How videogames explore our ancient, troubled love affair with fire

Why do human beings love fire? Why do we find it hard to look away from even the smallest candleflame? Many anthropologists put it down to simple inheritance: the hominids who became our ancestors were those most susceptible to fire’s charms, for all its peril. Fire gave us cooking and tool-making; it freed us from the tyranny of the sun, allowing people to gather and work after dark; the ability to control it conferred status and thus, a foundation for more elaborate social structures. It was both an everyday tool and a terrible supernatural force to worship and wield against enemies. Small wonder that, thousands of years later, we seek its likeness in artworks of all kinds, from the hellish radiance of Francisco Goya’s El Incendio to the smouldering poltergeists of The Sims.

Artworks like these may explore and even celebrate fire, but they also illuminate our distance from it. As Professor Daniel Fessler of the University of California argues, fascination with flame today isn’t a universal human hallmark, but specific to post-industrial, “developed” regions where actual, open fire is seldom encountered. Fessler notes that children in areas where fire is an ordinary sight are drawn to it at first, but lose interest around the age of seven. Those of us who grow up in more “civilised” places never learn to live with flame, and are thus never able to overcome this infant fixation. For us, fire remains exotic, alien, a thing we fantasise about even as we are encouraged to think of it as a viral invader.

The anthropologist Stephen Pyne links this removal of open flame from daily life to the debasing of fire as a cosmic concept, with severe consequences for our understanding of the role combustion plays in shaping our world. Once upon a time, he writes, European philosophers and natural scientists considered fire a primeval substance, like water and earth – “fundamental to the world and essential to any process of change.” This is the notion of fire advanced in the Promethean universe of From Software’s Dark Souls, where the discovery of flame inaugurates a golden hierarchy of gods and monsters. But in life as in the cindered geography of the Souls games, fire has lost its spark. Put under the microscope, it has undergone a “devolution from a universal cause to a chemical consequence, the mere motion of molecules, the quantum bonding of oxygen”. Open flame, similarly, has been reduced from a source of community to a corrosive nuisance – at best, “a ceremonial relic or badge of primitivism, still bound by the chains of superstition and habit”, at worst “a destroyer of cities, a savager of soil, a befowler of air”.

When European powers invaded and colonised the wider world, Pyne continues, they took this pyrophobia with them. As such, they ignored the role naturally occurring fire plays in the thriving of many ecosystems, to disastrous effect. Some plants, known as “pyrophytes”, have evolved to tolerate recurring fires, or even encourage them by secreting flammable oils to kill off competitors. Other “pyrophile” plants rely on seasonal blazes to germinate their seeds. Native Americans learned to work with fire as a land management tool, carrying out preventive burns to stop a dangerous build-up of forest floor vegetation. European settlers looking to make their fortunes from timber forbade these practises and so, laid the foundations for much later “megafires” that are helped along by a warming atmosphere, but primarily the result of a massive overabundance of fuel.

Many videogames replicate this treatment of fire as an encroaching pest that must be stamped out or conquered. The art direction of Giant Squid’s mesmerising The Pathless is harshly divided between diabolical flame and the cool blues and greens of an unspoilt, flameless fastness. Huge, swirling hemispheres of fire roll across the game’s rain-lit plains and forests, their heat rippling over the ground like sonar, licking your heels as you race between objectives. We often talk about fires as though they are creatures that must be mastered: firefighters and fire scientists sometimes distinguish between “tame” fire that serves our ends and “feral” or “rabid” fire which turns against us. In Giant Squid’s game, each wandering conflagration houses a literal animal, a flame-maddened forest god that must be quenched and subdued. Pyne suggests that this “bad” conception of fire exacerbates our inability to deal with climate change, because it reflects a wider misreading of a living world we define as separate and opposed, rather than something we are part of and dependent on.

The irony of our aversion to open fire, of course, is that fire has never been more central to human society. It is both our primary energy source and the source of key materials for construction and production. The world has never burned like today, but for many of us, both the burning itself and the mounting long-term fallout are intangible. We play, instead, with safe, deferred manifestations of the distant flames that supply our electricity, metal and plastic: colour-changing LEDs and cosy logfire videos on Netflix, gas heaters that are moulded to resemble coal or wood blazes. In shooter games like Call of Duty, we bask in the terrorising capacity of fire, throwing Molotovs to unhinge guard AI and filling the screens of our human opponents with coruscating napalm.

