The Cliff from which we fall

“I’m getting a friend.” This happens quite often. My character stands on the broken stairs of the Boletarian Palace. He’s waiting on a thief-build marksman and her brutish, meat cleaver wielding companion. They’re heavily built characters each possessing a soul level higher than mine. My character waits, stoically watching over the Boletarian cityscape as I melt into the sofa.

The thief returns without her companion. He character sighs. I bow and point towards our next destination, the game’s final boss. We take an elevator. Our characters twitch as we fiddle with the controls. It’s a nerve-racking ascent towards an almost certain fate. The doors open, we charge. The boss – in his white robe – dashes towards us. He stops before my character, sword at the ready. I’m dead. My character’s lifeless body slumps to the ground in a haze of spiritual residue. In the background, I can see the thief vainly dodging his attacks. She won’t last long. The words “Objective Failed” briefly appear on screen before I’m returned to my initial position. My online ranking takes another hit with a “B rank” for participation.

I return to the Nexus.

The Nexus – Demon’s Souls central online hub – is a crossroads between the world of the living and the world of the dead. It’s a lonely place, yet it’s always saturated with players. Most sprint straight towards Stockpile Thomas, the inventory keeper, or to the Maiden in Black to spend their souls. A few players run off towards other non-playable character seeking upgrades for captured demon souls. Some of them offer up powerful spells or items. I keep mine as trophies, for all of the hardship. And there’s always one player who is pitting themselves in a one-on-one against the Maiden in Black. It never ends well for them. I sprint towards her to gain some extra soul levels. I’ll need them for where I’m about to go.

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When you come to in the Nexus for the first time, your ethereal body shimmering, you can’t help but look to the crofts above. The Nexus is a vast place, a lonesome place. Pinning one feeling to the Nexus is difficult. Chrono Trigger’s End of Time bears the closest resemblance. They’re places where characters – some out of time others out of their mortal flesh – meet. The giant seal that holds back the Old One in Demon’s Souls is similar to the time dial when you enter the Epoch in Chrono Trigger. Both seals hold back an evil force bend on destroying the world. And both the Nexus and the End of Time are areas of containment and confluence. Even the similarities between games’ final bosses are striking.

A white-phantom runs past me and towards the stairs. I watch as they fade out of my world and back into their own. Phantoms pervade your world at all times. Their faint shadows are always present. It can be a little unnerving at times. I head up the stairs towards the top of the Nexus. Another phantom passes me by. Living or dead, every player in Demon’s Souls looks the same. Each are equipped with a default array of weapons and armour. You can never tell what kind of player they are without the distinct red or blue tinge. And unlike many of the game’s non-playable characters, they’re always silent.

This silence is what makes a Demon’s Souls character so interesting. Like many online RPG’s, your character’s tendency towards good or evil is defined by your actions. It’s a simple technique that provides an immersive moral division within the game world. Few games place characters in such black and white, or, in this case, blue and black terms. Blue-phantoms are helping and altruistic figure. They guide players towards accomplishing goals. Black-phantoms are evil, pure and simple. They fulfill an antagonistic role and anyone who sees one will automatically pick up arms or cower in fear.

A white-phantom runs past and towards the peak of the Nexus. He disappears. I watch for a second, and continue running up the stairs towards the Monumental, one of the keepers of Boletaria. She speaks to me and gives me the friend ring. It boosts the amount of damage I can do as blue-phantom. Catharsis is found through noble sacrifice. Altruism is one of the many traits your silent avatar is able to possess. It’s a trait that many players adopt. Playing online as a blue or black phantom is only allowed when your character is in spirit-form. In your physical body, you can only summon others for assistance. I enjoy being a guiding spirit, and the friend ring is definitely going to help.

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I take the stairs down from the croft. A white-phantom dashes past me and rolls off from the peak of the Nexus. I stop for a few seconds. Another phantom runs up the stairs, attempts a u-turn and tumbles off. I watch him fall and disappear. This happens quite often. If you watch closely, the ghost-like shadows of falling players can be seen jumping from the top of the Nexus. Their screams, a guttural “ah” is left inaudible. The Nexus would be a rather noisy place otherwise. Bloodstains mark the death of characters. They act as instant replays showing you how a character has died. If you hit one of the bloodstains on the stairs of the Nexus and look up from the seal, you can see the red out line of a phantom plummeting to their death. It’s a surreal experience.
 

Six or seven more players have fallen from the cliff. It makes you wonder why so many are jumping off like herded lemmings. When you walk in the Nexus and hear the echoes of your footsteps or the clang of a weapon futilely hitting a wall, you can’t help but feel totally alone. For a place so saturated with players, the feeling of placelessness is almost tangible. Many players run in and run out to escape the void of the Nexus. They would rather be fighting hordes of demons than suffer the emptiness. Our Nexial binding, an item that returns us to the Nexus when we die, keeps players tethered to this place. It also determines how our character’s tendency affects these worlds. When you die in physical form your character and world tendency shifts toward black. Black tendency increases the game’s difficulty while a white tendency makes the game much easier.If you die in spirit-form your tendency is left unaffected. It’s no wonder then why so many people choose to commit suicide in the Nexus. It is the once place that has a neutral tendency. One of the first characters you meet in Demon’s Souls is the Crestfallen Warrior. He sits by one of the arcstones telling you of his fate to die over and over again. “Well, you slipped through the fissure too, did you?” he asks. “No matter. Have a seat; we can sit here forever! At least we will be safe! Hahahahah…” The Crestfallen Warrior is the embodiment of Demon’s Souls. He’s a character who has been tethered to the Nexus for so long that he’s given up his physical form. He’s a player who is permanently in spiritual form. He’s committed suicide and given up.

I pass where he used to sit. He’s long since disappeared from my game leaving nothing but a soul behind. I gave it to Stockpile Thomas for safekeeping. He deserves better than to be used and thrown away.

I touch the Shrine of Storm’s arcstone. My character sets up his blue marker waiting for someone to pick him up. The words “You are being summoned” light up the screen. I bow to my host and enter a new world. For once, it looks as if my benefactor is underpowered. After a hard-fought twenty minutes, we reach the Adjucator. He’s a disgusting boss, like a giant teakettle with a deadly, extending tongue. My partner’s a long range player. He fires bolts of magic while I dodge firing arrows at the boss’s head. He goes down without a hitch. I’m returned to my world with a newly formed physical body.

I return to the Nexus.

Demon’s Souls offers an extended online experience. I run to Stockpile Thomas and the Black Maiden. The red and blue dynamics of good and evil offer players a moral choice in how they help or antagonize others. I start up the stairs, slowly, no need to rush. Fighting with or against other players offers an online experience that helps define your character through their actions rather than a black or white system defined by individual characteristics. A white-phantom passes me by. How you play, whether as a full bodied player or as a guiding/antagonistic spirit determines in what light you character is viewed. I touch a bloodstain, a playback charges ahead. I follow. Committing suicide allows player to engage in the online experience. It’s a choice.

My character stands at the peak of the Nexus. If he could look down he’d see just how dizzying of a drop it really is. It’s a staggering height, and even I feel a little queasy. Blue phantom or Black phantom, how I choose to return will define my suicidal act. Good or evil. Suicide in Demon’s Souls really is a morally neutral act. It’s a gameplay mechanic. The cliff from which we fall has a sudden stop at the end. We jump. Falling towards an uncertain future.