Video Games are all about routine. Typically, they give you a series of mechanics to learn and a number rules to follow, in order to then put your knowledge of these to the test so that you may progress to solving more complicated or ‘difficult’ challenges. It can perhaps be argued that Video Games are the only medium of digital entertainment that make use of feedback loops in this way, as your reactionary inputs to the situations that they throw at you inform the outcomes, both narratively and otherwise, that follow. Coming to learn and trust in mechanics, and using them to complete challenges that are beyond feasibility in the real world is a large part of the joy of video games, and a strong example of what makes them stand out as a medium.
Dark Souls is no different. From the offset of your perilous journey through the shattered kingdom of Lordran, one such mechanic you are given access to is that of the bonfires. These act as the save points and safe havens of the game. They’re where you spend the souls you’ve collected from downed foes to level up, and you return to the last one that you visited when you die (which happens an awful lot, to begin with). On a bleak path of unforgiving hostility, where every encounter could spell your demise, they become a beacon of familiarity and comfort. When you catch a glimpse of that faint orange glow a little way off in the distance, you know you can afford to push a little harder. The bonfires, therefore, are a game mechanic you can trust in. They spur you on.
The first bonfire you have constant access to is the Firelink Shrine. Its central location (at least early on in the game) means that it acts as a kind of hub to your progress, as paths leading away into danger often loop back round to its encouraging orange flicker. You’ll also find characters that you’ve helped along the way resting there, who will more often than not give you access to certain other mechanics as well as sparse fragments of exposition on the game’s world. For a large chunk of the game, it is this location that lets you revel in the progress that you have made.
And so you press on with your journey. You embrace each new path with a kind of certainty that you will make it back to this homely little light, which in a world so full of dark, manages to be awfully encouraging. You decide to finally descend into the damp and grimy sewers of The Depths below, an oppressively bleak area which ends in a successful downing of the ghastly Gaping Dragon with its million-teeth mouth belly. Spurred on by the crushing of this abomination, you press on further still into the darkness, this time down into murky Blighttown.
After navigating its perilous rickety wooden scaffolds and virulent toxic swamps, you come against the fiery spider-witch Queelag. She’s a tough old girl who tends to spew lava and swing a big firey sword towards you in great swirling arcs. It is by no means an easy fight, but with the thought of sitting before that little light at the back of your mind, you are able to make gradual progress, learning her attack patterns as if it were a dance and slowly but surely gaining the upper hand. And then you succeed. As you ring the second bell of awakening, as the prophecy foretold that you would, you know that there is now only one place you wish to be: back up on the surface, sat before those glorious flames. A sense of warm relief washes over you.
So, you stumble back up through the dark, making use of the shortcuts that you’ve found along the way. But as you finally come back up to the Firelink Shrine… Dark Souls breaks you.
Instead of finding comfort, you are met with a scene that sends dread coursing up your spine. The Firekeeper, who tends to the flame’s persistent flicker, has vanished. In her place is a pile of torn and bloody clothes, which can of course only mean one thing. Frightened, you make my way up the last set of stairs to where the bonfire burns. You find it extinguished, impossible to relight.Instead of finding comfort, you are met with a scene that sends dread coursing up your spine. The Firekeeper, who tends to the flame’s persistent flicker, has vanished. In her place is a pile of torn and bloody clothes, which can of course only mean one thing. Frightened, you make my way up the last set of stairs to where the bonfire burns. You find it extinguished, impossible to relight.
Just like that, your sanctuary is gone. The place that every path so far has returned you to, the place that you could look to for comfort and relief from the turmoil of this unforgiving adventure, taken away. It’s an emotionally crushing narrative stroke, made all the more powerful by its delivery through the subversion of a mechanic that the player has hitherto relied upon. It’s a strong example of a story being told strictly through game mechanics: That in the world of Lordran, there is no such thing as safety.