Firewatch
January 23, 2018

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NOTE: There might be spoilers!

So, I recently finished Firewatch by Campo Santo. It was really good! I have a few quibbles with some of the gameplay and technical elements, but otherwise, it was an excellent experience.

Technique

Let’s start with some of the reasons I was less than thrilled with the technical aspects of the game. First, I played the game on the XBOX One, and it was too large for my screen. Little icons would pop up from time to time right on the edge of the screen, and I could only see one half of them. There were no options to change the screen size in the game’s settings. I tried to change the XBOX One’s resolution, and I tried fiddling with the TV’s resolution, but nothing worked. It wasn’t a game-breaking problem for me, but it was nevertheless a small, persistent annoyance. Second, there weren’t any sensitivity options in the controls settings. The horizontal look sensitivity was fine; it was the vertical sensitivity that drove me bonkers: it was way too slow. Looking up and down seemed to take an eternity. Again, it wasn’t a game-breaking problem, and I got more-or-less used to it by the time the game was over, but it was still the sort of thing that occasionally interrupted my experience and reminded me that I was playing a game. Third, there were also a few weird moments where meshes would completely disappear from the world. Thankfully, these were very rare. Fourth, there were weird “freezes” throughout the game, especially early on. For the most part, the game ran fluidly, but there were little moments—usually as I ran—that the game froze for a fraction of a second. Since these occurred mostly when I was running, I suspect that they may represent moments in which parts of the (very large) map were being loaded into the game. For whatever reason, they became increasingly infrequent as the game progressed. Finally, the controls for running were pretty janky. I spent a ton of time moving around the map—in fact, that’s probably 90% of what I did—and being able to move quickly and efficiently was paramount. On the XBOX One, I could either run by holding down a button (I forget which one) or pressing the X button once to toggle running. I forgot the button for the former option because I spent so much time using the latter one. But here’s my problem with it: any time I slowed or stopped, the toggle became untoggled. So, if I stopped for a half-second to examine some part of the path and then started moving again, I’d have to re-toggle the running mode. I never got used to that problem, which meant that I felt as though I was stuck in molasses every time I started moving again. As I don’t doubt that my fingers would’ve gotten tired from holding down a run button for hours, I’m sure that the run toggle button was a good idea...but I wish that it had been a permanent toggle.

But let me spend a moment saying a few nice things about the technical elements. Overall, despite the complaints I just gave, the game ran fairly smoothly. Events got triggered at the right times, animations were fluid and compelling, and there were never any obvious failures or crashes. The technical elements were where I had the most complaints, so let’s continue on to more fun stuff!

Gameplay

Firewatch is a “walking simulator.” That phrase, though its coiners presumably intended it as an insult, is actually a fairly accurate description of this game. Unlike Gone Home, its sister game (about which I’ll say more later), this game does really involve a ton of walking. Whereas the house in Gone Home is packed densely with clues and meaning, the forest of Firewatch was mostly empty space. Points of interest were way too few and far apart.

From the title, I assumed that my primary goal would be to spot fires or something. That hardly happened in the game, though. For the most part, I walked or ran from place to place, solving little puzzles and having conversations as I unravelled the strange plot. Sometimes, the path was blocked, and I’d have to cut down a tree or chop down hedges or break open a door or shove rocks aside or climb down a sheer rock face with a rope to proceed. All of these methods required tools that I didn’t have at the beginning of the game, so I had to acquire them, of course.

While I loved exploring the house and memorabilia of the family in Gone Home, I didn’t love exploring the forest in Firewatch very much because exploration wasn’t really possible...at least not in a very flexible, expansive way. From up in my tower, the world looked open and inviting; but when I finally descended and began moving around, my confinement quickly became apparent. I couldn’t wander more than a few feet from the path in any direction. This was hugely frustrating for me. After all, the island of The Witness (for example) was almost completely open, with the exceptions of intentionally locked locations. In Firewatch, however, I felt no freedom at all. I might’ve been able to ignore the main “quest” for a time and navigate to other parts of the map, but all the while, I would’ve been sharply corralled by invisible walls. Maybe this was a design decision based on the fact that players navigate through the forest like a Boy Scout: by orienteering with a compass and map. Perhaps playtesters were unable to cope with both the difficulty of orienteering and an unfettered access to all parts of the forest. In any case, I think it was a poor decision because it constantly reminds the player that they’re in a game.

