Videogames and Impermanence

On the 31st of May the servers for Demon’s Souls, the seminal roleplaying game developed by From Software, will be shut down for good. As a primarily single-player game it’ll still be playable after that date, but the online features of the game will cease to function. This got me thinking – videogames, moreso than the products of any other artistic medium, are often transient, ever-changing entities. This can often be a good thing, what with updates and patches adding new content or fixing problems, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of sadness when you realise that many of these works won’t live on to be appreciated by future players.

Sure, other art forms also struggle with impermanence – countless important literary and musical works have been destroyed or forgotten throughout the centuries, and many films, even some from cinema greats like Alfred Hitchcock, have been permanently lost. But while videogames do arguably face this particular problem to a greater degree than other media (much of the hardware early games were stored on has or is beginning to degrade – to the point where such a young medium is already starting to lose important portions of its past) that’s not really what I’m concerned about here. It’s not that important videogames might be physically lost or destroyed, or that it’s harder and harder to actually play older games, it’s that some games, by virtue of how they are as games, cannot last forever.

So long as there are still physical or digital copies of Casablanca we can continue to watch it and continue to enjoy it. Certainly, individual movies may become less enjoyable over time as the form evolves and as social mores change (watch The Battleship Potemkin now and just try to claim that it still stands up as one of the greatest films ever made), but Casablanca will always be Casablanca.

Demon’s Souls is a primarily single-player game, and I would argue that it’s one of gaming’s most important works so far. It’s dark, haunting, and sometimes genuinely moving, and while it isn’t filled with well-written, believable characters, or important philosophical thoughts, it has a power and a wonder that is uniquely Videogame. But, as I said, Demon’s Souls has online multiplayer as well.

The online component of the game is particularly unique, however. As you traverse the world in the game, so long as your console is connected to the internet your game world meshes with the worlds of others also playing online. As I said, it’s broadly single-player, so as you play the game you play it alone. But while you’re traversing the landscape you may from time to time experience fleeting moments of interaction with others. You may see the ghostly image of another player fighting to stay alive in their own game, and you will have no way of helping or hindering them. Occasionally you may see the bloodstain that marks a player’s death in their own world, and you can use it to see the last few moments of their life play out in front of your eyes, perhaps giving you a hint on what dangers lie ahead. And players can also decided to leave ghostly messages warning of an ambush, or a hidden treasure, or a particularly dangerous enemy, and this message will pass into the game of other players for them to see and learn from. Mostly, you cannot directly interact with anyone else, and you’re locked into your own world that only you occupy.

But sometimes players can cross over into another person’s game. A player can summon others into his or her world as helpful blue phantoms in order to team up to face the game’s dangers together, and a player can invade another player’s world as a black and red phantom, hunt them down, and kill them for the souls they carry (souls act as the game’s currency – gained from killing enemies and used to purchase items or upgrade your character).

These limited interactions permeate your experience as you play Demon’s Souls, even when you’re not actively seeking them out. As  you play your own game you will see the ghostly apparitions and receive useful messages from other players. Furthermore, the game has something called World Tendencies, which reflect the actions of players across the globe. Dying shifts the World Tendency towards black, which means that enemies are stronger and powerful non-player-controlled  black phantoms emerge, whilst killing bosses or invading black phantoms shifts the World Tendency towards white, which means that enemies become weaker, while unique characters and objects appear. When played offline, the World Tendency is merely the sum of your own efforts, but when connected to the internet it is the sum of the actions of every player in the world. So the World Tendency shifts as people play, changing small but significant aspects of the game for every single person online.

I’ll probably write something in the future about just why Demon’s Souls is, in part because of these factors, such a phenomenal game, but all that I really need to emphasise here is this: Demon’s Souls played offline is a significantly less impressive game than Demon’s Souls played online. It’s fantastic even offline, but the fact remains that once the servers are shut off on the 31st of May one of the greatest games of recent years will lose a powerful something.

The feeling of loneliness that comes from watching spectres flit across the landscape, knowing that each is its own individual person acting in the real world, and knowing that you cannot interact with them, will disappear forever. The uneasy tension of knowing that at any point another player could come tearing into your world and hunt you down, ensuring you lose all the valuable souls you spent a great deal of effort acquiring, will likewise disappear forever.

One time I spent upwards of forty minutes hiding from an invading player, holding over two hours worth of souls that could be erradicated in an instant if he found me and killed me. I hid in a corner behind a door frame, racked with quiet fear and tension as he skulked around the environment, looking for me. Neither of us knew where the other was, but both of us knew that he was somewhere out there. Eventually, I saw his incandescent red and black frame for the first time and I stayed as still as possible, silent, waiting for him to come through the door by which I was hiding. Soon enough he did, and I sprung my cowardly, cowardly trap: I leapt at him from behind and stabbed him in the back with my sword. In a moment he was dead, banished from my world, and I was finally safe again. He was probable swearing at his screen at all the time wasted, his momentary lapse of caution, such a dishonourable death, and the fact that I was a bastard. Those kinds of moments – those giant defeats and powerful victories, as well as all the moments of quietly joyful cooperation – will never be experienced again. And while people will always be able to play Demon’s Souls, come May 31st they will be playing a different, inferior game.

It’s a uniquely Videogame problem – in no other medium will an artistic work become significantly and permanently inferior after a certain date. And while I’m glad I had the opportunity to play Demon’s Souls during this time, I can’t help be sad that soon I will never be able to recapture that. I can always reread Slaughterhouse Five, and I can always rewatch Let the Right One In, but I can never really replay Demon’s Souls in the same way. And more generally, this is a game that won’t, can’t be fully appreciated by anyone coming new to it after the 31st of May. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played and in a few short years it’s about to disappear. And the number of people who can be lucky enough to fully appreciate it can only ever go down.

Games where this is true are rare, of course – very few games have such unique and strange online systems. Sure, the servers for Halo 2 have been shut off now for similar, financial reasons, but if someone gets together some friends they can still play multiplayer games just as well as if they were doing so online. But not so with Demon’s Souls. Even if the servers were not shut off people will come to play the game less and less. And since the online component of Demon’s Souls relies on a large pool of players to work, with no capacity to invite friends, this dwindling of players will see the dwindling of a significant part of the magic of the game. I can’t invite friends over to play in the way it used to be – it’s just not that kind of experience. So it’s a uniquely videogame sadness that I feel, knowing that this important game is not timeless, and is instead very, very mortal. So I’m going to say goodbye, because once it gets shut off, once people abandon it, it’ll be irretrievable.

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