Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What I Played: Firewatch

I heard a lot of chatter about Firewatch, partially because it was selected as the Indie Game Gang's Game of the Month earlier this year, and so when JV gave me some Steam store credit for my birthday, I picked it right up.

First of all, I am so far behind on my Steam library. There are games I got for my birthday last year that I haven't even touched yet. #NegligentGamer Unfortunately, now that I'm starting an advanced Swedish course on Monday, finishing off those games is going to have to wait until next year. Or maybe in three years, after I'm done with teacher school. If I still even want to go to teacher school? Ahh!

Anyway, on to Firewatch. It's a short little game about being a firewatch in Wyoming. Can I just say that I want that job? Well, kind of. I love being by myself and I like being close to nature, but I'm definitely not much of a hiker or a wilderness expert. Henry does a lot of hiking and climbing and rappelling, more than I could probably handle in a day.

An actual firewatch station. Your digs are much more comfortable. // Image courtesy Peripitus.
Henry's taken this job because he's had to put his wife in terminal care for early-onset dementia, so he's got a lot of shit to sort out while he's kicking it in his little watch tower.

The only person Henry has contact with for the summer is Delilah, his supervisor. She's a mountain away, so their only communication is via radio. She's essentially Henry's boss and periodically sends him out to check on people using fireworks, bear sightings, etc.

After a bit of a slow burn (heh), things get real creepy. I honestly haven't been this freaked out by a story in a long time. It's not a ghosts-and-monsters creepy; it's very a much a thriller kind of creepy.

The gameplay mostly consists of you walking around in a first-person perspective, the typical WASD-and-mouse layout. Periodically there are items you can interact with or radio Delilah about. There are dialogue trees, mostly with Delilah. The biggest challenge in the game (for me) was navigating the territory. You have a map of your sector of the park, and a calendar, and that's how you get everywhere. No fast travel, no helpful in-game marker pointing you in the right direction. I still have no idea if the map was huge or small or in-between; it felt kind of huge because I had a tendency to get lost or to not see tiny little breaks in the brush to continue through. (In particular I had the WORST time trying to get back to my watchtower from Jonesy Lake the first time I had to go that way, holy shit.)

So that's the game, for those of you who haven't played it. Overall, I enjoyed it, and I would recommend it for anyone who likes mysteries and thrillers. Go play it!

 Everything after this point, including the comments, comes with a huge SPOILER WARNING for everything after the break there. And while generally I don't care much about spoilers—sometimes spoiling a story for yourself makes it more enjoyable—I think this is a situation where the spoiling takes away from it.

I'm not a fan of horror or thriller movies or books, in general. I don't find them engaging the same way I find other kinds of stories. That said, I think video games are the perfect medium for thrillers—because a game is interactive, you are way more invested in the protagonist's success (or just plain survival) than you would be otherwise, and that investment is a really great way to leverage people's fear and discomfort. My blood was definitely pumping on more than a few occasions. Was someone going to jump out from the woods and ax murder me? Was someone going to come back and find me poking around their stuff? I don't think this story would have been as engaging if it had been a movie or a novel.

But my favorite part is a little harder to explain. For a while, neither you nor Delilah have any idea what's going on. Your working theory is that there's some kind of fucked up human psychology experiment going on with you two as the subjects. On the face of it, that sounds ridiculous, but when you're in the game and you find transcripts someone's taken of all of your radio conversations and a mysterious fenced-off area and you have no other way to contact anyone (this is the 80s; no Internet, no cell phones, and the phone lines don't reach that far into the park wilderness). it makes total sense.

And that's what's so realistic about the game: how the most banal events and coincidences can inspire completely over-the-top paranoid delusions even in reasonable individuals of sound mind. That's how it happens in real life. We've all done it; some people just take it a further, unhealthier extreme than others. I think that's the greatest strength of Firewatch.

I also appreciate their attention to detail (as much as possible). The extras, like the notes between previous firewatches, or little Turt Reynolds, make it extra immersive. It reminds me of Fallout in that respect: there are just so many tin cans and rolls of duct tape and things around, exactly how it would be after an actual nuclear apocalypse.

After a lot of thought and reading, my only question left is: why did no one come to look for Ned or Brian? I played the game over the course of weeks, so there might have been something Delilah said about the two of them early on in the game that I subsequently forgot (like that they had no family or friends), but I don't think so. Ned and his son have been missing for years and no one's come calling to the park to ask if they know anything about it? Whaaaaaaat?


  1. After finishing the game I found it funny how often I was scared or spooked...despite the fact that very few scary things ACTUALLY HAPPENED. It was mostly the music that got to me, and walking in the dark was a bit freaky too. But like the only time someone physically comes after you is when they knock you out by the lake...or I guess when you get locked in the cave. Thanks Ned.

    What did you think about Delilah? I was so done with her. She hardly did anything helpful!

    1. The game is definitely all about atmosphere and playing with your mind, despite the setting itself not being particularly ~~~grimdark spooky. It's usually sunny when you're out, and the nature is quite lovely and peaceful normally. So I think that's a pretty cool accomplishment on their part. But Delilah...blegh. I just hate the name Delilah -- I just think of the syndicated radio DJ and she bugs the hell out of me -- so that doesn't help, but she also feels more like a trope than like a character? You can't really develop someone that much over a handful of radio conversations, of course, but it seemed like her value, beyond giving you all of the appropriate backstory, was just to create "will they won't they" romantic tension.

      I liked her drawing though, hah. I took it with me.