comes hope and motivation.
There is a loneliness that comes from facing these challenges. Players are often deep beneath the earth, or wandering halls filled with little but the sound of wind. Surrounded only by things that wish to end our lives in these dark places, it’s easy to give in to despair and defeat. Then, a ghostly presence rushes by. It startles, but then the player realizes they are simply seeing a stranger out there in another world, facing their own dangers.
Ghosts of other players will appear throughout Demon’s Souls, carrying out a handful of actions before disappearing into the aether. It seems like a pointless touch, many of these ghosts simply flitting by on their business, but they give the player a sense that they are not alone in their journey. There is someone else out there suffering just like them – someone struggling to overcome. In this, there’s a sense that things aren’t as lonely as they seem, as even without being able to interact with them, you know that someone out there is sharing this painful road with you. It dispels the loneliness, even for a while
The same can be said for the bloodstains, which mark where a player has fallen. Gameplay-wise, they show a player that danger is nearby, and when interacted with, can give crucial information by re-enacting the death of the player who left it. In these, we feel that same camaraderie as the ghosts – another player is sharing in our sorrows. They also take the game’s high challenge and constant death and give it purpose.
Death in games can be frustrating, and in Demon’s Souls, extremely so with all of the lost progress that can come with it. However, our death isn’t just a failure we carry alone in Demon’s Souls. Here, our deaths leave a mark that another player can take as a warning, hopefully avoiding it in their game. Through this, our fall isn’t meaningless, as we have helped out another player on our shared journey through Boletaria. It still stings to die, but to know our fall can help another makes it feel more like an adventure all of its players share together. We are all striving to survive these lands, and even our failures can help others succeed. We are all in this together.
Leaving notes can have a similar effect. Players can scribble a message on the landscape, leaving simplified bits of text that can hint at secrets, warn of danger, purposely misdirect, or tell a dopey joke. If players like these notes, they can Rate them, giving the player who left the note a health boost. This encourages players to leave helpful or funny notes, as they will get a little bit of healing on their own difficult trip through the land.
These notes work on the same principle – that we are all taking on this trip together, and that we all know it will be difficult to undertake alone. Through notes, we can help one another, or even play mean little jokes on one another. It’s all in fun, and it’s all in making the journey lighter – in challenge or in tone – as we all travel its roads as a group. We are alone, but never entirely, throughout Demon’s Souls.
If that sense of companionship isn’t enough, players can bring another person in on the adventure through Summonings, or meet another soul through Invasions. While there are huge differences between the two, both make it clear to the player that they aren’t all by themselves on this adventure.
With Summonings, we are given an actual companion on this journey, one who will make everything much easier. Knowing that, somewhere, there may be a glowing summoning symbol offering the help you need can give hope and motivation to a waning spirit, helping a player get through a difficult time. Actually bringing one of those summons in can help players overcome what they thought was insurmountable – it can also invigorate the spirit and help players to move on. These summons, through their use or even just their presence, brings hope to the hopeless.
Even Invasions can bring something special to the game. They can add a terror to the experience, to be sure, with players knowing an ultra-powerful being may snuff their life out when they’re not expecting it, but there is an excitement behind that, too. After repeated failures in the same halls, it can get dull and repetitive to work back to where you fell before. This tediousness can easily be broken up by a surprise Invasion, perhaps costing the players souls, or perhaps giving them a stirring battle they will remember long after they leave the stage that was troubling them. They inject a little mayhem in what may have been tedious before.
Each of these aspects of Demon’s Souls’ online play give the player a sense of hope, of companionship, or of excitement. They all take a soul-crushing journey and make it that much lighter, or add new thrills to halls you’ve wandered a thousand times. Most of all, they allow us to hold on to our drive and purpose throughout this place, giving us what we need to hold onto our Humanity, as far as it exists as a theme within the series. The online elements are the bulwarks against Hollowing.
But the world grows dark and quiet as the servers shut down. NOw, Boletaria is nearly silent. Landscapes that used to be dotted with bloodstains, notes, and ghosts are empty. There are no signs to call for aid. No Black Phantoms coming to invade. All that exists is the player and the beasts that stand guard for eternity, as well as NPCs who will offer the same bits of dialogue for all time.
These elements, now gone, not only helped the player maintain their Humanity-–their hope and motivation–throughout this journey, but gave the world its unique character itself. Boletaria felt like a living, breathing place through these presences. People were all facing similar challenges within it, but they’re unique ways of facing it, their personal failures, and their own triumphs and discoveries, were reflected in the various ways they could interact with other players online, purposely or not. Things felt like they were always happening and changing, even if your own experience did not. The world was alive with people and helpful spirits and invasions and change.
This is what it means to be human–-to have life ever in flux, changing for good or bad as people pass in and out of your life. It’s to never be quite prepared for surprising good news or blindsided by bad things, with every day, no matter how similar, offering something new and different. Demon’s Souls reflected that, and in doing so gave its own world a humanity of its own.
At the moment, that has all gone Hollow. People can no longer reach out to one another for aid. No one will break up a dull trek. No ghosts will dispel that loneliness, and no bloodstain will clue you in on a danger you’d forgotten. There’s no use hoping for a surprise burst of healing from a note, no burst of laughter on a trip that seems far too serious before being broken up by a silly note. It’s just the player and a world that stands still, waiting for something to attack.
This is what many NPCs claimed to fear as the series progressed—-a loss of the self and becoming a being with no purpose besides hostility. They become like the game’s enemies, frozen until they find something to hurt. The world of Demon’s Souls, once filled with life through its online features, is as Hollow as the beings who inhabit it. It’s just a place that waits to harm, now, and even the things that mean to help are just phantoms that will never change, going through scripted motions without motivation.
Boletaria has fallen, Hollowed. A player may still be able to save the ruins, but the shell is still empty. The world has still lost its Humanity. This adventure is still one well worth taking, offering an excellent exercise in challenge, but it’s lost much of the hopeful, chaotic spirit that ran through it. The small moments of humanity, the moments that gave the land a unique life, are gone, and Boletaria has given in to the monstrosity that sought to claim it. Save it as much as you like, but every time you turn back, you will only find the same monsters peering back at you, Hollowed beyond saving. There are no humans here but you, and with time, you may even lose your own motivation and join them.
But a hope flickers, now. The new remake means we can return to this place with other players, our ghosts rushing through the halls, offering promises of triumph and ruin. We can leave our warnings for other players (and our idiotic jokes), or call on them for help. We can count on memorable foes walking into our games. Is it the same, though? With the visual upgrades and alterations that are likely to get made in the process of remaking the game, are we returning to that same place, or is it lost and hollowed forever?
I look forward to seeing Humanity return to Demon’s Souls, even if it wears a different shape. I still mourn the Hollowing of what came before, though – a place that, even if I can revisit the game, exists only in my memory. I will miss the chaotic humanity of it all, and only hope that the remake makes me feel alive in that world again.
Demon’s Souls is currently in development for the PS5.