[Game: Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware, 2009]
Slayer of Reason:

A Thorough Epistemological Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls

 

Introduction:

From the immersive maturity of its mechanical and narrative details, to the unparalleled sense of consideration for consequences that it fosters among players, to the sheer number of genuinely unique and refreshing design risks that it takes—Demon’s Souls is as much a captivating revelation today as it was upon release. Yet, as with each of the later Miyazaki-led FromSoft games that follow in its footsteps (in fact, perhaps moreso than any of its descendants), Demon’s Souls poses numerous difficulties for analysis.

It shares the cryptic approach to storytelling and the elements of nonlinearity that crop up in all of FromSoftware’s recent works, but that’s not all. In addition, it is a game which changes from player to player and session to session in a non-random fashion. Enemy placements, enemy statistics, NPC interactions, and even the availability of a few small regions of the levels all depend to some degree on the circumstances in which the player succeeds or fails.

You will not be surprised to hear me claim, however, that the odd structure and content of Demon’s Souls nevertheless do coalesce into a coherent reading. In the interest of pursuing that reading, our primary ally will be the field of epistemology. In a nutshell, epistemology is the study of knowledge—which includes such topics as belief, truth, justification, and skepticism. Armed with tools from that and related fields of philosophy, we will explore the following interpretation: Demon’s Souls offers a discussion of the limits of human knowledge, and how people believe and act given such limits. That might sound strange or overly vague—but in the sections ahead I intend to provide specificity and support for it, through careful attention to both the game itself and the relevant philosophy.

Demon's Souls screenshot with landscape shaded by demon - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

For the purpose of this analysis, I have assumed that the reader has some familiarity with the characters and plot details of Demon’s Souls, although I have not assumed that the reader has any prior experience with epistemological philosophy. But if that doesn’t describe you (or your memory of the events is a little foggy at the moment), don’t worry; here is an extremely quick, game-jargon-free overview of the full basic story and plot of Demon’s Souls:

Long ago, some groups of people realized that their souls could be used for abilities other than the first-person experiences and clear reasoning of consciousness: their souls could also be manipulated to do literal magic. In the course of learning more and more about such magic powers, a giant magical demon was discovered and intentionally stirred. The demon, however, was . . . uncooperative. It distributed a fog around the world which spawned lesser demons to gather souls for it to eat, and a war was fought against the demons. Things only returned to peace when a group of powerful sorcerers managed to put the giant demon to sleep at their sky temple. In the aftermath of the war, the sorcerers banned magic and tasked themselves to keep watch over the giant demon’s slumber.

Many years afterwards, when memory of those events has faded or passed into legend, an ambitious expansionist king begins experimenting with the magical capabilities of souls, and later finds his way to the sky temple where he awakens the giant demon. This starts the flood of fog and lesser demons into the world all over again. As all but one of the group of watchful sorcerers are now deceased, and some humans are now active collaborators with the demons—the demons begin hastily winning in this second warlike period.

This is when the game begins. The player-character is an adventurer who crosses the fog into the demon-infested lands, where they are promptly killed. They’re resurrected in the sky temple by a powerful being, but the relationship between their body and soul is rendered somewhat looser than usual by the whole experience, and they are bound to the temple and the places closely connected to it. The player-character will only be able to regain their freedom by destroying powerful demons—and only be able to regain a permanent (or at least strong) connection between their soul and their body by using the power of the demons’ souls, which are enriched by the power of consumed human souls.

Demon's Souls screenshot with fight against Flamelurker - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Yet the stakes are higher than that personal salvation. The player-character ultimately chooses whether to keep accruing soul power for themselves and serve the giant primary demon, or to allow that demon to be put back to sleep once again.

Now, let’s begin:

Soul Form, Body Form, and Mind-Body Dualism in Demon’s Souls:

Is there anything whatsoever that you can know for sure, beyond all possible doubt? Can you know that you are not dreaming, or hallucinating, or being deceived about reality by a powerful demon? Can you know with certainty that the external world, outside of your mind, exists? Can you really know anything at all?

Those are the types of concerns which René Descartes sets out to address in one of the most influential philosophical works ever written, his Meditations on First Philosophy. Toward the middle of the second main section of that work, Descartes makes a bold proclamation about where that kind of skeptical questioning must come to an end:

Can I now claim to have any of the features that I used to think belong to a body? When I think about them really carefully, I find that they are all open to doubt [. . .] Sense-perception? One needs a body in order to perceive; and, besides, when dreaming I have seemed to perceive through the senses many things that I later realized I had not perceived in that way. Thinking? At last I have discovered it—thought! This is the one thing that can’t be separated from me. [. . .] Well, then, what am I? A thing that thinks. (Descartes Meditations 5)

Several years earlier, in his Discourse on the Method, Descartes renders this sentiment in the succinct form in which it became famous: “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes Discourse 53). That is, even if we attempt to doubt everything, we can not doubt that doubting is happening; something exists, and that something thinks.

From there, Descartes spends the remainder of his Meditations making a compelling—yet deeply flawed—attempt to build back up all knowledge of the external world from that single kernel of internal certainty. In other words, Descartes throws us all into radical doubt of everything other than our own thoughts, and then (I would contend) fails to offer a convincing way back out. Now, we will reach a position that will allow us to overcome it in the sections ahead, but until then we’re going to set the radical skepticism to the side.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Maiden in Black summoning player-character in Nexus - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Instead, for the remainder of this first section let’s focus on the description of the world which this and related work by Descartes invigorated and ensured as prominent for the centuries that followed: mind-body dualism. This is the position that everything can be separated into two fundamentally distinct categories: mind stuff on the one hand, and physical stuff on the other. This is important because, whatever the case in our world, in Demon’s Souls mind-body dualism is a fact.

If you are not well-acquainted with the lore of Demon’s Souls, you may not immediately see the truth of this. But Descartes’ thinking thing, the mind, the persistent conscious identity of a being—is the concept that, in Demon’s Souls, bears the name ‘soul.’

Mind and soul are intricately linked concepts in Demon’s Souls, to the extent that in this analysis from now on I will actually be treating the two terms as largely interchangeable. This connection is indicated by the first line of the game’s opening cinematic (“On the first day, man was granted a soul, and with it, clarity”), by the Monumental’s discussion of the soul (“A soul is the essence with which living things comprehend the world around them. When one loses the Soul, one loses the mind”), by the first line of the Maiden in Black’s leveling incantation (“Soul of the mind, key to life’s aether”), and by all of the animalistic, instinct-driven behavior of the soul-starved people in Boletaria, Stonefang, Latria, and the Valley of Defilement (Freke is just as blunt on this point as the Monumental: “Demons steal souls, and with them our sanity”).

So, now you can understand what I mean about the relevance of mind-body dualism:

After all, in Boletaria and its neighboring lands, the soul or mind of a person is literally, demonstrably separable from the body of a person. The soul can become (proceeding another line into the Maiden’s incantation), a “soul of the lost, withdrawn from its vessel.” And, if such a bodyless soul had previously been part of a human rather than a demon—it is even possible under certain circumstances for it to walk around and act in the world on its own, after the death of the body.

By the time they first stand in the Nexus, that is the status of the game’s protagonist.

Demon's Souls screenshot with fight against Vanguard - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Upon crossing the fog at the start of the game, our protagonist finds themselves on the outskirts of Allant’s lands, and soon discovers that the people have become crazed and violent. Pushing onward, it doesn’t take long to find justification for the madness. Beyond another spray of fog, one finds their progress blocked by an unusual and alien creature. From its flawless reptilian skin to its successive lines of impractical protruding teeth to its three wide, emotionless yellow eyes—it is overwhelmingly clear that this is no natural being. And true to the otherworldly first impression it makes, the being seems hardly perturbed by combat with the player-character—languidly making devastating swings of a colossal axe, barely affected by even the strongest strikes the player-character can muster. Defeat is likely for the human.

Yet even if they are patient and careful, and they manage to best the demonic Vanguard and leave the outpost alive, the player-character will not be spared from their demise. Instead, they will find that the section of the archstone network that they have accessed terminates in the presence of an archdemon, the so-called Dragon God, who ends the player-character’s life with a single remarkable punch.

The Maiden in Black seizes and bolsters the player-character’s newly-bodyless soul before it can be collected by whichever demon slayed them, and this seizure ensnares the soul in the Nexus. But although the soul is separable from the body and can survive a physical death in this way—it is also worth highlighting that this does not mean the soul is a full person on its own, nor that the soul is indestructible or immortal. In fact, the game tells us again and again that just the opposite is true.

As to souls not being the entirety of people, consider the health penalty applied when in soul form. Although various things can shift the health allotment of soul form, one simply is never a whole being as only a soul. The cap on the bar at the top of the screen is a constant reminder of this fact. And we can turn to the zombie-like behavior of the many soul-starved beings to add that one is not whole as only a body either. The composite unit of the soul with the body together is the whole being, as represented by one’s possession of a corporeal body, a rational soul, and (accordingly) a full health bar.

Demon's Souls screenshot with half health bar in soul form - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

And as to the mortality of souls, consider what ultimately happens to the soul and body when they are separated—even within the soul-amplifying fog-shrouded lands. What happens to the body is no mystery. Bodies may under some circumstances continue to act as soul-starved automata for a time, but we find plenty of inanimate corpses in our travels. Moreover, multiple NPC souls that we encounter refer to their bodies decaying apart from them. One such soul is a discouraged fellow that resides on the stairs of the Nexus through most of the game. This figure also happens to be the best depiction we get of the fate of an idle soul without a body.

He contrasts sharply with the player-character, as he has given up on sustaining himself and the connection to his body through the acquisition of demon souls and eye stones. Instead, he simply waits for his inevitable end. The nature of that end is reasonably straightforward: first he loses his memories, then his form is reduced to a generic warrior’s soul with no unique identity. Summing this together with what we’ve discussed so far, this makes perfect sense. If the soul is the rational clarifying mind, then what it is for the soul to die is for the mind to dissipate; the rationality and clarity fades until gone, at which point the soul itself is so diminished that it no longer corresponds to a particular individual, and its power can be absorbed by another active soul.

In fact, the game is pretty specific about claiming that things that are gone (and this includes souls) are consumed, destroyed, or in some similar sense gone forever. Thus the notion that the lands eaten by the fog in the First Scourge never came back. The two endings of the game are similarly clear on this point. The human ending goes out of its way to say that the souls eaten by the Old One are permanently lost. The demon ending goes further than this, stating that fog will eat the entire world in just the way it had previously eaten sections of the landscape. And no one in the game seems to know what (if anything) might become of people whose souls have dissipated or been consumed or destroyed. Rydell uses the euphemism of saying he “will soon fade into the beyond,” and also calls it his “final eternal rest.”

Demon's Souls screenshot with generic soul form of unnerved warrior - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Now, don’t be misled. All this talk of death being available to both bodies and souls, with the relevant souls being in the dark as to any possible meaning of that death, may seem like it’s leaning toward another existentialist analysis (like the one I provided for Dark Souls). But it really isn’t. This is important for me to flag now, as it will be a few sections before we can see that there is a good reason for the characters to be unsure about what follows one’s final terrestrial death, and yet that the reason is not necessarily that nothing follows such a death in Demon’s Souls.
The thoroughgoing mind-body dualism of Demon’s Souls really is an important way in which its universe is different from the superficially similar fantasy universes that FromSoftware would create in the decade that followed. To come to grips with the significance of that difference, it will be useful to trace a few more such ways that the world of Demon’s Souls stands apart.

Myths, Mysticism, and Demons in Demon’s Souls:

Descartes grounds knowledge on the internal certainty of the rational mind, on clear and distinct conceptions by that “thing that thinks” he discussed. Yet you’ll notice that pure reasoning is not actually how I argued for the relationship between mind-body dualism and the world of Demon’s Souls in the prior section. To get knowledge of the gameworld, I had to look at the gameworld. I was therefore grounding knowledge in this context not primarily on reason and the mind, but primarily on experience and the body. This aligns with a competing strand of epistemology in the early modern period, championed by people like David Hume.

Hume argues for his approach in, among other works, his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If I ask, why you believe any particular matter of fact, which you relate, you must tell me some reason; and this reason will be some other fact, connected with it. But as you cannot proceed after this manner, in infinitum, you must at last terminate in some fact, which is present to your memory or senses; or must allow that your belief is entirely without foundation. (Hume 805)

Hume was strict enough about the primacy of evidence from the senses that he argued that belief is nothing more than a vivid feeling that accompanies immediate sensations and memories of them, and that the concept of causation itself is nothing more than a mental habit formed after repeated exposure to things. So, tentatively taking that cue, let’s see what other high-level patterns appear when considering the experience of the game—what other overarching philosophical qualities arise from its details.

