Games

PlayStation 5 Has a Broken UI But Incredible Social Features

An experience trying to ask a friend for help in 'Demon's Souls' was an exercise in frustration and a suggestion of incredible potential.
November 17, 2020, 2:00pm
A screen shot of the video game Demon's Souls.
Image courtesy of Sony

Back when Sony demonstrated the PlayStation UI, I was left pretty cold by its emphasis on social features. It's never been how I play games, preferring my splendid isolation to the twee panopticons that platform capitalism excels in building. It mostly seemed like it would function as yet another place for an awkward conference call among friends, complete with lag, poor audio, and lack of context.

I didn't understand the point of these features until I started playing Demon's Souls and, after some frustration, finally broke through to a section of the first level (Boletarian Palace) that I hadn't gotten to before. I was tense, I had no idea where to go next, and the thought of repeating everything I'd just done was more than I could handle. I stood there at a fork in the path, considering my options and wishing I could ask for some help.

I could have posted a screengrab to Twitter, but the process of getting actual screenshots off my PlayStation 5 seems as clunky as it was with PlayStation 4. More to the point, however, I needed to talk to someone. I didn't just need to crowdsource the question of which path I should choose, I needed to explain my thinking, what I was having issues with, and get a little more guidance than "go left" or "go right." That's when I remembered that UI demo and decided to see if I could call Patrick.

I hit him up on Discord and, again, considered just calling him there, but I didn't even know how to describe where I was. He would have probably figured it out if I said something like, "I just got past the part with the boulders and now there's a sleeping dragon and I can either walk down a hallway or onto the ramparts" but again, it would have been inexact and he might not have seen exactly what had me confused. So I asked him for his PSN name so I could add him as a friend.

Now, before I tell you what's good about the PS5 UI, we need to talk about the ways it's a shitshow. Because the shitshow comes before you get to the good stuff. I went to my PSN friends list, but there was no way to add Patrick when I had my friends list open. I could only interact with my existing friends, or change my status or privacy settings, but there was no option anywhere to add a new friend. In desperation, I tried the system settings on my PS5, but while I could also control privacy settings there, there were no social controls there.

While I was doing this, Patrick texted me, "how…add…friends in PS5."

Then I spotted the search icon on the home screen. Predictably, it would let me search for games on PSN, but then I realized I could tab over and search for users there as well. (This reflects one of the curious UI customs of the PS5: it stashes control functions in the unobtrusive, visually lightweight top bar of the interface, while the big buttons that occupy the rest of it lead to curated lists. So when you open the PSN store, you don't go to a big searchable store page. Instead you see lists of games that are currently being promoted, sorted into Netflix-like lists of things you might enjoy, things that are seasonal, or things that are selling-well. If you click your friends list, you can see your list of friends. But if you want to search and sort anything, you have to ignore those giant icons and do everything through search.)

Once I had Patrick added as a friend, I could send him messages, but not any of the stuff I saw in the demo. I could invite him to my game, but Demon's Souls is not a multiplayer game in that way and PS5 literally told me to get some multiplayer games if I wanted to invite him. So I helplessly sent him screenshots of where I was, and got ready to start a voice chat.

That still seemed wrong, but when I opened the Control Center, I spotted the icon for the Game Base. The Game Base is like your friends list, but also completely different and offers different options. When I opened the Game Base, I could invite Patrick to my party and, mercifully, share my screen.

Once I did that, however, things got awesome.

It took Patrick a minute of fussing to figure out how to swap out of his game to watch my stream, but once he did, it was like he was sitting on the couch next to me. Or maybe more accurately, as my partner said later, it was like a very tiny Patrick was sitting on top of my controller, giving me advice.

By default, the PS5 controller's speaker and microphone handle voice chat. For my money it was better than the tiny earbud and microphone that shipped with PS4, and better than a lot of the cheaper "upgrade" headsets you can buy. The sound was tinny but clean, like a good phone connection, but cleaner than most calls on an actual cell phone.

But the most impressive thing was that, without any observable performance hit, I was sharing my game with Patrick. He was watching over my shoulder, as I showed him my options and explained my doubts. (Namely, I wasn't sure I shouldn't run back to the hub area at the Nexus and spend my wallet full of souls on gear and repairs, or forge ahead.

Patrick talked me through a tricky sequence with a dragon, saving me from a nasty surprise and letting me instead savor one of the more spectacular sequences I've seen in an RPG. Then he refused to hang up, saying, "Nah, I wanna see you fight this boss."

Now, crucially, Patrick had dismissed one of my major concerns, which was that my falchion was on its last legs and I needed to go back to the blacksmith to repair it. Right on cue, as soon as I started my first boss fight, the sword broke. 

"It's fine, just use your other sword," Patrick said helpfully. My Wanderer gracefully thrust his Mail-Breaker rapier into the writhing mass of the Phalanx and a single column of pixels vanished from its health bar. "Wow that… did not do much damage at all."

"This is what I was saying."

"Yeah, you need to fix that falchion," Patrick said as I was impaled in a hail of spears. All my thousands of souls fell with me, now trapped in a boss battle.

"OK but now all my money is stuck here."

"Yeah. Well, you know, just go grind the rest of the level until you have enough to fix it and buy some heals. You'll get it. I gotta go."

EDITOR’S AKA PATRICK’S NOTE: THIS IS NOT TRUE, I TOLD HIM SOULS ARE WORTHLESS UNTIL HE BEATS THE FIRST BOSS AND CAN JUST GRIND THE ZOMBIES OUTSIDE THE BOSS DOOR AND TH—[Rob stuffs Patrick into a locker] 

It was just like hanging out with Patrick, right down the cavalier inattentiveness that helps him lead friends into the exact situations they wanted to avoid. But it was probably the strongest sense of "telepresence" I've had using a screenshare. Patrick might as well have been sitting next to me, having a beer, and giving me tips while I groped through a FromSoftware game.

And while the PlayStation has UI quirks that make it surprisingly unintuitive to get to that moment, it absolutely delivers on a vision that I was more than skeptical of.