Wood You Kindly: A Critical Conversation About ‘Firewatch’
San Francisco studio Campo Santo's debut is a unique adventure that even "non-gamers" should experience.
Campo Santo's eagerly anticipated debut game, Firewatch, is out now. Set in the 1980s, it casts the player as Henry, a 40-something guy from Colorado looking to temporarily escape his past – which we're not about to reveal – by spending a summer watching for fires in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.
What begins as a relaxing, some might say boring, way to see out a few months soon turns sinister, as Henry – as well as his supervisor Delilah, stationed in a nearby (but unreachable) watchtower of her own – finds himself threatened by a force that's got little to do with the natural beauty around him. He's not alone out here – a mysterious person is roaming the area, whose intentions are far from crystal. He doesn't want Henry and Delilah contacting the authorities about his movements. Something is decidedly not right about all of this.
VICE Gaming editor Mike Diver and freelancer Emma Quinlan played through the game, separately, before having a conversation about its strengths and (very limited) weaknesses. The short version: you should play this game. The long version, the back-and-forth between two impressed gamers, follows below.
'Firewatch', ambience trailer
Mike Diver: Emma, you've finished Firewatch. Me too. If you could summarise your experience in just a few lines, which we can then bounce off to further the discussion, what would they be? No spoilers, obviously.
Emma Quinlan: My experience with Firewatch was a surprising one, in a very positive way. What transpired in the game's plot, I definitely didn't see coming. But it was how quickly I became emotionally invested in Firewatch's characters that surprised me the most. The opening of the game actually made me cry, and yes, you can call me a big lady part for that, if you want.
MD: I'll refrain from calling you anything at all, because I certainly felt the same way during the game's opening moments. Again, I'm deadly keen to avoid spoilers, but I think we need to mention something about the first minutes of Firewatch. The "choose your own adventure" section, where you're effectively laying down the foundations for who your character, Henry (definitely not Hank) is, took me by surprise and gave me true reason to pause. I didn't rush through it, as I often do through "standard" character-creation tools. I regularly select default options. But here, I felt really connected to Henry, without ever seeing his face – and that's completely because of how Campo Santo open proceedings. Without imagery, just with words. In many respects, that's a fine precedent for what follows, as while the game is beautiful to look at (for the most part – I'll get onto my issues with it soon enough), its real strength is its story.
Would you agree with that? Having finished it a few nights ago, I keep thinking what a great little novel its story would make. I'd read it. Is that the aspect of the game that's lasting longest for you, do you think?
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EQ: Yes, certainly. Like you, I often put as little effort into characters creation as I can in order to get to the main game. With Firewatch, I couldn't do that. I had to really think these decisions through, as I didn't want to mess anything up for Henry. The decisions are very realistic, so much so that I've experienced one of them myself in real life, and I think that's what draws you in about the game: you can imagine yourself in Henry's shoes. So quickly that you aren't just a passive viewer of the story anymore, you're actively involved, which like you said, sets the precedent for how you play the game later on and how you feel about the situations that arise.
I've not been able to stop thinking about the story – it was very gripping, and certainly Firewatch's biggest strength. Did you also go on an emotional roller coaster with it?
MD: I don't know about roller coaster exactly, but I certainly felt my shoulders tensing, my heart rate rising, during the game's final third. Without giving too much away, I think it masterfully measures how to layer suspense. It gives you a whole set of problems, going on around Henry – and by extension the never-seen but always-heard supporting character Delilah, watching over things from another tower – and that led to me feeling like I was going up the incline towards a massive drop. And when the peak was reached, the game really felt like it could go anywhere.
There was a sniff of governmental conspiracy about proceedings. I know that game previews have shown that you're not alone in the wilderness, and knowing that someone else is out here with you, maybe hunting you, kept me forever sweeping the camera around, checking out crannies and stirring bushes, just in case. Naturally it's a very scripted game so I knew that whatever bad shit was going to happen absolutely would, regardless of my caution – and when that something actually did, I jumped off the sofa. But it really is a wonderfully controlled story, that puts all these different plot line pieces on place for, I guess, 60 percent of the game, letting your mind play with them, over and over, before delivering the linearity that takes you to the climax.