Demon's Souls screenshot with reaper mage in Shrine of Storms - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Toward the end of my analysis of Dark Souls, I sum up some of my points about the world it depicts by saying it is “physical rather than mystical, monist rather than dualist, and uses religious diction and systems primarily to express social hierarchies and power dynamics.” When it comes to the content of Demon’s Souls, however, the exact opposite is true in each case. That is, experiencing the world of Demon’s Souls reveals that it is mystical, dualist, and uses religious diction and systems primarily to directly discuss how belief interacts with supernatural and non-physical elements of its world.

You’ve already heard about what I mean by saying Demon’s Souls is dualist in the previous section, but you’ve got to understand all three attributes to see why this FromSoft dark medieval fantasy that talks quite a lot about souls—is actually very different from that FromSoft dark medieval fantasy that talks quite a lot about souls.

Regarding religion, about half of the game’s NPCs are either adherents, clergy, or knights of a hegemonic monotheistic priesthood—or avowed opponents of that faith. And Demon’s Souls uses the words ‘God,’ ‘demon,’ and ‘soul’ far closer to the conventional way those words are used today.

These semantic differences between most later FromSoft games and Demon’s Souls align well with the differences in spiritual inspiration between them. The later Souls titles, Sekiro, and Elden Ring all contain basic lore that resembles the more grounded and physical religious systems of ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Japan, and ancient Scandinavia—with communities of corporeal gods that dwell among us or in nature, have emotions and personalities, and interact extensively with (or are affected extensively by) humans. With oversimplification for comparison’s sake, we could say that, in Dark Souls, gods are big people that live on top of a mountain; demons are weird-looking people that live in a cave; and souls are principally forms of physical energy.

In Demon’s Souls, a probably-singular God or Divinity resides outside of apparent physical reality; demons are a group of soul-consuming monsters; and souls are principally rational conscious minds. Thus, its mythos dwells closer to the scholastic and neoplatonist systems of Abrahamic monotheism—with its God beyond human experience and comprehension, existing immaterially outside of time and space. It even shares, in a very literal way, the penchant of such systems for recasting other deities as demons.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Dragon God roaring - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

And this brings us neatly along to the third of the attributes highlighted earlier: that Demon’s Souls is ‘mystical.’

Being one of the intricately constructed worlds produced by FromSoft in the past 15 years, the universe of Demon’s Souls is one that is more sensical and consistent than those depicted in nearly all other games. Yet this same perceptible care and attention, matching every element in its levels to the circumstances in terms of design, functionality, and placement—makes it all the more conspicuous when mystical, magical, and supernatural elements enter in at the level of Demon’s Souls’ physics and metaphysics.

Consider: the apparition of fire in the universe of Dark Souls is a mysterious physical event, analogous in many ways to our current understanding of the Big Bang as a starting point for the present state of our universe. There is no such analogy in Demon’s Souls, where the first things we are told upon booting the game are that humans were granted a soul, and a soul-devouring demon was planted on the earth. These acts of willed creation straightforwardly defy physical or empirical explanation, and they even hint at ensouled creatures having a prior essence (though the exact nature of that essence would still be unclear).

Similarly, the contents of the Demon’s Souls universe is a non-zero sum game. Where in the Dark Souls universe, matter and energy only move from one form or location to another, in Demon’s Souls matter and energy can be created, duplicated, or destroyed.

Now, it is almost always possible, due to limitations of the medium, to point to possible contradictions of physics in minor details of a game’s mechanics; the work of squaring such elements with the rest of the lore is left to be confronted or ignored according to the preferences of each analyst. The difference I’m aiming to highlight here is that, in Demon’s Souls, contradictions of physics are not just to be found in such ambiguous outliers, but are also enshrined in aspects of the basic story and lore of the game.

Demon's Souls screenshot with set of souls above execution grounds - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

To illustrate this, let’s consider a pair of fundamental questions: what is a demon? And how is a demon made?

Demon is a particularly broad category in Demon’s Souls, from the Old One itself to empowered humans (such as Astraea and Allant) to empowered animals (such as the leechmonger and the armor spider) to mythic beings (such as the Adjudicator and the Storm King) to experimentally produced beings (such as the False King and the Maneaters) to strange creatures that are possibly direct offspring of the fog (such as the Vanguards and the primeval demons) to—incredibly—what would otherwise be inanimate objects (such as the Dirty Colossus and the golden yellow garb of the Old Monk).

That’s a lot of complication, but let’s not get bogged down in attempting to discuss their origins all at once. Suppose we were to narrow our inquiry to just the demons that are purposefully created from particular people by motivated human agents.

When a person’s body or soul is used in the creation of such a demon, is that body or soul consumed? The answer seems to be ‘no.’ The clearest examples are Allant himself, still in possession of both soul and (now grotesque) body while the False King walks the earth, and the Maneaters, flying about while the body and souls of the apparent experimental victim of the Old Monk lie nearby. The story is arguably the same for the Old Hero and the figure on the slab in his arena. And what’s more, we can find what is possibly the body of the originating figure of the Flamelurker before fighting him, and what are almost certainly the souls of the originating figures of the Phalanx, the Tower Knight, and the Penetrator guarding the way to the False King. So whatever the case, using a person to create a new demon in the world does not necessarily consume either body or soul, and as Allant demonstrates not even bodily death is a requirement. Apparently not just demon souls, but also demon matter, can emerge from the fog.

But the fog just covers what philosophers would call the material cause and efficient cause of the demons (meaning the stuff out of which they’re made, and the activity or event that produces them). The formal cause (meaning the form into which they’re made) is often no less mystical. A number of incredibly powerful physical beings are patterned directly—in whole or in part—after the myths, thoughts, or dreams of groups of people within the game. This is certainly the case for the Dragon God, the Storm King, and the lesser Storm Beasts, and is possibly also the case for the Flamelurker, Old King Doran, the dragons living near the Boletarian Palace, and the Adjudicator.

Demon's Souls screenshot with red dragon demon striking path - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Once you’ve noticed this—that ‘magic’ is not just a particular system or power in Demon’s Souls, but is in fact the mysterious explanation that must be given to many basic questions about the gameworld’s physics and metaphysics—you start to see the consequences of that everywhere within it, on down to the equipment that characters can wield.

Blacksmith Ed informs us, for instance, that the ores used to improve weapons and shields are “transmogrified sprites,” and that smithing works by using those sprites to “bless” weapons. He doubles down on this description by referring to pure ore as “a spirit force that delights the eye.” These lines, which might have struck many players as figurative, are likely literal.

Some weapons themselves fit this mold. The Large Sword of Moonlight and Blind are obvious examples, canonically being a pair of weapons that can pass through the matter of shields to strike opponents—because they are literally made of light. Compare that to the only weapon in the original Dark Souls which can sometimes ignore shields, the shotel, whose design and description makes it clear that it is physically reaching around the shield to deal damage. The moonlight greatsword in Dark Souls is a solid object that doesn’t pass through shields, and the shotel in Demon’s Souls is only half as effective at negating defense as its two ‘illusory’ weapons.

So, what are we to make of all of these oddities? Of the game’s mystical nature? It seems that the preponderance of difficulty we face in understanding Demon’s Souls’ treatment of, say, demons . . . puts its systems in a convoluted and murky position. If all we can really do is form a customary, instinctive, or habitual expectation based on repeated experience, then we seem to be at a loss when it comes to forming a deeper understanding of what appears to be a fundamentally magical and irregular fantasy world. It’s obvious that this emphasis on specific details of the experience is absolutely crucial for the analysis of art, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ll never know what it means, except perhaps in poetic terms, for there to be large sword that is made of moonlight.

Demon's Souls screenshot with large sword of moonlight in Latria - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

At this point, I suppose we could just pursue a primarily metaphorical reading of the game. But we won’t! I maintain that the universe and metaphysics of Demon’s Souls—despite their mystical, sometimes-physically-incoherent details—offer important philosophical echoes of our world with crucial insights worth taking seriously. For a full understanding, we just need to look at the gameworld from a new angle.

In particular, the path we’ll now take is one that is both inspired by and informed by the work of a man who offers a sort of middle way between the rationalism of figures like Descartes and the empiricism of figures like Hume: Immanuel Kant. Kant truly took to heart Hume’s emphasis on the importance of experience for knowledge . . . but argued that Hume had some aspects of the world, such as the role of low-level mental concepts like causation, backwards—that we don’t derive them from experience, but rather derive experience from them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s time to turn to the exact mechanic of Demon’s Souls that I was personally contemplating when I realized how nicely Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics fit the game: the tendency systems.

Demon’s Souls‘ World Tendency and Character Tendency at a Glance:

Demon’s Souls’ implementations of world tendency and character tendency contain some of the most original, unique, and daring mechanical choices I have ever seen in a game. Even among the later works of the same developers, there’s nothing quite like them; a couple covenants, sin, and some approaches to New Game + are the closest any of FromSoft’s other titles have come to having even remotely similar systems.

Basically, tendency changes aspects of the game in response to events in a given player’s campaign. An easy way of describing it is as a function of how demonic things are: the less demonic the world or character gets, the closer they move to pure white tendency; the more demonic the world or character gets, the closer they move to pure black. Tendency shifts white after killing black phantoms and killing important demons, and shifts black after killing NPCs or dying in human form. Yet, however all of that may sound, this system is very far from being simplistic or superficial.
As tendencies get lighter, the player-character has higher attack power in soul form; enemies have lower health; named NPCs appear and offer quests; the dragon demons leave the outermost section of the Boletarian Palace; the Monumental becomes more invested in the success of the player-character; and new regions and weapons become accessible in most levels.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Executioner Miralda - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

As tendencies get darker, the player-character has reduced health in soul form; the enemies deal more damage; soul gain from defeating enemies is increased; item drop rates generally improve; stronger black phantom variants of regular enemies spawn into the world; named NPCs appear as hostile black phantoms; Mephistopheles becomes personally interested in the player-character; and primeval demons are born.

Adding this system together with the other aspects of its respawn mechanics, there are practically zero other modern titles of comparable or higher budgets which punish players as severely as Demon’s Souls for character deaths—removing their immediate store of souls for leveling and buying materials, significantly dropping their maximum health, resetting all progress within each lengthy level (besides unlocked shortcuts), not replacing consumables spent in the previous attempt, and even buffing enemies and spawning in more of them if tendency gets low enough. There is a small saving grace in the form of improved soul gain and item drop rates in dark tendencies, but in general the tendency system and the persistence of all resource stocks across deaths come together to make it so that tenacity alone (which can carry a player through most of FromSoft’s later output) is generally insufficient for a new player to achieve success in Demon’s Souls; caution and resource management are also required.

By that same token, however, there are also practically zero other modern titles of comparable or higher budgets which reward players as dramatically as Demon’s Souls simply for avoiding character deaths. Not only will a consistently successful character have more total resources available to level and make purchases (keeping pace with the progression of other RPGs), but more items and friendly NPCs will become available to them, and the stats of enemies and the player-character will bend in the player’s favor.

This contrasts brazenly with how most games now work, as they usually bend stats and requirements toward the player after failure, and away (if ever) only in a limited fashion after success. This is because such other games are quietly acting as a benevolent providence, expressing a mechanical preference for the eventual success of the player.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Shrine skeleton attacking fluted knight - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Demon’s Souls, however, is not just the opposite of that; though failure may be particularly tough within it, it does not single-mindedly favor failure in the way that other games single-mindedly favor success. For that to be true, it would have to aggressively tune the difficulty up as one succeeds. Instead, Demon’s Souls’ response to success or failure creates feedback loops that bring more of the same. Overall, tendency is an admirably innovative experiment in game design, and it is deserving of serious analytical attention.

On the surface, as against the mysticism described so far, tendency seems to mesh well with a grounded, physically consistent reading of the game.

Killing demons and black phantoms directly improves the world, empties it of enemies, makes it friendly to civilians, and weakens the demons and their allies by starving them of souls. Killing civilians and dying oneself makes the world worse, attracts demons, drives away or causes the deaths of peaceful people, and provides empowering souls to demons and their allies. This framework seems to be backed up by the fact that tendency works to some degree on a community-wide level; that is, when playing online world tendency is pulled toward the community average to some degree.

On this reading, the world is literally being made more humane by actions that lighten tendency, and literally being made more demonic by actions that darken it.

I think that’s a valuable and intuitive way of looking at the system, which can give new players a good basic understanding of it. But I would also contend that, when looking at the system closely, there are huge holes in that way of discussing tendency—obvious details of the game that simply can not be accounted for without modifying that paradigm.

Demon's Souls screenshot with reclaiming of bloodstain - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

The two most obvious ones by far are the simple facts that all lost souls can be reclaimed at the player-character’s bloodstain, and that dying in soul form never has any effect on world tendency. These facts would seem to imply that the crucial element in making the world worse is not (as the story implies) the souls that are claimed from the player-character, but is somehow rather the body. For the standard explanation to work, tendency would have to always and only blacken when bloodstains are lost by dying before reclaiming them (regardless of whether the relevant death was that of a whole person, or only a soul), should respond proportionally to how many souls are lost in that way, and should never blacken simply because of dying in human form.

