Dan actually sent us this late last year, but it was the tinest bit too late to be included before #DCember kicked off. Publishing it now, and thus putting it alongside Andi's Dark Souls piece, makes us wish we'd attempted a month of purely Dark Souls-related content. NEVER MIND.
The network of bonfires dotting Dark Souls’ austere landscape is perhaps the most elegant checkpoint system I've come across. No end-of-chapter prompts, safety-net autosaves on crossing arbitrary thresholds, nor incongruous floating crystal bullshit here - bonfires are integrally interwoven into the world. Rather than book-ending defined locales, they are strategically placed in the midst, prompting perilous delves into uncertainty. Never merely stumbled upon, instead frantically sought, reaching these sporadic beacons of refuge becomes the utmost priority during the majority of play; a prominent “BONFIRE LIT” notification heralding arrival at new discoveries is hugely soothing - hunker down, take a break, lord knows you've earned it.
Despite a nigh-on vertical learning curve that might as well be wrapped in barbed wire, Dark Souls is harsh but fair, throwing malicious curve-balls and pulling the rug at regular intervals, while encouraging trial, error and, above all, perseverance. The game’s ongoing lesson is founded on three Rs – risk, reward and respite, with bonfires representing the latter.
Taking risks regularly proves fatal, but is essential in learning subtle intricacies, AI routines, and combat flow. The level of risk undertaken is in entirely in the hands of the player - straying away from the bonfire’s safe zone is a continual gamble, compounded by every antagonist (bar bosses) respawning upon each rest and recuperation - refighting the same battles time and again to peek at a fraction more of the world, reconquering reincarnated foes as a perpetual baptism of fire. Habitually paying visit to bonfires (and thus triggering such re-population) is unavoidable, with typical RPG health and mana pickups eschewed in favour of essential Estus Flask and spell replenishment, siphoning the flame’s energy in finitely transportable quantities, one of the game’s boldest mechanics. Juggling easy access to sanctuary and supplies with a desire to roam free and entrench oneself in an unremitting world generates an immense sense of foreboding when delving into dark corners, far from the warm glow. The ‘guaranteed’ asylum offered by a bonfire is occasionally corrupted when tailed back to base, low on health - the flame snuffs out temporarily while panic sets in - relief mere inches away, only attainable when the impious comfort zone-intruder is vanquished, prompting swift rekindling.
Bursts of intrepidity into the open world, counterbalanced by retracing steps to safety, allows, with the exception of boss battle intermissions, fully player-defined pacing - when hollowed, players are free to seek differing degrees of trouble at their own leisure, though phantom invasions when in human form can spring unaware, tainting the superior state with an element of unpredictability. This rhythmically generated sense of narrative - with moments of cross-legged introspection, apparitions of online players sharing downtime, honing characters and inspecting collected items interspersing voyages into the unknown, is incredibly immersive - Dark Souls is truly a personal, have-it-your way adventure, extolling the virtues of dispositionalism, with myriad choices, areas unlockable at various junctures, some even able to be bypassed completely if desired.
Though the game wages a war of attrition, unmerciful in its torment, it can (and perhaps should) be approached reticently - my experience being a gradual erosion of the environment, finding my feet in Undead Burg, retracing steps time and again to attain a character developed enough in both XP and the game’s fundamentals, biding my time until I felt confident enough to fly the makeshift-nests of early bonfires and venture deeper (of course, returning to the actual nest high above Firelink Shire early on, to the delicate strains of an all-too-rare solacing score, anticipating perhaps an undemanding reprise of the training area, throws up some nasty surprises).
The rather defiant omission of a map and, initially, fast-travel, chimes with a compulsion to learn routes by rote, my dashes through the well-worn cobbles of Undead Burg now auto-piloted on reflexes and muscle memory, hitting the same invisible markers, lunging and parrying on cue, rarely deviating course – in process, transcending action to something more base, intuitive, revealing Dark Souls as a seldom-experienced single-player game that forces one to become as disciplined and ‘in tune’ as when confronting human opponents.
The game’s ‘second chance’ retrieval system is sublimely balanced; with death grimly inevitable - recovery of amassed souls, often shed in proximity to particularly lethal enemies, is a heart-racing exercise. Though it is impossible to truly ‘die’ and remain dead, potential hours of arduous soul accumulation can raise the stakes upon failing this one-time-offer smash-and-grab to dizzying levels, in contrast to, say, Prey’s pisseasy spirit world shooting gallery, BioShock’s comparatively penalty-free Vita-Chambers, or RAGE’s Nanotrite defibrillation-approximation/close-range Tesla coil system.
It’s impossible to ignore overt phoenix symbolism each time your character is resurrected before a bonfire, rising from the ashes. Analogies go beyond this, though. The harnessing of fire represents humanity’s most primal achievement, a first step out of the wild darkness, throwing off animalistic shackles, onward to civilization - in the world of Lordran, where civilization has collapsed and you are one step from mindless savagery as a fully-fledged hollow, they permit literal reclamation of humanity. A initially cryptic FMV introduction pushes hard thematic disparities the game revolves around – hot and cold, light and dark, the imperativeness of glimmering hope in the face of utter desolation, fading embers from the ‘time of fire’ transmuted as remnants of optimism, the game’s tireless insistence we strive to keep the fire burning, cycles of life and death, betrayal and rebuttal, sacrifice and reconciliation – all explicitly tied to the bonfire motif through repetition of imagery, player and NPC actions at various points, even particularly evocative wording in descriptions.
Dark Souls sidesteps attempting to suspend disbelief a protagonist does not die during a ‘canon’ play through – the tried and tested, often crude and jarring ‘reload from last save,’ for example - instead actively embracing a sort of Samara, casting you as a perpetually wandering spirit, the sum of consequences made flesh, segueing between states of prosperity, climbing and dropping rungs on an ouroboric ladder of achievement. The New Game+ augmentations only serve to compound this.
Since picking it up at the end of 2011, other games have come and gone - some played to completion, endings offering a sense of closure, many abandoned through apathy - but my yet-unfinished copy of Dark Souls remains ever-present in mind, dipped into now and then, interest repeatedly revitalized by the infectious enthusiasm of others still too propelling themselves through the ordeal, chronicling trials and tribulations, offering nuggets of wisdom, luring me back to huddle around the reignited flame and tell campfire tales.
Alas, even in the hiatuses I've been beaten into submission, the bonfire’s potent replenishing power has breached the very confines of the game and branded its mark on my conscience - ill-advised extended play sessions on my brand new, unbroken-in plasma TV have indelibly scorched a faint, but nevertheless frustrating silhouette of an Estus Flask icon into the bottom left corner - hence I'm reminded of Dark Souls every goddamn time I switch the set on, thanks to this distracting burned blemish intruding my field of view, a previously pristine screen eternally tarnished.
Praise the Sun indeed.
Most images used with kind permission from Sayem Ahmed.