Monday, July 18, 2011

How to make a compelling firefighter video game

In my quest to validate games as an art form, I'm constantly hit with the fact that most video games are combat-based. Shooter games, strategy games... even Super Mario Bros. involves violence. There are plenty of debates as to why this is. Regardless, it makes non-combat games always stand out to me.

But we've perfected this first-person shooter format to a science! There must be something we can do with it that doesn't involve shooting people. So it hit me: we need to see a classic firefighter video game. It's a simple concept. Use the first-person perspective of an FPS, but instead of killing people, you're putting out fires and saving people! Sounds exciting!

So I took a quick Google gander at the handful of firefighting games ever released on any platform. Firefighting, along with deer hunting and bass fishing, seems to be represented in video games solely by bargain-bin casual titles. But I found a couple of "real" ones.

The first is Burning Rangers, a strange firefighting game for the dying Sega Saturn in 1998, developed by Sonic Team (who made, you know... Sonic). The game is set in a futuristic world where fires are the only real hazard left to humanity, so the government has set up an elite team of super firefighters. It's not exactly a realistic simulation--you wear a rocket-powered space suit and shoot water out of a laser gun. Although this game is actually highly regarded by Saturn enthusiasts, it's not exactly what I'm looking for in a firefighting game.

The next is Firefighter F.D. 18, developed by Konami and released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2. It's a third-person action game that tries to recreate realistic firefighting situations a bit more closely than Burning Rangers. It's a classic Konami formula of the era, even including "boss" fires at the end of levels. An interesting issue this game ignores: the player is not restricted in movement at all, so the fire hose he's holding seems to go on and on forever. The longest fire hose of all time. How could a game more accurately portray fire hose lengths, without constricting the player too much?

The last game I looked at is, in fact, a bargain bin casual game published by Conspiracy Entertainment, famous for such masterpieces as Ninjabread Man and Action Girlz Racing. This one is entitled Real Heroes: Firefighter and was released for the Wii in 2009. It takes the first person perspective I had been thinking about for my own theoretical game, with mediocre results. One of the main issues inherent with the firefighting genre is that your main enemy through the whole game is just one thing: fire. How do you keep fire interesting? This game consists of linear levels and a few civilians to rescue.

An honorable mention goes to the most successful implementation of a water-shooting device in video games: Nintendo's own Super Mario Sunshine, released for the GameCube in 2002. It's the most-maligned title in the Mario franchise, but the eponymous hero's Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device (FLUDD) works brilliantly in the game to clean up graffiti and muddy messes. Clearly, this game mechanic can be achieved. It simply needs to be used on fire.

So how can we learn from these mistakes?

First and foremost, fire is boring. Both gameplay-wise and art-wise, it gets repetitive. It's hard to program "creative" AI for something without a brain, but a game about firefighting has to keep the fires themselves interesting and fun to put out, other than just "walk up to fire, put it out, move on." As for the art, it seems every single firefighting game I looked at had the same color palette: orange, orange, orange, and black. It makes sense since it's fire, but good games have a diverse color range, so you don't feel like you're playing the same level over and over. Plus, modern game technology seems better suited to tackle the complex graphics of fire and water than the spate of PlayStation 2 firefighting games.

There's a lot of gameplay we can derive from firefighting other than just fighting fires. Saving people in different situations and trying to use your tools to get to trapped civilians adds a whole new element to the gameplay. Something none of these games touched on is the fire engine itself. Fire engines are so much a part of little kids' dreams, and they're ripe for gamification. You could customize and upgrade the fire engine, and drive through traffic and red lights to get to the fire itself. And the fire station could be a nifty "home base" for it all.

But the question remains--how do you keep it interesting for an extended period of time? There needs to be some sort of emotional hook without making it cheesy or melodramatic.

Then it came to me: the final level of the game. It should be September 11.

Imagine the impact. You're playing through this game, having gritty firefighting adventures, and suddenly you're hit with something a bit more heavy. If handled well, it could be incredibly poignant. I would want to avoid any sort of over-patriotism or jingoism in the game. If it's simply about firefighters doing their jobs and then dealing with the events of 9/11, I believe that's something real-life firefighters could identify with.

There would be the same controversy that surrounds Six Days in Fallujah, with many people saying it hits too close to home. Publisher cowardice aside, Six Days in Fallujah is able to handle its subject matter gracefully because the developer, Atomic Games, actually spoke extensively with the Marines involved in the Second Battle of Fallujah; they got the Marines' approval to make the title. This firefighting game would have to do the same, with the New York City Fire Department.

And then we can cross the line from "fun games" to "games as art."


  1. It is a good concept but as a firefighter, many things can not be simulated. The first problem that comes to mind is that in a real fire there is zero visibility obviously making the screen in a game almost all black. The study of fire is always evolving and it could never be close to the real thing. As far as your final level concept, horrible idea. More good firefighters were lost that day than are lost across the country in a few years. There is a fine line when creating a video game, and I feel that they are making them hit a little too close to home. A good FPS game for example can have all the features of modern war but they should stay away from making them based off of real missions, real people or exact situations.

    Overall, I feel games can be as creative as they want to be. Just as long as people do not feel as if our job as a firefighter or soldier is easy or made less of.

  2. I agree with Anonymous above, when in a burning structure, often times you are on your hands and knees because standing up can be deadly and you remain with an hand on either the right or left wall which you follow while searching the building. Everything is black unless you have a light on which reflects off the smoke an inch from your face making everything white. Fire shows up as a faint orange.

    Internal activities in areas that aren't burning or smoke filled usually consist of going to those areas while carrying about 80 lbs. of gear and some hose lines. External activities consist of hook ups to hydrants or water tenders, pump ops, ventilating and setting up "surround and drown" hose positions. As you can see, internal is either boring for game play or impossible to see and external is boring for game play. Firefighting is exciting but I do not see how that can be accurately shown as game play.

    I think a better method would be to have a game portraying the problems of scene command. The difficulties of different types of departments ranging from full time, volunteer, combination, air port and industrial. Difficulties in communication, keeping track of entry teams, having RIT ready to go, training to improve effectiveness, scene size up, could all be part of a interesting game.

    I don't know that I would end the game by having 9/11 re occur but you could dedicate the game to those firefighters who gave their lives both on that day and as a result of illness contracted by serving during the attack.