Moreover, if some deaths directly empower nearby enemies, it’s deeply unclear why world tendency is never updated after one or more qualifying deaths or actions, as long as the player-character stays in the level (even though the level is reloaded after every death). Not even quitting to the main menu updates it. World tendency only updates after returning to the Nexus.

Complications like these may be noticed by most players, but are straightforwardly inconsistent with a simple reading of tendency as a reflection of how many souls the demons and the soul-starved have gained or lost. But as promised earlier, it is possible to find a workable solution to such puzzles, and indeed to all of the puzzles that we’ve left scattered across the foregoing sections, by looking at the game from a new perspective.

Starting now, we’re suspending our focus on how the activities of the players and characters affect Boletaria—in order to focus on how the activities of the players and characters affect themselves.

The Soul Arts and the Nature of Experience in Demon’s Souls:

Here is one of the most famous statements of Immanuel Kant’s big intervention in philosophy, in his own words:

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects [of the world itself]; but all attempts to find out something about them [independent of experience] through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition [. . .] (Kant Critique 110, Bxvi)

Due to the unintuitive nature of his ideas, the complexity of his ideas, and the cumbersome writing style with which he expresses his ideas—what Kant is arguing can be challenging for people to grasp for the first time. But I personally believe that some of his most important and fundamental insights can be understood by everyone.

Demon's Souls screenshot with primeval demon in Boletarian Palace - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

To begin, think about the fact that you have no way of accessing sight other than your faculty for visual perception, no way of accessing sound other than your faculty for auditory perception, and no way to think about the world other than your own understanding and reasoning faculties. Your set of outer and inner senses can in this context be understood as offering not only the ability to have experience, but also the limitations or bounds to your experience. As long as you live, the world as it is represented by your senses, and as it is categorized and unified by your understanding, is the only world you’ll ever know. In my opinion, one of Kant’s main distinctions as a great philosopher is his willingness to chase the logical consequences of these apparently banal observations with rigorous and unflagging persistence.

And already, you should now be prepared to understand Kant’s sentiment that “the objects must conform to our cognition:” the only things we perceive and know are, necessarily, things conforming to our cognitive capabilities. Your experience of any object in the world, such as the device on which this article is displayed, is of the device as it appears to you. Not just as it appears superficially, but as it appears to any intellectual or scientific investigation into it that you might choose to make. If whatever is supplying the inputs to your senses when you direct your attention toward the device is in some way very different from how the device is to you, you’ll never know it. Necessarily, things will only ever appear to you in the ways that you are capable of perceiving things. In short, each object appears to you in conformity with your cognition of it.

Now consider a description of Demon’s Souls’ tendency system in the following terms:

If the player experiences the game as difficult, hostile to them, providing frequent failures, stuffed with enemies that hit hard—then it becomes the case that they are right. If the player experiences the game as easy, friendly to them, providing frequent successes, sparsely populated with enemies that fall easily—then it becomes the case that they are right. If they come to see themselves as demonic opportunists who exploit NPCs, fellow players, and the world, the game quietly matches their abilities to being just that. If they come to see themselves as humane avengers who fight on behalf of NPCs, fellow players, and the world, the game quietly matches their abilities to being just that.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Leechmonger fight - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Meanwhile, a player utterly discouraged from engaging with the system, purposefully staying in soul form at all times to avoid world tendency penalties and invasions, is resigned and aloof. By avoiding regular usage of ephemeral eye stones and possibly even intentionally dying in ways that don’t affect tendency, such a player will forever have both white world tendency’s lower difficulty and generally lower drop rates, and soul form’s health penalty and prevention from summoning. In response to such a player’s quest to experience the game as neutral, consistent, and lacking in significant challenge, excitement, or surprise—the game acquiesces by becoming exactly that.

Whatever one’s experience of the game is like, the world and character tendency systems essentially mean that the game conforms to that experience. And the game even does this to a small degree on a community-wide scale, matching itself (more minorly) to the aggregate experiences of all its active players. This is why this set of mechanics is called ‘tendency.’ The tutorial message that introduces the system refers to the relevant concept not as the soul count of the demons or the power level in the land, but instead as “the tendency of the world’s souls.” In a more foundational way than merely through its nonlinearity, Demon’s Souls is structured to confirm the understanding of it developed by its players.

Now, regarding reality, that’s noticeably different from what Kant is saying. He certainly does not think that the world changes based on our attitudes, reactions, or moods—and I actually think that’s a common misunderstanding of his work. He argues that the empirical world as it appears to us is constrained by our cognition of it, because our minds universally employ a defined set of basic forms, concepts, and categories to construct and unify our experience of that world from our sensations. Yet the minds in Demon’s Souls have powers that ours don’t. And in accordance with that difference, in that universe the empirical world is not merely constrained but also altered by our cognition of it. Thus, speaking of its online systems, Demon’s Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki reports,

Demon’s Souls isn’t like other RPGs. We’ve made a different storyline for every player. That’s what the network’s for; that’s what the phantoms are. [. . .] even if 100 players are role-playing, they will all have different experiences. Whether you behave as friend or foe is down to a person’s character. (Miyazaki 3)

Along these lines and insofar as they provide methods for players to both intentionally and unintentionally shape what the experience of the game is like, the message system and limited asymmetrical multiplayer system which have since become staples of the company’s output are more thematically suited to the world of Demon’s Souls than to any of the later inheritors of such mechanics.

Demon's Souls screenshot with invasion and summon in Stonefang - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

With this new perspective, we can turn back to that list of issues with interpreting the tendency system from the end of the prior section, and watch the problems dissolve before our eyes.

The reason tendency responds at the moment of a death in body form is that that is the moment of greatest potential psychological impact for the player—a moment at which the player-character loses half its health bar, a moment at which the player’s confidence at being able to make the relevant journey may have moved from a relative high-point to a relative low-point, a moment where (in accordance with that earlier confidence) they were likely to be carrying a relatively significant store of souls that are now in danger of permanent loss. And if their confidence or desperation for conquering the level or reclaiming those souls pushes them to immediately resume body form through a stone of ephemeral eyes, then a further death could be still more discouraging: after all, on top of losing the bloodstained resources, they would then be in danger of making things even harder for themselves in future attempts through the tendency system itself.

The remaining interpretive difficulty is even easier to address. Tendency changes don’t take effect until returning to the Nexus because, prior to that, the experience that tendency will alter to match—is still actively happening to the player-character. It is as though the experience must pass into memory, becoming a concept, a firm mental impression of the level, before the changes will occur.

It may seem to you that in our quest to answer these specific analytical challenges, we’ve ended up in a contrived position that doesn’t match the work more broadly. But that’s not the case. The angle we’ve now reached matches well with the basic lore of the game.

Why would it be true that mental experience is this important in the gameworld? Well, trivially, because the soul is so important and so powerful in the gameworld, and the soul is the mind. The point I’m making about tendency then is that, while demons are altered by consuming souls, they (and the world) can seemingly also be altered by soul arts, which in this context would mean both active and passive powers of the souls themselves.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Freke in cell - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Over a year after I worked this all out for myself, I would become aware that Souls scholar Lokey had come to a very similar conclusion:

It is the belief that something is true which can make it true, as those conceptions become part of our perception of reality and can therefore affect the “world” as we know it.

World tendency encapsulates this notion. [. . .] the mechanic undeniably ties into the concept of personal feelings affecting reality; it also illustrates the importance of will in making those differences. (Lokey “Demon’s”)

So, if you think that it’s a stretch to be applying the work of a few specific Enlightenment-era European philosophers to this game, then by all means feel free to ignore the jargon and ignore the names; you could simply say that the position I’m advocating is that the mystical nature of the Demon’s Souls universe coheres around its emphasis on the power and primacy of the souls, or minds, of its characters and players.

After all, it was not too long ago that we were talking about how some major demons in this universe were born directly from the myths, thoughts, or dreams of its inhabitants.

Consider also the disfigurement of some of the beings we encounter. Close attention to the miners in Stonefang, for instance, reveals them not to be goblins or trolls or anything of that nature, but something rather more horrific: humans whose slouched and emaciated bodies have begun turning green and scaling over, with their eyes taking on a dull yellow glow. It may be tempting to view this as some kind of consequence of the miners losing their souls to the demons, vaguely similar to the physical appearance of hollow beings in Dark Souls. But not everyone in or hailing from Stonefang has lost their soul. Thus, the yellowing eyes of the so-called “filthy man,” and the scales on Ed and Boldwin, reveal the truth: that the fog is disfiguring anyone in that way if they dwell and act in certain ways near the mine. Those three and the miners do not all share a soul or body status; but they do all share a set of experiences. The physical transformation of the miners thus likely happened or at least began before they lost their souls. In proportion to their sense of self coming to resemble reptilian tunnel dwellers like the crystal lizards and fire lizards, the fog has made them so.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Stonefang miner in tunnel - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

And, though it’s easy to miss, the yellowing eyes and diminishing lips of the merchant woman in the Valley of Defilement suggest that something very similar has happened with the distended features of the depraved ones. As with the miners, the fog has changed the depraved ones’ appearances to be animalistic (perhaps this time a mix between the valley’s rats and slugs); it matches their hunger, their want, their degraded and diseased existence. The main reason this is so often overlooked, in my opinion, is the plague mask worn by the Chieftain on the Valley’s archstone. Yet looking at the lower portion of the archstone reveals some, though masked or hooded, flat-faced people. The chieftain would have worn that mask because he ministered to folks with contagious afflictions, like plague or leprosy, and not because his face was a cone.

The metallic, armor-like bones of the now-deceased inhabitants of the Shrine of Storms are a third instance of this phenomenon, with the warrior culture of their minds becoming a set of matching physical attributes in their bodies (though in that case, probably in the fog of the First Scourge rather than that of the Second). That something of this nature has happened can be glimpsed in the Shrine’s crypt, where the figures whose skulls resemble the possessed skeletal remains are the statues, not the interred bodies. In general, other than a select few, all of the humanoids in Demon’s Souls are humans. Yet the fog and the demons have amplified the powers of the humans’ souls and minds, causing their outer reality to begin lining up with their inner reality.

Moving on, though, notice that qualities such as intelligence, faith, and even luck can empower the wielding of physical weapons just as well as qualities such as strength and dexterity.

And just as a last piece of support, Miyazaki himself has frequently emphasized that the game’s difficulty—its infrequent checkpoints, threatening enemies and areas, powerful bosses, and so forth—are not designed to be difficult for the sake of difficulty, but are instead principally designed around eliciting strong emotional reactions from players.

Speaking for myself, Demon’s Souls is outstanding in this regard. There is a very real chance that nothing in any of the hundreds and hundreds of other games I’ve played has caused me to experience as much of a genuine emotional reaction as the first time I found the shortcut out of the swamp in the Valley of Defilement. That is, the sudden dispersal of pervasive trepidation—the wave of relief, safety, and satisfaction—that accompanied kicking over that plank . . . was incredible.

Demon's Souls screenshot with plank shortcut in Valley of Defilement - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

The design of Demon’s Souls coalesces around such heightening of player emotion and personal experience: making losses more tragic; triumphs more triumphant; and character interactions, however minimal, more impactful. The sum of its serious atmosphere, high penalty for losses, removal of all forms of gameplay interruption, and uncompromising approach to progression—is core gameplay capable of evoking authentic reactions that other games struggle to achieve with cinematically crafted cutscenes, extensive exchanges of dialogue, and meticulously planned character deaths.

Now, it isn’t as though absolutely anything you think is true of the game might become true of it. We’re done with our discussion of tendency now, but as we leave it behind don’t forget that, whatever else they may be, the tendency systems are still mechanics that operate within a defined range of specific effects. Neither our reality nor Demon’s Souls can be fundamentally reshaped from within by participants like a campaign of Dungeons & Dragons, and even if it could you certainly wouldn’t be the dungeon master. That’s a very important point to make, which will take us directly into our next section, and, at long last, into the really valuable insights into our lives that Demon’s Souls can provide.

The Colorless Fog and the Limits of Knowledge in Demon’s Souls:

As long as the Old One is awake, a demon-spawning, landscape-erasing fog spreads across the world. This fog is routinely characterized by two adjectives: deep and colorless. Its depth is fairly self-explanatory; we’re all acquainted with the concept of a thick or deep fog. From my earliest memories with the game, however, I recall being intrigued by the notion that the fog is ‘colorless.’

At first I figured it was just an artful way of calling the fog grey or pale white, but when you think of the fog as it is represented in the game, it’s a much more apt description than that—it’s translucent, yet refracts light at ambient temperature the way that air does when unevenly heated, and only appears white in shifting splotches as light is completely reflected.

The fog walls of Demon’s Souls actually look less like conventional fog or mist than the light walls installed throughout Lordran in Dark Souls, presumably by Gwyn’s family and followers (which I called fog walls in my previous analysis, as that’s how the community usually recognizes them).

