"Maybe I should unplug my PlayStation 5 from the Internet," I mumbled to myself last week.
I've spent the last few weeks slowly playing the Demon's Souls remake for PS5, and it's been a delight to revisit such a revolutionary game, one that still feels quirky and fresh, even in 2020. But it's also been a chance to re-experience bad memories, ones that remain seared into my psyche, even all these years later. Chief among them is one of the game's most unique bosses, Old Monk, a decaying leader who lurks at the end of the creepy Latria.
Warning: This will spoil one of the cooler moments in Demon's Souls!
When a player dies in Demon's Souls, they return in a diminished form with less than full health. You end up playing most of the game this way because death is frequent and gaining full health requires use of a special and limited item (or beating a boss). One other reason to avoid walking around at full health is because it allows other players to "invade" your game.
If you take the health hit, you never have to worry about such an invasion. Until Old Monk.
Old Monk sits atop an enormous throne, unable to move, let alone put up a fight. Compared to the other monstrosities that lurk in Demon's Souls, Old Monk is downright pathetic. But Old Monk has a solution to this problem: summoning someone to fight in their place. In this case, it's summoning another actual player into the arena, even if you're at reduced health.
It is the one and only time Demon's Souls requires players to advance by beating a human being, instead of trying to work out the patterns of its AI-driven creatures. It's a wholly unique experience because no fight is the same, and if you die, you're starting from scratch again. So much of video game design is built around players picking up on predictable behaviors and responding accordingly, and here, Demon's Souls developer FromSoftware threw its hands up and gated progress behind defeating the most unpredictable actor: a human being.
Players, if given the chance, will be assholes. Now, imagine that in a Demon's Souls context.
"I play as the black phantom invader during this encounter because I am usually using my Black Eye Stone in that area invading folks and end up getting summoned to be part of the boss fight," said Henry, one player I recently talked to about their time in and around Old Monk. "Being the bastard that I am, I always just hide behind a chair sitting down in the 'sad' emote position near the back corner so it is hard for me to be seen. The host is usually caught off guard when they eventually find me so I stand up and smack em a couple times and the boss fight is over fairly quickly. Then I bow as if what I did was at all honorable."
The first time I played Demon's Souls was in early 2015, right before Bloodborne came out. This was a few years before the game's online servers would shut down, but six years after the game had been released. Most people had moved onto the more popular successor, Dark Souls, which just meant there weren't many people playing online in Demon's Souls.
There was one person who was playing Demon's Souls, though: a player named Potato Marshal. This individual haunted my Demon's Souls playthrough, constantly wandering around the same areas as me, increasing their odds of getting randomly matched into my world for an invasion. (I wrote about my experience sparring with them for Kotaku in 2015, which was spurred by a random Internet denizen disliking how I decided to play the game.)
Importantly, they always invaded with a weapon called the Scraping Spear, which has a very specific and very annoying trait: after taking a few hits, it completely breaks your weapons and armor, rendering them useless until you spend a few thousand souls repairing them. It sucks! But its existence is also darkly funny, and I'm glad Bluepoint kept it around for the remake. There is nothing else like it in the rest of the Souls canon, likely a concession to how trolls can use the Scraping Spear to be annoying, but it's part of Demon's Souls charm.
I also could not stop thinking about it when I approached Old Monk this time around. I've heard rumors Potato Marshal is still around playing these games, but I hadn't experienced it during my playthrough on PS5. Regardless, they'd tainted my desire to fight another player, especially after asking other people what their experiences had been like fighting Old Monk.
There is a trend among some folks: going offline. Playing Old Monk offline still requires you to fight someone, but it's a much more generic fight, and every time you come back, they try the same moves. It's a return to normalcy. This is what I did after encountering Potato Marshal for Old Monk in Demon's Souls and having such a terrible time. As I wrote in 2015:
In a previous fight, Potato Marshal conceded his scraping spear was a dick move, and we battled on more reasonable terms. I figured this would carry over, but I was wrong. Not only was he prepared to drag out the spear, he'd brought a brand-new toy with him: the soulsucker spell.
What does soulsucker do to another player? It de-levels you, one suck at a time. Gaining a level in Demon's Souls doesn't happen all that often, especially once you're deep into the game. Losing a level is a terrifying prospect. In this case, I'd lost several levels before realizing what was really happening. Potato Marshal was knocking me to the ground, forcing my character into a lengthy animation, knocking me down another level, and starting the process over again.
In any case, I tried to put visions of Potato Marshal out of my head, and climbed the dangerous stairs to Old Monk's home. On the other side, over and over, were other players who, within moments, tore me to pieces. None of them were jerks—they were just good, which is honestly more infuriating than someone coming into the game and playing a trick. It's a lot more frustrating to realize however good you are at fighting ghouls in the dark, it actually doesn't translate all that well to fighting people who aren't bound by problematic AI.
The funniest part about this dance was how often I'd die on the way to Old Monk, because the staircase leading to him is filled with two really tough enemies. One reason people want to be summoned into Old Monk's chambers is because successfully killing another player means you can gain access to his ridiculous headgear, and there are probably a dozen people who earned the right to that headgear because I was frequently dying on the stairs.
You're welcome, I guess.
After an hour or so of this, however, I was considering my old fate: going offline. Clearly, I was not great at fighting good players, and was also not lucky enough to attract bad players.
An important note about how Old Monk works: players aren't just hiding in the boss area, waiting for you. The Old Monk randomly plucks someone who is also wandering around Latria in Demon's Souls at the time. This individual needs to have used one of the game's three summoning stones—blue eye, black eye, red eye—to qualify. The blue eye stone, however, is a friendly stone; it's the one players use to be summoned and help those who are having trouble with bosses. Old Monk cares not, however. This can lead to complicated situations where a summoned person might not want the task that's granted. Or, uh, know it!
I took a deep breath, and once again, climbed the stairs. This time, I matched with a player named AidanGS1230. It often only takes a moment to realize whether another player is going to wreck you, but it became clear pretty quickly that, actually, we were a good match. We poked and prodded at one another, and once I managed to spam a parry that took out half their health, I realized: ah, shit, this could be the moment. I could actually win this one.
As is often the case in Souls games, becoming overly conservative because you're worried about losing is often the surest path to actually losing, and I nearly doomed myself a few times while trying to find an opening. But eventually, that opening arrived and I seized it.
Umbasa. The deed was done.