There’s something worryingly believable about the premise behind Embr: that some blue-sky thinking Silicon Valley tech firm might come up with an app that turns ordinary civilians into firefighters. From its debut trailer, which manages to couch potentially horrifying possibilities in sunny terms (“Are you between the ages of 18 to 85? Then you’re ready, hero!”), to its trendy minimalist title, Embr perfectly apes the Uber vision of the app-driven gig economy currently sweeping the globe.
And yes, there’s a compelling game underneath all this, too. Embr is a systems-driven co-op sim about life as an amateur firefighter: armed with a hose, axe, or trampoline, you respond to emergency services through the Embr app, rescuing civilians from assorted house fires and other minor disasters. Embr can be played solo, but it’ll really come to life in its online co-op mode, where parties of four can team up to put out fires and earn income through the app. Before you know it, you’ll be smashing down doors with fire axes and rescuing old ladies by throwing them out of first-floor windows while a friend tries to break their fall with a trampoline. It’s all zany, hectic stuff, but according to Cameron Bajus, one of Embr’s lead developers, the game originally started out as a more serious firefighting sim.
“We really wanted to make a game that didn’t exist,” Bajus tells us. “A firefighting simulator game hasn’t really been done well, so we wanted to take a shot at that. It started out as something of a more serious take on it, and there are still a lot of the systems in the game that reflect that: there’s a very dynamic heat distribution system that’s pretty realistic, and throughout the house, there are different materials that hold different levels of wetness. There’s a high level of sim underneath everything, because that’s how it started – as a very high-level sim.”
While Embr was still in its early stages of development, however, Bajus and his team started playing around with its mechanics, and they quickly realised how comical the situations they’d created actually were.
“We hadn’t added our art assets yet, so all of our rescue objects were just these tofu block rectangle things,” Bajus recalls. “As we were playtesting around the office, the thing to do was just to throw them down stairs, throw them out the windows – all sorts of stuff. We were like, ‘We want to lean into this funny part of the game, but we’ve got to make sure you don’t feel like a really bad person for doing it.’ So how can we make a firefighting game where, if someone dies, you don’t just lose instantly? Is there a rating, somehow?”
It was in those early discussions that Embr’s premise was born. “From there, it began twisting into, if you get a rating, then it must be some kind of (firefighting) service. We thought, ‘Oh, you’d just call a firefighter from your phone.’”
As Embr firefighters, players will therefore receive alerts via the app, and depending on how promptly they rescue potential victims from a blaze, will be rewarded with a rating and a cash payment – which is just as well, because Embr firefighters also have to pay for their own firefighting equipment. “So basically you get to pay us for working for us!” beams Muse Games’ marketing manager, Wendy Fritscher.
“It certainly references the gig economy that’s currently happening in America,” Fritscher tells us. “Then people buy that across the world because we’re all very America-influenced. We definitely wanted to have a very self-aware and cynical approach to the way we presented the game to players.”
“At Embr, we believe anyone can be a firefighter,” Bajus confirms, adopting the soothing voice of a corporate advertisement. Playful satire aside, though, Bajus adds that he wants the game to give players a formidable opponent to pit their skills against.
“The main enemy in the game is the systems, and your control over those systems,” Bajus says. “So managing all the electricity sources, and the fires, the water sources, the gas, the physics system, and all those sorts of things. You interact with and use those systems, and navigate your way through the building to get to our, uh, valued customers inside the building… So interacting with all those things, and staying on top of it… it’s impossible to control all of it at the same time.”
The challenge will be there if players want to find it – houses can apparently be cleared of occupants within seconds, if a team’s efficient enough – but Embr is also being pitched as a game you could enjoy at parties, like Overcooked with fire hoses.
“There are different kinds of success you can have,” Fritscher says. “You can save everyone in the house, because you have people in the game doing excellent teamwork. And then you can play this with friends at a party, with a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other, not really paying attention but still having fun. You’re still gonna feel like you’ve succeeded – because if people get out, they pay you! They might leave you a bad review, though.”
For New York-based Muse Games, Embr was born in the aftermath of Guns of Icarus Alliance, its multiplayer shooter that, six years after the PC version launched, got a PlayStation 4 port in spring 2018. Once that game shipped, the 14-strong team at Muse had a chance to take stock and look again at the other game ideas they’d previously set aside. Says Wendy Fritscher: “We’re actually working on a few projects right now, with a core team of two to three people each, and then overarching animators and UX artists that we share between all of them to give us an overarching Muse Games unity.” One of those games, Project Fire, soon became Embr; according to Fritscher, two other titles – Project Oasis and Project Hora – are still in development and, for now, under wraps. Muse’s rodent-based brawler Hamsterdam (which we previewed in issue nine) is out this spring.
Developer: Muse Games
Publisher: Muse Games
Release: Early Access Q4 2019