Demon's Souls screenshot with passing through fog wall - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

In Demon’s Souls, you can see the fog is there due to those heavy undulations of light, but there’s none of the haze, darkness, or grey tones we’d usually associate with water vapor. Instead the fog is like viscous liquid glass flowing through the air, passable in certain directions and at certain times, then dissipating if far from a powerful demon or becoming an impregnable wall if near.

The fog’s fickle physics acting as all four states of matter simultaneously (a gaseous or solid behavior paired in either case with a liquid or plasma appearance); its supposed involvement in both creation (of demons) and destruction (of land); its susceptibility to being ‘torn’ in a persistent way; and its being labeled only by its depth and its lack of an identifiable attribute we’d expect it to have (a color)—all sum into an unavoidable conclusion: it’s a substance we simply can not hope to understand. Whatever it really is, it is fitting that it be called a fog, given the association that exists between fog and obscurity—a mental fog or brain fog or feeling of fogginess all being ways of discussing confusion, dementia, or an inability to think straight. Like the Old One itself, the fog is beyond human comprehension. If it bears any color, that color lies outside of the spectrum of visible light, and so to a human it is colorless. Incomprehensibility is a point of considerable emphasis in Demon’s Souls, and the fog is merely one potent emblem of the limits of human knowledge.

Notice what we are told about the strength of the demons near the start of the game: “Each time a demon claims a human soul, the demon’s own soul is invigorated by the life force, and the power of a mature demon soul is beyond human imagination” (narrator). Beyond human imagination. That’s a strong phrase, and one that is repeatedly shown to us throughout the game every time a boss is defeated. It’s not just beyond human power—it’s beyond the human ability to conceive of power. Whatever usage of demon souls the humans of the game may make (whether using one to make a bow, or to learn a spell, or just absorbing all of the contained human souls for commerce or leveling), they have nonetheless gained access to a power whose full extent and capabilities they simply can not even imagine.

Demon's Souls screenshot with 'Demon Was Destroyed' text - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

In other words, through details like the fog, the demon souls, and the demons themselves, the game frequently draws attention to the edges of human knowledge. Past the frontier of current human knowledge, to the boundaries of possible human knowledge. And it’s this exact epistemological barricade, the difference between what we can know and what we can’t know, that is frequently called to our attention by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Let’s start with what we can know. Kant argues we can know about three things—our actual experiences in life, our possible experiences in life, and our faculties and concepts that are making experiences in general possible.

For clarity’s sake, let’s immediately put these back into the context of you making your way through Demon’s Souls as a player. Actual experience would correspond to specific playthroughs: the particular characters you’ve created, choices you’ve made in building those characters, interactions with other characters and items, and order in which you’ve tackled the levels. Possible experience would correspond to all conceivable routes through the game—all possible build choices, strategic decisions, character and item interactions, and permutations of orders in which the levels could be beaten. Finally, the conditions for the possibility of experience in this situation would be the underlying mechanics and design of the game, the way its world comes together on a technical level to make all the conceivable playthroughs possible. These three topics contain the sum total of everything someone can learn about Demon’s Souls while playing it.

And as we are always, uh, ‘playing’ our lives—with no recourse to step entirely outside our conscious experience, check an external wiki or a manual or a repository of source code, and step back in—those three topics contain the sum total of everything someone can learn about the world.

Demon's Souls screenshot with fluted knight and summon among dreglings - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Now, at a glance, this notion that the only domains of true knowledge are the low-level forms, concepts, and categories our minds use to structure experience, together with the experiences thereby made possible—might look like we’re traipsing back toward the concern that maybe nothing exists but our own minds. But we’re actually now in a strong position to finally address the challenge of radical skepticism that we shelved during our initial discussion of Descartes. As Kant writes,

Idealism consists in the assertion that there are none but thinking beings; [. . .] On the contrary, I say that things as objects of our senses existing outside us are given, but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves, knowing only their appearances, i.e., the representations which they cause in us by affecting our senses. (Kant Prolegomena 952)

Still, you may be inclined to feel that this misses the real problem. Even if something must underlie the world as it appears to us, surely it’s still a cause for alarm that the ‘something’ in question may be entirely different from how it appears! Well, I would argue that being worried that the world as it is in itself may not actually resemble the world as it appears to us—is a bit like worrying that the experience of playing Demon’s Souls may be different from the experience of reading its source code. Frankly, that’s not a cause for worry.

As a participant in life, all that concerns me are the experiences and circumstances I encounter—the empirical universe around me, my life and pursuits, my friends and family. And, again, as we’re essentially characters inside the game in this analogy, we’ll never see the source code anyway. How could it possibly be of any concern to me whether some forever-unknown, definitively unknown stuff . . . actually resembles the stuff I know about and care about? The apparent world is real in any relevant sense of the word. It has regularity, uniformity, and consistency, and it’s the one we’re living in and learning more about every day through experience, science, and philosophy.

Now, though potentially an odd thought at first, it should be relatively straightforward to accept not knowing what objects in the world are like apart from our cognition of them. But what about big stuff, like whether there’s free will, or a God, or an afterlife? Suppose that, like Mephistopheles or Freke or the Monumental, we want to know the true underlying nature of the soul, or something along those lines. It’s a natural point of curiosity, after all.

Demon's Souls screenshot with last surviving Monumental - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Can’t we still know about any of that stuff? Well, no, we can’t; not really. That’s entirely outside the scope of possible human knowledge. Kant says of ideas relating to immaterial souls, freedom or determinism of the will, ultimate spatiotemporal frontiers of reality, and perfect beings—that,

As the psychological, cosmological, and theological ideas are nothing but pure concepts of reason, which cannot be given in any experience, the questions which reason asks us about them are put to us, not by the objects [of those ideas], but by mere maxims of our reason for the sake of its own satisfaction. (Kant Prolegomena 987)

Those concepts result from the efforts of human reason to reach beyond all possible experience. Accordingly, they are ideas that can help us understand the boundaries of reason. But any definite statement about the existence or non-existence of their referents in reality can be neither true nor false; such statements may in many contexts simply amount to nonsense.

The apparatus of the person itself imposes such limitations, and these limitations persist no matter how a person approaches their situation. Even if intense meditation or ingesting psychedelic substances or having near-death experiences may cause a person to conclude that the range of possible experience is different than they had initially thought—they still haven’t escaped the limitations in question. Such events are still being experienced by some or all of that very same apparatus.

This allows us to close yet another question we left open earlier: why does no one in Demon’s Souls have any idea what, if anything, happens after a soul dissipates or is consumed or destroyed? Well, just like in our reality, all that they can actually know is that the end of life is the end of the experience they’re having now. The word ‘life,’ when taken to mean ‘my ongoing conscious human life,’ is basically equivalent to the phrase ‘the experience I’m having now.’ Unless you don’t particularly care whether your ideas about such things are true or false, going beyond that is impossible.

Demon's Souls screenshot with stab from riposte - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

I detect a likely response. You might say, ‘Alright, but this stuff must really only apply to the true nature of the fog, the souls, and the demons, because you said earlier that we do know about a real God in the universe of Demon’s Souls.’ Ah ha, great point; you’re a careful reader, and your attentiveness has served you well. It’s time to talk about Boletaria’s God.

Knowing the True God(s) of Boletaria in Demon’s Souls:

If you are familiar with Demon’s Souls, go ahead and try something now. Count how many positive details you know for certain about the actual God of the Demon’s Souls universe. Not the Dragon God worshiped by the burrowers, nor the Old One mistakenly worshiped as God in the temples of Mird, but the actual God the Mirdan religion intends to be worshiping (the God that made the Old One).

How many credible and verifiable facts do we know about that God?

I’d say we know a measly two such reliable facts about it. They’re told to us by authoritative text less than 30 seconds after starting up the game: “On the first day, man was granted a soul, and with it, clarity. On the second day, upon Earth was planted an irrevocable poison, a soul-devouring demon.”

It’s unclear whether the characters in the game know either of these things in the exact way we know them, but as players we do at any rate know them. These lines are never called into question by anything that occurs or is said later in the game, are heavily foregrounded and emphasized in presentation, and are in fact seemingly confirmed by the existence of souls and a soul-devouring demon within the campaign. Thus, they are extremely probable truth. Yet beyond these two simple sentences, we learn no more about this God that we can consider reliable or canonical. It is never mentioned, for example, by the game’s narrator—not at the beginning of the game and not at the end.

And further, even as paltry at first glance as these two lines are as a body of religious knowledge, spare a thought for how much more paltry they seem after paying some attention to their grammar. Notice: both of them are in the passive voice. Each person “was granted” a soul; on earth “was planted” a demon. These two lines do not mention God. They only imply God. Their description of willed acts of creation on such a significant scale seemingly confirms that some manner of Divinity is behind the Demon’s Souls universe . . . but what that Divinity may be like, whether it is singular or plural, what its priorities may be, or absolutely anything else about it—is completely unknowable.

Demon's Souls screenshot with wartorn Boletarian throne room - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Despite this position of abject ignorance, our first instinct on hearing those two lines likely parallels that of the game’s characters: to attempt to put these actions in human terms. There is an immediate urge to ask, ‘Why? What motive could justify giving clarifying, conscious, reasoning souls to people—only to immediately create a demonic being that eats such souls?’

Here’s one random theory: perhaps our souls are simply food for that being, and it is the primary inhabitant of this plane. The “clarity” associated with the souls could be a byproduct of them being such a powerful energy source of a particular type, rather than the main aim of their creation. The notion that the demon is a “poison” could simply be a reference to its rightful role being destruction.

Alternatively, maybe what we have here is a kind of Manichaean Dualism, which is to say a struggle between an absolute Good and an absolute Evil. Strictly speaking, remember, we don’t know that the souls and the soul-devouring demon were the creation of a single entity. So the souls could be a creation of the Good Force, and the demon a creation of the Evil Force.
Yet another possibility is that the whole situation is some grand experiment by the God or gods responsible, or even some form of entertainment for them.

Or maybe both souls and demons were the unintentional creation of a powerful-but-not-omnipotent God exploring its abilities; hence the notion that the demon is irrevocable.

Now, I’m not saying any of these things are true, but all of them are conceivable. And the characters within the game offer several mutually contradictory theories of their own. Allant thinks the Old One is a merciful gift from God, a poison that can be willingly consumed to choose death when existence becomes too burdensome. Yuria implies that the Old One is a punishment for using souls for magic rather than for good acts. The remaining Monumental implies that the Old One is a punishment for using souls for magic rather than for reasoning. Freke proclaims that the Old One’s amplification of the soul arts is confirmation that using them and keeping the Old One awake and active are our obvious responsibilities.

It strikes me as a straightforward mistake to privilege any of those theories or any of the earlier theories I listed as being unambiguously correct.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Dirty Colossus fight - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

The whole situation calls to mind the philosophy of George Berkeley. Like Kant, Berkeley noticed that all that we can access is the world as it appears to us. But unlike Kant, who shrewdly abstained from cementing a guess as to what exactly underlies the appearances, Berkeley latched onto one specific theory and advanced it as the answer: the mind of God. In Berkeley’s system, that’s what directly underlies the world of appearances. Yet, of course, the world as it appeared to him was still all that he could access, so Berkeley’s theory amounts to little more than rigorous speculation. It ultimately holds no more weight than what is called ‘naive realism,’ which is the (very popular) guess that what underlies the world of appearances is just a world that is identical or almost identical to it.

But whatever the case, like so many of the characters, we want an answer as to why the world of Demon’s Souls is the way that it is.

And as a result of that teleological urge, it has become a commonplace in discussion of the lore of the game for people to accept some theory that appeals to them; in recent scholarship there has been some popularity for the theories about God advanced by Yuria and the Monumental, as both vaguely imply that the Old One is some kind of punishment for any usage of the soul arts. But their theories, no less than the theories of Urbain or Freke or Allant or anyone else, are ill-founded. Not one of the characters actually has any access whatsoever to divine Will.

In particular, the idea that the Scourges are definitely instruments of Providence—that the actions of the Old One are definitely a punishment by God for wielding the soul arts—is openly contradicted by the first cutscene after starting a new game. It tells the player specifically: Allant woke the Old One. Before he did that, “King Allant the Twelfth, by channeling the power of souls, brought unprecedented prosperity to his northern kingdom of Boletaria.” If we combine that with the worshiper of God’s testimony that things started going poorly in Boletaria as soon as Allant appeared “with demons in tow,” then it must necessarily be the case that the period of soul arts providing prosperity and the period of the Second Scourge are distinct from each other, separated by the lone act of Allant intentionally awakening the Old One.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Old One awake - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Yuria contends that witchcraft is essentially a sinful manipulation of the soul: “Although I never had ill-intentions, this black craft of mine is intrinsically evil. If there is a God, he gave us souls to do good, not to practice witchcraft.” Giving total credence to Yuria’s words on that subject, however, neglects the facts that (1) Yuria is obviously just sharing her personal intuition, given that she opens the line with uncertainty as to whether there even is a God, (2) Yuria speaks approvingly of Freke’s use of magic before he becomes obsessed, because it is based on a study of “human potential” rather than innate ability, and (3) Yuria would be keenly aware that her magic (which led her to Boletaria in search of demon souls) was the cause of the significant and very recent trauma of torture and abuse she underwent in the captivity of Miralda and the Fat Officials for an untold span of time.

