Several months ago, I reviewed an odd little game called The Firemen. By no means is it a bad game, but its overabundance of silly moments make it hard to take the firefighting premise seriously. Fortunately, that’s a problem that Jaleco’s The Ignition Factor doesn’t encounter. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing it has going for it. Despite taking a more realistic look at firefighting than its predecessor, the game fails to use that realism to meaningful effect. It doesn’t challenge you with difficult questions, or craft compelling game scenarios, or even take a real stance on its subject matter. The Ignition Factor is content merely to exist.
It’s a shame, too, because the premise holds so much potential to test you. I don’t mean “challenge” in the skill-centric obstacle course way that a lot of video games mean it, but in a larger moral sense. You’re frequently presented with life or death scenarios, and on some level, the game recognizes that. It tells you that you can only carry a certain amount of equipment, and that you only have so many minutes to get everybody out to safety. You might not even be able to rescue everybody, but you understand that it’s your duty to do so. So in a weird way, taking power away from you is how the game gives your actions weight in the first place. With the game telling you that you might not be able to save every person, you’re forced to question every action you take. It’s an excellent way to explore moral choices in a game without reducing those choices to some contrived good/evil binary.
In theory, anyway. In practice, the firefighting is so deterministic that it lacks even a semblance of tension. I mean this both in the sense that it fails to create a satisfying play experience, and in the sense that it fails to challenge you on a thematic level; often for the same reasons. For example, the fires themselves aren’t dangerous. Until you leave the immediate area, they’re happy to spread at a slow, easily manageable rate. And your fellow firemen, rather than putting out the fires themselves, amount to little more than walking inventories where you can switch out your items. So what was the point of making me choose my starting equipment in the first place?
As far as I can tell, there isn’t any. While it looks as though the game wants to create demanding gameplay situations, your unhindered ability to solve the game’s trials prevents those situations from ever materializing. All that’s left for you to do is to follow the game’s script. Still, we can glean a lot from these design decisions. They can tell us not only what kinds of challenges the developers wanted to create, but also what that would imply about you, the player. Sadly, the implications are highly cynical: that you are not capable of complex thought, and that you only exist to complete the program. This would also explain why the game fails from a thematic standpoint. It doesn’t see you as worth challenging, so it doesn’t bother to. The limits the game forces on you are so laughably weak as to preclude any chance of failure. And without ever forcing you to face your failures, The Ignition Factor can’t help you grow as a person. Who cares if you weren’t able to rescue that last person? The worst that happens is that you have to play the level over again.
This brings me to another issue I have with The Ignition Factor: the dehumanization of its victims. You’d expect something as stressful as a housefire to be a humanizing event, like what I’d described earlier about heavy choices. Yet the game’s heavy emphasis on its systems prevents that humanization from ever occurring. This game systematizes everything: health, time limits, and the number of people who are still trapped are constantly displayed around the screen. Although the game presents itself like this in an effort to craft engaging play scenarios, it ends up training you to see the world as a mere collection of systems. Thus, anybody you encounter in the world is merely another resource you have to collect.
Not only does that create a boring experience for you (you’re just filling in numbers), but it also disrespects the very people you’ve been sent into this game to save. I can remember one particularly bad moment about halfway through the game, when I came across a man passed out on a skylight. So fragile was this skylight that stepping on it would send both of us to our deaths. How did I save him? I didn’t. There were enough people for me to save that I could let him die without being penalized for it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even at the time, there were plenty of alternatives The Ignition Factor could have learned from. It could’ve done what many of its contemporaries were doing: keep the premise, but distance that premise from reality. Such an approach would emphasize the your skill rather than moral quandaries, thus rendering my previous criticisms a non-issue. Or if the game wanted to keep the moral aspect, it could’ve done a better job hiding its systems from the you. SOS does this to magnificent effect. Yet The Ignition Factor takes neither option. Instead, it tries to split the difference by depicting vaguely realistic scenarios while still focusing the your attention on the rules of play. The irony to this middle of the road approach is that it really isn’t fit for anything.
I should clarify that I don’t expect this game to be some hardened drama about the heroic sacrifices that firefighters make. However, I do expect it to be something, anything; to have the bravery to take a stance at all. Right now, that isn’t happening. I don’t see the game trying to recreate the experiences of a firefighter (even in a more abstracted sense like The Firemen does), and I certainly don’t see it using those experiences to ask you tough questions. All I see is a game that’s content to note the mere fact that firefighting exists.