Deep down, I think we've all wanted to burn down a house.
Not out of vengeance, or a half-baked insurance scam, or to send a message to a crosstown mob boss. To me, pyromania is simply the most relatable form of gleeful mass destruction. Who isn't a little bit entranced by a towering inferno? Of course, in real life you can't work out your emotional baggage through incendiary therapy without getting the cops called on you, but videogames fill the void.
If we're being honest, games have only recently really helped us get in touch with our latent pyromaniac instincts. It was difficult to program inspiring flames on a Commodore 64, and the less said about Doom's pepperoni pizza take on lava the better. But that started to change in 2008, with the release of Far Cry 2 and its unprecedented wildfire mechanics.
"To me [Ubisoft] really nailed how fire should feel and I loved how it would burn the grass and environment, such a wonderful touch," says Bill Munk, creative director of Killing Floor 2, which itself is a game with an incredibly satisfying flamethrower. He's right. Open world sandboxes weren't exactly a rarity in the late-aughties, but Far Cry 2 was one of the first times our machines packed the processing power to handle the physics estimations necessary to set those open-worlds on fire. We haven't looked back since.
"I really think flame weapons are so fun because of the extreme destruction they cause to NPCs and to the environment," continues Munk, when I ask him why he thinks players enjoy a healthy bit of incineration every now and then. "It's such a fun power trip, not to mention fire-based weapons are generally more forgiving on how accurate you need to be with your aim."
Today, we're seeing games that play with fire on a more granular, mechanical level, rather than the engine-porn stagecraft it's been used for in the past. The best example I can think of is probably Larian Studios' Divinity series, which has persistently injected an immersive suite of environmental effects into the relative solemnity of a turn-based RPG.
I've always found this screenshot, where a rustic wooden platform is scorched to the depths of hell, to be an effective shorthand for why people who don't necessarily play a ton of strategy games still fall in love with the absurdity of Original Sin's magic systems.(opens in new tab)
"We tried to tweak duration, area and availability of fire skills so that the player is frequently put into position where their battle plan is spinning out of control and they need to improvise and take risks," says Nick Pechenin, systems designer of Divinity Original Sin 2, when I ask him how fire has been a useful tool in Larian's game design. "It was also important to us that although the ways in which surfaces are created and interact with each other have almost no randomness, smallest deviations in how the player targets their skills and positions their characters lead to wildly divergent outcomes, essentially generating fresh combat experiences every time."
It was fun to hear someone speak so intelligently about the mechanical theories behind cauterizing your enemies. For me, fire effects in videogames aren't about all clever design. Fire taps into my baseline, brain-bypassing id—the caveman wants and needs of my idiot gamer brain. But I suppose that's how it should be. A good blaze should be emotionally and aesthetically resonant, and when done right, it serves a distinct gameplay functionality buried deep below our perception. To borrow a J-school aphorism; it is showing, not telling, to the highest degree. With that, here are some PC games that excel in the art of pyromania.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein
The urtext of video game flamethrowers; a lot of people's first quintessential next-gen experience back in 2001 was torching bunkers in that gorgeous, liquid-orange id Tech 3 goodness. I remember this thing being a little bit overpowered, mostly because of its ridiculous range, but frankly any good flamethrower should be. The only good Nazis are the ones conflagerating to death at your feet.
For bonus Nazis-on-fire action, check out this trailer (opens in new tab) for the 2009 Wolfenstein's Flammenwerfer.
Far Cry (series)
We talked about Far Cry 2 above, which will always and forever be the crown prince of video game fire effects. But we also must give a nod to the other games in the series, specifically Far Cry 3, which had its finger on the pulse of the nation when it included a level where your shit-for-brains protagonist burns down a marijuana growing operation while a Skrillex/Damian Marley collaboration blasts off in the background. (It was 2012, what did you expect?) Truly a magnificent moment in the history of gaming that will only continue to get more hilarious as time goes on.
Terraria does such a great job with its physics for a 2D platformer, and one of my favorite ways that manifests is when you're digging through the sediment and throwing down an endless bread crumb of torches to guide your way back to the surface. It can be a pain to farm gel and wood to make sure you never run out light, but there's something kinda dramatic about zooming out and seeing the vast network of dimly-lit mineshafts you've inadvertently created. Especially for someone like me, who's always been bad at the aesthetic parts of crafting games.
