An Ode to the Dark Souls Bonfire
Don't praise the sun, praise the bonfire. Enjoy those rare moments of reflection. You've earned them.
The cavernous hall that stretches before you is magnificent.
A towering knight emerges from the gallery. It raises its lance one-handed above its head. An electrical charge surges from its end to its tip.
Momentarily, you allow yourself to be taken in by its beauty: its vacuous ceiling, its immotile stone pillars, its imposing shadows cutting ominous contours across its sweeping floor.
A huge, lumbering, hammer-wielding henchman lowers himself to one knee, before shifting his weight forward as he sets off in your direction. His body hunched, his head facing downward, he leads with his shoulder.
Sunlight pours in from the vast windows that asymmetrically punctuate the perimeter, lending the room a glowing orange hue, illuminating dust particles that swirl, and coil, and dance abstract shapes around the exquisite stone masonry above.
A typically orchestral boss battle theme begins to play in the background. Two health bars appear at the foot of the screen. "Dragon Slayer Ornstein" reads one. "Executioner Smough" reads the other.
Moments of reflection are few and far between in FromSoftware's Dark Souls games.
As Ornstein flops to his knees you let out an immense sigh of relief. After an hour, five attempts, five consumed humanities, a cup of coffee, a cup a tea, a piss, two cigarettes, and five incarnations of poor AI companion Knight Solaire, arguably the hardest Dark Souls boss has been defeated. "VICTORY ACHIEVED" heralds a genuine achievement; "+50,000" looks positively glorious as it sits aloft your previously meager souls count of 1,661.
And then, panic. With your shield steadfastly raised, defending your face, your body, your life, your sanity, you head for the exit. You pause at the archway of the door. You look back. You step forward. The elevator descends; you shuffle in anticipation. You spin the camera 360 degrees, checking that there are no unwelcome surprises behind you. You glance again at your souls, make sure they're still there. Yup, 51,661. That's a lot of souls. You emerge from the lift into another hallway. You look right. It's too dark—there could be monsters that way. Can't be too safe. A long corridor sprawls out to the left—you can just about see a glowing white collectable at the opposite end. There must be a bonfire down that way. You go. There isn't a bonfire down that way.
Where is the next bonfire?
You head back, retrace your steps. Shield still raised. Aha! Is that... is that it, in the corner... it is. Yes. You break into a sprint. And then this:
Phew. "Rest at bonfire" isn't even a question. Praise the sun.
Whereas 2009's Demon's Souls, the first of FromSoftware's Souls games, is the most challenging of the series so far, it doesn't have bonfires. Upon death, instead of restarting from interval checkpoints, players are forced back to the start of entire sections—whether bested by nominal foes or by end-of-zone boss battles. If this seems cruel, that's because it is.
In an otherwise fantastic game, this quite remarkable design choice willfully imposes a degree of unforgiving, unrelenting difficulty on players that's completely unnecessary, especially given how hard the rest of the game is. As a result, I've never finished Demon's Souls. Every time I've been rightly defeated by a boss that capitalized on my mistakes and poor decision making, I've fallen out with the fact that I'm constantly being punished for what I perceive as the game's shortcomings, and not my own.
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Introducing the bonfire in 2011's Dark Souls, then, was a mark of genius (one they've kept for the game's two sequels). Now, after I'd made an ass of dodging Quelaag's vomits of lava, or failed to out roll Moonlight Butterfly's piercing lightning beams, or completely bailed on any kind of strategy against the aforementioned formidable tag team of Ornstein and Smough, I respawned at a bonfire. So too did the enemies I'd previously put to the sword, yet these bite-sized runs of beast-slaying action, shuttling from fiery salvation to my souls-spilling bloodstain, made repeating my previously unsuccessful ventures rewarding, not frustrating.
The majority of video games nowadays incorporate auto-save systems, whereby failure is almost redundant. If you die, you're inconvenienced by a loading screen before being offered another shot: full health, full ammo. In Dark Souls, souls are farmed from fallen enemies and act as the currency that facilitates progression. Leveling up, as it were, can only be done at a bonfire. Upon being killed, you lose whatever souls you were carrying prior to death, which can only be redeemed in the immediate next life, and none beyond it. This means trekking from the last bonfire you rested at to wherever you were struck down, marked by a pool of your previous body's blood. If you die again before recovering the souls of the previous turn, however, they're gone for good.
So imagine the burden of hauling around over 50,000 souls after triumphing in the boss battle of your life. Imagine the panic. Imagine the dread. Your mind races ahead at the thought of dying before reaching the next bonfire. And then dying again before redeeming your beautiful souls. You've unwittingly moved from the couch, to the chair nearest the computer, to the corner of the coffee table. Now you're standing up in front of the telly, hopping from one foot to the next as if dying for the toilet. Perhaps you are, but that's obviously going to wait until you find this fire.
By giving us the bonfire, Dark Souls reinvented the save point. The purple crystals of Tomb Raider, the typewriters of Resident Evil, the animated question marks of Final Fantasy VII, the inns of every other 1990s JRPG: They all marked a challenge. In these games, respite was a privilege, not a right. Reflecting on your progress during these brief recesses is part of what makes that challenge worth it. Dark Souls is a game about death, one that teaches you by killing you. It shows you the ropes by handing you one. For every second of success, there's hours of failure. For every moment of joy, there's another ten of despair.
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These moments, hunched over a bonfire, are as valuable as leveling up, equipping stronger weapons, or attuning your spells. These moments make the pain and strife and struggle worthwhile. Getting to the next bonfire is like receiving a badge of honor—the reason you're able to rest here is testament to what you've previously overcome. The Dark Souls bonfire is as much a central character of any Souls game as the quirky NPCs, demonic monsters, and opulent lore.
Don't praise the sun, then, but praise the bonfire. Enjoy those rare moments of reflection. You've earned them.
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