Friday, February 26, 2016
Firewatch - Thoughts
Slower-paced games that are centered around natural, beautiful environments can elicit a weird reaction from me. Like, I enjoy gazing out upon a breathtaking vista as much as the next person, but for it to have a lasting impression there usually needs to be more to it. As much as I enjoy exploring the rich worlds of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the crux of those experiences hinge on their mysteries for me. No matter how gorgeous a game looks, if my only action is to walk through it at a leisurely pace, I need something substantial to ponder in the meantime.
So as you can probably guess, I have some mixed feelings regarding Campo Santo's debut Firewatch.
There's promise here, no doubt. Right out of the gate Firewatch throws you a curve ball by exploring Henry's life pre-lookout days (albeit in a slightly ham-fisted way), doing the bold thing and—*gasp*—giving the protagonist a compelling backstory. At first I was a little puzzled over its inclusion but I reasoned it was a pretty smart move: it inducts the player into Henry's tumultuous past and gives them a reason to be hesitant towards Delilah. The way the game resolves Julia'a presence through Alzheimer's is a really clever and uncommon thing to see too: it allows her to persist in the story but prompts the player to move on.
The push-and-pull nature of Delilah and Henry's relationship is stupendous, easily becoming the focal point of the game. Even pit against the majesty of the softly rendered Wyoming wilderness, the moments where Delilah radios in to talk to you are among the high points of your days; the banter is well-written (though a mite sarcastic at times) and the small choices you make in the conversations feel like they matter. There isn't a significant payoff for your decisions, but I feel the moment-to-moment challenge of choosing an answer is worthy of merit despite narrative inevitability. This isn't to downplay the visuals either; like The Witness, the game deserves praise for its vibrant color tones, varied locales, and soothing atmosphere. Firewatch may be short and move at a snail's pace, but its characters and world feel well realized and very much alive.
I can't really say the same about the story, unfortunately. I'm not bothered by the fact that there's only one ending or that the central mystery leads nowhere—I'm disappointed that Firewatch steered away from Delilah and Henry's relationship. I do think the subversion it took with conspiracy theories was admirable, expanding on how isolation and paranoia can mix to brew a very potent (and nearly tenable!) concoction. As much as one may detest the numerous red herrings, every event and action in the game has a reason for unfolding the way it did, though I imagine many players will get flustered by the abundant amount of information stored in Ned's hideaway (plus they have to dispel their own convictions while digesting each factoid). It admittedly stumbles a bit in the delivery, but I respect the game for what it was trying to achieve.
However, the conspiratorial element doesn't compliment Delilah and Henry's relationship as much as it distracts from it. The ingredients are there for a very fascinating tale about human connection deprived of physical interaction—both seek to escape into one another, yet for different reasons—but it feels undercooked by the finale. Despite how well the ending captured the poignancy of their miscommunication, I felt that if the game had spent all of its effort on exploring the nuance of their relationship, I would've been wholly onboard. Instead, it pushes the player into pursuing something fishy out in the woods, treating the park as suspect rather than letting it evolve into a welcomed, shared experience. I think the discovery of Brian's body being the catalyst for Delilah's departure works well, but there could've been a more natural way to tie it into the story instead of using it as a springboard for Ned's manic antics. The father/son material is tragic and works well on paper, but it should've remained secondary to the main characters.
A lot of this makes it seem like I take umbrage with one single facet out of the entire experience, but the problem is that a game of this particular style rests on its story. I can see some being sated by the delightful visuals alone, but for me it was different; near the end after I had fetched the ax, I realized that traversing the park had become "normalized", meaning all I had left was to anticipate was where the mystery would lead. The tension of discussing Julia with Delilah had been put on hold, and our own personal insecurities (besides the paranoia) appeared to have dissipated. All that was left for me to ponder was what awaited me deep in the forest, but that...
I guess that just wasn't enough.
We're at a point with video games where the most run-of-the-mill topics can be explored and made interesting. Gone Home was phenomenal not just because it made a single house feel lived-in, but that its heartwarming tale turned the ordinary exotic. Firewatch feels like it took the supernatural bent of Gone Home and wanted to delve into that deception more thoroughly, enabling the player to become as lonely and paranoid as the emotionally wracked character s/he's controlling. It consciously shelves the humane aspect of the story in doing so, which is a great pity since it brushed upon one of the greatest sources of loneliness there is—a long distance relationship that goes nowhere. I didn't dislike it, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm sad it shied away from (what I feel is) its full potential.