As for the Monumental’s roughly similar claim that “the power that you now enjoy contradicts the essence of the soul,” don’t forget we’re hearing from one of the beings whose authority blamed the First Scourge on the soul arts to begin with.

And they would have had a strong incentive to identify a cause, as they were in charge (and thus seemingly responsible) when the Old One was awoken all those years ago. Recall the words of the cynical warrior in the Nexus who has lost his nerve, who asks, “Have you met the last surviving Monumental? Those fools revived the Old One on a whim. And now they’ve trapped us here, in a desperate attempt to undo their mistake. It’s all a travesty, if you ask me.“

In the aftermath of the First Scourge, all of the Monumentals became actively involved in the dogmatic coverup of the soul arts that created the conditions for history (as the surviving Monumental wistfully laments) to repeat itself. In the human ending of the game, our apparently omniscient narrator says, “Boletaria was spared from the demons, but also lost its knowledge of soul arts.” There’s two things you should notice about that line. The first is that, unlike what the Monumental claims, which is that the soul arts will be lost, the narrator says that what is actually lost is knowledge of the soul arts. And the second is simply the structure of the sentence: despite a good result being obtained (the demons being subdued), a bad result was obtained too (losing knowledge of the soul arts).

Demon's Souls screenshot with defensive soul arts - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

So, why is that knowledge lost then? Well, that line doesn’t make me think soul arts are inherently demonic; it makes me think that people will continue to be superstitious, ignorant, and forgetful—and that the stage is set for a Third Scourge unless the player-character is a better steward of the Old One’s rest than those that came before. Thus the narrator’s remark a few lines later that “today the unstable world has another Monumental to hold its fabric together.”

Whatever else they say or imply, the surviving Monumental reports that the cause of the First Scourge, just the same as the cause of the Second, was someone intentionally awakening the Old One due to a lust for power. The great folly of the Monumentals, then, the error in their thought that led to the Second Scourge, was that they thought banning a power or even banning awareness of a power—could ban the lust for power. Rather than enforcing education about the Old One and cautious research of the powers of the soul, they lumped the two together and outlawed both. And the mistake was right in front of their faces: in the same historical moment that they were banning magic, they were distributing magical archstones to fulfill the vital role of keeping the landscape stitched together.

There is undoubtedly some relationship among soul power, the fog, and the demons; and they do share a common divine origin. But usage of the soul arts does not directly awaken the Old One and is not necessarily what spurs its hunger. The Old One is manually awoken by those tempted by the potential power or utility of the ancient beast, and the reason for its soul hunger (if there even is any reason in human terms) is never definitively established.

If it’s really the case that the Northern Regalia was a third creation of God (apart from souls and the Old One), then the nearest assessment we could possibly make of this Deity or Divinity is an abiding neutrality: creating souls and soul eaters, creating a sword that scales with what humans would deem good acts and scales equally well with what humans would deem evil acts. And for his part, the mythic figure of Old King Doran, wielder of the Regalia, isn’t much interested in the player-character’s motives or character tendency—only their power. The description of the Northern Regalia claims it was created due to malice, but whose malice is left unspecified and there is no mention of the soul arts there at all.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Northern Regalia - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

In the Demon’s Souls universe, all that we concretely know is that something very powerful once made souls and demons. In our universe, we don’t even know that much.

Now, some philosophers (including William James, Blaise Pascal, and, notably under the present circumstances, Immanuel Kant) have argued that even though we can not have any knowledge that logically affirms or denies the existence of concepts such as God, libertarian free will, and personal immortality—that we may at any rate be justified in acting as though they are real, or even cultivating a belief that they are real, for practical reasons.

Positions in that vein would be very compelling . . . if it were the case that such beliefs exclusively or primarily lead to favorable outcomes. The efficacy of specific religious beliefs for producing favorable outcomes in reality may yet be debatable; but the efficacy of specific religious beliefs for producing favorable outcomes in Demon’s Souls is not. We turn, then, to the topic of belief.

Priests, Saints, and a Golden Elder in Demon’s Souls:

Skepticism of authority in general, and religious authority in particular, is a theme in all of FromSoft’s recent works. Corrupt churches, false idols, and wicked clergy are now some of the studio’s most recognizable motifs. And the work in their library containing the harshest and most diverse criticisms along these lines is arguably either Dark Souls III or, despite its many mystical details, Demon’s Souls.

A case-in-point is the figure of Saint Urbain, a revered holy man who you find having fallen for one of Patches’ traps (implying Urbain was lured by the promise of shiny earthly treasures). Urbain reputedly hears the voice of his religion’s God. It’s unclear whether this means he claims to hear the actual God or the Old One, as some historical confusion has led the Priesthood to worship the Old One as God. (This is strongly reminiscent of some of the later events in one of the Souls games’ most oft-cited inspirations, the manga series Berserk.) Yet the voices in Urbain’s head, if there really are any, have at any rate not left him well-informed about the nature of the world. Not only does he never hint that he is aware of the church’s accidental demon worship, but Urbain proves himself truly ignorant of important matters when he literally hears the voice of the Old One calling for a new archdemon servant near the end of the game, as he has no idea what he’s hearing and makes bemused guesses about what the noise might be.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Urbain in the Shrine of Storms - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Still, as the game’s foremost religious NPC, is Urbain at least otherwise an ethical figure? Well, no; Urbain also conspicuously condones murder, as he declares that defeating the demons will require ‘purging’ all magicians, and adds that such a purge would specifically include killing both the Maiden in Black and Sage Freke.

Meanwhile, Maiden Astraea is a previously important figure in the religion, deemed a saint due to her association with a magical artifact, who has left the church behind. Whatever the actual results of their efforts, she and her attendant knight Garl Vinland both defied the church to pursue noble humane goals. As a result, they are considered fallen by the church’s adherents. Echoing the instincts of his master, one of Urbain’s followers is content to call for Astraea, if the rumors about her turning away from the church prove true, to receive infinite torture after death.

Sage Freke is a particularly interesting character in this regard, as he is almost certainly a former priest. He sports the same clothes as Urbain, though soiled with wear. And both the narrator and other characters use the words ‘Saint’ and ‘Sage’ interchangeably when referring to Urbain. Yet Freke’s awareness of the Old One, cognizance of the relevant mixup in the church’s intended worship, and reputation as a ‘visionary’ being substantiated by his extensive knowledge of both souls and specific archdemons in the area—shows that he understands the world better than the priests. As a result of that understanding, he is no longer willing to be associated with their religion:

Do you have a connection to the disciples? Do not pay attention to them if they speak poorly of me and my magic. Prayer is for the foolish, quaint, and soon to be dead. And heaven forbid the day you find out what their so-called God really is. (Freke)

Now, despite all his learning, Freke ultimately manages to argue himself into a position that is at least as much in service of the Old One as that of the priesthood. In other words, critics of religion like Freke and Patches are not paragons of virtue either. Far from it. Demon’s Souls certainly does not depict organized religion as having any kind of exclusive ownership over error or wrongdoing, and when we move onto our next section you’ll find I have some equally harsh things to say about folks like Allant, Mephistopheles, Yurt, and others.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Storm King - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

At any rate, moving on from individuals, a common ironic phenomenon in the game’s treatment of the topic of belief is that creatures who various factions worshiped as God, gods, or other forms of divinity in the past have come into a literal supernatural existence in the present (as the Storm Beast, the Dragon God, and possibly others)—yet again like Berserk it is a perverse literal supernatural existence not as benevolent divine beings, but instead as demons.

But the game’s most pointed details regarding religious practice lie not in the Nexus, nor in the temple of the Burrowers, nor in the death cult of the Shadowmen, nor in the deification of Astraea in the Valley . . . but rather in Latria—the area of the game which Miyazaki has said to be illustrative of ‘man-made evil.’ Most commentators have taken that to refer only to the disturbing experiments of the Old Monk, but that is a needless limitation on his remark.

Many citizens of Latria are being held captive in a prison where they are frequently tortured: hung by chains from the ceiling, locked to spiked chairs, encased to their necks in ceramics, and even enclosed in iron maidens. The only hope offered to these abused prisoners is a religious salvation wherein pious and sincere worshipers of the immortal being that appears in the attached cathedral are lifted up and out of the ceiling of the building by winged figures. The being is supposedly an incarnation of the former queen of Latria, who apparently already had some religious significance (perhaps in the sense of a divine right to rule) as evidenced by the halo around the head of the figure on Latria’s archstone. And as Lokey points out, the name of the region, Latria, is in fact a technical term in Christianity: “[. . .] latria refers to adoration for God alone in Roman Catholic theology” (Lokey “Latria”).

But the salvation is false; the apparent immortality of the being is false; the being itself is a servile demon rather than a royal deity; the robed bell-ringing figures that most nearly approximate its priests are occult guards with monstrous tentacled features; and the entire religious enterprise was in fact put in place by the entity that imprisoned the citizens in the first place. Unauthorized entry or investigation of the church building is prevented by a massive array of repeating crossbows, as well as a concealed phantom assassin stationed behind. The demon worshiped in the church specifically takes the form of a puppet and is called the Fool’s Idol. Its resurrections are owed to a sycophantic magician trembling on a nearby balcony. Rather than angels, the winged beings lifting the hopeful are demonic gargoyles that have been animated with souls extracted from Latria’s soldiers. And the only ‘otherwordly reward’ that awaits those who join the congregation and ascend through the church’s system—is a grotesque hell in which they are at best enslaved to help uphold a massive, pulsing demonic womb, or at worst used in horrific experiments in the fusion, division, and manipulation of flesh and souls for the creation of new types of demons.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Fool's Idol descending into church - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

The remaining bosses of the area are twin fruits of one of the puppet master’s human experiments, followed by the puppet master himself—a grim desiccated figure wearing a crown of thorns, seated on an elevated throne surrounded by stained glass windows, and holding a large ornate staff. He resides adjacent to the top of the ‘ivory tower,’ a term of biblical origin now referring to a siloed intellectual context (calling to mind the religious universities of medieval Europe, which employed most of the Scholastic philosophers).

We know this figure as ‘the Old Monk.’ All of the Monk’s demonic power actually resides in his golden yellow vestment, robbing him of even the slightest claim to having a legitimate personal source of divinity or authority. And the fight with him notably plays out by the garment (which is apparently the actual archdemon in Latria) migrating to a powerful representative and then turning into an immensely tall—not to put too fine a point on it, but one might even say ‘mitre-like’—hat. Separated from the cloak of his authority and power, the frail man on the throne lacks the energy even to live for a few seconds.

A level that begins with a depiction of physical imprisonment advances layer by layer in unveiling a mental imprisonment that is no less pervasive. All in all, a deep skepticism of the power structures and people crafting, controlling, and serving organized religion pervades the entire level, and this deep skepticism spreads out across the game as a whole.

The world of Demon’s Souls is one that factually contains innumerable bloodthirsty demons and exactly zero angels, yet worship of God as a source of Goodness and Justice carries on just the same. Any interpretation of the God of Demon’s Souls as simply some kind of benevolent or just Deity fails to appreciate the game’s overwhelming emphases on incomprehensible realities, Lovecraftian horror, and Berserk-style dark fantasy.

The religion of Mird then has an interesting resonance with the novel Candide by Voltaire, a philosophical satire which mocks the notion (most closely associated with the work of Gottfried Leibniz) that despite the appearance of moral and natural evil in the world, the idea of God logically requires that we are actually living in the best of all possible worlds—a doctrine that would come to be known as ‘philosophical optimism.’

Demon's Souls screenshot with Old Monk's demon womb - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

While my personal objection to Leibniz is that nearly the same logical form could be used to argue that we are living in the worst of all possible worlds, or the most ethically neutral of all possible worlds, or some other superlative . . . Voltaire’s novel instead contents itself in poking fun at the idea by showcasing how the same conclusion that we live in the best of all possible worlds would hold for such philosophers even if life contained almost exclusively negative experiences, such as war, loss, and dismemberment:

Those who have never seen two well-trained armies drawn up for battle, can have no idea of the beauty and brilliance of the display. Bugles, fifes, oboes, drums, and salvoes of artillery produced such a harmony as Hell itself could not rival. The opening barrage destroyed about six thousand men on each side. Rifle-fire which followed rid this best of worlds of about nine or ten thousand villains who infested its surface. (Voltaire 25)

It seems forcefully to be true that Voltaire’s character of Pangloss, the smarmy tutor who instructs Candide to view such harm always as benefit, would get along quite well with Saint Urbain. Yet the priesthood’s errors do not end at the unfortunate mixup in the targeting of their prayers, nor in their confused priorities and ethics. Some of their basic ideology about what constitutes divine power, separating it from demonic power, is straightforwardly mistaken:

One can argue that the line between magic and miracle is arbitrary, and this is reaffirmed by the Talisman of Beasts serving as a catalyst for both. [. . .] Miracles are magic.

