Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Audience Assumptions: None. A little familiarity with gaming lingo wouldn’t hurt, I guess?
Part One: A Call for Short Games
I often run into a problem with video games that has little to do with their quality: I don’t have enough time to play them. This is inevitable with adulthood and things like jobs, but another contributor is just how many games I’ve accrued over the years. Small games are easier than ever to make and buy, and even triple-A titles have developed such a short lifestyle that it’s easy to find two-year-old games that were sixty dollars at launch on sale for a fraction of that. My Steam library has ballooned, but there are few games on it that I have been able to give their full due.
And this problem is self-fulfilling. As my time to play games becomes more valuable, I have to carefully weigh their costs. I don’t want to spend twenty dollars on a game I’m going to look at for five hours and then set down unless I can get a bonzer experience from those few hours. Those games are few and far between, with major titles opting for longer experiences with more depth and complexity that demand more of their players. I understand why; while small games are relatively easy to make these days, they’re still not cheap to make, especially considering the standards players have come to expect. Selling cheap games on Steam is a risky business that mainly benefits the consumer (and Steam — arguably Steam more than anyone). If people value a game like Frost Punk at $20, it needs to have a huge player base just to break even. Games make money from sales, like most most products, by convincing people to buy them for a price they can’t pass up. Someone only vaguely interested in Frost Punk might buy something they want more when the game costs $20, but if it’s $10, that might be enough to convince someone to at least try it out. If they don’t intend to play it for long, the lower price looks more promising. $10 is more than the nothing that person would have paid for it otherwise, so the company makes money. And with more games combining this system with in-game microtansactions, we end up with games being valued lower and lower on their initial launch but taking up more of a player’s time.
It’s all a bit too much sometimes. I have to set goals for myself, and that’s hard to do for open-world games. How long does it take to get the full experience? How long before I’m just clicking buttons for the sake of reaching some arbitrary endpoint?
I’ve found a solution, but it’s a curiously detested one by the gaming community: short, narrative-driven games. Easy ones with fail-proof options are even better. Games like Gone Home, Inside, Guacamelee, Brothers, Abzu. Not all of those are easy games, of course, but I find that difficulty kills a narrative game quicker than anything else unless the controls are fun. All of these games introduce their challenge components bit by bit, and don’t punish you severely for failure, because that’s not the point. These are the sorts of games that you play, finish, and put down, perhaps never with the intent of returning to them. They rely on the memory you have of playing them being their main appeal, like how films and books work. You don’t need to come back, but you can if you like their atmosphere and gameplay.
I find these to be some of the most satisfying games to play. They need more than just a story, of course; it needs to be well-told. But I find games like this scratch the same itch as stand-alone novels or TV miniseries. Yes, Marvel movies and comics are fun, but they’re fleeting. You finish one, you hype your friends up about the best bits, you watch a clickbait YouTube video about what’s going to happen in the sequel, then you wait for the next shiny distraction. I’ve only seen Top of the Lake and Pride of Baghdad once, but they have each left an impact on me that cuts deeper than most video games or sitcoms or comic arcs. Sometimes you don’t need much space to tell a powerful story.
To some extent, that’s the idea behind the so-called walking simulator games. I honestly think this name is ineffective because there’s a substantial difference between tech demos of environments and games like Gone Home or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I haven’t played any of the more derided “walking simulators,” but from what I’ve seen, much of the criticism directed at them takes issue with the weakness of the gameplay and narrative more than the concept key to the genre.
For those not in the know, walking simulators are games based around exploring a fully-rendered digital environment, usually a town or a house, picking up pieces of a physical or narrative puzzle to piece together. The puzzle component usually isn’t complex and often merely points the player in the direction of a trigger for a cutscene or a voiceover. The games tend to have a heavy story focus and very few mechanics, which tends to make them more than a little pretentious and often criticized for barely being games.
