My Most Hated Video Game Foe: Fire

[18 April 2012]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

I always thought that the element that I hated most in video games was ice.  I loathe ice levels.  Anything that snatches fine and precise control from the player, whose character goes slipping and sliding towards the edge of some abyss sets my teeth on edge.  There is nothing fun about an ice level.

For a number of years, I’ve assumed that I would one day write an essay on my hatred of ice levels, a hatred that I think that many gamers share with me.  However, I’ve recently noticed that while ice can be annoying that 1) such levels rarely appear in the games that I play anymore and 2) I think that there is something that I hate worse than ice: fire.

More specifically, I hate being set on fire.  Conceptually, being set on fire is, of course, a rather unpleasant idea.  And that, I think, is in part why I respond especially badly to being set on fire in virtual environments, maybe in a manner far different than how I respond to almost any other kind of damage taken in a video game.

I have this strange almost primal and very clearly reflexive response to seeing “myself” aflame in games.  I run.

I always run.

Why I do this I can’t say with any degree of certitude.  Being shot, sliced by a sword, poisoned, hit by a 2x4, zapped by a laser beam, bitten by a zombie, all of these things rarely cause me to even flinch. 

I know that I have a health bar.  I know where it is at.  I know how much damage I can take.  If I need to retreat, I do so in as efficient and thoughtful a manner as possible.  If I do not, I hold my ground and fight on. 

Video games have made me a combat vet—courage under fire and all that.  Well, unless, it is actual fire.  If I get hit by fire, no matter how high my health bar, I just run like hell.

In most modern games, fire is both a damage type and a status.  In other words, it decreases your life bar, but you are also “on fire.”  It’s a state of being, generally a temporary one.  However, the combination of those two elements make fire a damage over time effect, which, okay, might be one reason that it really bothers me.

Unlike, say, a zombie bite, which because video games are awfully mathematical is a damage type that is transient and easily measurable, fire damage makes calculating survival strategies more difficult.  For example, let’s say a zombie bite will erase a tenth of my health bar, then, okay, I know that I can more or less gauge when I should cut and run from a fight or use a health kit or whatever—some time before my health bar is at or below one tenth of that bar. 

Fire damage doesn’t work like that.  Yes, its damage is usually measurable—let’s say that when it hits it does a tenth of a life bar of damage, and then every second thereafter that I am lit up, it does a tenth more.  That’s great.  I vaguely know somewhere in the rational part of my brain that I will only have half health in five seconds.  But the truth is that I am now running like an idiot all over the screen to “put the fire out.”

See, that’s part of it.  Fire damage somehow seems “solvable” to me, like other damage types.  Oh, zombie is going to bite me, better move to the other side of the room, since my health is low.  Oh, I’m on fire, better run really, really fast… because that somehow will cause the flames to get blown out?  You know, because of my super burst of speed… and the air will rush past so fast that…  I don’t know.

I want to say that there was a game that I played at some point (maybe an open world game, maybe a Grand Theft Auto game?) that allowed you to put yourself out if you hit the sprint button and ran while on fire.  Maybe whatever that game is has trained me to think that this is a rational response to being set on fire (and, indeed, if there is an option to dodge roll or speed run in a game in which I am set on fire, I am damn well dodging and speed running while running around a room like a chicken with his head cut off).  But somehow I think that I have been responding this way to being set on fire in games for far longer than the experience I had with whatever game I am vaguely remembering.

So, maybe it’s just the damage over time thing and the fact that I feel like there is nothing that I can do about a steadily decreasing health bar that makes me respond this way?  So, how come I don’t flee in terror when I am poisoned in a game (yet another irritating damage type that causes damage over time)?

Poison might seem more manageable in many ways because so many RPGs offer an antidote as an option.  Poisoned?  Woops.  Okay, hit the menu, go to items, and voila!  Cured.  If one doesn’t have an antidote or one has no option for one in a game, somehow poison feels inevitable.  My character turned purple (I don’t know why poison always dyes the skin purple in games).  It’s in my body.  Time to wait for the inevitable.  No need to run.  It’s over.

Fire, instead, is external to the body, something that should be “removable” in some way.  It feels like something that my character should be able to do something about.  It makes me want to press buttons, as if I could somehow prod my virtual self into patting out the flames if there was just a button to do so.

There are some games that add an additional status effect to being lit on fire, which is to lose control of one’s character while they are burning.  The avatar might run in a random direction, or as Mario does, in Super Mario Galaxy leap uncontrollably high into the air.  This is one of the most aggravating moments in a Galaxy game, as it is a platformer and, therefore, very much about making sure that you precisely control where your character is, so that they don’t fall into some bottomless abyss.  Indeed, this is why Super Mario Galaxy is rated M for Mature at my house – because when Daddy burns, my daughters hear a steady stream of M rated words pour forth from his mouth.

Nintendo and other developers really don’t need to do this in these games, though, since I would have already done it for them.  I see myself on fire, I lose all motor control.  It is as programmed an action as any script in the game. 

The programming of reflexive loss of control, though, in the face of the terror of being burned alive is a kind of acknowledgment that my reflexive response may be fairly normal.  After all, what Super Mario Galaxy and any game that strips control from a player that is on fire is essentially “arguing” is that this is how people respond to this predicament.  This is probbaly the thing that most fascinates me about my personal response to fire in games—that enough elements simulating fire damage exist to produce an actual response in me that may reasonably correlate to a real life response. 

Indeed, I have found myself fascinated at how other players respond to being lit up in multiplayer games.  My best example is from my time playing League of Legends and my time playing around with the Ignite spell. 

In League of Legends, in which two squads of five players battle it out for area control of a three lane field, players can attack in a few different ways.  First, they have a basic attack, swinging a sword or firing at range.  This attack is activated by clicking on an opponent and costs nothing.  Second, every character eventually has access to four special attacks that usually are subject to a cooldown timer and some mana restrictions.  Thus, you are limited in some way in how often you can make these attacks.  Third, there are a set of two other spells that a player can take as a form of utility (heal spells, teleport spells, etc.) or as a form of attack (like the aforementioned Ignite), which have tremendously long cooldowns (so they can only be used every few minutes usually) but no mana restrictions.  Thus, they can be popped at just the right moment (but you really need to wait for that moment) and that is normally how they are used.

Ignite is a generally considered a “finishing spell.”  Say, you have damaged another character a lot and they are fleeing with only a little bit of health left.  They are out of range of your basic attack and all of your additional attacks are on cooldown or you don’t have the mana to use them.  Well, hit Ignite, they light on fire, and take all that groovy damage over time that fire has come to represent in video games.  It’s a very satisfying way of finishing someone (that isn’t me) off.

However, I sometimes eschew the popular wisdom with my own usage of Ignite and pop it, not at the end of a fight, but in the middle.  Most players find this idea dumb—a waste of a spell.  I don’t. 

I use it in the middle of a fight that I am losing.  I’ve seen people that are beating the living tar out of me just turn and run when they get ignited, not all, mind you, but some.  These folks seem to share my weird lizard brain with me, one that is so reflexive in response to a little onscreen fire.  Basically, I exploit our shared psychosis to my own advantage. 

So, I guess that sometimes fire isn’t all together bad.

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