Despite the best efforts of my video card and Windows 10 to stop me, I recently completed Campo Santo’s Firewatch, an adventure game. It’s become the favourite thing I’ve played in the past year, I think, partially for its design, but also for the way it’s unafraid to put story first, mechanics second.
The game takes place in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, a wilderness of almost 10,000 square kilometres. It’s 1989, the year after the calamitous Yellowstone fires, and you play the part of Henry, a bearded, chubby dude (voiced by Rich Sommer, Mad Men‘s Harry Crane) who takes a summer job as a fire watcher to place some distance between himself and his life’s problems.
(I don’t want to explain the problems too much – there’s a surprising amount of determining your own variant of the story in its opening minutes, and they’re certainly emotional.)
The characterisation in the game is very strong. It’d have to be, I guess, as it’s the equivalent of a two-hander: there’s your character, and there’s Delilah (voiced by Cissy Jones), your supervisor who lives in a distant tower. It’s a study in loneliness: you are essentially alone, and communication is carried out by walkie-talkie. You know there’s someone else there – you can see her tower from your own – but when you’re down on the ground the size of the area between you becomes apparent. It’s unsurprising that lovingly-rendered books crop up so often – in towers, in storage caches – as you begin to realise how alone you really are in this world.
The game’s mechanics are pretty simple: you walk around, and use the walkie-talkie to report in, to discuss things you come across (or to merely converse). There’s a compass and a map, but it’s not like the usual videogame variant – you have to raise the map and look at it, figuring out where you are. There’s a tremendous sense of openness in the setting – you feel you could walk anywhere, and for the most part you can, albeit circuitously – and the visuals are spectacular. Rather than going for photorealism, Campo Santo have made a kind of Pixar version of a national park: it’s a location that shares the sort of design aesthetic you see in The Incredibles – bold and exaggerated, but not ridiculously so. The colour palette is remarkable, too. Having been close to bushfires, I can tell you that the colour scheme is ridiculously accurate – the game’s creators have managed to get the terror of that situation nailed.
(It’s no wonder that the game features a camera mode: there’s a lot to look at, and I found myself feeling the pull of the outdoors from the rendered vistas. It’s an advertisement for outside, even as you’re at home. It’s really something, and if you’re given to game vista porn, you’re well served here.)
The real meat of the game is the story, and how your relationship with Delilah deepens as it progresses. There’s elements of conspiracy and mystery at play, and the question of cabin fever comes up more than once. What’s real? Is your past impinging on the present? Is there someone else out there? All of these concerns – a natural fit for the isolation of the setting – are examined. We’re asked to consider life’s connections – with strangers, with families, with potential aggressors – and made to evaluate the way we construct backstories based on limited information. This succeeds because of the believability of the voice talent – the actors bring Henry and Delilah to life so successfully that you forget they don’t actually exist. It’s engrossing, and it succeeds in a way I’ve not felt too often with video games. There’s a maturity here that’s a surprise and a real asset.
It makes sense that story is the overriding concern for this game: Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, founders of developer Campo Santo, were creative leads on Telltale’s first The Walking Dead games, which valued narrative over action. Firewatch could be seen as a progression in their way of making games: the action sequences are excised from the game, leaving the concepts of exploration and deepening story as the key concerns of the product.
Of course, this isn’t without its problems or its detractors. There’s some merit to the criticism that the game is a walking simulator in the vein of Dear Esther or Leviathan: The Old City: Firewatch is a game which gives the appearance of a lot of open space, but it is far from a sandbox – wander off paths and you’ll soon discover insurmountable bushes, or rocks you’re unable to climb over. Actions are strictly limited to specific instances – opening items, picking up and examining objects, and using your walkie-talkie – but this restriction doesn’t feel limiting. Rather, it feels apt, a distillation of the work you’d do as a park lookout. You can only climb in certain places, but this limitation is countered by the feeling of heft in the character model: you see your feet as you rappel down a hill, see the broken fingernails on your chubby fingers, and feel the weight on landing as you leap from one ledge to another. It’s certainly not any Assassin’s Creed gymnastics, but it’s even better – a mode of movement that feels realistic. (I do understand that this could well be my bias as a chubby dude, however.) There’s day/night cycles, sure, and the chapters of the game are counted as days – but they’re used to punctuate the story, not to cross days off a calendar. It moves forward, continually, with the result that I always wanted to see what came next.
It often seems that games are built on the idea of cramming as much content as possible into them: the Witcher series or the Assassin’s Creed games feature potentially hundreds of hours of story and missions, optional or not. There’s a sense that consumers need to feel value for money – that more sidemissions will justify an investment. Campo Santo have gone the other way with this game – they’ve kept the playtime to between four and eight hours. It’s a game that doesn’t wear out its welcome, and doesn’t really pad itself out with busywork. Yeah, there’s a lot of walking to do – but you work in a national park. That’s kind of the point.
I found Firewatch to be a really enjoyable game. It told a story succinctly, with intelligence, and made me feel a part of both the setting and the characters. It’s refreshing to play something that doesn’t really overstay its welcome, even if the resolution is a little disappointing after the mysterious setup. I’d certainly pick up a copy on PS4 as well, as I feel it’d be more at home on that platform. At heart, it’s that rare beast: a game that scratches my itch for story, that provides diverting eye candy, and most importantly, makes me want to show it to people who mightn’t normally play games, to show them what happens when games are made by people who care for story over shooting.
(Afterword: this article is about the ending of the game, and some criticism that ending has encountered. As does this one. Spoilers, of course, but really worthwhile if you’ve played.)