Torches are pretty cool, right? There’s something so rustic and satisfying about having your path lit through the gentle flicker of a life-giving flame. It’s also contemporary—despite the ubiquity of magic, Whiterun isn’t really producing LED flashlights just yet. There are a thousand reasons to love torches. But today, I’d like to give you my reasoning for why I view torches with a seething hatred—Well, torches in video games, at least.
Long story short; most game developers have no clue at all how torches work. Since my recently earned history degree is not useful for literally anything else, I’d like to point out some of the major reoccurring flaws game developers seem to insist on when putting torches into their games. Game developers seem to love torches in theory, but in reality they are just dicking around and reskinning flashlights whilst simultaneously dropping a major duke on the physics we all hold dear. I get that these upcoming complaints may seem a tad nitpicky, but willing suspension of disbelief is important. I’m willing to accept that draugr roam the halls of ancient crypts, and that Lara Croft can quick-draw a bow and hit a deer in the face from a hundred yards away. Fine. Those rules are bent because they are important for the integrity of a game’s narrative. What I’m not willing to accept is that player characters are immune to the physics of heat and light, simply so that game developers can be negligent about their torch designs. The way people use torches in video games are simply lazy and don’t make sense. Prepare yourself.
Torches are Held less than a Foot Away from a Character’s Face
Have you ever had a flashlight pointed at your face? It was probably pretty difficult to see, wasn’t it? Yet, somehow it seems perfectly fine for characters to stick torches directly in their own faces and somehow maintain perfect visibility. Here’s a screenshot from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
But why does the torch only cast light away from the player? Without any form of shade, and especially in a dark enclosed place, the torch will shed light in all directions. Chances are, holding a torch this close to your face in a dark room would look more like this:
If you’ve ever looked up at the sun, you’ve experienced this. You simply can’t focus on something dark if you’re looking at something really bright at the same time. Your retinas don’t allow for it. In reality, torches are held either behind the user or above their head, so that the torch is not directly within their line of sight. This is what sane people do. In the figure below, observe how the stick man carries his torch—it is still in a reasonable place so that it can be carried comfortably but also not obscuring his vision.
A minor change, it seems, but a change that lets the user see things, as eyes are meant for. In addition, the torch user gets to keep their eyebrows. Speaking of which…
Torches do not Generate any Heat
We live in a world where most video games seem to understand the idea of convection to some degree. Being hit by a fire spell or walking over a campfire, for example, will usually cause damage. Clearly, game developers realize that fire is hot; so why doesn’t this apply to torches? Observe this screenshot for 2013’s Tomb Raider:
Notice that Lara’s face is not only close to the torch, it is practically buried in it. Firstly, Lara definitely can’t see shit right now (and won’t be able to for a while). Secondly, Lara does not have to be scalding her face off like that with her torch. All she has to do is literally hold the torch the other way, so that it points outward instead of directly at her magical, flame-retardant hair. Does human hair not burn? Because, according to Tomb Raider, torches emit enough heat to light things on fire. Lighting things on fire with your torch is a crucial game mechanic! So why would they do this? Maybe scolding her face off has a rejuvenating effect on Lara’s skin in the Tomb Raider universe. Maybe fire in the Tomb Raider is just somewhat warm, and cloth combusts at a different temperature?
Torches Burn Forever
Ever notice how, when you light a candle in real life, it continues to burn for the rest of eternity until you put it out? No, of course you haven’t because that makes no God-damned sense. So why do torches work like this? Not only are the previously admonished Dragonborn and Lara Croft guilty of this, but so is pretty much everything else, including movies. Here’s a screenshot from Torchlight that illustrates my point:
Notice those torches and lanterns, all well-lit and evenly spaced apart? Believe it or not, torches can’t just stand up and do that by themselves. At most, torches will burn for a few hours, and that would be a big, well-made torch. When I see a scene like this, where an abandoned mineshaft or cave underground is dotted with all of these torches, I can’t help but think: who is going down there and lighting these torches every day? Who are they doing it for? If there’s only monsters down there or, oftentimes, literally nothing, why do these torches have to be lit at all times? Clearly something a lot stronger or stealthier than the player character has been frequently clearing this instance, with the sole goal of lighting random torches for no one.
Torches Burn Clean
Another problem I have with torches is that they are clean and magical. Torches do not smoke, and if they do then it’s only in a small radius before it disappears within seconds. This simply doesn’t happen with torches. Unlike flashlights, torches rely on burning things to generate light. Unless your torch is a Prius, this means that there must be smoke. Out in the overworld, this wouldn’t usually be a problem. However, the primary use of torches in video games seems to be during scenes and levels which take place in dungeons and caves. Caves, by definition, are not very well ventilated. Generally speaking, dungeons are not often examples of open-concept architecture. Therefore, after a few minutes of stumbling around blind as all hell, having your hair burned off by magical infinite torches, you would likely find yourself asphyxiated because of all the smoke. Bonus points if you’re also in the presence of other random torches that have been waiting there for no one, using up all of the cave’s oxygen in the meantime.
So does this article have a point? No. Not really. I just wanted to put these points out there, in hopes that maybe someone else sees how blatantly stupid torches in video games are. Maybe one day, things will change for the better. Maybe my article will have something to do with that change.
Or maybe I’m a whiney nitpicker.
Either way; something needs to be done. The fate of the world depends on it.