[. . .]

The Vinlands didn’t possess sacred treasures but magic weaponry. [. . .] It wasn’t that these items were holy and so possessed certain traits, it was that they possessed those traits and so were deemed holy. (Lokey “Temple”)

Philosophers are split on the question of whether beliefs that are justified and true always count as knowledge, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single philosopher willing to argue that beliefs that are neither justified nor true ever count as knowledge.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Old Monk minus Robe - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Alright, so there are a lot of religious folks in the game who are wrong about a lot of things. But so what? Sure, their understanding of the world in which they live seems to pale in comparison to that possessed by basically every other character, with the exception of perpetually naive Stockpile Thomas, the single-minded Filthy Woman, and, uh, I guess possibly Sparkly the crow. The worshiper of God doesn’t even know what ore is. But the game’s religious characters, even if they’re ignorant and self-righteous, are mostly non-violent and are therefore doing no particular harm, right?

Well, not so fast. Recall that what people have come to believe still matters a great deal in the fog. Those who held out memories and hopes of imaginary monsters for praise or prayer saw the monkey’s paw curl, their wishes granted, their imaginations manifest. If the faithful in the Second Scourge see not just the demons but also the various non-believing and/or magic-wielding civilians and knights as wicked and evil, they are directly empowering the demons and their agents. It’s even possible that their biggest mistake, their substitution of the Old One for God, is lending strength to the awakened beast as it spreads its fog—creating a kind of feedback loop of strength as the fog in turn empowers their souls. That would be the dominant religion’s parallel to the apparition of the Storm Beast and the Dragon God in the neighboring lands.

Moreover, beliefs being ill-founded can make a substantial difference in another way. And this second way is present in reality no less than in Boletaria: that beliefs generally do not stay locked up inside the minds that contain them. They shape a person’s will, and in that way they lead to actions.

Seen in another light, the notion that the soul arts are always evil (even one’s manipulations of only their own soul and only for defensive magic), as well as the notion that women with an affinity for using magic or magical artifacts must be categorized as either saints or witches—resonate strongly with deleterious pronouncements by religious and governmental institutions in reality.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Maiden Astraea - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Regardless, that’s enough said about the umbasa-heads. Remember: they’re not the only folks worthy of derision here. And there is in Demon’s Souls, at any rate, at least one seemingly virtuous and intelligent adherent of the religion, Selen Vinland . . . even if she is a rare sighting, tucked away behind a world tendency event in an obscure corner of the Valley of Defilement. But let us move on, as indicated a moment ago, from the topic of belief to the topic of action.

Pragmatism, Action, and Power in Demon’s Souls:

I would venture to guess that, when you are playing Demon’s Souls, most of your time is not spent actively contemplating heady topics like the nature of the soul, the limits of metaphysics, and the structure of human knowledge.

Maybe some of your time is spent that way, at least when actively engaging with NPC dialogue or deciding how to interact with other players. And certainly, a reasonable portion of my time in the game is spent that way. But even for me, and even when I was working on writing this article, it’s still not most of my time in it. Most of my time in the game (presumably like yours) is spent making strategic and navigational choices in or around combat. From moment to moment in Demon’s Souls, our higher-order thoughts and beliefs tend to remain implicit, manifesting (if at all) only in the actions that result from them.

So, what is most important then: knowledge and belief, or the resulting actions?

Well, they might not be as distinct as that question implies. Within the field of epistemology, after all, there are some who have argued that all that there is for one belief to truly differ from another belief is that holding one has different pragmatic results:

[. . .] different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes.

[. . .] whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. (Peirce “Ideas” 291-2)

Strategy and navigation involve consideration. They involve the will. They involve decisions. And the decisions a player might make at any given point in Demon’s Souls matter to an immense degree when compared to routine choices and actions in other games. I’ve already enumerated, in the initial section on world tendency, the many penalties that the game provides for dying—placing enormous stress on astute and cautious strategy in each encounter with an enemy or boss, as well as each precarious choice of where to explore. This emphasis on thoughtful progress is also reinforced by the need to manage the game’s item carrying capacity and weapon durability systems.

Demon's Souls screenshot with slugs on sword - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Further, the game quietly makes constant auto-saves to enforce the permanence of decisions and events: NPCs that you cross or harm to the point of hostility will never forgive you; with only a couple noteworthy exceptions, any slain NPC (and any unique service they may have provided) is gone for good; deaths in body form, murders of non-aggressive NPCs, and the slaying of major demons all lock in later changes to tendency; unless the False King or an invader saps some of your power, all leveling and character creation decisions are final; and a second consecutive death without reclaiming a bloodstain always causes lost resources to become unrecoverable.

Even in the most fundamental ways of interacting with the gameworld, astute decisionmaking is paramount. This is because nearly everything the character can do is tied to their stamina bar—forcing the player to actively manage the prioritization and sequence of actions. At every level, Demon’s Souls is structured to reward players when they proceed with strategy, caution, and intelligence—and to harshly punish them when they don’t. All of these mechanical choices heighten awareness of the interrelations of knowledge and action, and of the consequences of actions resulting from particular beliefs.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only thing that seems to unequivocally lead to bad outcomes within the universe of Demon’s Souls is not religion, nor white or black tendency, nor the soul arts—but the pursuit of power for either selfish or nihilistic ends. In other words, the most dangerous belief that the game paints as a mistake is that power should be sought either vainly for its own sake, or as a means to destroy.

In terms of the story, the Maiden in Black and the Monumentals in the distant past, and Sage Freke toward the end of the game, may be the most important examples of characters covetous of power as an end unto itself. The First Scourge can be laid at the feet of such undirected greed. But in terms of mechanics, the game’s most impactful demonstration of the consequences of the single-minded pursuit of power comes from the actions of Yurt and Mephistopheles.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Yurt attacking - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Mephistopheles and her associates comprise a society of likeminded rogues intending to become the only people that can wield the soul arts; in order to attain that state of affairs, they intend to kill nearly every sane person within the fog so that their knowledge dies with them. They’ve hired Yurt, a skilled assassin bearing the honorific of ‘Silent Chief,’ to assist in this mission. True to his title, if freed and never stopped, Yurt will quietly kill every mortal being in both wings of the Nexus, kill Patches and a couple other unnamed civilians, and attempt to kill the player-character.

Alternatively, if Yurt is killed by a player-character with black character tendency, his job is offered to them instead by Mephistopheles, who is a remorseless character conspicuously bearing the name of a folkloric devil. Under her leadership, the list of ordered assassinations expands to include Ostrava and Biorr. And when all the dirty deeds are done, she too turns on the player-character. That, if given a foothold, the violence never ends without turning toward the player-character themselves—is one of the two object lessons received from the storylines of these power-hungry people. The other lesson comes in the form of the hollowed halls of a nearly empty Nexus.

Compare the philosophies of such characters to the words you hear from Ostrava and Biorr if you don’t kill them. They acknowledge when their power is lacking without expressing any ambition to directly overcome that limit, and they see power as a means to accomplish virtuous goals.

Another way of encountering this same theme in the game, that power can only be justly chased when it is merely a means to a better end, is to contrast the stories of Scirvir and Satsuki. Both are in pursuit of a particular form of power, a specific legendary weapon. Scirvir seeks the massive Dragon Bone Smasher, and Satsuki the cursed Makoto. Although Scirvir is an unsavory scavenger similar to Graverobber Blige, the Dregling Merchant, and the Filthy Man, his main aim is not possession and wielding of the weapon—just the satisfaction of academic curiosity about the weapon. The same can not be said of Satsuki, whose ambition instead terminates in being the person that wields the power of the Makoto. Regardless of whether you give him the sword or withhold it, wield it or have it in your inventory, speaking to Satsuki while in possession of the Makoto will result in him attempting to murder you.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Fat Official - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

One further inclusion along these lines is the array of Fat Officials found in Boletaria and Stonefang, and referenced in Latria. These gleeful gluttons are the logical conclusion of the philosophy of Mephistopheles or Satsuki. The Officials demonstrably derive pleasure from their political, physical, and magical power. Their calcified faces are permanently etched into shining mask-like smiles, and they laugh with every crack of their whip, toss of their fire, or subjection of opposition to the might of the forces they control.

These unenviable cretins are the final stop on the journey of chasing power as its own goal, making a fetish of it. They represent a total indifference toward the fate of the world, provided that they get to be its ruling class as it dies. Yet selfishness may only be the second worst possible impetus to power. There is one other motivation that the game presents with castigation . . .

Now then, to King Allant:

King Allant XII and the End of Demon’s Souls‘ World:

My best path into the topic of Allant’s role in the game is to say something that may initially sound strange to you: there is a quasi-conventional ‘bad ending’ in Demon’s Souls. Though the very first line of the Nexus’ resident cynic mocks the dichotomy of aiming at the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending, and casts aspersions on the motives of the player-character regardless of their intentions—one of the two options remains clearly worse than the other. Worse for the world, worse for its inhabitants, worse for the player-character. And now that I’ve said all that, no surprises here: the bad ending is the demon ending.

Think of the way that the demon ending is described by the narrator, and how near in presentation it is to the Shura ending in Sekiro. There is nothing like the ambiguous presentation of the Age of Dark in Dark Souls in the demon ending’s explicit description of inescapable, rapidly impending annihilation. The effect of accepting Allant’s cause is defined: the fog swallows all, and no souls remain. The game’s narrator tells you this outright in the opening cinematic, going so far as to say that following Allant’s example means, whatever the player might like to believe, becoming a “slave” to the demons: “The Deep Fog will eventually swallow all lands near and far. But Boletaria has one final hope. A lone warrior who has braved the baneful fog… Has the land found its savior, or have the Demons found a new slave?” And in the human ending, the narrator does not hesitate to praise the player-character as “a brave new hero of unprecedented power.” You’re not lusting after personal immortality or unnaturally delaying the inevitable like Gwyn or one of his inheritors. If no one wakes the slumbering Old One, there are no more Scourges.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Allant inside Old One - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

So, when a once-proud leader who has been reduced to a mutant slug wielding a sword that is empowered by the degree to which one has lost their humanity espouses a nihilistic desire to let a giant eldritch monster eat the souls of the world—we can trust our instinct that becoming that kind of physical and mental slug is not the fate we want for ourselves. And if we kill the Maiden in Black as a result of some other motive, perhaps based on Freke’s advice to preserve the demons as a source of additional magic, that other motive would not be satisfied—only Allant’s final wish for nothingness will result.

Now, to clarify, just as there’s no reason to feel guilty for watching or acting in films or plays that center on immoral characters, nor for reading or writing novels that center on immoral characters, so there is no reason to feel guilty for following the path of an immoral character in a game. In fact, playing as several characters with varying moral codes is the best way to fully experience everything that Demon’s Souls has to offer, in terms of both gameplay and narrative. Basically, what I’m saying is that either ending is a legitimate choice for you to decide that your player-character would make—but that I hope if you yourself were in the Demon’s Souls universe, that you would not bring about the violent doom of the world.

Anyway, while I said earlier that I would be avoiding any strong metaphorical analysis of the game, I feel compelled to at least mention that these aspects of the lore of Demon’s Souls can map easily and fruitfully onto actual historical events or circumstances.

One obvious way to do this would be to compare the First and Second Scourge to the First and Second World War. And it’s worth pondering, then, what the Old One might symbolize—as a source of extreme power whose consumption of both souls and land is permanent, and which can now be put into a hopefully durable sleep lest all souls and all places be destroyed. The area below the Nexus even strongly resembles ruins of a bomb-ravaged civilization.

Demon's Souls screenshot with area below Nexus - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

A second way to do this would be to consider the possible environmental parallel between the ending of Demon’s Souls and the state of the human species on earth. The choice we’re offered is between ending what amounts to a weather-based natural disaster to forestall the end of the world (while falling well short of undoing the damage already done), versus a short-sighted grab for resources which will literally consume the world. The being representative of that consumption looks to be made up of trees, branches, and leaves, forming a barely-animate hole. And the greenery inside the Old One really stands out, since there is very little living vegetation elsewhere in the game after the tutorial.

Regardless of whether either of those readings might resonate with you, I mention them mainly to highlight the versatility of the game’s meditation on power. Put generally: Would the beliefs we accept lead us to fight back against a global existential threat over which we might exercise control? Or are our beliefs such that we shrug because the void will swallow us all either way, and we might at any rate suffer in the meantime?

Well, if you are a person who watched and understood the content of my analysis of Dark Souls, then you know that I’m not someone who sees the idea that nothingness will swallow us all as any kind of compelling reason not to care about the here and now. If it’s true (as it certainly seems to be) that the distant future is devoid of meaning, that still fails to convince me that the present is devoid of meaning.