With all that said, though, I did enjoy learning the map. At first, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the zone that I had been tasked to watch, but towards the end of the game, I began to recognize locations. Don’t get me wrong, though: that map was huge, and at times, there was a kind of enjoyment in getting lost. Maybe it’s because getting well and truly lost is a thing that happens occasionally in real life but rarely in games, and thus the fact that I could get lost added an element of reality to the game. I appreciated that there was no neon sign or arrow saying, “Go here!” In fact, there was an option in the settings to show my location on the map, but I had so much more fun when I disabled it and forced myself to use the compass and map. I dislike games that hold my hand, and I was thankful that the developers provided a way for players to take off the training wheels if they wished.

There’s one element of the game that I never quite understood: the cache boxes. Cache boxes were locked containers scattered throughout the forest. I assumed that they’d contain really interesting items, but they don’t. Yeah, there was a rope in one of them, and yeah, there were little notes and books in them, but they just felt so gamey. Oh, and I was told the combination to all of them at the very beginning of the game. It might’ve been more interesting to give them all different combinations. I don’t know. What was the point of hiding useless materials in easily unlockable boxes all around the forest? I guess I just don’t understand the point. All of the tools should realistically have been available in the lookout tower. And I could never figure out how the notes and books related to the main plot line, though I’m willing to admit the possibility that I simply failed to connect those dots.

Now, let me turn to a different aspect of the gameplay: the conversations. I carried on conversations almost continuously over a walkie-talkie with my boss, Delilah, who worked in a tower on a different mountain. In fact, I could see her tower from my zone, but it wasn’t possible to get there for most of the game. Thus, my only interaction with Delilah took place over the radio. I liked that I had plenty of options for what to say during the conversations, and I liked that some of the options “timed out” (i.e., that it was possible to wait too long to say something). This made the conversation much more interesting and pressing than it might otherwise have been.

Finally, in addition to a walkie-talkie, a map, and a compass, I had a camera. To be honest, I didn’t use the camera until the very end of the game. It was never clear what I was “supposed” to take pictures of, though I’m sure that the developers would roll their eyes at such a quandary and would remind me that not all games are about “winning” and that this was a game about choices. I didn’t understand that business about “choices” at first, but I think I understand it a little bit now. I’ll have more to say about that later.

Aesthetics

The look and feel of the game is fairly nice. There was a soft, low-poly, cartoony look (very similar to The Witness) to many of the models, like Henry’s hands and legs, and most of the rocks. The foliage, however, looked horribly out of place, as though made by a completely different set of artists. Look, I get it: foliage is hard. The models were necessarily high-poly and highly-textured. But somehow, the Thekla artists got the foliage of The Witness right. I don’t know why Campo Santo didn’t quite nail it; maybe it has to do with the fact that Campo Santo used Unity and Thekla built its own engine. But anyway, that was my only complaint with the visuals; the rest were very nice. The fonts, the color schemes, and the rest of the environment conspired to create a strong, consistent style.

The music is also very good—with one tiny exception. The music in the opening scene (the text-based part in which I learned about Henry’s past) was a cheesy piano loop. It felt like a simple MIDI loop with no feeling whatsoever. A piano piece could’ve been very moving in those scenes, but it came across as crappy and low-budget. But that was the only stinker; the rest of the music was actually quite good, especially in the tense scenes near the end.

The voice acting was fantastic! Even though some quirks occasionally caused me to stumble out of my immersion, the voices were the things that always drew me back in again. It was impossible not to fall in love with the characters.

