Thursday, April 7, 2016

Firewatch


  I guess I'm on a gaming roll lately, and for once I'm not a whole year behind on the hype train for a new(ish) game. Firewatch is a recent indie game and the debut title from developer Campo Santo and publisher Panic. Seeing how it's so damn good, both Campo Santo and Panic now have my attention. What's next, guys? Whatever it is, I'm already interested. Anyways, down to brass tacks. People have called Firewatch a 'walking sim' and I've personally heard that term slung as a very unpleasant critique of this game genre. It feels a variation on "boring", the one dimensional complaint that 'simple' people sling at movies that don't have explosions every five minutes. Fret not... Firewatch is not boring. Not by a long shot.

   Firewatch embraces the simplicity of a text based adventure game without even being text based. Whether this was born out of necessity and budget, or a genuine artistic idea- I don't know. But, either way, it's particularly attractive. Most of the game is walking and talking, and saying it like that just sells it short. See, at it's core, Firewatch is a mystery, an interactive mystery. The largest amount of influence the player genuinely has on the whole game is how fast it goes by. Which is ultimately determined by whether or not you jog through the whole game. It has beautiful visuals, simple graphics, and a straightforward interface. This isn't a game that needs to have it's settings maxed out, it doesn't invite modding, and it's not a game hung up on shooting mechanics or anything like that.

   A lot of Firewatch's brilliance is in it's simplicity. You play a guy named Henry, who's taken the job of a forest fire lookout to get away from stuff in his life. You become buddies across walkie talkies with a fellow lookout named Delilah. The voice acting is phenomenal and immersive, which is great because if it wasn't... this game wouldn't be worth playing. You get to know Henry and Delilah through conversation, almost never seeing either of their faces. This was by design, to avoid the tasking and expensive process of facial animation- it's a first person game, and Delilah is only ever a voice on a walkie talkie. I applaud the voice actors behind the roles, they brought both characters to life with gusto. I can't believe I have no faces to put to these characters, because I feel like I know them.

   Anyways, a bit of nonsense with a couple reckless weekenders and some fireworks kicks off the story which might seem simple and mundane even at first, but is honestly anything but. The story takes you into some outright bizarre territory and it had me on the edge of my seat. Absolutely gripping. Anyone calling this a walking sim is very probably someone who can't play a game without a billion objectives, and twice as many guns to tote around. Firewatch is first and foremost, a story. And, it's a damn good one at that. "I'd honestly believe just about anything at this point..." Delilah says in a panic, and you know... at that point, I would've too. The game's level of mysteriousness gets cranked so high that I had no idea what was going to happen.

   The game takes place in a forest, and you have a small assortment of tools and such to help you do your job, and survive. There's rope, a compass, a map, and a handful of other things. You get to physically do a lot more here than you could in some other games like The Stanley Parable- which is another fantastic game, albeit wholly different. You get to climb, spelunk, chop down a couple trees, collect supplies, and all of this within the day-to-day context of the story. The game never gives you the absent minded freedom to mash a button to swing an ax around, or repeatedly throw punches at the air. It doesn't even encumber you with an individual button for each single object you have. Prompts and interactivity is contextual, making the gameplay streamlined and simple.

  You remember I initially mentioned that Firewatch embraces the feeling of a text based adventure? That's because this story could be told on paper/text within a few pages. At times it's point-to-point trekking, and often it's simply a choose-your-reply deal. The story doesn't need the vibrant and colorful visuals, nor does it need to have you guide Henry through the forest, but it's part of the fun regardless. It's like a text based game in it's simplicity, but with the added bonus of being able to explore the world it's been talking about, and seeing how text based adventures are still being made, that's not a bad thing at all. The game might be pretty darn short, I hammered it out in one sitting- with several breaks on a rainy day with not much else to do.

   Yet, I don't feel like it's short length is a bad thing. If you wanted to stretch it out, play each 'day' in the game like an isolated episode, and each on it's own day. Some days are pretty short though, so maybe cheat a bit and play through two. That way, if you played a day or so... a day... the game might last you a liiittle over a week? I don't see the need to do that, but other reviewers have openly criticized it's length, and I get it, nobody wants $20 on a video game to be gone in several hours and one sitting. But, can't we just be thankful the game is so gripping, engaging and emotional that you won't want to put it down once you start? I know I didn't.

  I think we can start to do away with this whole concept of 'beating' a game, like it's a mere series of challenges. Games have stories to be told now, and in cases like Firewatch, the story is more important than the gameplay itself, so why are we still viewing it through that lens of having to 'beat' it? You don't rack up points, you don't get ranked on how well you did, you're not timed, and this isn't that kind of game. It's length in my opinion, is fine. I didn't 'beat' Firewatch, I finished the story the same way one finishes a good book.

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