And as for what that meaning might entail, consider the following words by Viktor Frankl:

What matters [. . .] is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. (Frankl 131)

Whatever meaning a person decides it is right for them to pursue, that meaning can not be achieved after a meaningless void replaces the world. It is right, therefore, in the pursuit of any goal that is not self-destructive or self-defeating, to fight for the world and for life. Not because it’s in accord with divine Will, which we do not and can not know. But because they are the only world and life we have.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Maiden in Black seated - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Like the Maiden in Black (whose Nexial Binding can be seen around her ankle), the player-character is bound to the Nexus. But we were not less bound to the fate of the Nexus before we ever stepped foot in the fog. Inaction would have been no less devastating than destructive action, as it would have ceded the world to those whose beliefs yield destructive action.

Hence one of the most powerful and important rings in the entire game is the Cling Ring, an object that stands for clinging to life under difficult circumstances, whose function is artificially boosting the health of soul form. It bears a design in the shape of an eye, symbolizing vision, clarity, understanding—fundamental attributes of the soul it defends. Think also of the occlusion of the eyes of the Maiden in Black, who has a tender affinity for the Old One and won’t return from your journey below the Nexus irrespective of your choice there.

A further instance of this symbolism can be found in the name of the eye stones, which anyone can acknowledge as a crucial part of the game once they’ve realized that archstones are also eye stones.

Plenty of commentators have noticed that the small round statues forming the base of the lesser archstones within the levels are carved into the shape of a curled tapir-like animal. What I’d like to highlight here is the fact that the blue, red, black, white, and ephemeral eye stones are in this very same shape. Stones of ephemeral eyes are even the same color as archstone bases, though fragile and fleeting because they are “deteriorated more than halfway.”

Some have also pointed out the probable connection between the animal depicted by the stones and the mythic or folkloric tapir-like creature known in Japan as the baku: “Legend has it that a child who wakes up from a bad dream can call out to the baku, and ask it to devour their bad dream. The child can then go back to sleep peacefully [. . .] In the early twentieth century, it was common for Japanese children to keep a baku talisman by their bedside” (Vaatividya 2:56).

Demon's Souls screenshot with archstone in Shrine of Storms - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

In general, eye stones govern connections—connecting souls to bodies, players to each other, and even distinct locations across the continent to the Nexus. Using stones carved into the shape of a baku for such purposes must be a very old practice, as it dates at least to the creation of the archstone network at the end of the First Scourge. The concept of connection, then, is tied to the idea of warding off bad dreams, and, when combined with the timeframe in which the archstones were distributed, to the uninterrupted sleep of the Old One. Objects shaped to call for dreamless sleep and named to evoke vision and clarity—are both figuratively and literally holding the fractured world together. Yet, in light of invasions, it’s clear that such connections are not always made with good intentions.

Thus, in the eye stone one glimpses all at once a variety of the game’s themes: that the tremendous power of the rational soul can be used to help or hinder peers and the world at large; that connections among people, places, souls, and bodies require maintenance or assistance to persist, and can be lost; and that the only way we maintain access to a world at all, in which to act in any way whatsoever, is if we ward off anyone and anything that would see its end accelerated.

There is no greater statement of the true threat that faces the world than the archstone of the Northern Limit. Closest to the physical location of the Nexus and thus the Old One, the Northern Limit was the first to face the fog in the second demon Scourge, and has been entirely consumed. Its partial archstone remains, blackened and shattered, standing for lost land, lost culture, lost people—an absence felt at the very heart of the Nexus throughout the game.

And while we’re back in the Nexus, note that while there are misguided miracle-workers gathered in the left wing of the bottom floor of the Nexus focusing on another life and another world, and misguided magicians gathered in the right wing of the bottom floor of the Nexus focusing on enhancing or overcoming this life and this world . . . there are also many individuals who reside permanently or temporarily in the central chamber and who concern themselves with the here and now. These figures include the Maiden in Black, Stockpile Thomas, Blacksmith Boldwin, the warrior near the Palace archstone, Patches, Biorr, and Ostrava.

Demon's Souls screenshot with central chamber of Nexus - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

They range in personal morals, with the worst of the bunch probably being slimy old Patches. Yet they nonetheless overwhelmingly concern themselves with their immediate circumstances, lives, and goals. The arguable exception, of course, is the cynic on the steps, and yet his discouragement from such this-wordly goals soon proves his undoing. As Boldwin and the Maiden in Black show, this central set doesn’t shy away from matter-of-fact usage of soul arts in their trades. They neither deny such natural abilities, nor are obsessed with them. And for the most part, this group of characters includes people aiming at, hoping to move toward, freedom, enterprise, bravery, justice, peace, or safety. Perhaps this middle zone, where we spend most of our time in the Nexus while focusing on our adventures, is where we belong.

Demon’s Souls‘ Soul Form and Body Form Revisited:

It would not be inaccurate to refer to this as a bonus section, as it is only tangentially related to the analysis I’ve developed across the rest of the article. In the course of writing a game analysis like this one, it often happens that I find myself composing long discussions of philosophy or literary theory with very little accompanying discussion of the game. When I find I’ve written something like that, I always either condense it way down or cut it completely, in order to keep the work focused on the actual task at hand.

An example of this would be, in the first main section here, when I said that (like most philosophers) I don’t find Descartes’ attempted proof of the external world compelling, and then I just immediately moved onto why I was actually bringing up his work on that subject. In an earlier draft, I went ahead and explained why I don’t find that attempted proof compelling (which also required explaining the proof). Valuable material, no doubt, but it has practically nothing to do with my analysis of Demon’s Souls—and the explanation in question, which didn’t include a single mention of the game, ran longer than the rest of that section combined. That explanation is now, with only slight expansion, its own philosophy article that I’ve published separately.

This section you’re reading now is an edge case for that kind of editing. It ultimately has slightly more to do with philosophy than with Demon’s Souls, and it does not fit together cleanly with my (or any other currently existing) interpretation of the game. For those reasons, I went back and forth repeatedly about whether to cut it entirely. But I do think it addresses some fairly conspicuous details of the game that it may otherwise seem I’ve simply overlooked; in other words, it may be important to a thorough understanding of the game. Ultimately, the decision I reached after much deliberation was to cut this section from the video version of this analysis (letting that be a more streamlined presentation of my ideas about the game), but to include it here in the article version so those who may benefit from it can have access to it.

Demon's Souls screenshot with cave in Shrine of Storms - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Here’s the question we’ll attempt to answer now: is ‘soul form’ actually an immaterial soul? In effect, is the work really dualist?

The body of evidence that soul form is the immaterial soul (which is the perspective I’ve accepted throughout this article until now) includes details like footsteps in soul form making no sound; that the barrier above the Old One in the Nexus is only disturbed when walking across it in body form; health points being roughly halved in soul form as though you’re only half a person; magic points being unaffected in soul form as though you still have all possible resources for soul arts; soul form NPCs and phantoms being spatially distinct from their bodies, and occasionally discussing their situation as that of a soul separated from its body; soul form’s ability to overlap completely with the body at the moment a stone of ephemeral eyes is used; and one of the messages that can appear on death specifying the player-character will remain trapped by the Nexus “as a soul.”

The body of evidence that soul form is not simply the immaterial soul, however, is seemingly conclusive. It includes details like soul form having collision, being visible, wielding weapons, wearing armor and rings, being able to pull levers and open doors, taking damage from physical attacks, dropping bloodstains on death, and being able to be poisoned.

To say that these things don’t contradict the immateriality of soul form is to fail to understand what it means for something to be immaterial.

Soul form interacts directly with physical reality in the game. You find Rydell in soul form in the first stage of Latria, locked in a cell. In the swamp that forms the floor of the Valley of Defilement, mosquitoes can become visibly engorged by drawing blood from the player-character in soul form. And soul form can eat—lotuses, spice, and moon grass.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Rydell locked in cell - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

So, why then do I accept the view that the work is dualist and that soul form is the immaterial soul? Well, because: that’s what the work seems to me to be attempting to depict. That’s what is more consistent with its lore and dialogue, as well as with small highly intentional details like the differences in footstep behavior. I don’t think the inconsistency detected here is the fault of Demon’s Souls; I think it’s the fault of dualism. Other than just verbally describing it, there is actually no way for an artwork to depict a literal immaterial entity. The whole situation calls to mind my argument from my Dark Souls analysis about the timeless, changeless, formless period of the Age of Ancients being “emblematic of nothingness;”obviously it can’t literally be nothingness, as something is being depicted. But that is still the direction indicated by the relevant symbols, concepts, and themes of the work.

Imagine if FromSoft had tried to depict soul form as immaterial, with no physicality whatsoever. First of all, something that is actually immaterial wouldn’t be able to interact with light, so it would be completely invisible. Not translucent or shiny. Invisible. For similar reasons, it would be inaudible. Think as ‘loudly’ as you like; that thinking on its own will never directly create sound waves. Okay, so the player-character would become undetectable in soul form; but maybe they can just make it first-person then? Well, that’s not quite a solution. A soul on its own also wouldn’t be able to interact conventionally with mechanical physics in a causal way, as it has no matter with which to impart or receive forces. So combat and ordinary exploration are out. Okay, so first-person view and just floating through the levels then? Again, sadly no. An entity with no physical existence entirely lacks extension in space, so if it has no associated matter at all it would be inaccurate to specify its location in the gameworld. No combat, no conversations, no exploration, no game.

To come at this notion in another way: if a whole person in Demon’s Souls is a physical body that can interact with the world, coupled with a non-physical soul that is rational but fundamentally distinct from the body . . . then it’s genuinely hard to see how soul form is not a whole person. Though weaker than a whole person in body form, soul form still just seems to be an instance of the exact same thing: a physical body that can interact with the world, coupled with a non-physical soul that is rational but fundamentally distinct from the body. As long as there is still a detectable entity in the gameworld for us to noticeably control from the outside, it isn’t an immaterial soul.

Demon's Souls screenshot with cliff in Stonefang - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Maybe, at the very least, what we’d have to do is say that the fog sometimes allows souls to stay tied to some kind of matter even apart from the body, and then maintain a set of distinctions among: (1) actual immaterial souls, (2) shapeless souls as seen in the hole above the execution grounds, or when killing enemies, or when breaking down demon and warrior souls, (3) shaped-but-hazy souls that lack collision except with the ground, like red and white phantoms, (4) quiet-but-fully-formed, fully-interactive souls like blue and black phantoms, the explosive wisps in the cave before the Old Hero fight and the tunnels behind the Armor Spider, and soul form, and (5) immaterial souls firmly seated within complete, fully audible, fully physical bodies as in body form.

Now, I’d imagine that at some point during the foregoing description of issues a game designer might encounter in trying to depict substance dualism, you probably thought I was getting lost in a strange and esoteric concern. Seems like a niche worry, at least. But that’s really not so. This apparently pedantic discussion is actually of paramount philosophical importance, as the real reason substance dualism raises such representational issues is that the position itself, despite its popularity, may be incoherent. Soul form had to be portrayed as physical because of there being no clear mechanism that would allow one metaphysical substance on its own to directly affect an entirely distinct type of metaphysical substance. For that reason, mind-body dualism is considered to be incoherent by, for example, philosopher and historian Anthony Kenny, who highlights that this possibly fatal objection was raised by Elisabeth of Bohemia directly to Descartes (who for his part never adequately answered it):

‘How can soul move body?’ Princess Elizabeth asked. [. . .] Elizabeth had, in fact, located the fundamental weakness in Descartes’ philosophy of mind. Descartes’ system was dualist, that is to say, it was tantamount to belief in two separate worlds—the physical world containing matter, and a psychical world containing private mental events. The two worlds are defined and described in such systematically different ways that mental and physical realities can interact, if at all, only in a mysterious manner that transcends the normal rules of causality and evidence. Such dualism is a fundamentally mistaken philosophy. The incoherence spotted by Princess Elizabeth was to be pointed out with exhaustive patience in later centuries by Kant and Wittgenstein. But Cartesian dualism is still alive and well in the twenty-first century. (Kenny 664)

This is not to say that serious dualist philosophers haven’t recognized this basic causal disconnect in their metaphysics, and yet tried to get around it. A couple notable attempts were made by Gottfried Leibniz, whose notion was that God set up the initial conditions of reality in the distant past in such a way that all actions in the here and now that seem to result from interactions between different substances (such as mind and body) just happen to harmoniously coincide; and Nicolas Malebranche, who bit the bullet on saying that every time someone decides to move a part of their body, God is actually directly causing them to have that thought and then directly moving the body part for them.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Old Hero in crypt - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Solutions of that kind have a trio of deficits: (1) being extremely unintuitive; (2) being wholly dependent on separately accepting a fairly specific conception of God; and (3) being great examples of exactly the kind of coherent-yet-baseless speculative metaphysics that caused Immanuel Kant to say the whole discipline was lacking any way to distinguish truth from falsehood, and was therefore as yet unfit to be called a science.