I say if they have a component of interaction that enhances the experience, who’s to say they aren’t games? We’re used to having complete control over our games, or at least thinking we do, but the only thing essential to the medium is interactivity. Choice in games is illusory; no matter how hard you try, you can’t get past certain boundaries built in even the most expansive open-world experiences. If you drop through the floor, you fall into a void. Games are constructed, as much as some strive to convince you they aren’t. I want games that have thousands of branching pathways and five-button combat combinations, but I want games with minimalist controls too. Not all games need to give the player much more control than the ability to look around and pick things up, just like not all books need to be Lord of the Rings-length epics. As long as the rest of the game accounts for minimal controls, it can still be an effective game.
And finally, almost a thousand words into this ponderous piece, we get to the review.
Firewatch: it’s good.
Part Two: Just a Guy in the Woods
It’s good in a small way. The game itself follows a linear path which allots the player only limited input in the direction of the narrative through dialogue flavortext. The story plays out over just about three hours (unless, like me, you dick around a bit with the pine cones and turtle), and the only real gameplay to be had involves exploring a small but surprisingly expansive path of Wyoming forest. And that’s all the game needs.
The story itself is compelling, if a bit clunky at the midpoint; you play as Henry, a down-on-his-luck hiker who has taken a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest after his wife develops early-onset dementia. His boss is Delilah, a seasoned fire lookout in a firewatch tower across a nearby canyon. Delilah chats with Henry over walkie-talkies and guides him through his work. As Henry starts to adjust to his summer in the woods, strange things start to happen that lead him to uncover a strange cover-up.
The resolution of the story is poignant; the man breaking into Henry’s cabin and sabotaging his supplies is a former fire lookout who used to come out with his son years ago. Delilah explains that he just up and left one year, but when Henry uncovers evidence that he’s still around, they follow the man’s trail from years back and learn that his son died in the woods in a climbing accident. The bulk of the game story is spent with Henry and Delilah unraveling this mystery and building a close friendship with one another.
This is where the heart of the story is: in communication. Voiceover is a common narrative delivery technique for games because it allows the player to explore their environment while still paying attention to what’s being said to them — provided they want to pay attention. So many games are interaction-driven that even story-heavy games often relegate their narrative to aesthetic elements that can be skipped or ignored without impeding the gameplay. Those that force the player to watch cutscenes or don’t provide an easy-to-understand checklist of goals risk needlessly frustrating players if their offerings are not wholly based around the story.
Firewatch strips its gameplay to almost nothing but the narrative. While it isn’t strictly necessary to pay attention to Delilah’s banter, its existence is a crucial part of the experience. Walking simulators are notoriously vacant, and purposefully so; with no enemies or NPCs to interact with, the player is left to soak in the environment. There are countless moments in Firewatch where the player will be wandering through the thoroughfare and come across something that prompts them to report it to Delilah. Sometimes this is a necessary part of progressing the plot, but just as often, it’s merely there to give Henry something to talk about. The player can choose to stay silent about most developments, but the game incites a curiosity and almost corners the player into choosing to talk to Delilah simply to stave off the loneliness of the environment. She’s an enjoyable character and so is Henry. While the player controls Henry and can roleplay as him within the world as far as the mechanics will allow, the only time his personality comes through is when he’s speaking.
Other reviewers have noted that the dialogue options for Henry are surprisingly limited and rarely convey heavy distinctions in personality. The few distinctions that do exist are important — Henry can be amiable, serious, naive, contemplative, and mysterious — but at the end of the day, Henry is still a unique character. All of his dialogue needs to sound plausible, including the automated dialogue the player doesn’t have much choice in conveying. The strange cross-section of personalization with regard to Henry’s character, allowing the audience control yet limiting them severely in it, creates a sense of unease. This is not a game like Until Dawn that wants you to think you have complete control over every moment in the story; it lets you pick your flavor of ice cream, but it will still only take you to a single shop.
And it makes this apparent, even in the most core aspects of the gameplay. The game doesn’t strive for realism, but rather a visible facsimile of it. The game wants you to become comfortable enough to be immersed and isn’t constantly reminding you of how it’s a game, but it tempers how much of a game it is. You get the sense that Firewatch could have easily been a fully interactive experience with animals and people to interact with and the usual guff you might see in a survival-crafting game, but that’s not what it wants to be. The art style is highly realistic from a distance, but cartoonish up close. The story, likewise, is plausible, but just a bit too off-the-rails to be realistic. You play as Henry in the first person, yet Henry has a voice and a face and a personality, unlike so many other first person protagonists.
