There seems to be a growing trend among independent game studios to deliberately cast aside the traditional conflict based games of most triple-A companies, moving towards a less violent, more emotional gaming experience. Games like Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture use the simple mechanic of a story revealed through exploration to draw the player into a compelling interactive experience.
Firewatch, by Campos Santo, shows the great strengths of this growing genre by building a compellingly environment, realistic characters and an absorbing plot. It also shows the weakness of the genre, in how easy it is for a game to collapse if any of these elements isn’t as strong as it should be.
We open with a short written history of Hank, our protagonist, and we make some simple binary choices which we are led to believe will have a lasting influence on Hank’s life. When first meeting Julia, the woman who would become his wife, how should he approach her? Which dog should they adopt together? How should Hank react when she is hurt by a stranger? How tightly should he hold onto her whilst she is gradually lost to dementia?
Finding himself widowed in all but name, Hank takes a job as a fire warden, tasked with watching over a vast stretch of the Wyoming wilderness. The life of a warden is a lonely one and Hank’s only human contact during this time will be with his supervisor, Delilah, a voice on a radio. When conversing with Delilah the player will chose how to respond, or whether to respond at all. This will influence how the story unfolds and how much is revealed.
Firewatch looks impressive. Its art style reminded me a little of Team Fortress. The environment is, largely, open to exploration and we are free to wander the wilderness, taking time to inspect items we find, or just stand and stare. And I did stand and stare. I spent time just watching the sunset, or looking at the sky and counting shooting stars. As Hank enjoys the solitude away from the noise and crowds, so can we take a moment to appreciate the quiet simplicity of this artificial nature.
Shortly after arrival though, what should be a summer of reassessing his life is interrupted by a series of strange events. Quickly we are drawn into a possible conspiracy. Is someone listening to our radio conversations? Who is the strange man we see in the distance and is he responsible for the acts of vandalism? Is there more to the mysterious disappearances in the area? Is Delilah all that she seems? Has the time alone just made us paranoid?
And this is where Firewatch falls down. We are led down the rabbit hole, but the pay off is underwhelming and more than a little disappointing. Until the very end I half expected a “would you kindly” Bioshock-style payoff, but instead we get a hoax perpetrated by a grieving hermit designed to prevent us from discovering his secret. A hoax which involves an elaborate treasure hunt, culminating in his leading us directly to the secret he sought to hide, which we could never have otherwise discovered.
But Firewatch isn’t really about the plot. It’s about a man grieving the loss of his wife and learning to reconnect and possibly to love again. It’s all about the relationship with the unseen Delilah. Well written characters are rare in videogames. Well written female characters considerably more than doubly so. But the relationship with Delilah again feels like an elaborate hoax.
I’ve played through Firewatch twice now. The first time I played Hank as open and comfortable in his radio conversations. I took every opportunity to tell my colleague what was going on, made jokes and flirted. On the second playthrough, I did the opposite. I spoke with Delilah only when absolutely necessary, ignored her requests and revealed nothing about the mystery I was investigating.
And it made very little difference. Some dialogue changed, but even when I chose not to reveal something to Delilah, by the next scene she knew anyway. When I chose to never mention Julia or her illness, it still became the topic of conversation later in the story. Like the choices we make in the prologue, our decision make no difference to Hank’s life.
The goal of Firewatch appears to be to to show the value of building human relationships, but the player is ultimately left powerless and these relationships have no impact on the how the experience plays out.