A while back I wrote a post on horror games, in which I demonstrated my considerable excitement for Campo Santo’s new (and first) release, Firewatch.
Let me update you on that. It’s about two weeks later, I’ve played it, and I’ve got to say – I didn’t think it was that great. I didn’t think it was that great at all, really.
Hear me out.
Okay, So There’s a Bit of Good News
The game is, predominantly, beautiful (largely thanks to Jane Ng – whose work is, FYI, a graphic art nerd’s kryptonite). Each tree, rock and river is seemingly crafted with a special, unique flair, and the sky is notably ‘alive’, shifting and evolving with the passing of time. Indeed, you really get the impression that the artists behind the game felt strongly about making it feel truly organic; the calming beauty of your surroundings enunciating the delectable feeling of being alone (which you are for much of the game).
Unfortunately, having a beautiful world just isn’t enough. But we’ll get to that in the bad stuff.
And There’s Also a Little of Kind-of-Good, Kind-of-Bad Stuff
Firewatch’s story starts promisingly – introduced as a story of two parts. One part is historical, allowing you to relive your fourteen-year long relationship with a woman, Julia, who you meet in a bar in 1975, eventually marrying as the story progresses. You discuss kids, get a dog, and go through the regular highs and lows of every relationship – until she gets early-onset dementia, and your world is uprooted. (Throughout the ‘Julia story’, I should mention, you’re prompted to make difficult choices as to how your character, Henry, deals with it. This doesn’t affect anything in any fundamental way, sadly. But once again, we’ll get onto that in the bad stuff.)
The other part of the opening is set in the present, the story of your relationship interjected with physical movement as you make your way to your new job: a lookout position in the Wyoming forest, where you’ve gone to escape your life for the summer. The year is 1989, and on reaching your lookout tower, Julia’s story fades out and is replaced by a new connection – your boss, Delilah, who you’ll speak to via radio for most of the game.
You’re intrigued. You’re emotionally involved. You’re ready to go.
The first hour or so flies by like a dream. The radio banter (a word I’m still not quite sure whether I hate or not, somewhat like my feelings for goat’s cheese) you establish with Delilah is brilliantly comical, the world continues to be beautiful and the plot begins to show itself, getting quite creepy and immediately mysterious by the end of the first day.
And it’s a big however.
It all begins to go a bit wrong.
As the plot continues, threads of it become more and more confused – something that I can’t, annoyingly, really elaborate on without spoiling it for you. Loosely put, things don’t add up, and they certainly don’t make sense.
Firewatch’s attempt to explain what has occurred is frankly, vague, and that’s putting it lightly.
At first, this doesn’t appear to be a problem. After all, how many games have you played where the plot doesn’t quite make sense during the bulk of it, and only comes together at the end? (*cough* Amnesia *cough*.) But this is the very problem. Because it doesn’t. It doesn’t come together at the end. Not really. Nothing is explained.
Firewatch’s attempt to explain what has occurred is frankly, vague, and that’s putting it lightly. It’s vague in a ‘none of this adds up, and we’ve confused ourselves, so we’re just going to leave it for you to figure it out haha, bye *laughter fades into hysteria, and credits roll*’ kind of way.
At least, that’s how it comes across, even though I’m not idiotic enough to believe that they didn’t know the ins-and-outs of their story. Of course not. I just don’t think they thought through the delivery of it enough.
I did a little research to see what other players thought, wondering whether the issue was with me being totally short-sighted and missing ‘the point’. But nobody, not even the reviewers who wholly enjoyed the game, seems to have a totally clear idea of what Firewatch is about – the most substantiated arguments consisting of claims that the story is simply meant to complement overall ‘themes’, predominantly, those of ‘escapism’ and ‘inevitability’.
Be that as it may, however, these theories don’t explain anything physical that happens in-game, or why these things happened to begin with – because actions that occur throughout simply don’t align with the ultimate conclusion drawn. Not to mention the fact that these ‘themes’ are only speculative, anyway – how can we really know what Firewatch was going for? Everything is imprecise, and as a result I was left feeling confused, a little cheated and – to be totally honest – underwhelmed.
I felt like the trailers, and the game itself, for the first half, presented Firewatch as one experience, yet it turned out to be a completely different one.
Again, I’m not silly enough to think that the writers of Firewatch didn’t know what they were doing. I think they knew exactly what they were doing – and it was an ambitious move. But it didn’t work for me, personally. I felt like the trailers, and the game itself, for the first half, presented Firewatch as one experience, yet it turned out to be a completely different one: a dangerous move which I’m sure will have left a few feeling disappointed. It was like ordering a hot chocolate and receiving a lukewarm one (there’s a reason why lukewarm chocolates aren’t a bestselling product). That’s how I felt after finishing Firewatch.
