The brilliantly immersive Demon's Souls, unfortunately known better for its brutal difficulty than its rebellious game design, is my choice for the title most deserving of the accolade "Game of the Year."
From Software's original role-playing game is admittedly challenging. The constant cycle of death and rebirth is not the escapist entertainment that's often expected of the medium.
Instead, the PlayStation 3 exclusive is a mature, haunting, and experimental horror game set in a living world affected by death just like the players themselves. That it features perhaps the most fascinating online multiplayer component I've ever experienced, where single and multiplayer, competitive and cooperative coexist, is just one reason I find it so fascinating. The lonely and limited online interaction between players and the dynamic World and Character Tendency systems offer something rare in an RPG—replayability.
Demon's Souls is an individual among games trying to be interactive movies. It aims only to be an immersive world for the player to explore. But that does not mean it is not engrossing or thrilling, for rarely have I had a virtual encounter that filled me with a sense of dread as did my battles with Flamelurker or Penetrator. Rarely have I become so immersed in a fantasy world's lore, thanks to Demon's Souls' demands on the player.
What makes for great fantasy and science fiction, I believe, is more than a well-crafted world. It is an established set of laws that govern a universe, from which the storyteller (or game designer) cannot waiver for convenience. Demon's Souls' atypical universe-defining rules, designed to upset player expectations—there is no pause button, no conveniently placed save points, no forgiveness for reckless abandon—are both what makes the game difficult for many and so refreshing amid its bigger budgeted, more preened and player-pandering competitors.
Those rules are what makes Demon's Souls a Japanese role-playing game, a genre I've grown accustomed to avoid, like no other. It's free from long winded exposition, angst, romance, and grandiose attempts to mimic Hollywood action films. Instead of assuming the role of a glamorous avatar with fabulous hair, a blank slate amnesiac, you enter Boleteria nothing more than a man, with no foreknowledge of what danger awaits beyond the encompassing black fog. Its demonic fauna have not been conveniently transcribed upon collectible tomes. Its denizens are not a friendly group of archetypes ready to be allied with and lead. It is not a cliché.
See, I don't want my video games to be long form imitations of blockbuster action films or historical fiction dramas. I want them to continue to be video games, exploring what the medium offers better than any other. And that's what Demon's Souls does.
This one couldn't have been further from my shortlist for game of the year. I can acknowledge what makes other people love it - the "multiplayer" element and unique take on death particularly - but this isn't about acknowledging other people's opinions. It's about giving mine. And I hated every second I spent with Demon's Souls.
To me, Demon's Souls is not an exercise in exploring what the medium does best. It's an exercise in exploring what's worst about it. It is exclusionary, elitist even, and it is monstrously difficult.
Indeed, it sometimes feels as though it's a game that exists to satiate the desires of a howling minority, who harken for the days when video games were worse. When they were focused more on retribution and masochism than good times.
No thanks. Not my thing. Video games are meant to be fun, not hard work. And that's all Demon's Souls is: Hard work.
Demon's Souls was on my shortlist for game of the year before I even had a shortlist. In my mind, the battle was between Assassin's Creed II and Atlus' unforgiving dungeon crawler, but the introduction of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves made it much easier for me to choose between those two.
If story were my sole consideration, I may have picked Uncharted 2. Conversely, if gameplay were my main concern, then Demon's Souls would have come out on top. Demon's Souls is what video games would have evolved into had challenge remained a core focus over accessibility. Like the quarter-eating arcade adventures of old, it's a game where you take two steps, die, figure out how to get around the situation that killed you, and then take two more steps. It's brutal, yes, but it's also a pure experience, and I can't help but admire it.
Demon's Souls isn't my game of the year, but it put up one hell of a fight. It has the gameplay. Uncharted 2 has the story. I decided to go with the game that had the perfect balance of both. Sorry Atlus, but take heart - there's no shame in being killed by a master assassin.
Going into this debate, Uncharted 2 was my clear pick. But after Mike nominated Demon's Souls and passionately defended the game with story after story of his adventures in the unforgiving world, I was anxious to play it.
I spent a good part of the week doing just that, and now I'm conflicted.
As any game developer I've talked to knows, I'm a big fan of bringing back tough love to gaming. I think today's video games do way too much hand-holding, so Demon's Souls' harsh nature struck a chord with me.
As a product of its unflinching take on death (those no mid-level save points are brutal) and its use of cooperative gamer ghosts, Demon's Souls delivers a haunting world. You play it with the eerie feeling that you're constantly being watched. And on some level you are.
