Electron Dance
6Feb/2110

Wildfire in the Hole

It started with a single tweet, a tweet downcast about a high-profile negative review of Wildfire, a game I had not heard of before. I was instantly curious: I was sure the team behind it had some game design nous. So what had gone horribly wrong?

Wanting to know more, I asked for a press key and began a journey in June which I finally completed five months later.

Wildfire (Sneaky Bastards, 2020) is a glorious 2D stealth 'em up brimming with environmental interaction. The truth is there’s substantially more to Wildfire than meets the eye.

And that, unfortunately, was the problem.

The title “Wildfire” implies the player’s core activity will involve fire, but the Steam description is a little more expansive: “Master the elements in this stealth game where everything burns. Use your elemental powers to start fires, freeze water, and move earth as you outsmart superstitious enemies in this mischievous 2D stealth game.”

I didn’t read anything about the game before I started playing so I wasn’t aware there were any other powers beyond firestarting. Even if you did absorb this, there’s a clear signal to the potential player that Wildfire is about magical powers. But Wildfire is also a stealth game. I’ve played Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998), so I interpreted the fire as a method to control the environment like Thief’s arrows permit progress. The only element you have control over at the start of the game is fire and, well, it seems that’s your main tool, right? Got fire? Use fire!

Ah, Thief. That was a game about not killing your fellow citizens even if you were convinced some of them were filthy shits that deserved it. Gods and zombies? No problemo. People? Hold the phone. Now Wildfire has a No Kills objective each level which will earn you a spirit point. So Wildfire is more tolerant of violent murder but it still coaxes you to be gentle and nice towards filthy shits who deserve it. Unfortunately, this put me into a Thief mindset which is to run a perfect game: never be discovered, never kill, no mistakes.

And you’ve only got that fire power at your disposal which seems, frankly, to kill people easily. Aside from doing the cruel, which is to set light to their greaves and watch them cook, you’ll often scare the silly out of them and off they potter as fast as they can, right off a cliff and be deaded.

Certainly, you’ve got a ton of other non-deathy options at your disposal. Hiding in grass, hanging off rope bridges, alternate sneaky routes but… but it’s called Wildfire, mate. I’m supposed to use my mad fire skills, amirite?

And that’s the paradox that wound me up for a good chunk of the game. How can a game be a Thieflike if the mechanics translate into Murder by Misadventure Simulator 2020? This paradox is illusory, though, one created in the imagination. Wildfire fails to project its true nature; it implies Dishonored, stealth with superpowers, but that’s not it at all.

Most of the player’s actions have significant irreversible consequences. Fire toasts grass so that it cannot be hidden in and, in fact, makes movement noisy. Fire is a finite resource, because once you embrace it from the Wildfire environment, it’s gone. And if you lose it rather than use it, it’s truly gone.

While it’s possible to rewind to a checkpoint or autosave, it can take three clicks to undo any incident. Wildfire would prefer you lived with those consequences. Scrape away at the stealth veneer and you’ll discover the true heart of Wildfire, a machine of chaos that has more in common with Magicka than Thief. Thief perfectionists are not welcome here.

This realisation came slowly. First, it was figuring out that fire wasn’t meant to be used everywhere, a mental gear shift made easier once other powers entered the fray. And later I finally acknowledged that brilliant planning was a vulnerability: brilliant plans are likely to end you. Tactics won over strategy every time. Man plans, God laughs, as they say down the pub.

Wildfire sands off edges so you can’t gauge your digital limits precisely so no cones-of-sight. Sure, you’re offered a visual pulse whenever you make a sound but I was never confident about how far a pulse would reach before I made a noise. Sometimes I’d drop from a ledge and attract everyone’s attention so it was better to look for a grassy landing pad. I wonder whether Wildfire’s lush but sharp 2D aesthetic is at fault for implying precision that doesn’t exist; whenever you foul up because you gauged the sound wrong, it can feel like the game is at fault and not you for rushing, you impatient shit.

Making matters worse, Wildfire floods the controller with purpose. Left stick for movement, right stick for aim, buttons to grab fire, suck up water, make a smoke bomb, jump, run, carry, whistle, make coffee, Zoom conference. Press the wrong button and *poof* your plan is in ruins. But this also magnifies player frustrations. I often took a moment to rehearse the buttons before going into a dangerous situation. Wildfire tries to ease the pain by offering constant controller prompts; it’s not perfect but it helped.

But if you can embrace the game’s desire for chaos, it is chef’s kiss marvelloso. Sometimes much, much, much more burns than you intended. Sometimes guards you scare off end up patrolling a different area with another guard… and now you’ve got two problems. Sometimes shit happens and it’s just not your Wildfire day. It is no clockwork world: it's a bomb primed to blow.

