I’m huddled around the first bonfire in Blighttown, its crisp orange glow the solitary source of comfort I’ve had in a good couple of hours. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much as a glimmer of daylight, having arrived in this pestilent hole from the only slightly less pestilent, less holey hole of the Depths. The heavy grey skies of the Undead Burg seem like a wistful memory now. I’m anxious, I’m marooned, and I’m peckish (maybe it’s just me, but I always envision my Dark Souls heroes as being in a perpetual state of uncomfortable, stomach-churning hunger).
But I have this bonfire. It offers me replenishment, the chance to level up, and the knowledge that, despite not really knowing where I am, at least I’m on the right path. On a basic level, Bonfires are checkpoints in the Souls series, but while that’s a sufficient description for their role in the sequels, the word ‘checkpoint’ doesn‘t quite do justice to the vital role they play in the original game.
With all the talk about Dark Souls Remastered, we Chosen Undeadlings, destined to cyclically play every iteration and reiteration of the series until our eyes dry out of their sockets, have been musing about what we’d like to see in it (my wishlist is pretty much in line with this, up to the Bed of Chaos bit). As ever, there have been murmurs in the community of quality-of-life adjustments here and there, but one in particular got me all over-protective and fretting over the remaster. I’m talking here about allowing players to warp between bonfires as soon as they’re lit; a feature of Dark Souls 2 and 3 that would all but ruin the original game.
Now, I’m not in the camp that believes the sequels are ruined by convenient bonfire-warping (nor, for that matter, do I feel that either game is ruined at all, despite existing in the original’s shadow). The teleportation is a byproduct of their sprawling world designs, in which the clever loopbacks and pleasingly Euclidean shortcuts of the original just aren’t possible. I won’t go into all the shortcomings of the sequels’ tendrilled worlds of Drangleic and Lothric in relation to the sublime double helix of Lordran, because plenty has been said about that already. But the bottom line is that the teleporty shortcuts are a synthetic, inelegant way to compensate for worlds that lack internal flow, and they undermine the unique role of the bonfire.
In Dark Souls 2 and 3, bonfires are forced to take on much of the work that actual in-world shortcuts did so admirably in the original, pulling them away from their core purpose, and watering down their potency that fits so well with the themes of the series. It still feels good to reach a bonfire in the sequels, lap up that sweet Estus honey and warp back to the sun-kissed coast of Majula or the cold comforts of Dark Souls 3’s Firelink, but the feelings this evokes in the player are uncomplex; it’s comfort without caveat, a complete break from the immersion and perils of a given area.
I think back to that bonfire in Blighttown, not only to the initial feeling of respite but to what comes after. Once I replenish my Estus and treat myself to a toilet break, the sense of relief gets swamped out by dread as the reality of my situation dawns on me; that in lighting this bonfire I’ve cut myself off from the previous one, whose surrounding area I’d grown sort-of comfortable with on account of how much time I’d spent there. Bonfires are literal and figurative lights in the dark, offering solace at the same time as making you aware of how incredibly isolated you are. Once you light a bonfire in Dark Souls, there is nowhere for you to go but onward onto the next leg of your odyssey, deeper into the unknown where things are going to get a hell of a lot worse before they get better. It’s the ultimate tension-building device.
The bonfire is a symbolic Point of No Return in Dark Souls, heightening your sense of journey where bonfire-warping fragments it. With each successive one you light, the tension escalates, eventually taking you to breaking point as you desperately wonder when the game will finally relent. Ironically, all parts of Lordran are actually packed closer together than Drangleic or Lothric. You’re never physically that far from Firelink Shrine, yet the dualistic role of the bonfire can make you feel a million miles away, and on a path that feels singular and focused without necessarily being a straight line. You have plenty of freedom to sequence-break and explore the world of Lordran, but once you light that Blighttown bonfire, the only way to go from there is deeper into Blighttown.
Then, finally, you happen upon a lever, a secret passage, or a gate that unlocks thanks to a recently-acquired key (no game makes opening a rusted old gate feel as monumental as Dark Souls), and you find yourself back in familiar territory, maybe even back in Firelink Shrine. You never quite expect these shortcuts to appear when they do, making their discovery all the more powerful, a wonderful release of all that tension you’d been accruing.
In the sequels, Firelink and Majula are pitstops, services that are available at the regular juncture of bonfires. In Dark Souls, Firelink is a home that you long for when down in the bowels of Blighttown or the choking blackness of Tomb of the Giants, giving you a motivation to push on that’s a little more profound than simply ‘Beat the Boss at the end of this World, warp, then head on to the next World’. At the end of each testing segment of Dark Souls, some ingenious loop back to the melancholy peace of Firelink awaits, and the thought of it provides comfort.
Yes, you unlock bonfire warping eventually, but only once the mystery of the world has somewhat faded and you’re ready to just Game It. It’s the fate of all games to reach that point, and Dark Souls knows when to let the player off the leash, even giving the moment a canonical explanation in the form of the Lordvessel. It’s a reward for your efforts, an acknowledgement that you’ve mastered the world (a prerequisite of beating the game) and have – after countless hours of tribulation – earned right of passage throughout Lordran to tie up any loose ends.
Bonfires, shortcuts and Firelink Shrine exist in perfect balance in Dark Souls, like stones in an old bridge that maybe looks like it could use a few dollops of cement to better bind it together, but can really exist in its present state forever. Dark Souls is a gaming treasure, a monument to world design worthy of spit-and-polish. But the remaster needs to preserve the sanctity of journeying through Lordran without compromise or conveniences because, over seven years on, it still looks like a long time before we’ll get an experience quite like it again.