This obliviousness to the effects of actual flame is satirised in Embr, a co-op game that re-imagines firefighting as zero hour gigwork, with players picking blazes from an app map like grocery orders. In Embr, the pampered burbanites you’re sent to rescue don’t run from the flames. They don’t even appear to notice them – or the player making off with their valuables, for that matter. They simply stand there, fiddling with their smartphones, ignoring the spreading firestorm until it finally swallows them.

If virtual fires such as these can be morbid distractions, they are also places where fire might reassert itself as something worthy of understanding rather than holding at bay. In the case of games that simulate fire’s behaviour, rather than just picturing the flames, they allow us to think about fire in a more joined-up way – as an interaction within the environment, rather than a ravaging outsider that must be beaten into submission and harnessed.

Fires are extremely complex phenomena because they involve everything around them. They take their character from where and when they are. Wildfires, for example, travel faster up slopes because hot gasses rise upward, and may accelerate down narrow canyons which serve as funnels and incubators. Fires are fiercer in the afternoon, when temperatures are higher and the air is more turbulent – hence, the “10 am rule” on firefighting introduced by the managers of US wildlife reserves like the Shoshone National Forest, setting for Campo Santo’s Firewatch. Larger wildfires actually create their own weather. Heat and evaporated moisture produce powerful updrafts and supernatural changes of wind direction which then feed back into the fire’s behaviour. Fires are also products of context in that they reveal the human geography within the physical, the degrees of social and economic privilege that make some places readier to burn than others. Dangerous blazes appear, expand and kill more often in poorer, densely-built urban districts, where buildings lack alarms or fire escapes, landlords stuff many families into a single apartment, and hollow walls permit flames to travel between stories.

Firefighting organisations have been trying to simulate all these variables for decades, on paper and with computers. The hope is to create a model that can predict any individual fire’s growth in faster than real-time, but this requires an obscene amount of processing power. The FIRETEC software developed at the USA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (also known as the birthplace of the Manhattan Project) divides space into one-metre voxels, calculating each voxel’s incendiary capacities against the influence of neighbouring voxels. FIRETEC is capable of astonishing precision: it can measure the effects of branches within each voxel on airflow. But it can’t do any of that quickly enough to be practical on the ground.

Videogame fire simulations are born of very different priorities, but they are alike preoccupied with the balance between fidelity and performance. The creators of “living, breathing” worlds covet the hunger and contagiousness of fire – the supreme instance of “emergent” behaviour, to pit against the experimentally-minded player. But if a fire is to be a “living, breathing” fire, it should be able to spread indefinitely as long as the conditions are right, and a simulation has finite resources that must be split between a wealth of precariously aligned systems. Stir in an element that wants to gobble up every last shred of computing power and you risk making your game unplayable.

Self-propagating fire also tends to clash with other design goals. Unpredictable blazes don’t make for clean firefights – a point of narrative resonance in Ubisoft’s Far Cry 2, which portrays a country ruined by imperialism where violence always spirals back upon the instigator. The ability to absent-mindedly incinerate key characters isn’t exactly helpful for narrative designers. The destruction of resources – consider the accidental burning away of treasure chests in Divinity: Original Sin 2 – doesn’t make for a satisfying looting game. All this is as true of other self-seeding phenomena as fire, of course. In many RPGs, fire functions much like a disease, spreading through proximity and leeching away health at a steady rate. You could argue that the greatest videogame conflagration of all time is actually World of Warcraft’s legendary Corrupted Blood incident, in which a magical ailment supposedly confined to a boss battle leaked through to the wider world, reducing entire cities to boneyards.

In many games, such viral devastation may be the point. Demolition sim Teardown – an especially vibrant specimen of virtual fire, with blazes blackening house exteriors as they flourish within – is happy for you to burn the map to a crisp and murder the frame rate in the process. Elsewhere, unchecked fire reveals curious and beautiful things about the supporting design that might be seized upon by more imaginative players, much as real flame wreaks strangely artistic transformations upon everyday materials. In Minecraft – a sim that, 10 years ago, allowed for “infinite” fire spread – combustion is a reminder that the built environment has no gravity. Flame-proof blocks such as rock or glass don’t fall when those beneath are incinerated; they form bizarre, suborbital asteroid fields of stairways and windows, steeples and balconies. Hypnotic scenes, indeed – but at its core, Minecraft is a game about building and owning property, where the most elaborate feats of construction now sell for thousands of real-world dollars. The sheer rapacity of its conflagrations proved out of place and was nerfed early on, much to the disappointment of players who once presided over forest fires the size of continents.