The environmental interactions are a lot richer than you might expect at the outset and I have numerous examples of learning-through-accidental-comedy. Once I climbed down a vine to the bottom of a Wildfire level with a villager, intending to set them free then climb back up to grab a meteor shard - each shard confers an upgrade. An archer targeted me, but, ha ha, I was too quick: he fired and missed. His arrow instead thunked into the vine, severing it, sending the pair of us plummeting down. We survived the short fall but there was no way to climb back up for that precious upgrade.

Another time, I wanted to bubble myself up to a guarded bridge and grab a meteor shard that was begging to be swiped. I wasn’t exactly sure how this was going to work out but I was planning to wing it, the kind of winging it that involves screaming. Except I failed to jump into the bubble. It rose without me, gracefully smashing through the bridge, alerting the guards, absorbing the shard and continuing to ascend. Reader, I laughed.

Even sometimes the frustration made the journey worth it. In another level, I had to transport several villagers safely across a level full of soldiers and moving villagers one at a time through danger zones was exasperating. Yet the euphoria of completing that level was such a reward. But Wildfire’s frustration dial is extremely sensitive.

The City is the final great level, pulsating with possibility. It’s not easy but there’s just too much optional good stuff to ignore and multiple routes to take. After that, however, you get the prison level, which is an enormous slog; each villager has to be taken on a very long journey, although there is one shortcut in the level which helps. You don’t have to save every villager, but hitting those optional goals will reward you with upgrades which are always powerful.

After that, there’s a set of three upsetting boss tasks, each of which is linear on the whole with some reliance on controller athleticism, disposing of Wildfire’s core of chaotic tactics. Still, there is innovation here: the order you perform these tasks has level-changing impacts on the others, and I had to admire that, but it didn’t feel like it was a choice I could leverage on my first game.

And finally, there is an actual boss. While there is, again, cleverness at work, it is an unwelcome inversion of Wildfire, a game of imprecision and accident replaced with combat you have not been trained for. I’ve never played Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montréal, 2011), but the notorious incompatibility of its boss fights with a stealth character build is exactly what hurts Wildfire’s endgame.

Wildfire review from Wireframe 43

So I look at the reviews and I can see why some were disappointed. Wildfire didn’t put chaos centre stage and cloaked itself a bit too much as a stealth experience. Wildfire’s name advertised the “fire” part too heavily. The ending, the last thing you remember when putting review words to paper, is a poke in the eye. And I guess I am the only person who liked the bobcats.

Wildfire has far more going on in its mechanics and environment than any of us deserve. It’s not that Wildfire’s mistakes aren’t mistakes - but that they have been amplified over its craft and flair because Wildfire didn’t do enough to dissuade players from the wrong type of play.

You may disagree with this but that is exactly what God made the comments section for.

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  1. i also tried to play this in a Thiefly manner: try to stay hidden, and flee when found. Except that fleeing usually didnt work, so getting found nearly always meant death. i could never quite embrace the chaos either. maybe my reaction times were just too slow, or i was thinking too much or trying to aim too carefully. certainly the latter was a constant bugbear for me: the controls never gelled, and even at the end of the game i was regularly missing my throws and pressing the wrong buttons. ive seen video of people playing it and having fun, and not suffering these same problems, so theres certainly a style of play that works—i just never found it.

    (honestly i had similar problems with dishonored; but in that you are much more powerful at combat and can blink away rapidly to escape problems* that i died far less and frustration never built up quite so much.

  2. Hey Andy! I was reflecting on your Twitter thread when I was writing this, even though the thrust of this piece had already been drafted up last year.

    I’ll second that there are parts where the controls just fuck you over; some of the simple climbs/jumps were mysteriously impossible to pull off first time. And the whole thing about the bowl of oranges as a blackjack incensed me because I struggled to work out what I was supposed to do for awhile.

    Putting aside the deaths, so much of the game is optional but to people like you and me… you know, it just feels like failure to turn down those optional objectives! Especially when they offer important rewards. I got used to giving up on them towards the end because it was clearly not worth the entailing ragequittery. I never broke into Caira’s bedroom; I tried reloading the level twice and I’m sure it’s possible but the game was begging to do a Freeman-in-the-crusher moment, so I accepted the failure.

    There are other potential issues as well, where parts of levels are intended for NG+ rather than going at them on baby’s first playthrough, but that’s difficult to know at the time.

    I began to relax and settle into accepting “fleeing in panic” was my real superpower. As I tried to lay out above, I think it’s easy to miss the intended charm and joy – but even if I stand here and pontificate academically, scribbling on a whiteboard, it wouldn’t change that you had a miserable time.

  3. Yeah, the “economy” of upgrade points in general is hard to understand on a first playthrough. It definitely seems like the optional objectives in most levels would be a lot more doable when you revisit with all four powers unlocked. It didnt cross my mind until the last level that it might be setting up for a NG+ (“is this the last level? but i have so many upgrades still to buy!”).

