Thoughts on Firewatch

Last night I was looking for something new to play and after some back and forth, landed on “Firewatch”, a new narrative driven game developed by Campo Santo for PS4 and PC.

I’d heard much about the game on a number of podcasts, likening its opening to the gut punch of the first ten minutes of Disney’s “Up”, and lauding the voice acting and presentation, so for $20 it seemed like a good way to spend the evening.

 For the record, as soon as someone broke my watchtower window, I'd be packing it in. 

For the record, as soon as someone broke my watchtower window, I'd be packing it in. 

The basic premise is that a man dealing with the collapse of his marriage due to uncontrollable circumstances, takes a job as a member of the forest service at Shoshone National Park in Wyoming. His job is to sit in a tower and report any fires that crop up during the summer heat. The only meaningful contact he has is with Delilah, his superior and fellow fire-watcher. The two communicate via radio, the job responsibilities requiring them to stay in their respective part of the forest, preventing any face-to-face contact.

Though the comparison to “Up” turned out to be a bit hyperbolic, I was thoroughly impressed with not only the story itself, but the way it so deftly incorporated into the language of a video game without breaking any immersion. There have been a number of first-person narrative games released over the past year or two that tell interesting stories, but this is the first time I was compelled to finish the story in one sitting, without the feeling that the story and game mechanics were two separate entities that didn’t fully complement one another.

As a point of comparison, take “Gone Home”, a similarly presented game, in which a girl is returning to her family home after some time away. The game is something of a character study, with the player moving from room to room in an unpopulated environment, reading snippets of paper or letters and listening to audio diaries that tell of her father’s struggles as an unsuccessful novelist, the deteriorating relationship her parents are coping with, or her sister’s love affair with another girl in her high school.

 From "Gone Home" - The door's ajar, so it's hardly snooping. More like an invitation.

From "Gone Home" - The door's ajar, so it's hardly snooping. More like an invitation.

While the story is well told and interesting, the player experiences the narrative by rooting through closets, opening drawers, snooping through her parents’ bedroom and finding secret compartments – you know, the kind of thing you do when you enter a house. I don’t know about you, but when I go visit my parents, if they aren’t home, I might sit and watch TV or read for a few hours until they return. I’m not likely to head straight into the closet by the front door and start rooting through coat pockets for receipts that will shed some light on what they’ve been up to while I’ve been gone.

“Firewatch” doesn’t take that path and it’s all the better for it. The dialogue is natural and feels real, and everything the player does is in service of the story, fitting right in with the story of a man in hiding, refusing to face the things that really matter in his life.

The thing I liked most about the story is how this aspect of hiding becomes the theme that ties each of the characters together. Delilah tells Henry, our main character, right from the start that this is a job people take when they have run away from something. Delilah is no different. She’s hiding from her life, and has been doing it for so long that it’s become the only way she knows how to deal with difficult situations, to the point that even waiting for a few minutes to meet Henry face-to-face at the end of the story is something she can’t handle.

This theme applies to the other characters in the story as well, showing how turning away from your mistakes or the difficult things life can throw at you, can end up impacting you in a much greater way than if you’d simply stayed and faced the music.

In the end, I can’t recommend the game enough. Even my wife, who’s not a big fan of gaming in general, ended up being riveted by the story. She helped me pick which game to download, then stayed to watch the whole thing through from the moment I pressed start.

If you’ve been interested in checking out something different, “Firewatch” is wonderfully satisfying and an exciting glimpse into where storytelling in gaming can be taken. I’m looking forward to what Campo Santo is able to do after the success they’ve had with this title.

Now, on to Johnathan Blow’s “The Witness” – so many puzzles…

Firewatch website: http://www.firewatchgame.com/

My Favourite Gaming Narratives of 2015

Man, I love a good video game. Ever since I was a kid, hopping Mario onto the head of a sentient-fungus monster, I’ve relished the feeling of being transported into a new and wonderful place. As I’ve aged, while I still enjoy gaming, I’m looking less for the twitch action of an old school platformer or racing game, and more for something that is going to keep me engaged mentally, something that’s well-written, cinematic, and still makes the most of the medium.

Thankfully, I didn’t play every game that came out last year, because that would’ve left little room for things like a job, or eating, but I did play a handful. Of the games I did play, since I’m a fiend for a good story, I thought I’d share the ones that made the biggest impact on me.

If you would like to suggest a game to check out that had a really great story, feel free to add a comment. I’m always keen to try something new.

