Big red barrels are perhaps the most common trope in all of video games. You could see it as a crutch for developers, but it’s part of the common language of games. A red barrel is as crucial to games as the jump button. Not every game needs it, but it’s a comfort to the player when it’s there. Removing this trope would be like removing the word “is” from a gamer’s vocabulary. And no matter what your definition of “is” is, we can all agree it’s a pretty crucial part of our world.
You might think there’s some Freudian reason villains stockpile pressurized explosives and haphazardly spread them in every area of their secret lair. Some shrink might write a column about gaming tropes and try and convince you that criminals make unconscious errors in the hopes of being caught (or blown up). Well, there are no amateur psychologists here. I can assure you that Freud’s whacky ideas have no merit when it comes to explosive barrels. There are legitimate reasons for these dangerous containers being in so many games.
Villains Never Go Green
Chair Entertainment’s Shadow Complex takes place in a sprawling underground headquarters filled with barrels that go boom. If the whole place runs on gas-powered generators, then it probably consumes a small nation’s worth of fuel every day. You’d pretty much have to have fuel barrels available throughout the facility to keep the gas-guzzling base running. You can’t risk having your giant spider mech run out of petrol when a covert operative infiltrates your base.
Just how much gas is needed? The real-world monster truck eating Robosaurus has a pair of 20-gallon propane tanks just for shooting out fire. Imagine how much fuel is required to get a 48-foot-tall transforming dinosaur up and running. Shadow Complex‘s similarly effective spider mechs may not be quite as big as the 31-ton Robosaurus, but you can bet these bulky war machines get poor gas mileage.
You could chalk it all up to poor planning. Super villains tend to scrimp on hiring a good architect, which explains why it’s so cumbersome to traverse a bad guy’s headquarters. And these villains tend to hire inexpensive henchmen who don’t understand that red is the international symbol for “Hey, this explodes!” and choose to nestle right next to these dangerous containers.
It’s Not like You Can Drill for Oil on Mars
Id Software’s games have always been known for their rich subtext. Set on a research facility on Phobos, one of Mars’ moons, Doom is clearly a commentary on man’s reliance on oil even as technology advances far enough to open portals to Hell. There are dozens upon dozens of idle barrels in this research station. Some are filled with toxic green goop (how else do you clean Martian dirt out of the carpet?) and others are full of oil. Yes, they use gas on Mars.
Whether there’s a lot of Martian lumber to chop or meat to butcher, the research station has its fair share of chainsaws. Even in the future – one where man has colonized Mars — chainsaws run on gas. But you can’t exactly set up drilling platforms on Mars. Oil comes from Earth, which must be a pain in the ass to ship all the way to the red planet. You can’t buy gas as the need suits you – you’ve got to buy in bulk. With limited storage space, sometimes you just have to put barrels wherever they can fit and if a demon invasion comes unexpectedly, so be it.
Those Chickens Won’t Deep-Fry Themselves
The world of Fable‘s Albion is full of chickens. In fact, there’s virtually no other livestock to be found but chickens, solving the age-old riddle, “Why does everything in Albion taste like chicken?” (Answer: Because it is chicken.) While an industrious hero can get his leg muscles a workout punting fowl, your average peasant knows chickens are for eating. I can’t speak for you, but if I’m going to spend my life eating chicken at every meal, it’s damned well going to be fried.
Why else would Albion be littered with highly explosive barrels, ones often found in the most unlikely of places (like a cave full of gnarly Hobbs)? Deep-fried chicken is a staple food of Albion. A traveler can’t be expected to lug around vats of oil on his back. That would be ridiculous. So barrels of the stuff are kept in places where the good folk of Albion might have need of a way to fry their poultry. “Can a chicken make you feel?” Peter Molyneux asked early in the development of Fable. Yes, Peter. Yes.
Sir Francis Drake Loved his Sea-Doo
Then there’s the curious case of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The murky canals of the Drowned City feature floating barrels that erupt when shot. This ancient city, founded by the Spanish four centuries earlier and later visited by the Nazis, wouldn’t seem like a place for keeping explosives on the waterways. Of course, you don’t know much about revered explorer Sir Francis Drake, who hid the treasure El Dorado in the sunken city because he didn’t believe in sharing.
As any historian worth his snuff will tell you, Sir Francis Drake loved the sea. And like any sailor, he couldn’t depend on the changing winds to get around cities. Motorized transportation was the only reliable way to get anywhere four centuries ago and Sir Francis was a lover of his tiny two-seater motorboat. There’s nothing worse than running out of gas halfway across a sunken city, so Drake left himself numerous refueling stations. It makes sense if you know your history. It’s either that or developer Naughty Dog was just plain stupid putting these barrels there. That’s simply not something I, as a learned individual, can believe.