Soul, Souless, and Demon’s Souls

Demon’s Souls was released on February 5th, 2009. Across the board, it saw an average of 9/10 reviews.

Demon’s Souls was then remastered and released on November 12th, 2020. In America, it saw an average of 9/10 reviews – many reviews marginally better than those of the original. To some, this game – which is the same game in almost all respects – was a bad release. Reviewers who think this laments the game’s lack of innovation, high price, and critically – how it’s worse than the original.

Now, this is confusing, because one of the major complaints of the game is that it’s too similar to the original to justify a remake. Mechanics are clunky, aged, and unbalanced because they are just like they were eleven years prior. On the topic of price, when the original Demon’s Souls was released, it was only $10 less than the current remake – not much of a difference there.

How can it be that a remake, truthful to its origins to a fault, is actually worse than the original? If the two games are so close to being the same, why is one better than the other? Logically, if this is the case, the two games should be the same quality, whether a remake was “necessary” or not. Right?

Though the vast majority of reviews are positive, Demon’s Souls has garnered criticism among some users that it lacks passion. It feels bland. It doesn’t have the atmosphere it did a decade ago. Essentially, Demon’s Souls is… soulless.

You versus the Tower Knight she tells you not to worry about.

Understanding Soul

The concept of Soul vs Soulless is interesting because, despite being applied in all sorts of media, these terms don’t have a concrete definition. Scouring the internet, I’ve read through various posters’ views and found this to be the general mindset of the matter in regards to games:

Soul is a quality that reflects originality, passion, and creativity.

Soulless is a quality that reflects a lack of passion to have a broad audience appeal.

However, some claim that the true motive behind these words is better represented in these definitions:

Soul is when a game is old and nostalgic.

Soulless is when a game is new.

So did Demon’s Souls lose part of its identity in the remake, or are people just losing their rose-colored glasses? You can compare side-by-side images and argue endlessly for one stance or the other. Setting this debate aside, I would instead like to explore the concept of soul in general.

Where Does “Soul” Come From?

If we’re going to spend time talking about it, it would be nice to know where the concept of soul comes from. Its origin seems to be from German philosopher Immanuel Kant. To Kant, art had the ability to – while being aesthetically pleasing – lack soul. Art can look nice and take skill to create, but be a mimic of what it is depicting. It doesn’t strive to any aesthetic ideal; it emulates. It’s uninspired.

This notion helps us grasp what makes soul such a tricky thing to discuss. Soul isn’t about making a good game, or a nice looking game, or a fun game. It’s about making a game that strives for something in its design. Because of this nuance, it’s hard to call a game “soulless” on looks alone.

Is It Actually Just Old Versus New?

Getting to the bottom of the nature of soul requires that we also ask if it’s just pure nostalgia. Note that what I’m contemplating here is not if old games have soul and new games don’t – instead, I’m asking if old games have soul because they’re old and new games don’t because they’re new.

The general answer seems to be “no.” Games don’t automatically have soul because they’re old. If this were the case, games like Ride to Hell: Retribution or Fast & Furious Crossroads could find themselves with “soul” in a few decades. Clearly, age isn’t the deciding factor.

Plenty of new games are generally thought to have soul. For example, Bioshock: InfiniteHorizon: Zero DawnCuphead, and Super Mario Odyssey; games which, besides being appreciated, have been complimented on their soulfulness. Of course, none of these games suddenly gained soul years after release: they had it at launch.

So, if new games can have soul, can old games be soulless? Well, yes. Old games can certainly be soulless – E.T. for the Atari 2600 comes to mind as a game that is a worthless cash-grab. There are plenty of forgettable and forgotten titles that had no passion and had no soul.

When talking about the passage of time, we also have to account for the changing markets. When E.T. came out in 1982, it’s not like AAA titles were being launched by trusted developers. Furthermore, picking obscure games released and forgotten about four decades ago as “proof” of old, soulless games is disingenuous when you compare them to the mainstream titles (including big indie titles) of today.

So while older games can be soulless, it’s difficult to find old games that are both soulless and have equal standings to the previously mentioned modern ones. Looking over older games I played –Super Smash Bros, Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Insaniquarium Deluxe, and many more – I have trouble calling them soulless. I’m quite confident that time plays a factor in the soul of game design, but it is not passive.

Soul and Soulless: It’s About Time

I’ve come to the conclusion that I think many others have reached: sometimes new games have soul, while oftentimes old ones do. The reason for this is not simply because they’re old or new, but because of the context, they were created in.

In 2009, this image was deemed high-quality enough for the “Demon’s Souls” press kit.

The early 90s saw the rise of videogames as we know them today. In 1993, the games industry generated, worldwide, $35 billion in today’s cash. In 2016, mobile games alone made more. From conception to now, the video game market has grown quite steadily. The market had outgrown the need for good games long ago: now, it just needs marketable games. 

That’s where you find modern, soulless games. Video games don’t need to be good, or strive for an aesthetic goal, or innovate, or be made with passion: they need to make money. Lots of money. They need to sell copies, and DLC, and merchandise. Long-time Ubisoft creative developer Serge Hascoet recognized this, stating in a Gameinformer interview:

“You know what is missing in this industry? A soul. Video games are about gaming, and gaming is not about entertainment, it’s about learning. When you learn, you have fun. But when we are just entertainment we are losing something.”

Right now, many newly released videogames are solely for entertainment (and through this, profit). Something is lost when passion and originality aren’t included in the mix.

And Also Technology

I would also like to propose that modern games have less soul for another reason: improving technology. Modern technology – and modern graphics – can harm a game’s aesthetic personality. Personally, I don’t find this to be the case with Demon’s Souls, but it does seem to be the case with other remakes and newer entries into franchises.

Warcraft III: Reforged, besides having a pathetic launch, was also critiqued for its complete lack of soul. Character designs were updated to new, modern graphics and looked – while more detailed – completely monotone according to many players. You’ll also find that many more recent games praised for having soul aren’t very modern in terms of graphics, exploring aged pixel-art aesthetics, or low-poly designs.

Does looking nicer make it better?

The truth is that improving technology allows games to comfortably slip into a “pseudo-realistic” blandness that quickly erases aesthetic identity. Developers used to have to make sacrifices for the sake of performance, leading to creative designs and unique aesthetics. Games were once forced, by the limitations of the technology, to develop an aesthetic identity. This is not the case anymore. No game is forced to be unique or original. It is easier than ever to thrown generic, good-looking unity textures onto a scene.

“Demon’s Souls” or “Demon’s Soulless?”

Fun Fact: The Vanguard Demon model in the original “Demon’s Souls” was taken from another From Software game, “Enchanted Arms,” released in 2006.

So this all begs the question: is the Demon’s Souls remake actually soulless? That depends. Does the game lack its original aesthetic aspirations? Is it passionless? Does it exist to appeal to as many people as possible, or does it exist to, as some people claim, sell the Playstation 5? Or is it just no longer nostalgic?

In order to definitively answer these questions, you’ll have to play it for yourself… assuming you can find a PS5 for sale. Let’s just play it safe and say “maybe,” deal?

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