Flame Over: Why aren't there more games about fire?

Sick burn.

Flame Over isn't just another roguelike - although it definitely is another roguelike. There are procedural environments, for sure, and there's the constant, hovering fear of a punishing defeat, but what marks this particular game out is your role, and the enemies you're up against. In Flame Over, as you might have guessed, you're a fireman, and your ultimate foe is fire itself.

It's brutally difficult stuff, and extremely rewarding to play. It's made me wonder: why aren't there more games about fire? Fire is kind of perfect. Show me someone who isn't afraid of fire and I'll show you somebody who should probably be in prison for burning down a primary school. Everybody's afraid of fire. It's elemental. And it has an elemental foe. Brilliant!

Here's another thing: this fear of fire is entirely apolitical. You won't be offending anybody by making the enemy in your game fire. You won't be punching down or doing something politically dubious. Tom Clancy books never have it in for fire. Nobody's ever trod on fire's inalienable rights, or locked it away in a secret torture camp in Cuba.

Most importantly, though, fire is systemic. We all know how it works, and we can therefore predict the things it does. And yet it can still get wildly out of hand. Fire spreads, and Flame Over uses this to marvelous effect as your tubby little hero waddles through claustrophobic environments putting out any flickering flames he sees, only to have them burst back to life and race to new territory. Flame Over's about survival, as all good roguelikes are, but it's also about priorities, about controlling space. There's beauty to it, and I think there's a more genuine kind of panic evoked, too, a primal kind of panic. We've been afraid of fire since the first time prehistoric man got a bit chilly and ended up gutting his own cave.

It's such an effective presence that it's really had me puzzling over fire's rather limited footprint in games. Maybe it's a question of graphical representation? Maybe it's a question of delivering fire that behaves the way we expect it to. That's why the flamethrower was cut from Halo: Combat Evolved, after all. Then, whilst idly playing a few rounds of Dead Underground, the wonderfully restrained post-apocalyptic strategy game from Smudged Cat, I suddenly realised that plenty of games do obsess over fire, except they have a different name for it: they call it zombies.

The parallels are surprising, actually. Zombies are an unthinking tidal force more often than not, and the thing about them that makes them truly horrifying is that, given time, they mass, they spread, and they erupt with sudden force. They're an area effect attack in so many games, and an area denial tool as well. In Dead Underground, which places your battle for survival on the London tube network, the zombies really behave like sudden outbreaks of fire, overwhelming one station and then spreading to the next, and the next, and the next. It's generally no problem tackling a single zombie, just like a single match is often no big deal. It's when they get volume. It's when they start to take up real space.

Both Flame Over and Dead Underground have the same sense of terror to them - and terror's a strange word to be chucking around when one game features comedy office workers and cats you can lead to safety, and the other is almost entirely a thing of symbols and primary colours. Fire and zombies: two things you can't reason with. Two things which are endlessly thrilling to tackle in games.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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