For a game that really doesn't feature any human contact, I not only found myself attached to Henry, because of how Campo Santo set him up, but also Delilah. Even stationed at a distant watchtower, she's a more three-dimensional character than many we see in gaming. A lot of that comes down to the performance of Cissy Jones, her voice actor, of course, but nevertheless I was really impressed by the relationship that builds between Henry, "you", and her. She's really the star of this game, I think. But what do you think?
'Firewatch', the June Fire trailer
EQ: The final third was where I also became most tense, but I found myself a few times during others parts of the game feeling uneasy, although not quite to the same extent. I think the most impressive way they created suspense was through Delilah, who I agree was the best character in the game. Through her, you gain information that Henry himself wouldn't be able to know, and so she was the source of many revelations, ones that made me stop in my tracks a few times.
Like you said, the story is very well controlled, giving you enough time to ponder possibilities, but not enough that you feel bored or underwhelmed by the action. Campo Santo really nailed the whole idea of isolation, of being alone with your thoughts, guessing what would happen next – and that was exactly what I did throughout. Again, I agree that it felt like it could anywhere, a government conspiracy certainly seeming on the cards. A lot of the time, I felt like something was going to happen, then when it did, like you I was still surprised, swearing being my main form of expression at one point. I too kept an eye out on a constant basis, my camera doing constant 360s and zooms, although I did just haul ass at one point.
The voice performance overall I thought was incredible, but like I've said, I agree Delilah was the star. You really feel a connection with her, not just situational, but mentally as well. She was also a great comfort to me while I was hiking through the wilderness; it was nice to know someone was there, someone who genuinely seemed to care. I would have liked to speak to her more if anything, she was very amusing at times.
MD: Yeah, I think it would have been nice to start more off-the-cuff conversations with her – I was constantly squeezing the left trigger to see if I could initiate communication with her, just while exploring, rather than waiting for her scripted interjections. But I also appreciate that this is a game made by a small team with limited resources, and respect that what they've achieved is still impressive.
EQ: I also think Delilah was so easy to become attached to was because she seemed human. She had problems, she got drunk, she was sarcastic – it felt like a real woman was at the other end of that line. In the end it felt like you had someone with you, regardless of the fact they weren't there "in body", and I found that to be a very impressive aspect of the game.
I think the consistency of the interactions made it feel even more real, too, each character remembering things you'd said in past conversations, topics never just being forgotten. I think that's probably another testament to how good the story is: everything is so intrinsically woven together that no conversation felt meaningless, or just inserted to fill up space.
It would have been nice to initiate random conversations, maybe seek comfort when I might have needed it; but then again being given that option, it could have taken away from the truly tender moments, and so maybe it's best we weren't given that choice.
MD: Yes, the "real" factor really does come across in how the two leads interact – which is useful as they're almost the only voices you hear in the whole game.
I was thinking, which can be dangerous, but bear with me. The last game that really gave me a sense of someone on the "other end of the line" being a believable character was BioShock. And that's a game set in a place of beauty that's gone to shit – a little like Firewatch. I've just looked on Wikipedia and it states that BioShock was an influencing factor in this game's walkie-talkie mechanic. But I dare say that Firewatch does it better, even, than that first BioShock. Perhaps it's because of my thoughts of BioShock that I kept on expecting a massive twist in the plot. No spoilers! But yeah, it's not like it plays that way, even though Firewatch is still, I think, a shocking game.
EQ: I can certainly see the influence, but I would say Firewatch mastered it. I think the true isolation aspect of the game is why it works better. In BioShock you're always encountering enemies, the action really taking precedent over anything else. In Firewatch you're completely alone, so it makes that relationship even more poignant. As for the story, I don't think it's quite as shocking as BioShock, but I do think I was more concerned about the main characters in Firewatch, as well as intrigued to see what happened to them next.