Alien Isolation is a game about being completely screwed, but one of the very, very few times you feel like you have a chance in that awful, no-good, godforsaken spaceship is when you've got the flamethrower on your side. One big angry ball of flame is all it takes to put the xenomorph on its bony heels, and that respite can be downright euphoric. The flamethrower as the odds-evener, as it should be.
Blizzard prefers a heavy touch when it comes to their aesthetic design, so it's no surprise that their darkest franchise lays it on pretty darn thick whenever we make a journey to the underworld. Diablo's hell is absolutely unreasonable; a giddy orgy of blood, lava, blackened gothic chapels, and belching geysers of flame. Personally, I'm partial to Azmodan Lord of Sin, best known for lobbing infernal orbs of molten rock at your hapless barbarian (a mechanic that was later beautifully integrated into Heroes of the Storm). Good on you, Blizzard. We can only hope that Diablo 4 brings an even heavier dose of hellishness.
This is PC Gamer, which means we can't mention Super Mario 64, or Banjo Kazooie, or Sonic The Hedgehog on this list. That's a shame, because the mascot platformer is forever betrothed to lava levels—nothing quite ups the ante like the chance to singe the overalls right off of Mario's nubile body. Thankfully Yacht Club, who has dedicated its existence to bringing picture perfect 8-bit-esque adventures to Steam, picked up the slack. Of course Shovel Knight has a lava level, and of course it learns from the masters by bringing a candyflipped Bowser's Castle that's challenging, dramatic, and thoroughly retro. If we could bottle and administer the feeling you get when you use that indestructible shovel to traverse the lakes of Hell, everyone on earth would realize that videogames are a force for good.
World of Warcraft
It's been a long, long time since I played a Fire Mage in World of Warcraft, but one of the most satisfying feelings that MMO ever produced was the Presence of Mind/Pyroblast combo back in vanilla. I'll break it down for you: Pyroblast was this ridiculous, deep talent-tree spell that let you hurl a massive fireball at an enemy after a six second casting time. That made it kinda useless, because the downtime was so heavy. That is, unless, you also specced into Arcane to pick up Presence of Mind, which, when activated, would make your next spell cast instantly. You see where I'm going now, right?
Presence of Mind/Pyro quickly became my favorite thing to do to people in Warsong Gulch. I'd reckon to guess that it led to more Alt-F4s than anything else in Warcraft's early years. Well, that's not true. Remember when Rogues could stunlock you for, like, half a minute? Man, maybe World of Warcraft Classic (opens in new tab) is a bad idea.
Team Fortress 2
It's pretty hard to balance a flamethrower in a multiplayer game. Usually they're either totally weak and watered-down, or an ultra-scarce pickup that you see once every 20 games. So hats off to Valve for not only building out the Pyro as a crucial part of the Team Fortress fabric, but also making him fun to play! Torching a crowded control point feels great, but every good Pyro knows the value of the secondary shotgun when you get locked down in a dual with a Scout or a Soldier or something. The variation between the loadout makes you feel useful and multi-dimensional, rather than the kid hogging the cool weapons and sandbagging the team.
I love the way Jack's hand looks when he's got the Incinerate plasmid equipped. All of the biological upgrades in Rapture are horrifying in their own visceral ways—I never ever need to see that Insect Swarm cutscene ever again—but something about walking around BioShock's dead corridors with a left hand that's smoldering from the inside out is awesome, and troubling, and could probably serve as a tentpole for some half-baked fan theory. In this Randian dystopia, the Left is on fire! I also think BioShock does perhaps the best job of letting us live our deepest, truest arson fantasies. Just snap your fingers and set anything on fire. Easy as that. Great for clearing out crazy people in a fallen kingdom, and also probably great for party tricks.
You have to think that From Software knew their take on pyromancy was awesome, considering how it's, by far, the easiest school of magic to use in a game that's famous for its abstruseness. No degenerate attunement system, no gatekeeping stat requirements, just throw on your fire glove and start roasting skeletons. Everyone who's spent some time in Lordran knows exactly where they were the first time you were invaded by some refined griefer who rained ungodly hellfire on your poor, PvE-tuned knight. We all rushed back, retrieved our souls, and vowed to get our revenge in New Game Plus. And probably started learning pyromancy.