  4. Sounds pretty interesting. I had never even heard of Wildfire until now, and the idea of a stealth-but-chaotic sounds potentially fun. But I have to admit to a pretty bad habit in this kind of game: I find hard, psychologically, to commit to the chaos when the reload button is just a couple of clicks away.

    I played Dishonored 2 over the winter holidays and had exactly this problem. I remember liking the first Dishonored quite a bit, but I also remember striving for perfection as much as possible (no kills, no detection). I tried to convince myself not to savescum as much, but it’s hard to break the habit honestly. Especially while the game narratively encourages you to avoid both detection and killing. 2 is better than 1 at least in the fact that Emily’s arsenal of powers are interesting, versatile and just plain fun to use even if you play non-lethally (while Corvo’s powers are not), but the problem remains. The game pushes you towards ghosting levels, while giving you things that are useful mainly in confrontations.

    This is why, for me at least, the best chaos simulators are roguelikes or roguelites or however you want to call them. In Spelunky, every decision is an all-in, and you have to live (or die) with your mistakes. I find myself more open to experimentation with systems in these games than in others, but it may be just me (and the fact that I’ve accepted that I may never see the end of many of the roguelikes I play).

  5. Hey Lorenzo! Wildfire makes it annoying to reload, it takes three clicks to do one and you cannot save at whim. That grated at the start but I understood it was there to avoid perfectionist play which, to be fair, is the problem with stealth games. We got used to the eternal save/load to sculpt the perfect run, because discovery was a loser’s game.

    I had made the mental connection between chaos and roguelikes but as Wildfire was such a different beast (no random layout, for one thing) I decided to swallow the association and not bring it up. But I’m with you, really: I also see roguelikes as chaos generators where skill is reacting in quantized time to whatever fate has decided to throw at you. Man plans, God laughs indeed.

  6. Wildfire looks like my sort of thing, because I like (in theory at least) absolute chaos rather than precision gameplay, but it’s not for the Mac. Sigh. I was going to bring in roguelikes as another thing exemplifying my love of chaos and Lorenzo already mentioned it! I don’t find Spelunky really scratches the itch though, besides me being terrible at it it just doesn’t give you much room for failure (that is, the few times I made it to zone 2 I always died to a one-hit kill trap). I guess it does have the chaos thing though.

    That’s what makes Cinco Paus so cool, the multiple effects on the wands create a slapstick chaos effect. Nothing like an unexpected combination literally blowing up in your face. It kind of seems like NOITA might be that as a platformer, but again, no Mac.

    Also the chaos thing makes even non-procgen games replayable in this way, I guess, because you’re not going to be facing the same situation if things get out of control?

    Anyway I came here to say, I guess the question here is should I get Mark of the Ninja? For a long time I didn’t download it because I was short disk space, and when I tried it I couldn’t run it even before the great 32-bit massacre, but it looks like there’s a cheap way to get Remastered on Steam? I was going to be annoyed that I had the rights to the game already but was going to have to pay even a small amount to get the only playable version, but I just saw that the things that’s cheap is specifically an upgrade if you have the old version, and now I’m less annoyed. That seems irrational.

    I have been reading your tweets about clearing space for whatever game it is and sighing. It seems as though I didn’t download a lot of games because I lacked space, and now that I have space a lot of those games don’t work on the new computer, though OTOH part of the reason I have space is I got rid of the games that don’t work on this computer.

  7. @matt w: Mark of the Ninja is excellent. its very much about stealth and not chaos, however. i recommend it.

  8. OK, done, thanks Andy! The sale had less than a day to run so good I jumped on it. Seems like kind of a space hog–am I going to have to face facts about how Hades is sitting there and I am not playing it? (On topic now that someone brought up roguelites!)

    …did I ever talk about how Osmos is stealth Katamari? I have never played Katamari.

  9. @matt w: Mark of the Ninja is very good, but as Andy said it invites the same perfectionist style as other stealth games. Even more, with the end-level scores and the real lack of a combat system if you’re discovered.

    Noita is probably one of the best games of last year, maybe one of the best roguelites period. It has now replaced Spelunky on the throne of game-I-always-have-installed-just-in-case. But it’s really CHAOS, all caps, to the point of absurdity sometimes. I never finished it, probably never will, but it really doesn’t matter to me.

    @Joel: after reading and commenting, I went on steam to discover that Wildfire was already in my wishlist, but I had completely forgotten. I’m sure it’s very different from the procedural stuff, and I’m torn between the two styles of “chaos simulator”, authored vs random. On the one hand, authored levels are usually far superior, especially in games that favour stealth in some way, and they are not necessarily opposed to emergent and chaotic situations – Far Cry 2 and the recent Hitman games come to mind. On the other hand, and I want to make sure I emphasise I’m speaking mainly for myself and my habits, authored levels tend to have some sort of optimal path which can detract from the willingness to experiment, at least *my* willingness to experiment. The fact that Wildfire makes reloading inconvenient might be enough to push me away from perfectionism, though.


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