14 August 2016

Post Thoughts: Firewatch...

Finally, a game about relaxing in front of a fire...

The indie game scene has been really ramping up in both quality and ease of access over the last few years. From my own observation it seems that there are two predominant genres: 1) the hyper-reflexive bullet hell-style retro challenge and 2) the reflective and often critical experiential games - the ostensibly purported 'walking simulator'.* This is going to be about the second of those two genres.

I just finished playing through Firewatch (as the above image and article title might indicate) and I thought I'd wrap up my thoughts on the game - as usual: thar be spoilers!


The world as part of and surrounding a story can be very powerful...

I think it's important to state right off the bat how important story is to such a game as a walking simulator - and, in this case, I don't mean that in a derogatory sense because you literally do a lot of hiking throughout this game! The story is top-notch and went to a place I did not expect given the beginning of things...

Now, I don't know if there are multiple endings (I didn't look it up as I will likely play through this again with my partner) but the game certainly hints at such things during your time with it. The game length is approximately 4-6 hours long and while I certainly could have taken more exposition and dialogue, this wasn't a poor amount of time.

The game begins with a catch-up on your character's life thus far, focussing on his relationship with a woman who develops early onset dementia in a brief but emotional 'choose your own adventure' style of interface. During this sequence you cut to 'present day' of Henry (your character) arriving at his summer job performing a service as an American National Park Firewatch employee.

Thereafter, you are introduced quite artfully to the various characters at play through both direct and environmental storytelling methods, the small cast of which (and relatively short game running time) really helps to cement each person in your mind. Sometimes, I come away from a game and write one of these reviews and although I can picture the character I wish to mention, I am unable to remember their name and am forced to google it. Firewatch handles each character in such a way as to burn them into your mind as a real entity. I think this is critical to building an emotional response to the events of the game and to create the necessary tension required to reach the required amount of buy-in for the mystery that unravels during the events of the game.

While the art style is beautiful and compliments the thoughtfulness of the game, along with emotional and tonal shifts, and the media really latched onto the imagery of the game, it is surprisingly superfluous in my opinion except at a few of those tension-building moments. The use of colour filters is heavily used to shift the tone of a scene and although it was a bit jarring sometimes, I can't deny its effectiveness - if only it didn't happen over such a short time frame it might have been less noticeable and thus less distracting. I think what I'm trying to say is that this game has nice visuals but that it doesn't rest on those as other games have and might... the content and pacing of the plot and the acting quality are more than enough that this game could survive without the visuals.

Back to that mystery: the game opens by appearing to be a sort of 'man finding himself' plot through a distanced but intriguingly flirtatious and challenging romantic option. This deception pans out for the first third of the game before things start becoming very claustrophobic and the thriller-esque plot begins to shine. Once that starts off, the romantic undercurrents drop quite quickly but you still get a sense of a potential lasting friendship building - depending on the conversational choices you make. In which case (at least in the ending I saw) the relative deflation of that relationship between Delilah and Henry was quite sad without possibility of meeting up again (I mean, neither had the other's contact details!) it felt like a further rejection and, as Henry, I felt alone once more - heading back to reality and to difficult times without any support from my friend who I felt had helped me over a period of self discovery.

If you manage to get invested in the plot (as I did) there are several seriously spine-chilling moments in store; for instance when you are attacked from behind (something that i doubt happens very easily in such open spaces in real life) and when you visit the 'research site' and the cave. The story does an excellent job of building the tension that leads to those moments and uses music/sound cues (or lack thereof) very effectively in order to do so.

Essentially, the culmination of the plot; that the father of a boy who potentially died in an accident has been living undetected for over three years through multiple watchpersons in the same vicinity and is scared of you discovering his secret/presence, is a more than a little incredulous. Mostly because he happens to have all the essential elements and supplies available to him in order to sculpt your perceptions of events. It's a bit handy that a) Delilah doesn't know about the scientific study of the government in Wapiti meadow which, according to Brian Goodwin's map was there three years ago and b) Ned Goodwin (Brian's father) was able to move around faster than Henry and without Henry being able to catch him in transit when the game world consists of narrow valleys that funnel the player and (presumably) everyone else.

It's also a bit far-fetched that Ned was able to steal the only key for Cave 452 where Brian's body was located and that he had such vast knowledge of electronics that he was able to construct all these warning and tracking devices and to also pull off a paranoia-inducing subterfuge - even if this was during the Reagan era and those sorts of tensions were at an all-time high!

At the end of it all, there's a lot left unsaid and unexplained and, as with the best thrillers, you're never really quite sure what the truth of the matter was or is. It works in both the story's favour and against how it sits with the player - guaranteed to stay with them for a time.