Every game featuring a fire system is, all told, as much an exercise in limiting the fire as implementing the functionality. As programmer Jean-Francois Lévesque writes in a dissection of Far Cry 2’s fire system, “the balance between realism and playability is what I spent the most time on. The propagation mechanics were simple by comparison.” The cleverness of Lévesque’s reputation-making simulation is how it portrays a rampaging fire while actually keeping the landscape’s incendiary properties under delicate control.

The game’s savanna blazes are wondrously oily, treacherous things, sneaking under cars and crawling through the canopy overhead, but the simulation is relatively easy to get your head around. When an object or surface is struck by a flaming object, the game applies an invisible grid to it and assigns each cell a pool of hitpoints. Once a cell’s hitpoints are depleted by the fire, it ignites, allowing the fire to slowly engulf the object. This doesn’t happen endlessly, however; the fire also has a variable spreader points “budget” that is consumed as the fire travels between cells, putting a flexible, organic limit on expansion. The flame effects themselves are deftly managed. Objects don’t, strictly speaking, burn when a player isn’t looking at them – particle emitters are teleported around to lighten the load on your computer, and the density of particles is adjusted depending on proximity.

Thinking about how fire fits into computer simulations helps us think about how fire fits into the broader symbioses of organisms and landscapes. One recent game that foregrounds this kind of interplay is Noita, the hectic 2D dungeon-crawler in which every pixel has physics and procedurally arranged materials such as acid and gunpowder react together explosively, often without your presence or permission. The obvious approach for a new player is to charge through with wild abandon, setting off as many environmental combos as you can to offset the puny capabilities of your starting wand. Crowd control applications aside, Noita’s fires are irresistible in motion – they look like a kind of predatory fungus, eating through the world’s procedural tapestry and dripping firebrands into oil wells far below.

If you’re going to survive all the way to the finish, however, you’ll need to learn restraint, and with restraint comes appreciation. Take the time to find your way past hazardous substances rather than triggering chain reactions, and you’ll notice that the world alters in smaller, less sensational ways. Water freezes and snow melts. Grass grows on soil, moss on rocks. The rearranging of the geography every time you die obliges you to investigate and absorb the relationships that bind this eldritch, volatile realm together, rather than memorising paths or the distribution of enemies.

Even given the utmost finesse, Noita’s bubbling terrain alchemy won’t give you the luxury of drinking everything in. For an equally protean but more laidback ecological simulation, I recommend Tenderfoot Tactics, a grid-based battler about goblin warriors seeking to repel a sorcerous fog that creeps over the setting like a flameless, smouldering fire, transforming its residents into ashen husks. The game’s creators, Ice Water, are known for delicate ruminations on nature and the histories of grown-over places – consider Viridi, a game about nurturing succulents, and Pattern, in which smoke plumes lure you through a dreaming forest. Tenderfoot Tactics sounds like a departure, but part of the game’s magic is how it feeds the lushness of previous Ice Water projects into questions of flanking and character class.

This extends to a captivating meditation on wildfire, which here reveals the passing of time. Spreading whenever a character moves or acts, it exposes the clock whirring away behind the game’s Final Fantasy-esque battle system, with terrain changes measured in ticks rather than turns. To set a character in motion is to pit these modellings of time against each other, with flames swirling around the map to immolate idle characters as you position your battlemage to administer a killing blow.

More importantly, however, fire in Tenderfoot Tactics is an expression of the world’s fertility. The vegetation that covers each battle map is almost as agile and unmanageable as the flame it provides opportunity for. Plants (which also encumber characters) spring up at disquieting speed; many abilities, such as healing spells, also cause blades of grass to sprout beneath a target’s feet. The terrain chemistry shifts from turn to turn, with and without your participation. If you want to survive the tumult, it’s not enough to simply hack back the undergrowth – you have to learn to live with a world that is always changing.

Of all the games I’ve discussed here, Tenderfoot Tactics seems most conscious that fire is not an embodied, external force but a reaction that illuminates relationships between organisms and environments, people and places. It tacitly presents the environment as a kind of decelerated flame, taking many manifestations: this extends to the overworld, which has a fixed form but appears in a shape-shifting blaze of solids emerging from the molten colours of the backdrop. Rather than representing fire as a thing to rout or tame, it hews closer to Pyne’s “good” idea of fire as “a companion on our journey and part of a shared stewardship of the living world”. It seems noteworthy here that the verb often used to describe the spread of both real and simulated fires, “propagate”, is of arboreal origin: it comes from the Latin word “propago”, meaning “young shoot”. To propagate isn’t just to burn, in other words. It also means to grow.