As shown previously, Demon’s Souls more-or-less obviously draws upon history, mythology, and psychology for inspiration. Now it’s time to look behind the scenes once more, where the Monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, waits patiently to be observed. Below. the story/events of the game are mapped onto the classic archetypal tale, step-by-step, as per this basic overview. As a personal interpretation, this is just one of many possible projections of the game onto the Monomyth, which is itself only a rough outline of events that may or may not combine to produce it, and which is best served loosely – told metaphorically at times, and perhaps out of order, or incompletely – as strict adherence comes across as unoriginal and boring.
The Hero’s Journey is a pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
The Ordinary World doesn’t get much exposure because Demon’s Souls takes place virtually entirely within the Special World. By the time players arrive on the scene, the Ordinary World has already been transformed into the Special World by the emergence of the colorless fog and the demon apocalypse. Yet in some sense, perhaps, the Ordinary World is the tutorial, prior to being summoned to the Nexus. While in another sense, the Archstones are Special Worlds and the ‘de facto’ Ordinary World is the Nexus. But for me, mostly it is character creation.
Every new Souls game begins, first of all, with the personalization by the player of their own avatar. This process hints at the backgrounds and personalities of the classes, and should be sufficiently intimate to accomplish the initial task of bonding the audience to the hero. Moreover, the Monomyth’s meta-hero is known as the Hero with a Thousand Faces. That’s what the Slayer of Demons is: in principle, because of the countless configurations of facial features to choose from during character creation; in practice, because there must be nearly as many unique characters as there are players.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
One, during the tutorial, when the Monumental ‘calls out’ to the player, speaking to their subconsciousness and quite literally ‘heralding’ their transportation to the Nexus: “Brave soul, who fears not death. I shall guide you to the Nexus. So that you may lull the Old One back to slumber.” The scripted death marking the end of the tutorial thus leads the Slayer to the Nexus where there is little else to do except progress into area 1-1.
Two, after completing area 1-1, the conversation with the Monumental, which explains the gist of the plot and conditions for resolving the conflict, is required to unlock the other Archstones and open up the rest of the game, and culminates with the question imposed upon the player: “Have you the strength to accept this mission?”
Note that there is no utility in the fact of the question itself; it’s superfluous, technically. For example, the developers could have skipped the Q’n’A by programming the stupid Archstones (and the Friend’s Ring) to simply unlock automatically, at the end of the Monumental’s speech, right? So why did they go out of their way to include this question in the game? And why is it mandatory to answer it to progress? And why is acceptance the only acceptable response? Could it be in effect a subtle allusion to an underlying archetypal substructure? Could it be that by design, even?
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL
The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
Equally important to this is the hero’s eventual acceptance of the Call. By the aforementioned conversation, players are thrust into the role of the hero, personally; they are able to literally accept or refuse the Call, themselves, though ultimately they must accept. That’s the Slayer: the hero who accepts. In contrast, the Crestfallen Knight, a soul-form Everyman archetype who already died once and now refuses to leave the Nexus – hypothetically because reasons relating to cut-content – (dis)embodies the hero who refuses.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR
The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
The preeminent mentor or goddess is the Maiden in Black. This stage occurs not when first meeting her but shortly thereafter, following the completion of area 1-1. For only then, and from then on, does she assume her crucial role: boosting the Slayer’s Soul Level. The ability to level up is superior to anything offered by the more obvious candidates for this position, magic and miracle trainers. The special, supernatural tool or aid she gifts is Soul Power. Although she appears youthful, she is actually quite old. And wise, for having once been one of the most powerful demons in existence.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
This manifests metaphorically either as the player’s entry into the first area of their choosing, outside of 1-1, or as the completion of area 1-1 itself, achieved by slaying the first real boss outside of the tutorial, the Greater Demon, Phalanx. This is a right of passage, a test that measures whether players have the prerequisite traits needed to persevere more difficult tests to come. It enables their empowerment by the Maiden as well as the conversation with the Monumental, and therefore ultimately precipitates the whole rest of the game. The real Demon’s Souls starts here.
6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES
The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
This encompasses most of the game; specifically, everything after area 1-1, up to but not including the final battle. Each sub-section of every Archstone – the y in “area x-y” – and each Archstone as a whole – the x – can be thought of as microcosms of stages 5-10.
This is the Road of Trials. In which the Slayer collects all the Archdemon souls, one by one, as he prepares to face the Old One; like Noah rounded up two of every animal in preparation for The Flood. Various archetypal characters and threshold guardians are encountered as NPCs and bosses along the way.
There’s the clear Trickster, or Jester, Patches. There’s Prince Ostrava, an Everyman (ironically, given his nobility) and Lucky Fool on an ill-fated quest to seek Atonement with his Father, who keeps getting into jams and being rescued by the Slayer. There’s the quintessential Ally, Biorr, who assists the Slayer in fighting both the Penetrator and the Blue Dragon. There’s the ‘Shapeshifting’ ‘vampires’ Yurt and Mephistopheles, who prey upon other NPCs and eventually turn on the player. And all Black Phantoms, be they NPCs or online invaders, are near-literal Shadows, villainous reflections of the Hero, the Slayer; Black Phantom NPCs that were previously encountered as normal NPCs, in particular, such as Scirvir and Satsuki, are near-literal Shapeshifters as well.