Was there really a government experiment on social interactions in isolation conditions? Was Delilah a part of it? Was the convenient appearance of Ned and his high-tech instrumentation just part of a cover-up? Was Brian murdered or was it an accident? Who placed the alarmed backpack with Cave 452's key attached to it? Was it Ned? If Ned didn't want to be discovered why did he put the backpack out for you to discover? Did Julia really phone through Delilah's radio or was it just a dream as Delilah said it was? How the hell did Delilah get the new radio to Cottonwood Creek when it's south of Two Forks and her lookout is to the north?


It was a nice touch to get to see Henry, Ned and Brian in the credits using the developed camera shots. A shame not to see Delilah too...

With a story this good, the characters are pretty much guaranteed to be well-written as well. This holds true for Firewatch. Not only are they well-written but also well-acted with Henry and Delilah having a real sort of weird chemistry going on. You really got the sense that Henry was a reluctant conversationalist at the beginning of the story and, just like him, the player has a hard time understanding what Delilah is about.

The characterisation of Brian is less direct but in some ways more powerful due to the use of the 'ghost story-esque' introduction from Delilah for both him and Ned along with the environmental leavings of his things. By comparison, Ned is characterised by the lack of his presence in the world the player sees. He's more of a mystery and is demonised by Delilah from the very beginning in her descriptions to Henry over the radio.

The last two main characters are the two park Rangers, Ron and Dave whose little side story is really sweet and a little sad. One of them appears to be gay and fancies the other whilst the other is clueless and keeps talking about getting with a woman in their social circle. It seems these two guys were like ships in the night, always missing each other and leaving notes that might take many weeks or months to be picked up. This was an interesting little piece of flavour to the world and helped add even more human elements to the game. However, it was either a further reinforcement of the themes of loss, longing and nonfulfillment (and miscontruing events and actions) in order to guide the player towards the true meanings of the events that unfold during the plot or they were a bit too much of 'the same' sort of story telling laid next to the story of Henry/Delilah and Ned/Brian... depending on whether you're feeling charitable or not. Personally, I feel that their little story was to reinforce the events of the main plot in order to provide a sense of potential clarity to the player.


I thought Brian's characterisation was just great! Little touches like this made the game so much more interesting. Of course, why it suddenly appears 70-odd days after being in the cabin is another matter to mull over...

The gameplay of Firewatch is very simple. You mostly interact through on-screen prompts, or choose not to if you're the quiet, non-talkative type! There really isn't a lot of 'doing things' other than exploring the dialogue by talking or the world around you by walking. Apart from the interaction options there are no 'mechanics' to speak of. I suppose this might put some players off but I think the story and world are made well enough that I didn't miss something more complicated and, quite frankly, I think the inclusion of the dreaded QTE (quick time events) would have been detrimental to the game and felt pretty forced to me.

Technical issues/bugs:

You might find it difficult to see in this screenshot but all those pink petals/flowers are hovering in mid-air...

There were a couple of things that bothered me during my playthrough - first off, let me get the stupid, silly thing out of the way first: down in Cottonwood Creek there were a lot of things just floating in mid-air. I understand that it's an indie game from a relatively small studio and that things can get overlooked easily and that this is a simple height misalignment but it's also super easy to identify and to fix so it's quite bad that this occurred on such the scale it did!

Secondly, the game ran relatively poorly on the PS4, especially once the mist and smoke effects started being used in the latter parts of the game; hitching, stuttering, etc were all present and, quite honest, given the graphical power of the console I don't really expect that in a game that isn't that graphically demanding (maybe it was because of lots of alpha transparency use?).


The culmination of our journey...

I feel that TV shows are great but that this sort of experience has a chance of supplanting the typical story/character arc we are used to getting in that format - especially with this sort of writing quality. At the end of the day, I felt that Firewatch was an endearing and thought-provoking experience and I'd certainly play more games in this vein of things going forward (especially from these developers). I have mentioned previously that I enjoyed Until Dawn very much and that is, in many ways, a similar sort of experience, though less tightly written as I never felt myself within a thriller movie or TV episode during that game despite the similarities...

I'd definitely recommend this to anyone.

Backseat designing:

Picture perfect...

You know what? I don't think I'm a good enough writer to even try and improve on this story. Plus, the acting and dialogue was so good that there's nothing to improve there and since the game is so tightly focussed with no extraneous mechanics or fluff I don't really have anything else to critique or focus on.

I'm going to leave this game as it is as I think it's just about perfect...

*Not that there aren't plenty of other types of indie games out there, it's just that, perhaps, the biggest and loudest comprise of these two genres.

**The 'scene' doesn't look like an accident due to the careful placement of the rocks on his face/head but that could be down to grief on the part of his father, hiding the face away.

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