This month’s release of Remedy’s Quantum Break has us thinking about their previous work, Alan Wake, a game where one of your most valuable weapons is your flashlight. They’re analogous, flashlights and guns. You aim them and use them to affect things at a distance. Model the latter (and oh so many videogames model the latter) and it’s not too difficult to model the former. They can empower, yes, but only in a context where you’re not empowered. Darkness is threatening, and the flashlight is personal. It can’t illuminate everything, and anything outside of its glow becomes more threatening. And because flashlights would be too limited, here are nine videogame Personal Illumination Objects.
Wake’s enemies, the Taken, are humans (or animals, or inanimate objects) possessed by the Dark Presence, an enemy as pulpy as its name. They’re covered in a shadow, a videogame-standard shield that has to be destroyed before they can be killed. But in Alan Wake, that which damages the shield does not damage the enemies. Combat is a two-step process: destroy the darkness with the flashlight then shoot the enemy with a gun. The weaponized flashlight recharges over time, but can also be reloaded using Energizer-branded batteries found throughout the game.
This is a strange game: a pastiche of adventure pastiches like Indiana Jones and Uncharted, but with their literary genealogy restored. The player character is not just thematically descended from H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain: he is his great-grandson, James Lee Quartermain. James carries two pistols, but can swap the one in his left hand for a flashlight. It blinds human enemies (which, in a symbolically fraught progression, shift from Nazis to Communists to Arab mercenaries), charges up ancient machine door puzzle crystals, and burns off the darkness surrounding the—er, that is, makes the undead enemies vulnerable to gunfire. By focusing the beam on them and burning them.
In the Lowlife section of the game, player character Gordon Freeman is equipped with a gun that picks up and flings things, and a flashlight. Computer-controlled Alyx Vance has the gun, but no flashlight. One way to play through the level is to point the flashlight at enemies, so Alyx can shoot them, which she does well. What she doesn’t do so well is move around in the dark. If you turn off the flashlight, she won’t be able to move or shoot anything. It creates an almost-symbiotic relationship between player and AI, except the player doesn’t have to fully rely on Alyx the way she has to rely on his flashlight. It’s possible that would have been too disempowering for the player (an effect used to great discontent in the next entry).
Hoooo boy, Doom 3. The game was dark. Not Zack-Snyder-Film-Adaptation dark, but sparsely lit. Unlike many other first person shooters, the original Doom 3 flashlight could not be toggled on and off no matter what weapon you were using. You could shoot, or you could use the flashlight. This particular design was not exactly beloved. The PC version was modded days after release to enable simultaneous flashlighting and shooting (the Duct Tape mod). The BFG Edition, released in 2012, also replaced the stand-alone flashlight with a toggleable one. The see-or-shoot dichotomy was unexpected in a Doom game, a franchise born in the 1990s and built on shooting everything you can see. The series’ BFG-9000 gun killed every enemy on screen when its blast hit. Doom 3‘s limiting you to either being able to see or to defend yourself was mechanically disempowering, more like survival horror than first-person-shooter.
You’d expect a rail-shooter using the Wii remote to have a flashlight that follows the pointer. You’d be wrong. Extraction‘s flashlight is more of a glowstick just off the side of the screen. As you use the remote to aim a variety of weapons that are really just power tools (think Ripley’s repurposing of the power loader in Aliens and how it’s more effective than the space marine’s weapons, and you’ll have an idea of the theme at work), it slowly dims. It’s rechargeable—all you have to do is violently shake the Wii remote for a few seconds and the light is back. It’s a doomsday prepper’s dream: a light source charged by kinetic energy.
This 1983 Konami arcade game is an early example of the Flashlight Genre, which is what I am now calling any game that involves using a flashlight to stun enemies. Here, it’s a headlamp (I think?) that stuns the cavemen and dinosaurs that get in the way of your archaeologist (I think?) as you guide them up to the top of the screen where they grab onto the tail of a roc that flies away.
Originally released for WiiWare in 2008 (and remade for iOS and Android), Wayforward’s Lit is a puzzle game where, like Alan Wake, the danger is in the darkness. You work your way through a school, using mild vandalism (breaking windows) and turning on lamps and computers and TVs to create paths of light through the darkness. Like Dead Space: Extraction, you shake the Wii remote to recharge the flashlight. Unlike Dead Space: Extraction, you do use the Wii remote to aim it. It’s not a combat tool like the other entries on this list: it’s for planning. You shine it around to plot your path through each room.
Roc’n Rope‘s headlamp opens the door for the next entry on this list, another non-flashlight light: Peter Jacob’s flash lamp. Peter is an injured reporter in a French cathedral-turned-hospital during World War I. By the time you get to Peter’s chapter in the game, you’ve been through the cathedral twice already, in different periods of history. Setting off the lamp stuns enemies, lending the limping Peter a slight advantage.
Maybe the earliest example of a personal light source in games, and certainly on this list (it predates Roc’n Rope by a year), Haunted House doesn’t actually have a flashlight. It has a match. The match lights up an area around your character (disembodied eyes), showing you any items you can pick up. If you climb the difficulty ladder, the walls of rooms themselves will only be visible when they block the candle light or when lightning flashes. It’s more like Lit than any of the other games on this list. It illuminates survival, not destruction.
Brian Taylor just can’t find a beat.