The Threshold Guardians are usually bosses, Greater or Arch demons, but may also appear as dragons or black phantoms. The actual conflict that ensues when the player confronts one of them represents a metaphorical, and sometimes literal, Dragon Battle. Demon’s Souls veterans will recall, for example, the Blue Dragon perched above the threshold to False Allant’s lookout, representing not just a literal and figurative Dragon Battle, but also a literal and figurative Threshold Guardian – a unique symbolic distinction.
False Allant, by the way, is similarly noteworthy but for a different reason. For he is associated with Allant in general, who represents the male King, a Jungian archetype which manifests in-game as different states of Allant’s being across time: King Allant, the magnanimous ruler he was in His Fullness; False Allant, the Tyrant he became; and Old Allant, the Weakling he is now. The last two are the bi-polar, mutually-dependent Shadows of the first one: the former depending for very existence on the latter, who created and sustains him; the latter depending for his entire influence in the world on the former, who leads the demon armies on his behalf.
The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
In the game as a whole, this is the end-game. It consists of any final preparations made then, such as farming souls or materials. Within each Archstone, this can be as simple as entering a fog gate to fight a boss, but also includes equipment changes, phantom summons, and any other boss preparations.
8. THE ORDEAL
Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
This is every boss battle. Though the definitive Ordeal would have to be the final one, which, ironically, is no ordeal at all but rather the grand anti-climax: the pathetically easy Old Allant, trapped inside the Belly of the Whale at the bottom of the sea, the Old One below the Nexus at the bottom of the world, the Underworld.
According to Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale – similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey – the Hero is ‘branded’ “after the battle, receiving something that changes them, usually permanently. The brand may well be a wound from the villain, perhaps poisonous or magical. It may also be the acquisition of a magical item such as a ring or item of clothing. The branding of the hero is a life-changing experience.” Whether by putting the Old One back to slumber or killing the Maiden in Black, the Slayer ends up being branded, metaphorically, through apotheosis: if the former, he becomes a Monumental, gaining God’s enlightenment; if the latter, he becomes the Old One’s vessel, controlling God’s wrath. He is also branded, in a certain sense, when and if he literally Seizes the Sword symbolically stuck like a thorn in Old Allant’s side and left behind in death, the weapon Soulbrandt.
9. THE REWARD
The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
The unique demon’s soul received after a boss battle, the next area unlocked and both endings.
In a macro sense, this marks the end of Demon’s Souls’s retelling of the Monomyth; it has to, because the game is over.
In a micro sense, however, the remaining three stages seem to fit the pattern of events that might occur when a boss is defeated: the Slayer is ‘revived’ from Soul- to Body-form, the nearby Archstone becomes a ‘road back’ to the Nexus, and many players promptly ‘return’ there with their new unique soul or ‘elixir’ before continuing the journey. They also vaguely resemble what happens in New Game+: resurrecting back at the beginning but with previously attained powers intact.
Having no more to add, the rest of this outline of the Monomyth is presented without commentary.
10. THE ROAD BACK
About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
11. THE RESURRECTION
At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
So, what do you think? Do you agree with my interpretation? Or do you have your own analyses of the Monomyth in Demon’s Souls? Or in any Souls game, for that matter? Or is it all an elaborate conspiracy theory?
Regardless, surely one thing everybody will agree on is the significance of the cycle of death and rebirth in the Souls series. The games have always been designed in large part around the core concept of players learning from their mistakes in order to succeed. It’s one of the fundamental axioms of the gameplay, and in Demon’s Souls, at least, the plot as well. And it is in that sense a reflection of the central theme of the Hero’s Journey. Throughout both the video game series and the archetypal story, the respective heroes continually allow themselves to die, metaphorically or otherwise, that they reemerge better than before.
The same occurs in human psychology when people learn and dream. It’s also what each individual goes through over the course of a lifetime, as the Hero of their own personal Journey. And so goes story of the whole human race, human being itself. We didn’t evolve our practically supernatural intelligence and then use it to rise to the top of the global dominance hierarchy by staying inside our walled gardens, indefinitely, like Crestfallen Knights. We Initiated our own species into that position over millions of years, along an evolutionary Road of Trials, by virtue of our eternal willingness to accept the Call to Adventure, to depart the Ordinary World around the bonfire and self-sacrifice, to risk the opportunity to Seize the Sword of potential from within the dangerous unknown, and to more often than not, return with it, heroically.
After all these years, Demon’s Souls continues to ignite our philosophical musings. With hopes (perhaps vain) that Demon’s Souls will make its way to the PS4 or even PC one day (though less likely), it may get a chance to continue tickling our cerebrum and those of a new crop of gamers for many more years to come.
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