Firewatch

***SPOILERS.***

Firewatch is the debut game of new studio Campo Santo, which has the enviable pedigree of being composed of a number of ex-Telltale developers. As a debut game, Firewatch does feel very much like a working prototype: a tentative hybrid of choice-based narrative game and a more conventional open world setting. Mechanically, it is a game that seems slightly uncertain about where it stands between the two. Nevertheless, the game is a promising start for Campo Santo and a testament the potential of video games to achieve a level of subtlety in videogame storytelling usually reserved to film and literature.

The game places you in control of Henry, a forty-plus year old man who signs up for a summer stint as a fire lookout in the Shoshonne National Forest. His marriage is troubled – his wife has early-onset Alzheimer’s and children are on the way. While she is placed in the care of her parents, Henry seeks solace in isolation as a means of getting away from it all, even temporarily. There, he meets and befriends Delilah, a spunky, sympathetic fellow lookout and his supervisor. Their friendship blossoms, possibly into something more – but as the summer wears on strange things begin to occur – and they need to find out what is causing them.

The game is a cross between a Telltale-style narrative choice game, Gone Home-esque walking simulator, and open world exploration game. But it hews much closer to the former two than the latter. There are no quests or discrete narrative chunks that the player chooses to activate. The storytelling is more linear and naturalistic, with most of your interaction being with an unseen voice on the radio – that of your supervisor Delilah. But at the same time, Firewatch is also a game very much about exploring its lushly-detailed environment.

In fact, the best way to enjoy Firewatch as a game is to immerse yourself in it and pretend that you’re really there, taking in the sights, snapping pictures with your in-game instax camera. That entails fiddling with the in-game options to switch off the option to see your location on the in-game map, forcing you to use a compass, the map, and nearby landmarks to navigate the land. At the start of the game, this can be slightly frustrating but also great fun, as you roam the map looking for supply caches and getting to know the lay of the land. If Firewatch has an element to distinguish itself from other choice-based narrative games, it is this element of wilderness exploration.

And this exploration has its particular pleasures. The environment of Firewatch – a small but lovingly crafted (if somewhat unpolished in places) parcel of Wyoming backcountry is gorgeous, with a painterly aesthetic and sound effects that make you really feel like you’re there as Henry, wandering around and free. That sense of freedom is essential to the story, because it gives Henry the licence to temporarily abandon his responsibilities and wander around unspoilt, majestic nature. That element of the narrative is a big part of the thematic tension that Firewatch establishes between freedom and obligation.

This tension is also reflected between the taut narrative of Firewatch and its open-world nature. That tension has long been an issue that plagues most, if not all, open-world games. How do you balance the player freedom of an open-world game with maintaining pacing and tension in a cinematic narrative? Open-world games like The Witcher often sacrifice the latter for the former, which creates issues with narrative flow and immersion. Firewatch, on the other hand, has tried to solve this by breaking down the open world action into discrete time segments. As Henry, the player spends each day performing tasks to advance the plot, and once those goals are met, the game timeskips to the next segment. Usually, the goals are those that allow the player some freedom of maneuver, but the game does use all the tricks in the book – one way passages, corridors, you name it – to narrow the traversable environment when it wants to instill a sense of urgency, or move the narrative forward.

On paper, this seems like a nice compromise solution – give the player freedom, but bound by temporality to preserve a sense of narrative pacing. In practice, though, it can be disruptive and off-putting when the scene transitions to the next time segment without warning. And the game doesn’t warn you which narrative flags will trigger that cut to the next scene, so to speak. So the player could be happily exploring the map to find a supply cache and talking to the deuteragonist Delilah on their walkie talkie – but then concluding that conversation will trigger a cut to black, and the player will find themselves back at the tower, a day having passed. That kind of wresting of control away from the player when they don’t expect it isn’t an inspired design decision – it diminishes that sense of agency which is so vital in games.

This awkwardness in game design, however, is still an encouraging step forward because it does show some attempt to find solutions to the problems endemic to open world games. And I do think that from a purely narrative standpoint, the game maintains a very good sense of flow and pacing, even if some of the plot threads and revelations can be a bit clumsily telegraphed due to the presence of player agency (think players ignoring vital clues when searching the area, etc).

Unlike walking simulators like Dear Esther, that rely primarily on environmental storytelling, in Firewatch the narrative is sustained primarily by the interactions between Henry and Delilah. That is also where the element of choice comes in. The player’s ability to make discrete choices is limited to picking out their replies to Delilah, and the choice of reply supposedly affects the tenor of the relationship you have with her. Not having played the game more than once, I cannot attest to the accuracy of that statement, but I suspect that the constellation of choices made available to us are mostly there for show. The main storyline is linear in all the important bits – there are no “major decision points” that you might expect from your typical Telltale style game. In that sense, the narrative is much more natural but also more linear. I don’t see a problem with this – I’m not a fan of forcing player choice for its own sake. But others may decry the linearity of the story.

As for the story itself, it’s not your average video-game fodder. At its heart, the game is very much about Henry and his struggle between the tantalising freedom offered by the outdoors and that promise of starting afresh in the figure of Delilah, and the crushing weight of his obligation to his wife. That tension is reflected in the game’s mechanics, in the secondary “conspiracy” story that the game tells, in Delilah’s own story as well. In the end, the game’s seeming position on that inner conflict is not what you’d expect from a genre that customarily involves the player in escapist fantasies – the denouement of the game is actually more of a nullification of the possibility of escape. Henry cannot remain in his tower forever, his belief in conspiracy revealed as something more mundane (and tragic), he doesn’t “get the girl”, and as he is literally carried out of a flaming forest, he must return to face the harsh realities of life and face them, tempered by that harsh lesson that he has learnt as a lookout in fire-prone Wyoming backcountry.

At its end, Firewatch is therefore a short but taut game, a little piece of narrative involvement with some sprinkles of game-like exploration. Although it is at times clumsy at reconciling its two aspects into one seamless package, its willingness to back away from tired gaming tropes and critically reflect on gaming’s penchant for escapism is a refreshing burst of fresh air. It’s a good start for Campo Santo, and I look forward to their future efforts.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 radios

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