I knew I needed to do something so I didn’t just keep watching CNN. I didn’t even want to watch it, but I knew I would anyway. It would be there. And self-destructive impulses are hard to ignore. So I decided to jump my schedule and start an LP blitz of Demon’s Souls.
Life, review codes, and “stop the count” protestors arriving en masse to my city hampered the plans, unfortunately. But even in the middle of reviewing a game that was nothing like From Software’s iconic spiritual successor to the titanic Dark Souls franchise, I couldn’t stop thinking about the soundtrack.
I’d written about it before, in miniature—a brief ode in Paste’s last list of The Best Videogame Soundtracks of All Time. It was insufficient. Even this week’s Audio Logs feels incapable of grasping the slippery fullness of Shinsuke Kida’s nuanced and fragrant score. Like in Souls games though, we try, persist, and learn when we come up short.
Are you ready to embrace uncertainty? Umbasa.
Two tremendous knocks of timpani open Demon’s Souls. It repeats. Open the door. It’ll break it down anyway. Accept fate.
And then a moaning female vocalizing half rapturous, half forbidding. She is joined by male “voices” as the downward march of string follows and dissonant sprays of brass bleat agonizingly. It builds and builds. Organ intersects and is interrupted by a clash of cyclopean cymbals. Strings vibrate to near bursting in an ascending roil. And we end with one final explosive burst of female vocals as the other instruments, save the harmonizing organ, go tacet.
Few games communicate “fuck around and find out” so dramatically and openly.
This is not a good place you have found yourself. It will not be easy, it will not end well.Demon’s Souls composer Shinsuke Kida transmits this warning like a javelin through colorless fog.
Demon’s Souls, even at its most tranquil, is marked by peril. It’s seared into the most delicately plucked harp. When strings flow smoothly, it is from a bow rosined with sadness and gloom.
The Nexus is a place of respite.
It is also a prison.
Yours, others, and that of the Great Old One. Time and space are confounding. Place has many meanings here. None of them are expressly good. What happens when the warm swell of strings and that radiant harp fall away in general pause after all-too-brief melodic phrases? Why is that harp so insistently questioning?
Of course, whatever comfort one could find in The Nexus is abruptly thrown out by its replacement theme—the one that comes after a great deal of killing and so much more of your own deaths. The harp tried to warn you. Didn’t it?
What safe haven questions its own safety? You fucked around, what did you find out? You found souls, the smaller souls of the once human, you claimed their power. Just as you did the tremendous demons’ souls, grown fat and ripe on those same smaller souls. It’s in the boss themes that the otherwise musically silent Demon’s Souls’ sampled orchestra comes to life.
Bereft of Latin, or language of any kind. The “choir” of Demon’s Souls communicates through guttural, vibrating uhhs and ahhs, huhs and ohs.
There’s almost a comedic element to the compositions in Demon’s Souls. Borrowing elements from the Baroque, the later Romantic era, with more contemporary scoring approaches from both cinema and games. There’s a sense of the soundtrack frequently being out of step with time. Part John Carpenter film, with drafts of German expressionism coming through a deep set Romanesque embrasure, the gauze of Cocteau clinging like gossamer to the cold space of Alien. Filtered through the deliberately spartan and awkward synth symphony, it almost seems to be poking fun. But it also deliberately highlights the absurdity of you, your quest, and everything involved. This is a soundtrack that can sneer through its tears, but will never cry.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the theme for the Adjudicator. Here oboes peek out as staccato strings march to the dull clang of hammered metal, only interrupted by a steepled dread of shrill, dissonant strings. And then oboe returns, with more pounding. A relentless trudge.
Is this what you expected…Hero?
What makes the Demon’s Souls score so enduring is, for all its bombast, no matter how concussive the brass or drums become, it is not here to dominate. Terror is not its intended effect as with later games. Even as the Leechmonger stabs at you with razor-sharp strings, what terror this could yield is tempered by meandering, fingered cello riffs, the stamping of brass and timpani. Bloodborne wants to bring you to heel, to hide deeper in the sofa, pulling the duvet tight around your shoulders. It wants the battery acid taste in your mouth every minute.
But Demon’s Souls is a pursuer at a distance, keeping you careless, hungry to trip you up, coax you into a persistent state of wariness. It wants you impatient, taut, just on the edge of tipping into frenzy.
For all its ferocity, this is a soundtrack that subdues itself, only allowing itself to nip forever at your ankles, but never to show the full void-like depth of its gullet. It warns of dread, fugue, and an unnavigable grief so profound that it growls deep from the belly of the world. Its clockwork compositions warn that time is short, always has been, but also always has been. This is nothing new. Suffering has a remarkable capacity for self-propagation. Despair, like spring, it argues, is an emotion made from return and renewal.
Everyone here used to be just like you…once. They made choices, or chose not to make choices. Either way, suffering births and is born from consequence.
If the opening melodies of Demon’s Souls beckon one to fuck around and find out, it is the conclusion of the game’s score that implores one to question what the value of finding out truly was worth. Is there knowledge to be had at the end of this long journey? What is it to lull something back to sleep, to contain the thing that all suffering has been (perhaps falsely) blamed for? What does it mean that you, yourself, only have the power to subdue because you did exactly the same thing?
As diaphanous trepidation builds to soar over strings and piano, there is a sense of serenity—this is true. But this ethereal gentleness is so at odds with what we have seen and learned of both the moment we found ourselves in, and those long before. In the end, Demon’s Souls is content to press us into questioning whether we do want to go on, what that even means, and who we even are in our transformed state.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.