There’s that uncanny feeling that games do so well.
The game explores through its mechanics a sense of isolation, of having the ability to communicate and wanting to do so, but not being able to say quite what you want. The limitations the player feels reflect the limitations of the characters in the story. Henry is a bystander, unable to save anyone, unable to stop anything from happening outside of the script. He is powerless, just as the player is. Neither he nor the player ever meets Delilah in person; she just exists as a voice on the other side of the radio, just as the boy only exists as stories and photographs within the game. They don’t exist, and within the game, there’s nothing you can do about that.
Part Three: Damn, Those Woods Tho
Firewatch is the game equivalent of a good film. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it cuts to the point with exactly as much time as it needs. Clunky as I found some of the narrative beats, the piece as a whole is nonetheless tightly written. A blade of grass or two could be easily shorn, but not without whittling down the little fluff the game has to buffer it. When discussing the necessity of a scene or character or line of dialogue, aesthetic is an important consideration. While repetition in the key points an aesthetic seeks to communicate is excessive, aesthetics offer more than mere comfort. Aesthetic is about theme and concept and atmosphere, and the closer that is tied to the rest of a narrative medium, the more coherent the piece is overall.
In Firewatch, this is most visible in the physical landscape the player explores. The environment of the game is a character itself; the thoroughfare where most of the game takes place is far smaller than it first seems, owing to clever lighting and background effects. Mountains and forests are visible in the far distance, yet seem to blend perfectly with the interactive player space. Winding paths, a variety of terrains, and hidden or initially inaccessible areas make the explorable region seem initially vast and complex, necessitating a map for navigation. However, all of the area can be explored within a few minutes, and by the end of the few hours of game, the player grows as comfortable on the common footpaths as Henry would have months into his job. I’ve rarely seen a game that manages to pace its environment so perfectly with the narrative.
And I suppose it’s also worth mentioning how gorgeous the landscapes are. The cartoonish style works tremendously well with the amount of detail put into the game. Rather than opting for photo-realism as many larger titles have, Firewatch is concerned with making its visuals look vibrant and well-composed. The lighting is gorgeous but what strikes me most about the game is its colors. It manages to capture the beauty of nature through just enough visual exaggeration that it feels more real than the highest fidelity games with earth-scale worlds. Games still struggle with the difference between graphics and aesthetics, but Firewatch gets it.
It’s not enough to simply watch a Let’s Play of the game. I was fascinated and did just that when it first came out, later buying the game when I had a computer that could [technically] run it. However linear, the game is still a different experience to play than to watch. It couldn’t exist as a film; you don’t get the same pervasive sense of unkind wilderness when you don’t have a human analog. Gone Home is much the same, with its eerie hallways and dimly-lit corridors serving to make each step into a new room tense, even when you objectively know that nothing can harm you. I think that’s the mark of a good walking simulator-type game, really. If you have little to work with in terms of mechanics, the environment needs to pick up the slack, and if it can, it makes for an experience that almost no other medium can effectively deliver.
There’s something poignant in the way Firewatch uses its landscape to build up a sense of isolation, both physical and internal, that reflects the struggles of the characters in the story. It manages to make its story feel personal in a way few games accomplish, and it does so in just a few short hours. Compared to your Skyrims and ARKs and Destinies and Red Dead Redemptions, Firewatch is small fry. It won’t occupy days of your life, much less months or years. When you finish it, you likely won’t have much reason to go back to it. So why bother? In the slew of incredible games, what does this one have to offer that others don’t?
For me, it’s catharsis. We experience pleasure in the moment and in the memory. While many games fulfill the momentary pleasure of goofing around, gathering coins or gems or upgrades or whatever — and I love that, don’t ever think that I don’t — fewer nail the sense of completion one gets after reading a good book. I value this sense of completion, of conclusion and resolution, a lot. Even more when I realize I’ve been missing it. This is the thing that sticks with me after playing Firewatch, and I hope more games in the future look to accomplish the same.