Firewatch, and the Changing Definition of Video Games

Here’s a question you’ve probably heard before; what makes a game, a game?  And for that matter, what makes any piece of art in any fictional medium (to name just a few examples: literature, poetry, film, television, comics, music, visual art, dance), distinctly a piece in that medium?  Sure, we can say that literature is written prose, and that film is recorded, and music is a composition of sound, but those are all surface level qualities.  That’s not what I’m trying to say.

I should probably rephrase the original question: what makes a game, a great game? Because every medium has its strengths and its weaknesses.

Literature is incredibly adept at revealing the inner motivations and machinations of characters’ minds in a way that most other mediums cannot equal.  Film, on the other hand, can communicate experience in both the most naturalistic and, with the advent of modern effects, the most spectacular ways.  Music creates sensory images—images that completely ignore the visual focus that dominates our perception of the world.  And video games?  Video games take components from each of those mediums and combine them with something that nothing else can provide.

Interactivity.

In short, outside the odd stab at second-person writing, video games are the only fictional media that involve their audience in their stories.  I pointed this out when I wrote about Undertale, and why it sits at the pinnacle of what video games can do; it’s a game about agency and choice in a world where choices actually matter.  It’s immersive precisely because of the investment its focus on choice creates.

Meanwhile, in February 2012, a developer called The Chinese Room released a game titled Dear Esther (which, full disclosure, I own but have not yet played), about a ghost story on a mysterious island.  It was completely linear—more in line with a visual novel than a traditional video game—and lacked any of the focus on interactivity that makes most great games great.  Yet people liked it, and it birthed the genre of “walking simulators”—games with definitive, prewritten narratives, often revealed through audio logs or soundbites, that in the end grant no real player choice or agency.  There have been quite a few released since, the most well-known probably being The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home and The Chinese Room’s sophomore effort, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of the genre; it throws away what I’ve always considered the medium’s greatest strength—not just interactivity, but real, active choice—in favor of, essentially, a kind of amateur filmmaking.  So when I started seeing articles a little over two weeks ago about this amazing game called Firewatch, by a new studio (Campo Santo) populated by former Chinese Room members, I balked.  But the trailers—loaded with some intriguing plot points, beautiful graphics, and short snippets of what turned out to be some of the best voice acting I have ever heard in a video game—persuaded me to give it a shot.

It was worth it.

I won’t label Firewatch good, or great, or use any of those shortcuts that eliminate all feeling or meaning from a review, because I’m honestly not even sure which one I would use.  However, I can say this: it deserves to be played.  And in my mind, that’s the highest compliment I can give a game.  It deserves to be played.

And make no mistake, Firewatch is, at its core, a walking simulator.  It took me about three-and-a-half hours to complete, and most of that was spent hiking through the Wyoming wilderness.  You are Henry, a man who, after a personal tragedy, took a job as a lookout for fires in the Shoshone National Forest in 1989.  Your only companion—the only person you interact with for the vast majority of the game—is your boss, Delilah, and every interaction with her occurs over a two-way radio.  Like Undertale, Firewatch is best experienced knowing as little about its story as possible, so I’ll end my synopsis here.  And while the story is very strong—the characters are lifelike, and the plot balances some weighty elements: escapism, responsibility, depression, with admirable finesse—that’s not why Firewatch deserves to be played.

Firewatch deserves to be played because, unlike its predecessors, it didn’t eliminate the element of choice from its design.  Instead, it embraced that one huge strength of its medium and made player choice an integral part of the story.

Firewatch bills itself as open-world exploration, and while that is technically true, you as a player have little reason to veer off the path that the game establishes.  The real choice comes first in the beginning—when you define Henry’s past in an emotive and ultimately heartbreaking introduction—and later on in the brief exchanges of dialogue with Delilah. Most conversations branch in myriad directions, with each response given as a list of options.  Sometimes you’ll have one thing you can say, sometimes two, sometimes three or more; that’s all standard RPG fare.  But in every sequence Firewatch also presents another choice—the choice to say nothing at all.

In hindsight, that sounds incredibly obvious, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with branching dialogue that allowed you, the player, to just… not respond.  It’s simple—so simple that, in any other context, it would barely be worth mentioning.  But here, it provides an atmosphere of realism to your conversations with Delilah that I’ve never experienced in a video game before.  It’s quite different from Undertale‘s brand of character-focused realism, which focused on the effects of choice in a clearly fantastical environment.  In Firewatch, the realism is more in step with what certain filmmakers drive for—characters and dialogue that fit our expectation of what people say and do.  In short, these conversations feel real—and because these conversations feel real, Henry and Delilah feel real.  And by extension, Firewatch itself feels real: a gripping and immersive experience among the best the medium has to offer.

Of course, that realism would crumble if not held up by a well-designed frame, and in that arena Firewatch also delivers.  The game is utterly beautiful; it presents the Wyoming wilderness in stark, vivid detail that flawlessly communicates every emotion the game needs to invoke.  I’ve rarely ever seen this successful a depiction of isolation, or one this breathtaking.

The soundtrack as well is perfectly matched to the visuals and the plot beats of the game.  It’s ambient but not aimless, noticeable but not intrusive.  It adds to the game’s overall experience without placing itself at the center of attention, emerging especially strong in the emotionally charges moments near the end.

And really, though I already mentioned it once, I cannot gush enough about this game’s voice acting.  All the effort into making Henry and Delilah’s dialogue sound real—sound human—would have been completely wasted had their lines been said with anything resembling standard video game voice acting.  Up until this point, I would have said that BioShock Infinite and Portal 2 were my standards for video game voice acting, but Firewatch blew both of them straight out of the water.  Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, kudos.  You deserve a round of applause.

So really, there is a lot that makes Firewatch a game that deserves to be played.  Of course, it’s not without flaws; the ending is a bit hit-or-miss (I didn’t like it at first, but it’s grown on me in the week or so since I played it), and the hiking can get a little repetitive.  But in the end, it took a genre has that traditionally excised the strongest part of its medium—choice—and imbued it with a subtle but impactful agency that creates distinct characters and a distinct narrative without sacrificing immersion.  Henry and Delilah will always be Henry and Delilah, but their relationship—how it develops, how they interact with each other—is entirely up to you.  And in this case, that’s all the game needs to be just that—not a “walking simulator” or an “interactive story,” but an actual, true video game.

Maybe even a great one.

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