Here are my favourite gaming narratives of the last year:

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Bloodborne (Sorta)

This one comes with a caveat. Bloodborne was, hands-down, my favourite gaming experience of the last year. This is a game that actually asks you to learn and improve, making each miniscule step forward a rewarding experience. There is a rich story hidden within Bloodborne, but it is incredibly hard to discern without a bit of help. Instead of a story told through dialogue or cutscenes, most of the narrative is conveyed through the environment (which is awesome), or through… uh… item descriptions (less awesome).

 While I didn’t quite get the full story out of the game as I was playing it, I loved turning to the online community of From Software fans who spend their time making lovingly crafted videos, essays and podcasts that discuss everything from fact to speculation. The Lovecraftian lore becomes much more engaging after hearing from passionate fans, and I found myself seeking out as much information as I could process while I gobbled up the game level by agonizingly difficult level.

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Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange is an episodic series that was doled out in five chunks over the course of last year. It tells the story of Max, a teenage photography student at a school for the arts in a fictional Oregonian town. Max accidentally witnesses the murder of a childhood friend that she’d lost touch with, and in the fear and anger of the moment, she discovers that she has the power to rewind time and save her friend.

The story flows out from that point of rescue, as Max reconnects with friends she’d left behind, eventually uncovers a criminal conspiracy and deals with small town politics, all while working out how to prevent an ominous tornado from destroying everything in sight.

The teen drama writ large is well done, though the dialogue is often a bit on the awkward side. What made the game so memorable is the way in which it handles the concept of grief, and a person’s need to say goodbye to a loved one on their own terms. It’s a slow burn, but a very moving one.

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Batman: Arkham Knight

The previous two Rocksteady-developed Batman games were great, though they weren’t much to write home about from a narrative perspective. Arkham Knight however, plays with the way a video game is structured to tell one hell of a story that keeps throwing interesting ideas at the player. The way Batman’s hallucinations are presented, the way a major character’s death is portrayed and the way the concept of internal demons is handled are all done in a way I’ve never seen before. Take those ingredients and add in a well-written and executed story, and you have the rare action game that delivers on all fronts.

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Until Dawn

Normally, when a game tells you that you have the ability to make decisions that affect the outcome of the story, you are being lied to. Maybe “lied to” is a bit too strong a turn of phrase, but you’re definitely being told an exaggeration of the truth. Normally, choice in a game boils down to how a character reacts to you, and little more. That goes for the above mentioned Life Is Strange, as well as every single game from developer TellTale (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones). Not to say this is necessarily a bad thing. As long as the story is strong, your choices add a bit of flavour and a level of player investment as you move along the rails.

Until Dawn is the rare choice-heavy game in which the decisions you make actually do have an impact. The story is the classic cabin-in-the-woods horror trope: a group of friends reunite at remote location in the forest on the anniversary of the death of two of their comrades. Your role as the player is to guide these kids through the night, keeping as many of them as you can alive until... uh… dawn. Duh.

What’s so great about this game is that the choices you make actually impact the story in a real way, to the point that you can either complete the game will all of the kids alive, or will all of them having died. My first play through ended up being somewhere in between, but I’m excited to go back and see if I can get them all out.

Oh, and it takes place in Alberta, which happens to be where I take place as well, so it has the home front advantage.  

 Pictured: A postcard from Banff that has been mislabeled. 

Pictured: A postcard from Banff that has been mislabeled. 

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Soma

Soma’s story is all about what it means to be a person, and was by far my favourite narrative experience of the year. It was one of those games where I would pause every so often and go run over to my wife and bother her with tales about how amazing the ideas were, how constantly impressed I was with what I was experiencing.

No spoilers, but the gist is that you play a young man with a brain disease who is undergoing an experimental treatment that involves a full scan of his brain. Where it goes from there involves an underwater facility, the end of the world, an AI with a really creepy definition of what it means to preserve life, and an ending that fully duped me, even though the game had already telegraphed how it was going to go.

I’ve never played a game as thought provoking as Soma and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Seek it out!

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Honorable Mention – Fallout 4

Fallout 4 almost had a really great story, but after the main thrust of the narrative is out of the way and you’ve had a surprising revelation presented to you, things sort of fall apart.

I absolutely love this game, but after completing two of the four endings, I’ve not been happy with either option. That said, there’s nothing more fun than encountering the little stories that pepper the wasteland, and I had a blast with some individual quests, like the Silver Shroud stuff, or the Lovecraft horror mine.

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There was one game I played this year that included a narrative that made me incredibly angry, but I think I’ll save that for its own post.

Any great gaming narratives you experienced in 2015? Feel free to share if the mood strikes.