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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The New 'Demon's Souls' Remake Tries Too Hard to Be Realistic

If nothing else, the video game classics Demon's Souls and Shadow of the Colossus have one very specific thing in common: their surreal, strange lighting. In 2005's Shadow of the Colossus, it's blinding, oversaturated to the point that, with the brightness just right on an old CRT television, you can barely see as you walk across the border from the ancient temple where you begin the game into the wilderness beyond. In 2009's Demon's Souls, the illumination is just plain weird—supercharged and coming from no clear source. Deep pools of darkness form in unexpected places, while scattered throughout there are impossible hues of shimmering luster.

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The recent remakes of both of these games undo this magic. Instead of keeping their weirdness, Bluepoint Games, a company that has made a speciality out of rebooting classic PlayStation titles as technical showcases for Sony's newest consoles, massages in more natural lighting, gentle streaks of luminescence that fall the way they're "supposed" to, with clear sources and the amount of saturation that is considered acceptably legible by the best current practices of game design. It's far less interesting.

The recently released Demon's Souls remake on PlayStation 5, like the 2018 Shadow of the Colossus reboot, is difficult to talk about. From one perspective, it's a fabulous do-over. The level design and moment-to-moment play experience of the original game is re-created with a lavish faithfulness, with only a few tweaks that are largely unnoticeable and generally enhance the play. The original Demon's Souls is a big, challenging, beguiling game, the first in From Software's Souls series. It set off a small revolution in game design and popular trends, re-introducing the value of difficulty into the conversation and presenting players with a world of mystery and unanswered questions, a decaying fantasy space filled to the brim with terrors and oddities that a lot of players hadn't seen before. Bluepoint recreates that lavishly. The strange places in Demon's Souls are still strange, the scary places still scary. It still is one of the most enthralling and frustrating experiences you can have in a video game.

In that sense, Bluepoint nailed it. But the aesthetics are a different matter. The lighting is smoothed over, yes, and so is a lot of the strangeness. The world of Boletaria, where Demon's Souls takes place, is an unnatural place, with monsters, people, and settings that just look a bit wrong. Sometimes they're unexpectedly funny, or unexpectedly scary. Or both. Take, for instance, the Vanguard, the first boss in the game, the one who will most likely give you your first in-game death. In the original, it has overgrown teeth that overlap each other and stretch over its cheeks, like a cage for its tiny tongue. Its eyes are three large shining lights, nearly dominating its face. It looks … dumb, and alien, and mindless. It's hard to take it seriously until you're dead.

In Bluepoint's version, the Vanguard looks more generic. Its eyes are smaller, its teeth are more natural-looking. It isn't dumb or alien so much as it's just gruesome. Another monster in another video game about monsters. As a substitute for something authentically weird, Bluepoint has created something authentically normal that adheres to the slightly cartoony version of "realism" that video games so often employ. Everything's a little uglier, a little grimier, a little less visually striking. The Flamelurker, an imposing golem of fire, looks like a Diablo monster. It's all very familiar.

Shadow of the Colossus had this problem too, in a different way. That game, remade for the PlayStation 4, takes place in a wide expanse of open wilderness. In the original, this wilderness is beautiful but a little barren. The grass is short and flat, the trees are weirdly stiff. This may seem like a technical limitation, but it gives a powerful impression of the place as untouched but, somehow, already dead. The greenest desert you've ever seen. Nothing roams through these lands but you and the colossi you're going to kill. But the Bluepoint version is absolutely lush, an Eden of overgrowth in every direction. It's a paradise instead of a purgatory.

In both cases, the problem is clear, and it's one that is at this point endemic to Bluepoint's work, a major flaw that keeps both games from faithfully preserving what made their predecessors so special. Bluepoint, like a lot of the video game industry, is enamored with realism. Which is to say, the gaming idea of realism, the set of aesthetic and technological choices that are en vogue as realistic and effective technical showcases at any given time.

This pursuit of realism is an oddly modern invention, but one that's come to dominate the medium. I first remember it around the release of the original Gears of War, on Xbox 360. It was lauded for its "realistic" graphics that were, in their own way, still cartoony and shot through with deliberate improbable aesthetic choices, like the handheld-style camera movements meant to evoke found footage photography or the overwhelming reliance on gray and brown pulled straight from footage of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then realism meant grime, darkness, dirt. In the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era, when Shadow of the Colossus was remade, it often meant lovingly rendered wilderness, technological advances allowing game consoles to produce stunning trees, grass, and leaves.

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In the early PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X generation of 2020, it means a lavish focus on lighting and granular detail. Technologies like ray tracing allow games to embrace detailed, subtle lighting effects that are both painterly and fairly legible, a must for clear design. And the expanded processing ability means games can focus on small details in a way that simply wasn't possible before. To wit, Demon's Souls is in love with the movement of tiny pieces of fabric or shreds of armor, or the way destructible environments can break. You've never seen a more lavish barrel-breaking simulator in your life. You've never seen a shirt move in the wind like this, not in a game.

But you have seen these aesthetics before, too often. Everywhere possible, Bluepoint's adherence to the not-really-realistic realism of video games erases strange imagery and replaces it with a more conventionally video game-y look. The problem, to be clear, is not the graphical update itself. It's what's done with it. Imagine a version of the Vanguard, mentioned above, that's just a little more faithful to the original. Imagine if its three eyes were massive, lovingly rendered orbs of mottled glass. Imagine if its teeth were so long as to be absurd, but rendered with precise detail down to the marrow. Imagine if, when Bluepoint took out a strange detail, they replaced it with an equally imaginative one.

Instead, Demon's Souls, like Shadow of the Colossus before it, breaks down the visual language of a classic to achieve little in return. Because, ultimately, video game realism doesn't even look like the real world. In reality, sometimes the light is too bright. Sometimes, the clouds diffuse light and you can't ever figure out where it's coming from. Sometimes overgrowth twists into bizarre patterns or dies too early. Sometimes reality is magical; often, it's surreal. The evolving aesthetic of video game realism, instead of looking like reality, just ends up looking like other video games. And after decades of gameplay, that is unbearably boring.

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