Embr’s house groaned as fire licked away at its supports. Collapse was imminent. With a panicking resident slung over my shoulder, I sprinted for a second story window. Outside were three other residents I’d rescued. I took solace in the fact that, no matter what happened next, I’d done some good here. I jumped, and as I hit the ground, my legs crunched. I died. Then came the review: one star. Back to driving Lyft for me, I guess.
First-person firefighting game Embr takes place in a “a hyper-capitalist, deregulated alt-present where public firefighting funding has run dry, where venture capitalism and e-hailing rule the roost.” You play as an “Embr Respondr” for what is basically the Uber/Lyft of firefighting companies. If a fire breaks out, you rush over not to put it out, but to try to rescue valued “clients.” The goal, of course, is to earn a good review score. You do this by rescuing as many people as possible with as little incident as possible. That tends to be difficult, given that fire’s whole thing is that it’s an unpredictable natural force of destruction.
I played Embr at the E3-adjacent Indie Mix event in Los Angeles yesterday, and moment-to-moment, it’s very funny. You pick a loadout from a series of presets that include items like an axe, a ladder, a grappling hook, a trampoline, and a hose to temporarily douse fires. You also get a phone that helps you locate your clients, because this is a gig economy job, after all. Then you sprint into a burning house and do your best to locate and rescue everyone before fire consumes the whole place.
Early on, this is relatively simple, since the fire hasn’t really spread yet. In one fire, after getting my bearings, I quickly found a dude huddled in a kitchen and ran him out the front door to a safe zone outside. When I returned, the entire front hallway was on fire, so I doused it while sprinting to find my next target.
The next person was in an upstairs room. Again, they were relatively easy to locate, but by this point, the house’s entrance was a roaring inferno. I realized that I could use my axe to chop through some boxes and a door and reach another second-floor room with plentiful windows. Upon completing this task, I turned around to pick up my rescuee again, only to find that he’d run off—something a nearby developer told me they have a habit of doing. I found him screaming his head off in a nearby hallway, flames lapping at his feet. I proceeded to grab him, carry him into the room with the windows, put him down again and yell “STAY” IRL, and deploy my ladder out the window. I grabbed him just before he could once again run off to stare, transfixed, into the blaze I was beginning to suspect he’d started, and—in a moment of what I will admit was frustration—hurled him off the roof. He was very unconscious by the time he landed, but he landed in the safe zone, so this counted as a rescue.
By this point, the house was in a bad, bad state, with most rooms on fire. A woman was in the house’s basement, which seemed primed to pose extreme navigational difficulties—until the fire took out a section of floor, allowing me to drop down into the basement. I then realized I’d made a mistake. My ladder was still outside, meaning I had no apparent way to leave the basement. The developer suggested I use my grappling hook, first to escape from the hellish death pit myself, and then to yank the woman up to where I was. This strategy, while theoretically viable, did not sit well with the still-in-development game’s physics engine, causing the woman to careen around like a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man in a tornado. While this possession by an apparent physics demon was incredibly funny, it did have the side effect of leaving the woman dead afterward. Fortunately, I’d already completed my business-mandated number of rescues, so I could exit whenever I wanted. I just probably wouldn’t get a very good review, and I might miss out on precious, precious tips.
With the clock rapidly ticking down, I decided to be a hero. I sprinted through the blaze on the second floor to find a man sitting on a toilet, a mixture of fear and exertion etched across his features. I grabbed him and ran for the window, only to have to put him down in order to extinguish a fire in our path. He used this intermission from our daring escape to—I kid you not—run back to the toilet. “When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go,” said the developer. So, once again, I yanked him off the toilet and ran. This time, I made it to the window and, still too hopped up on adrenaline to remember that my ladder was right stinking there, jumped off the roof. This, as I pointed out earlier, killed me and also, presumably, the guy I was carrying. He was planning to burn alive atop a toilet, so I’d like to think I gave him at least a slightly more dignified death.
In the end, I got a one-star review, suffering figurative death in the gig economy as well as literal death in the economy of falling off rooftops. Still, despite the game’s obvious earliness (Embr doesn’t enter early access until later this year), I had a good time. And really, isn’t that what the gig economy is all about? [Receives paper] Ah, hm, it appears that it’s not about that at all.