But Mike's point about a developer sticking to the laws of their universe is one of the issues I have with this game. On it's surface it appears to be a genre-bucking, unforgiving game, but the developers actually do waiver in the end. Sure, there are no save points, but there are short cuts you can unlock as you play through a level. And the game has the middle-of-nowhere stores, the hapless good guy in need of rescue, the higher power looking to as the world's savior.
This half-approach to bucking the norm doesn't kill the game for me, but it does muddy the waters a bit for its game of the year chances.
The game McWhertor described up top would be the Game of the Year. The game Atlus actually sells, stamped with a Demon's Souls logo, is not. I happily join the praise for Demon's Souls genius multiplayer, a system that 1) rewards players for being helpful to others (brilliant), 2) inverts normal online game designs by putting early adopters to work making the game easier for latecomers (brillianter), and 3) makes lying and treachery — griefing, essentially! — an in-context gameplay element (brilliantest).
But, Mike... Flamelurker. I killed him on my who-knows-what try because he glitched himself on a staircase and I just spammed him with spells. Earlier, I beat the spider boss by standing behind a post and spamming it with spells even though it couldn't reach me. I won by glitches. And, damn it, I died by glitches. Glitches or shoddy game design, whichever way you want to put it.
The Demon's Souls designers snatched the years-old habits of gamers to give each other hints on Internet forums and made that part of this game's gameplay. But did these designers miss the years-old agony with lock-on systems and cameras? They made a game that in its exotic mysteriousness and eerily dangerous terrain might be the truest sequel to the original Zelda yet made. But they seem to have skipped the lessons of Zelda's Ocarina of Time, which instilled in its hero the horse-sense not to fall off cliffs because of twitchy character movement and which never cost me precious virtual life because it locked me onto the wrong enemy. Innovation suffers when it can't depend on solid fundamentals.
Demon's Souls is off-putting to me as a GOTY candidate for the same reason a dense art-house film arches eyebrows as an Oscar nominee - its lack of accessibility. It would be more forgivable if that lack of accessibility was limited to one terribly difficult boss, but they all are. It would more forgivable if the inaccessibility was due to balky combat and camera mechanics. In this case, Demon's Souls' crushing, proud difficulty represents the barrier. I suspect it is a game a lot like Moby Dick is a book, something a lot of people wish to say they've experienced, but few actually do.
It's intriguing to me that a game with relatively easy gameplay will be tut-tutted for its repetitiveness, but when such repetitiveness is borne of a colossally difficult challenge, well, then that's some uncompromising pure experience. If Demon's Souls is not a repetitive game, then the word really has no meaning. I also find nothing to celebrate in the lack of a pause button, which is almost a gratuitous eff-you tacked on in the game's relentless double victimization of its lesser players: First, that you're such a poor gamer you struggle even on its earlier levels, and second, that you're so unsophisticated you don't appreciate that unreasonable demands and lack of basic gamer assistance are actually artful qualities to be admired.
Among my core standards for game of the year is one that may not be a sufficient condition, but it is absolutely necessary: Is it fun? Demon's Souls, for me anyway, was not fun.
McWhertor's Final Response
Before I saw The Light—shining from an Augite of Guidance, perhaps—I was like you, Luke and Owen, lamenting my experience in Demon's Souls as labor, wondering where the "fun" was. I'm not sure I ever found "fun," instead enjoying the atmosphere, the sense of discovery, the thrill of every major demon battle.
Does a game need to be fun (or at least conventionally entertaining) for it to be great? Owen's reference to Moby Dick—a book I've never read—is in line with my counter-argument that art, including games, needn't be accessible or without challenge to the viewer/reader/player to genuinely deserve high praise. How many great films or novels are emotionally upsetting, sometimes physically draining to experience? I was just recently revisiting the poisoned Vally of Defilement, slayed again and again by Meat Cleaver wielding Black Phantoms and Giant Goblins. What a nightmare. But I can't wait to go back to that world, now smarter about its dangers.
Demon's Souls, despite its exclusive difficulty and technical quirks—hey, I fell to my death far more often in both Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed II, Totilo!—is great. It elicits in me fond, fearful memories of other brilliantly designed but less technically refined games like Shadow of the Colossus and Silent Hill, games that establish a sense of immersion and wonder like few others.
And that is why I chose it for my game of the year. Demon's Souls is the game that stayed with me most in 2009 and will continue to do so for a long, insufferably difficult but ultimately enjoyable time to come.