The villain song in the 1996 Hunchback of Notre Dame uses the motif of fire as a connective tissue for Frollo’s developing train of thought. Titled ‘Hellfire‘, the song starts with a reference to Esmerelda’s “smoldering eyes,” which “scorch” Frollo’s soul. The chorus connects the flame of desire with the fires of hell:
“Like fire, hellfire, this fire in my skin
This burning desire is turning me to sin.”
Frollo subsequently shifts his sense of guilt for his lustful thoughts onto Esmerelda, visualising her burning at the stake (“let her taste the fires of hell”), and there’s a nice little visual moment too – he reaches for an imagined version of Esmerelda who manifests out of the smoke, but, being smoke, she immediately evaporates. The song ends, and Frollo marches out, muttering “I’ll find her if I have to burn down all of Paris.” We can identify in the sequence three distinct emotional states – lust, guilt, and blame – all linked together by the motif of fire, which serves almost as an organising principle – to continue with the musical context, it’s like variations on a theme. There is one object thought of in different ways, highlighting both the continuity of the object and the different reactions that Frollo has towards it. It’s an elegant way to tell the story.
Generally speaking, video games tend to eschew these sorts of aesthetic techniques, focusing instead on graphical achievement or storytelling through gameplay. It’s a shame, because motifs like the one in Hunchback allow a story to mutate an object through a range of different contexts and situations. ‘Hellfire’ explores the multiple forms of fire, working through different connotations and exploring its range of meanings. That seems like something that video games should be interested in doing – as Ian Bogost said, the great ambition or accomplishment of the video game is “to show the delightful curiosity that can be made when stories, games, comics, game engines, virtual environments – and anything else, for that matter – can be taken apart and put back together again unexpectedly.” It would seem like that sort of medium should be quite comfortable with the motif – but alas, it is not.
Today I want to look at one game that at least gets close to engaging with more complex representations of a single object. A Plague Tale: Innocence is a 2019 game from Asobo Studios, a French game development studio responsible for the first and second Crew games, and a host of Disney video game adaptations – not including Hunchback, unfortunately – that would have been too tidy. The game takes place in France in the 14th century, against the complex backdrop of English invasion, the forces of the Inquisition, and a plague of rats. The main characters, Amicia and Hugo de Rune, are two noble-born children who flee their home when the Inquisition comes looking for Hugo. The story follows Amicia’s struggle to keep her sickly young brother alive, avoid the Inquisition and the rats, and figure out why the Inquisition wants her brother in the first place.
Between these two obstacles, there’s an interesting little tension that the game explores quite deftly. The rats, it transpires, are afraid of light. Torches and lanterns are beacons of safety, but are also, more often than not, wielded by the Inquisition. That tension offers the core of the game’s drama – the need to negotiate these two worlds of light and dark, of fire and darkness. The kids are fugitives, barred from society and unable to return to the flames of the hearth, but equally at risk from the darkness. They pick through the grey spaces between the poles, living fully in neither. There are beautiful visual representations of that conflict – as below, the small forms huddled around a dusky fire, the darkness pressing in around them. In that scene, the kids have taken up residence in an abandoned castle, unable to draw on the full safety of civilization, and instead almost trailing along behind it, finding shelter in the remnants of skin that society sheds along the way.
In this context and more broadly throughout the game, fire represents civilization, both as promise and threat. Amicia can start fires to create safe paths through the rats, and can extinguish fires to kill off members of the Inquisition, removing their safety and allowing the rats to swarm them. In some puzzles, Amicia will create a noise to bring an enemy close, so that when he returns to his post she can sneak along behind him, sheltering in the light of his lantern. Neither fire nor darkness offer true, permanent homes – the best Amicia can do is manipulate and reconfigure them in order to pass on her way. As in Dishonored, we watch a protagonist dance through an environment that is in some sense fundamentally hostile to their existence.
You can see that this isn’t quite reaching the level of the ‘Hellfire’ motif – it’s not really one key idea with a range of different meanings. But it has some level of complexity – it’s an idea that doesn’t just represent one straightforward thing, it’s ambiguous. It’s part of a broader dialectic, if you like, part of an opposition that the player has to negotiate. Because the puzzles revolve around dodging both the Inquisition and the rats, and because each of those camps is largely associated with either light or its absence, the game is motivated to explore fire in a range of different configurations – even just to keep the puzzles interesting. And there are moments where it threatens to erupt into a full-blown motif. At one point, Amicia sneaks into the city’s library to steal a specific book, and is confronted by the Inquisition, including their leader, the creepy priest Vitalis Benevent. By the end of that encounter, the library is on fire, and Amicia tears off into the night, precious book in hand. There is something to that image – civilization run amuck, the otherwise nurturing and sustaining fire exploding out of control and hollowing out the institutions that it’s supposed to protect. It’s the consequence of Benevent’s pursuit of power over French society – the self-destructive, auto-cannibalistic force of civilization, articulated at the site where you first encounter Benevent. That feels like an attempt at saying something. Fire isn’t always used in such a consistent, deliberate way, but there are little hints, little gestures like that one. If we encourage that sort of impulse in video games, we might one day see it develop into something more.