So, it appears far more promising to follow Kenny and agree that this is a fundamental problem of the position. But where does that leave Demon’s Souls? Can we at least rescue that gameworld from this inconsistency in some way? I’d say: yes, maybe. At the very least, I can think of a few undesirable-but-acceptable options that are available.

The worst available option would probably be to simply argue that the work is not dualist. This would be the position that says: because soul form is clearly physical, therefore the whole game is actually monist and there is basically just one type of stuff in its universe: namely, physical stuff. Bodies and souls are both physical. (This is a situation that seems to be true of some of FromSoft’s later games, like Dark Souls.)

I say that this is the worst option for understanding Demon’s Souls, however, because it would be an extremely contrived thing to argue about the game. Physicalism is openly contradicted by many perfectly straightforward lines in narration, dialogue, item descriptions, and even menu prompts. Need I remind you yet again that this is a game in which multiple powerful physical beings were canonically born from myths, beliefs, or dreams? Possibly the most potent and direct contradiction of physicalism in Demon’s Souls, though, is the literal first sentence of lore in the game: that on the first day people were granted souls, and, with those souls, clarity. Not power or energy or life, but clarity. In other words, a clarifying or rational soul (thus identical with a mind) is a thing utterly distinct from a body, and was added into separately existing bodies at some point in the past without changing the formal status of those bodies as being humans (thus the soul is immaterial). Metaphorical readings of that line are possible, but are also (as I’ve said) contrived—especially in the context of the following line about the addition of a soul-devouring demon to the world, which we know to be literally true.

Demon's Souls screenshot with outer section of Boletarian Palace - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

A second way of dissolving the inconsistency that is slightly better, yet which I also don’t favor myself, would be to argue that soul form and the soul are separate. Remember that list of five distinct representations of variably physical souls from earlier in this section? Well, this is the view that would stand by that spectrum. It would say that soul form is physical like body form, though perhaps somehow less so. What characters in Boletaria actually have, though it contradicts what they themselves say on the topic, is at least a three-tiered system of personal identity: a body, a soul form, and then separately an immaterial soul. These are nested in each other, so the immaterial soul is in some sense inside the material soul form, and the material soul form is inside the material body. There would still be immaterial souls in the game in accordance with the lore and dialogue; we just never see any of them. I personally find this strategy needlessly convoluted, as all of the evidence for it would be indirect stuff like the lists at the start of this section; there is practically no direct evidence in the game that supports it. But I suppose people dedicated to this reading of the game could make a great deal of analytical fuss out of the grammar involved in saying that people were granted a soul, and with it clarity.

The third way to dissolve the inconsistency, which is my own stance, is that it is most straightforward and agreeable to simply accept that what is inconsistent from our perspective—simply somehow isn’t in the fantasy universe of the game. Soul form is the soul, and its various attributes show that it is simultaneously immaterial and material. That doesn’t make logical sense, but who is to say that what is true in Demon’s Souls must always make sense to us? I have already argued separately that the game is broadly mystical, including several other big noticeable contradictions of both our logic and our physics in its story and gameplay. Ultimately, though especially problematic from a philosophical standpoint, this is just one further step in that direction. Thinking about this aspect of Demon’s Souls in the way outlined in this section helps to illustrate some of the problems faced by metaphysical dualism . . . but at the end of the day, bracketing those problems provides the most intuitive and common-sense way of understanding the game’s lore, dialogue, and gameplay.

Demon's Souls screenshot with mosquito full of blood - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

I think you can see why I cut this section from one version of this analysis, and got so close to simply cutting it completely. Not only is it more technical and pedantic than the style I favor for my analyses of artworks, but I ultimately conclude that the interpretive issues I’m highlighting are issues we can simply ignore. Still, I think it is important for me to have an explanation available somewhere as to why the thing I’ve been saying is immaterial elsewhere in this article—is a thing that can’t pass through the bars of a jail cell, and which can be stabbed.

Conclusion:

As Demon’s Souls is a relatively short game by modern standards, I’ve been able to cover basically everything here that I felt was relevant to my interpretation. But that doesn’t mean I’ve exhausted everything someone might want to say when analyzing this game. Epistemology (and some related work in metaphysics, phenomenology, and pragmatism) offered me excellent tools for discussing this game’s unique emphasis on the soul as the rational, conscious, memory-bearing intellect of a person. But even within philosophy, there’s much more that could be said.

One very promising avenue which we’ve only occasionally overlapped in this analysis would be a look at Demon’s Souls from the perspective of philosophy of religion—certainly opportunities to discuss topics like the problem of evil, metempsychosis, and apophatic theology jump out at every turn. Should you, reader, end up writing something that covers the game from that angle, or some similarly worthwhile angle, please do let me know as I’d love to see it. But I digress.

As in my analysis of Dark Souls, I will close out not by attempting to give a totalizing explanation of some kind of ‘true objective singular meaning’ of Demon’s Souls, but instead by presenting a list in no particular order of what seem to me to be a selection of the best-supported themes of the game. You may then make your own selections as to which of them match closest with your experience of it.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Ostrava on palace stairs - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

Here they are:

Demon’s Souls is a game about the dangers of ignoring the limitations of belief and knowledge. It’s a game about a minimally knowable reality besieged by incomprehensible beings. On a natural level, all of the characters who have convinced themselves that they have or can gain a utile understanding of the demons or the fog, from Allant to Freke to the Monumentals themselves—have played some role in the unleashing or perpetuating of the demon scourges. Thus, in the here and now, the last living Monumental opines, “The Old One’s very nature cannot be fathomed by the living.” And on a supernatural level, the misdirected practices, intentional manipulations, and baseless superstitions of the lands’ present and past religious traditions have given form to demons and archdemons of unfathomable strength, maintained the disturbing status quo in Latria, and lent prestige and authority to callous, deceptive, self-righteous figures like Urbain. The temptation, however, to see our minds as expansive enough to understand everything in and out of the universe, in and out of life, can be acknowledged as a simple error: “[A] chain of arguments [. . .] has carried us quite beyond the reach of our faculties, when it leads to conclusions so extraordinary, and so remote from common life and experience. We are got into fairy land, long ere we have reached the last steps of our theory; and there we have no reason to trust our common methods of argument, or to think that our usual analogies and probabilities have any authority” (Hume 818). Anyone who ignores this warning by Hume, later clarified and forcefully underscored by Kant, that all true knowledge must pertain to experience—anyone who becomes dogmatically convinced of an ill-founded belief or stubbornly skeptical of a well-founded one—may unleash monsters or even become one themselves.

And/or:

Demon’s Souls is a game about how power, regardless of its source, can be instrumentalized for just or unjust aims. At the macro scale, it takes constant vigilance to defend existence for ourselves and generations to come, but only one era of failure, selfishness, or discouragement for life to be over for everyone forever. At the micro scale, humans are capable of every moral virtue and every moral failure they would ascribe to supernatural beings. As Miyazaki puts it, it comes down to your personality. As C.S. Peirce puts it, it comes down to what you think is true: “Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. [. . .] Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises” (Peirce “Fixation” 5-6). Whether it’s the wielding of soul arts or another source of power, that power in the abstract is neutral; how it’s gained and how it’s used matter. Old King Doran is a demon who does not gather souls. Astraea is a demon whose removal of souls is viewed by most of the victims as a form of euthanasia. And the Maiden in Black is a demon who uses her unique powers of soul manipulation and communing with the Old One to, as she puts it again and again, “help the world be mended.” And the corollary is: no soul arts or demons are needed to do evil. Boletaria’s habitual usage of their prisoners as slave soldiers far predates the Second Scourge. And Mephistopheles’ obsession with exclusive access to power could apply just fine to weapon-making techniques in the absence of soul arts. Freke is quite right to say that, if indeed we ever assumed it, “We were wrong to assume that only demons could do demon work.”

Demon's Souls screenshot with vandalized portrait - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

And/or:

Demon’s Souls is a game about the relationship between the mind and the body, and the relationship between the mind and the world. Within the soul-enhancing purview of the fog and the demons, souls are temporarily separable from bodies without the immediate loss of identity, memory, and form. But in or out of fog, the mind and the body are intimately connected. In a best-case scenario, the final death or loss of one merely leads to the sharp diminishment of the other: the body to an automaton, the mind to a mere source of power as ‘a soul of the lost withdrawn from its vessel.’ In a worst-case scenario, the final death or loss of one leads to the death of the other: the dissipation or consumption of the mind or soul, the inanimation and destruction of the body as a rotting cadaver. In light of the possible incoherence of Cartesian dualism, we can supplant this tight relationship between soul and body with Kant’s famous remark that “Without sensibility no object would be given to us, and without understanding none would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty; [sensations] without concepts are blind” (Kant Critique 193-194, A51/B75). And speaking of mapping Kant onto Demon’s Souls, while we can maintain certainty of both the perceived external world and whatever underlies the perceptions, the world of the game is one in which it is abundantly clear that what we encounter is necessarily the perceived world. Its gameworld calls attention to this fact by being a place that conforms not just to cognition, but also disposition and sometimes even will. Thus the specific workings of the tendency systems; thus the lore regarding the origin of many demons and archdemons; and thus the Monumental’s assertion that the fog’s erasure of the land and the demons’ destruction of souls are in some sense one and the same process.

And/or:

Demon’s Souls is a game about studious, patient, creative pursuit of information and goals. The virtues of careful study may be one of the only philosophical topics on which all of the thinkers quoted in this analysis would agree. As Descartes declares while deploying his skeptical methodology, “I will carry on [. . .] until I find something certain, or—at worst—until I become certain that there is no certainty.” (Descartes Meditations 4). Demon’s Souls is a methodical game. One must track their supplies, both the amount of items they are carrying and the availability of important consumables like spice, grass, and “sticky white stuff” not simply per checkpoint but across the entire playthrough. Decisions made by the player, from building one’s character to assisting or hindering NPCs, are incredibly impactful and almost always permanent; they can not be undone under normal circumstances. Moment-to-moment actions must be deliberate, strategic, and cautious—thanks to the stamina system, lengthy character animations, respawn mechanics, and both types of tendency. Even major gameplay moments are more cerebral than nearly all other action RPGs, as roughly a third of the bosses incorporate puzzle or stealth elements. And thanks to its diffuse and ambiguous presentation—not to mention the scrutiny merited by the varying transparency of the biases and motives of the characters—the story and various subplots are only unfolded before players that pursue them with both curiosity and intuition.

Demon's Souls screenshot with Ostrava below Lord's Path - epistemological philosophical analysis of Demon's Souls - FromSoftware - epistemology, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant

So, that’s where we leave Demon’s Souls. But where does Demon’s Souls leave us?

As in the game, in our experiences we frequently meet people who intend to distract us from our lives and our world. Some follow the path of Freke and Allant, trying to convince us to be unsure of this life, pushing us to be uncertain about our only certainties. Some follow the path of Urbain and his peers, trying to convince us to be more sure of some other life, pushing us to be certain about matters for which there can be no certainty.

It is up to each of us to cultivate contentment with knowledge that lies within the limits of possible experience, as that contentment can provide strength to reject the arguments of both groups, humility to abhor blind lust for power, and conviction that beliefs are virtuous only if they lead to virtuous actions. For the ‘you’ that I am currently addressing, this life and this world are the only life and the only world which you will ever know. Enjoy them. Protect them. And help as many others to enjoy them in safety as you possibly can. In the immortal words of Stockpile Thomas, “You have a heart of gold. Don’t let them take it from you.”

Works Cited:

Descartes, René. Discourse on the Method. 1637. Discourse on Method and The Meditations. Translated by F.E. Sutcliffe. Penguin, 1968, pg. 25-92. Print.

Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. 1641. Translated by Jonathan Bennett. Early Modern Texts, 2004. Web.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. 1946. Translated by Ilse Lasch. Beacon Press, 1959. Print.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 1748. Classics of Western Philosophy. Edited by Eric Steinberg and Steven M. Cahn. Hackett, 1990, pg. 783-869. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. 1781. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. 1783. Classics of Western Philosophy. Translated by Paul Carus and James W. Ellington. Edited by Steven M. Cahn. Hackett, 1990, pg. 933-1008. Print.

Kenny, Anthony. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Lokey. “Demon’s Beginning.” Lokey Lore, 2020. Web.

Lokey. “Latria.” Lokey Lore, 2020. Web.

Lokey. “Temple of God.” Lokey Lore, 2020. Web.

Miyazaki, Hidetaka. “Souls Survivor.” Interview by Keza MacDonald. Eurogamer, 2010. Web.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly 12, 1878, pg. 286-302. Print.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly 12, 1877, pg. 1-15. Print.

Vaatividya. “10 Hidden Secrets in Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro and Demon’s Souls.” YouTube, 2020. Web.

Voltaire. Candide. 1759. Translated by John Butt. Penguin, 1947. Print.

[Game: Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware, 2009]
Slayer of Reason:

A Thorough Epistemological Philosophical Analysis of FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls

was last modified: March 3rd, 2024 by Daniel Podgorski
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