A burly, bearded man from Boulder, fond of skiing and beer and a blend of all the attributes of your affable Colorado bro. In your late 30s and happily married, until life takes a serious nose-dive for the worse when your wife, Julia, develops early onset dementia. A couple years of this misery and, unable to cope, you fuck off to the wilderness to become a scout.
In recent years, we’ve been inundated by ’interactive novels’, wherein we guide characters down a narrative path and most of our ‘playing’ is comprised of:
1) walking from point A to point B and
2) making key dialogue choices that will change the story going forward, or at least give the illusion the story is being changed.
It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbooks of yore, spruced up for the digital age. Telltale Games have been particularly prolific here, turning TV shows and comics from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Fables to Batman into interactive novels. A sort of sub-genre labeled ‘walking simulators’ is also occasionally referenced here. A beautiful environment is built, but all you can really do is walk around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and not engage in your typical gaming actions — shooting, jumping, etc.
Firewatch is a walking simulator in its most pejorative sense, and interactive novel at its most limited and milquetoast, skewing very far towards the ‘novel’ or ‘short film’ path and very little on the side of game.
Shoshone National Forest is quite pretty, especially when burnished by the setting sun. You’d like to walk around there. Camp. But it’s difficult to acknowledge as an actual place. You’re largely walking down very defined paths with little room for deviation. There’s not much you can do unless the game has a very specific purpose in mind for you (find a backpack, see a raccoon). Your freedom is basically quashed. Exploration is pointless because there’s nothing to find. I’ve played plenty of games that are engaging while requiring you to do mundane tasks — farming virtual crops, climbing buildings to collect flags. But the tasks you’re set to in Firewatch feel pointless and rote, more like busywork to get you to the next dialogue segment instead of goals unto themselves.
Moreover, it’s hard to feel like you really are Henry, a person taking up physical space. The point of view is first person and all you ever see is his stubby legs when he’s climbing up and down things, in a perspective that holds little in common with how your legs actually look when you observe them. Instead, you’re more like a floating camera observing the story.
In fact, that sort of spatial disconnect can link us to the real failing of Firewatch: for such a deeply personal story, I never felt like I could really own Henry. The game is spent communicating via radio with Henry’s sarcastic boss, Delilah, a woman with a sordid past of her own. The whole draw of the game is Henry and Deliah’s relationship, and supposedly the impact the player can have on it. The dialogue is fairly snappy and engaging, but my agency within it was slight. Many times I was not given a choice in how to respond. I had to select a single line reporting something I had seen or a pre-decided sentence to respond to Deliliah. Even when I had choices, it never felt like they mattered. The choice was typically one of tone, not of content (angry / sarcastic / timid). What made things supremely annoying was that if you don’t respond quick enough, Delilah thinks you’re being purposely silent and responds as such. This response window is shockingly short. You have to read 3-4 different sentences and decide how you want to respond. Even as a real-life gap in conversation it was too short. Baffling.
What I’m getting at here is: Why did this need to be a game at all? It’s appeal is a human relationship and its composite back-and-forth dialogue. You barely have an effect on it. Were it a short film, we’d have some features enhanced: We could see the emotions on Henry’s face, and if he were a good actor, it would improve the narrative. Other negative features would be removed: Actor Henry would not get stuck on a short hill he should be able to cross but can’t for whatever gameplay reasons. I mean, it’s not like some sort of cardinal sin to make a video game that would have been better as a movie, but it feels pretty wasteful to not actually use the elements of video games that film does not have to improve the experience.
My last complaint is going to be about the conclusion of the narrative itself, which wouldn’t really matter whether it was game or film or book or whatever. Some very general spoilers follow. When you have a plot based on ‘weird shit happening’, there’s a few different effective reveals we typically see.
- Character suspects something weird is happening. Turns out some really weird shit is happening. Aliens recently landed in his backyard and replaced his family with drones. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it often is.
- Something bad happens to a character and it’s a completely plausible (albeit troubling) mystery. A child goes missing, but it’s never suggested to be anything more than the real-life, day-to-day misery of a child going missing.
- Basically a combination of 2 followed by 1. Audience is lead to believe it’s a “real-life” tragedy and then finds out it is something more. Character A spends 75% of the movie looking for a lost child and then stumbles upon the gateway to hell.
Those are all fine, workable plots. It’s #4 that I have a problem with.
4. The reverse of 3. Something really damn weird is happening, same start as #1. The plot wants us to believe in the supernatural. But, oops, turns out it was really just banal human ignorance and cruelty all along. Gotcha! You might call this the ‘Scooby Doo’ plot. It wasn’t a ghost, it was your dad wearing a sheet. You have to be a clever creator indeed to pull this off without leaving the viewer dissatisfied.
Needless to say, Firewatch hit me with #4. Worse, the ending is completely set in stone. Your choices, insofar as they exist, cannot affect the outcome. That’s anathema to the whole notion of choose your own adventure and yet another reason the game failed for me.