Spoiler Warning: This post avoids major plot spoilers, but does contain minor spoilers, discussion of themes, and the experience of playing ‘Firewatch’
When we play games that put us in control of ‘superhuman’ characters, we embrace that fantasy: an indestructible soldier, a deadly ninja, a suave & sexy secret agent. Even the ones with dark backstories, emotional pain, and addictions are expertly carved to create an unattainable perfection for us to clothe ourselves in for the time that we play and control them. These characters allow us to take facets of our own personality, fill them out into something ideal, and hopefully we will like who that person is. In the same way, a flawed, human character can magnify the flaws in our own lives. It can be uncomfortable to see the less flattering aspects of our own personality woven into the fabric of a playable protagonist and even more so when you are then forced to control their actions. The best we can do is to take this distorted, fairground-‘hall of mirrors’, reflection and use it to better understand ourselves and the people around us.
… Firewatch is populated with well-crafted, flawed, characters…
By the time we actually take control of Henry’s physical actions in the wilderness of Wyoming, we are already part of his story. The minimalist telling of his path to that point is achieved through the use of simple on-screen text, but the inclusion of player selection at critical moments, along with the subtle ripples that those choices set into motion, are crucial in cementing an immediate connection with the character. No matter how insignificant these opening choices may seem, they ensure that the player’s own persona has been linked with that of Henry and his decision to ‘run & hide’ in the isolation of the ‘Two-Forks’ Firewatch lookout has immediate meaning to the player. He’s not a hero, just someone who wanted to get away from what he was facing at home.
‘Firewatch’ is a 1st person exploration game, and whilst the plot is linear, the map can be navigated freely giving it the veneer of an open world. The isolated forests of Wyoming are beautifully rendered and in particular the use of changing palettes throughout the game serve to heighten the narrative drama. Henry’s only companion is Delilah, his boss, ever present on the radio and always watching from her neighbouring watchtower, silhouetted on the horizon. She is the only voice in Henry’s self-imposed exile and their relationship is believably intimate rather than a forced Hollywood romance. Cissy Jones’ portrayal of Delilah is critical to the success of the game and is noteworthy for its quality; as the plot progresses, each spark of panic, pang of anger, and quiver of fear comes across that crackly radio clearly. The plot plays on the paranoia of isolation spawning an array of possible outcomes from each uncovered clue, and is resolved in a way that ties all aspects neatly together.
Whilst it’ll almost certainly acquire the cynical tag of “Walking-Simulator*”, and won’t hold universal appeal, it is a solid addition to the genre. The best comment I can probably make about ‘Firewatch’ is that is feels balanced; the plot is simple, but engaging; the level of interaction is enough to hold interest, but not detract from the dialogue; and the game is only as long as it needs to be. Everything from the ‘Firewatch’ logo to the drawer opening animation feels carefully considered and implemented with care. I found myself lingering towards the end of the game, not quite wanting to leave this beautiful (and the game is very easy on the eyes) landscape. It’s not surprising, in recent memory, ‘Kentucky Route Zero’, ‘The Flame in the Flood’, ‘Project Zomboid’, and now ‘Firewatch’ have all captured an essence of the wilderness/small-town-vibe of North America which appeals to me. The character flaw of wanting to ‘run-away’ and ‘hide’ somewhere in the wilderness is clearly a character flaw I share with Henry.
*I have considered blogging about the merits and drawbacks of 1st person exploration games, but it pretty much boils down to you either like them, or you don’t…