It’s not just the story that suffers, either – the gameplay does to an extent, too. You’re completely limited in where you can walk, and while it makes total sense that Henry can’t scale up the side of mountains (something I never truly appreciated while playing Skyrim, but do now), he also can’t step over tiny litterings of rocks or fallen branches, or walk between two trees, things that are totally feasible in real life. While you could argue this makes your direction clearer, and it’s easier to get to where you need to be, it also denies you basic freedom within the gameplay – which, for me, was a huge bummer.
Action is both limited and instructed.
These restrictions aren’t limited to where you can go, either – they also apply to your inventory, and as a direct result, what you can do. You can’t check out the items you pick up, only glance at them before they’re put away. And the only times you get to use them are when the game dictates, and that’s not often. At one point, you pick up an axe, but you use it a grand total of three times before it’s redundant, and the game won’t allow you to use it anymore.
Action is both limited and instructed, then – the only things you can use with freedom throughout are a flashlight, which is useful only in a cave, and a camera, which is never useful. (Well, if you’re playing on a PC, you can use it to take pictures of stuff to then print them off and stick on your corkboard. Charming, but pointless.)
I read a review which claims that this ‘lack of ability’ is because the game itself is not about the gameplay – it’s about immersion, exploration and emotion. And I totally get that. I see that. But… what is there to a game if there is no gameplay? What is there to a game if there is no real story? I felt like Firewatch tried to bestow an intense emotional reckoning, but fell short, again, at the delivery. Indeed, I would argue that you cannot truly immerse yourself in a game that’s so thickly layered with confusing aspects. You cannot explore a world that’s cut off to you in a lot of places, and in a lot of ways. And you cannot really tap into emotion when you’re also dealing with isolation, and additionally with some characters who are explored in no great depth at all.
Perhaps these emotions would’ve been more keenly felt had you been able to have an impact on them in some way, increasing your involvement with your character – however, although the game presents itself as multiple choice, It appears that no matter what choices you make, the outcome is the same.
For instance, somebody on a forum reported that they were as minimal in their conversations with Delilah as possible, to see how this would affect their relationship in their second playthrough – they stayed away from divulging any personal details, and, importantly, refrained from talking about Julia completely. However, Delilah brings up Julia anyway – making the ‘multiple choice’ aspect seem false, and the characters, in my opinion, less real, thus having less emotional impact.
Firewatch clings on to what it hopes you’ll do, sticking to its fixed trajectory without listening to the unique nuances of your gameplay.
I read another review which credited the game’s questionable multiple choice feature to its overall, supposed theme of ‘inevitability’ (one of the major apparent themes I touched on before) – they argue that the game is actually about inevitably facing the consequences of your actions, and how ideas of ‘escapism’ don’t actually exist. As a result, things would actually have turned out the way they do anyway, regardless of the choices Henry makes. A nice theory – but when you’re playing the game, it comes across as shoddily put together, and a bit frustrating for the player.
Firewatch clings on to what it hopes you’ll do, (and, from others’ reports, what it hopes you’ll say) sticking to its fixed trajectory without listening to the unique nuances of your gameplay.
Perhaps I have missed the point. Maybe it’s just a different type of game. Or maybe it’s just not a game that suits me. Or maybe I failed to see themes (potentially of escapism and inevitability) that were so (vaguely) obvious to others. The reason I didn’t really rate it could be any of these things, really.
I think it’s this – I think Firewatch is a game that has, potentially, tried to be a book. In a book, you can thread through and throw out as many themes, ideas and symbols as you like – it doesn’t matter. A reader can make their way through the pages and pick these out at their leisure, without it really mattering if they get it or not.
In a book, you can thread through and throw out as many themes, ideas and symbols as you like – it doesn’t matter. A reader can make their way through the pages and pick these out at their leisure, without it really mattering if they get it or not.
In a game, however, if the game relies on themes, ideas and symbols to drive impact, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same chances of success – because if these things are missed, the gamer feels cheated. If these things are missed, the gamer feels shortchanged of an engaging and interactive gaming experience.
Ultimately, gaming and reading are fundamentally different practices, one requiring activity and interplay to do well whereas the other doesn’t, and can coast along what’s ‘vague’ without injury. Simply put: a hot chocolate to a reader is a lukewarm chocolate to a gamer. Firewatch left me missing the heat.