The Firefighter's Arsenal
Simultaneously depicted as unimpeachable heroes and regular joes “just doing their jobs,” the firefighter occupies a unique place in the North American cultural imagination — that of an everyday hero. Like many heroes, firefighters are defined by their enemy, constantly doing battle with the out-of-control blazes that threaten civilization. When featured in videogames this conflict takes on new connotations, steeped in decades of firefighting mythology and lore as well the affordances of the medium itself. This poses an interesting question: how does a firefighter go about doing their job within the context of a videogame?
Traditionally, the firehose has been depicted as the central tool of the firefighter. Anyone who is familiar with media representations of the profession is well acquainted with the imagery of a firefighter spraying powerful streams of water upon the flames of a burning building. Although this act of dousing is meant to be restorative — suppressing the carnage that unbound fire creates — it is at the same time framed as an act of violence. Robyn Cooper, in The Fireman: Immaculate Manhood, notes that “the out-of-control fire can be metaphorized as an enemy, a dragon, a fiend out of hell” (142). Thus, the firefighter takes on the role of a chivalric knight, slaying a fiery serpent and rescuing women and children, but shirking their sword and shield in favour of a firehose and axe.
Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super NES) & The Firemen (Super NES)
It is no surprise, then, that videogames have capitalized on this depiction of the firefighter as a heroic warrior who wields a firehose as their weapon of choice. Within titles such as The Firemen for the Super NES, for example, the firehose is transformed into a firearm as the player fights their way through waves of devilish anthropomorphized blazes. Players can shoot in eight directions and switch between two firing modes — a long-distance stream and a wide burst aimed at the ground — echoing the weapon types featured in classic shoot 'em ups such as Contra III: The Alien Wars. The similarities don’t end there, as the titular firemen also have access to “extinguishing bombs” (essentially grenades) that disperse flames over a large area and must military crawl (a common dodging technique in Contra) to progress past certain obstacles. Although ostensibly bound by the protocols and aesthetics of the fire service, the scenarios depicted in The Firemen evoke those of a soldier in battle. Working in squads and communicating via radio, the firefighters use powerful weapons to defeat their foes, protect innocents, and reclaim territory from encroaching, fiery foes.
Real Heroes: Firefighters (Wii/Switch)
Of course, the firehose is not the only equipment associated with firefighting. Similarly relying on the firehose as a primary weapon, Real Heroes: Firefighters (Nintendo Wii) also gives players access to a bevy of other traditional firefighting equipment: a crowbar-like Halligan tool, a fire-axe, spreaders (AKA the jaws of life), and a rotary saw. Unlike the militaristic connotations surrounding the firehose, which Real Heroes co-opts in a similar manner to The Firemen, this specialized equipment takes on a different role. Players are presented with specific obstacles — such as a collapsed wall or a jammed door — and must complete a short skill challenge utilizing the Wii’s motion controls to progress. In essence, these are lock-and-key scenarios that rely on the player’s proficiency with an abstracted set of tools. Departing from the mythological, these challenges hearken back to the firefighter’s status as a blue-collar worker, steeped in technical know-how and wielding a range of “practical” tools. The supporting characters in Real Heroes consistently reinforce this trope, reminding the player that flawless proficiency with this equipment is crucial for their jobs (and, consequently, their survival in-game).
Through the presentation and use of firefighting equipment through gameplay, videogames can reveal much about how we envision those in the fire service. Despite both games ostensibly grounding firefighting as a humble profession, they also evoke the idea of the firefighter as a heroic figure and as a paragon of working-class ideals. The firehose and fire-axe simultaneously serve as the weapons of a courageous warrior and the tools-of-the-trade for a blue-collar worker.