Story

The story was the very best part of the game. Admittedly, not all of it made sense to me, especially the notes between Dave and Ron found in the cache boxes and the red herring of the two party girls from the beginning. But the core storyline—the sad situation with Julia, my need to escape it, my relationship with Delilah, the mysteries of Wapiti Station and of the Goodwin family—was powerful and moving. What’s amazing is that I felt that I was really getting to know Delilah in a deep way even though I’d never met her in person. I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone this, but I actually become quite attracted to (and occasionally turned on by) people just by the sounds of their voices. It happens to me all the time with podcasts. Anyway, I know I would’ve fallen in love with Delilah if I had been in Henry’s shoes...which I sorta was. And therein lies the mystery and majesty of all good storytelling: it’s not my life being described, but I feel it as if it were my own. In this case, Henry’s heartaches were my heartaches, his longings were my longings, and so on.

I mentioned before that I wasn’t sure when I was “supposed” to use the camera. A similar but much more profound moment happened towards the end of the game. As the forest was burning down around me, Delilah told me to pack up my stuff and to hoof it over to her tower for the helicopter ride out. I took a few minutes to gather everything up that I might need; I doubted I’d be coming back. I was thinking about Delilah, wondering if she’d be waiting for me on the other end, wondering if our relationship was going to go anywhere, wondering if I should go back to Julia. Many items were available to be packed, but two special items stuck out to me: a framed photograph of me and Julia, and my wedding ring. The gamer in me wondered, momentarily, whether I could, by leaving those items behind, make my desired ending (of getting together with Delilah) occur. It may be that the developers were looking at such a choice (as well as dialogue choices) in order to shape the ending, but...well, it just felt inappropriate to weigh such considerations in that way. Delilah was so real that it felt insulting to her to force an ending in that way, as if I could make her love me just by pressing the right buttons. Maybe that was how the game worked, but I couldn’t bring myself to play it that way. In fact, it might even be that real life relationships work that way too...but even if they do, I can’t help but feel a Kantian repulsion to such a view: that even if that’s the right description of how the world operates (that it can be “gamed” in such a way), I should still treat people as ends in themselves rather than solely as means to my own ends. Well, in any case, I really struggled with what to do about the ring and the picture. “What would I do if this were my real life?” I asked myself. I knew the answer fairly immediately: I’d be plagued with guilt about trying to pursue things with Delilah and about severing ties with Julia, but I’d also be haunted by regret and longing if I didn’t take this fresh, new road after months or years of misery. In the end, I took the ring and the photo, hoping to have my cake and eat it too, hoping that Delilah would still be interested in me and yet also wise enough to see my choices as having been made on pain of guilt.

What the hell? This isn’t my life! It’s a game! It’s a fiction, right? Or is it some kind of witchcraft? Who’s making these choices, anyway? Some of them were made by the developers before I began, and some were mine. Geez. What a hell of a story. What an experience. I got sucked in hard.

I can’t leave this section without talking about the game’s universe for a moment. I mentioned up at the top that this game seems to be a sister game of Gone Home, even though it’s partially made by a different company. (I think that both companies share the same composer, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps they share other personnel.) The connection between the games is not immediately apparent, but two clues provide the possible link. First, the mother in Gone Home is a park ranger (or something similar), and she’s attracted to another park ranger who was transferred to her division. Of course, Janice is the mother’s name, and Rick is the name of the ranger to whom she’s attracted. And Janice’s family (the Greenbriars) live in Oregon, not Wyoming. And Janice describes encounters with Rick in her letters, but Delilah and Henry never meet in Firewatch. But what seems to clinch the relationship between the two games is the second clue: a book called The Accidental Savior by Terrence Greenbriar, Janice’s husband. I found this book in one of the cache boxes. We learn all about Terrence’s writing career in Gone Home, and the “Savior” series is central to that career. Whether these companies (Fullbright and Campo Santo) intend to make use of these connected worlds, I don’t know; but it’s cool nonetheless.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this game. In spite of a few flaws, it’s an incredible game. The choices, the voice acting, and the story make it what it is: a mysterious, mystical, romantic, funny, sad experience. I’m not sure yet if it’s going to make it on my favorite-games-of-all-time list—I may need to play through it another time or two to be sure—but it’s definitely a profound, powerful experience that I’ll recommend to others.

As always, thanks for tuning in! Later!