Experiential games, those that favour narrative, character development, presentation and player ‘experience’ over more traditional gameplay codes have become somewhat of a favourite sub-genre of mine.
Whilst I understand the debate surrounding them, I do not believe there is any doubting the impact a select few have had in raising the stakes of story-telling within the industry, as well as effecting how video games are perceived as a narrative form.
Firewatch is no exception and rightfully deserves a place amongst the leaders of this emerging form.Little can be said about Firewatch, the debut title from developer Campo Santo and published Panic, without spoiling its magic.
Set in 1989, Firewatch almost entirely takes place within the Shoshone National Forest in the U.S. state of Wyoming, following volunteer fire lookout, Henry, working in isolation with only a single radio link to his supervisor, Delilah.
Both characters bear their own personal troubles but nonetheless develop a bond through constant communication, a bond which shaped by your dialogue choices. However, a series of strange occurrences and mysterious findings in the forest surrounding the watch tower call the nature of their work, and their relationship, into question.That’s about all I can say besides that it is tense, eerie, mysterious, heart-wrenching, tear-jerking and ultimately, very thought provoking.
The game interweaves plot through sub-plot beautifully – eventually all tying it together – drawing symbolic parallels between the stories. Immediately after my first play-through, I had to play through it again. At roughly three to four hours in length for a single play-through, I was able to do this in one sitting. It takes some careful consideration to completely comprehend, but I found the story very tight and kind of mind-blowing.
It’s central theme of escapism – something very relevant to video games as a medium of course – is one I ought to devote an entirely spoiler laden feature.Firewatch’s exceptional presentation demonstrates absolute artistic and technical prowess on the behalf of Campo Santo in their debut.
The art style seamlessly transitions between capturing the beauty of their Shoshone National Forest as well as its eeriness. The lighting design is mesmerizing and the colour palette truly complementary again creating a setting of two tones; one of tranquillity and one of suspense and apprehension. The day-night cycle and progressive climate effects again contribute to gradually building tension and work to make well-trod paths suddenly as unfamiliar as they were in the beginning.Lastly, the sound design is flawless and voice performances exemplary. From the atmospheric sound of the wilderness to a score that’s mixed in a way that suddenly adds tension without you noticing, the sound design is in no way invasive or obtrusive, but entirely immersive. Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones as Henry and Delilah give standout, highly emotive performances but the array of minor characters also deserve commendation.
Playing on PC, the game ran almost seamlessly. I was forced to reload a save once due to a bug, but considering it was a pre-release build, has received a patched since and the game’s quality everywhere else, it’s a minor annoyance I’ll gladly overlook.
The in-game disposable camera, which captures screenshots that they’ll develop and send to you for $15 is an awesome little feature for those inspired photographers. Sadly this is limited to currently limited to Steam players only.Campo Santo deliberately keep gameplay mechanics to a minimal in order maintain focus on the story and dialogue as well as progressing the plot at a steady pace, but there remains plenty of player involvement.
Traversal of the map is almost entirely dependent on being able to read the in-game map and compass, which – as a bit of a geography and orienteering nut – was tremendously exciting for me. The map design is ingenious. There are plenty of landmarks that allow you to learn the map, but line of sight is continually blocked, driving me back to the map on occasions having spent hours seeking out every nook and cranny.Exploring is encouraged and generally allowed; only on a couple of occasions did I feel a barrier was thrown up. There are often multiple paths and loops meaning exploration is promoted whilst back-tracking was kept to a minimum. Occasionally you’ll come across inaccessible areas that require an additional tool or key or such like, which again contributed to my sense of wonder and eagerness to explore and investigate. For me, it struck the perfect balance between scratching my sudden exploration itch as well as directing me and ensuring the story kept pace. Some may wish there was more.
Between this consistent traversal, the choice of dialogue options and of course, mounds of items and objects to examine, I felt there was more than enough interaction with the game to consider it more than an interactive animation.There’s little in the way of replayability story wise; the narrative itself is not hugely influenced by the dialogue choices you made (that’s kind of the point). That said, in my second playthough I uncovered things I’d missed the first time, such as entire conversations and landmarks. You’ll want to find the tortoise you can adopt as a pet. Don’t miss that.
It’s certainly possible for people to come out of Firewatch with slightly different journeys and overall, I’d consider it well worth its price tag.Firewatch is truly something special.
It tells a beautifully crafted, character-driven, engaging story with impeccable pacing. It’s deeply reflective and thought provoking, not only in the context of its characters and their situations, but in a broader context of player interaction with video games. It involves and engages players to greater affect than many of its predecessors in the experiential sub-genre, and does so with astonishing presentation.
Firewatch is a piece of video game literature, propelling the medium forward with messages relevant to us all, especially to gamer specific audience. It had made its impact on me, and ought to contribute to a larger impact on the industry as a whole.
Masterful story-telling & character development
Sound design and voice performance
Map design and exploration
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