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MD: To pause for a moment to look at a negative, the frame rate on PlayStation 4 is a disaster. I constantly saw middle-distance assets pop up, and while climbing up rocks the game would jerk from a position of mid-ascent to the top. This wasn't a factor in the closed-in spaces – in the cave, in Henry's tower. But I dare say that the game's open world suffers slightly because of its performance. Which is a real shame, as it's such a lovely place to stroll about in. Did you see anything like that?
EQ: I played on PS4 too, and I agree it was bad. There were plenty of times where a piece of environment would just about appear as I walked into it. It does spoil the open world aspect a bit; it kind of spoils the beauty of it, which is the reason why I'd want to explore in the first place. Having said that, I wouldn't tell anyone to not play the game because of it. I found it more annoying than anything, but the game's strengths everywhere else meant I couldn't put it down. Would you discourage people from playing the console version, because of the frame rate issues?
MD: No, not at all, and I expect it's something that can be fixed. The buggy frame rate was an annoyance, but the general feel of the game's world, its tangibility, and its characters, are more than worthy of celebration and recommendation. I think it's a fantastic example of how interactive fiction can work, without being broken down to basic Twine-like affairs, or the sometimes stale-feeling Telltale model we've become accustomed to.
Firewatch is a great argument for gaming becoming an ever more inclusive medium, too. Not only is it captivating narratively, but its controls are simple, and there's never any "real" threat – you cannot "fail" the game. However clumsy you think you are with a controller, you will get through this, and in not too long a period of time, too. Does this mean it runs the risk of getting flack from, let's say, "hardcore" gamer types for being a title made mainly for "filthy casuals"? I mean, fuck anyone who thinks that way anyway – games are for everyone, it's just whether or not you choose to engage with them – but I'd actually hate for people who just play CoD or FIFA usually to not at least give this a look, y'know? It feels like a gateway game – an easy way into a genre that, when done right, is probably the most rewarding of all gaming experiences.
EQ: I certainly think the frame rate problems take away from the exploration aspect. However, its story, the way Firewatch deals with relationships, how the game stays with you long after you've completed it, those are things that shouldn't be missed just because it has a few technical issues.
It is very innovative, especially the lack of being able to die or lose, which means that the momentum never gets lost, you never feeling the need to put the controller down due to any frustration. I agree that this a game that certainly promotes inclusion, the main reason for playing appealing to anyone who loves a good story, which most of us do. I can see that some people will moan about the lack of combat, the fact that no "skill" is really involved, but I don't get why. Firewatch isn't a traditional game, you can't measure how good you are it, there's no competitive edge to it. It's more of an interactive experience that could be played by anyone, like you said, the controls being simple and easy to learn.
Games like these could certainly encourage more non-gamers to play, showing people whose perceptions of games are that they're all violence and sport. It shows that the medium has grown into a much more diverse beast. Also, I know that people have their opinions about games like this, and that's fine, but if individuals call Firewatch shit just because it's different or "not a real game", well, that's fucking stupid.
I think issues will also be made about the length, sadly. It's relatively short, but it's also not too expensive and to be honest, I don't think I could have coped going through the game for longer than it ran. It was timed perfectly.
MD: Yep, I'm agreed on it being the perfect length, which is why I'm so sure it'd make a great novel. Maybe I should get on the phone to Campo Santo.
EQ: I think you should, or maybe write some fan fiction for what happens to the characters next. Actually, sod you, I fancy giving that a whirl...
'Firewatch', the Shale Slide trailer
MD: Fight you for it. But, to wrap this up, it's a very simple game, at its core, isn't it? But a very affecting one, too. And I think it'll stand up as one of 2016's best for finding that balance between exposure and emotion so very sweetly. I never grew tired of the backtracking, which does happen, because while the game world is big, it's not so big that you don't soon know your way about without the map. And also, the sprint function is a great inclusion – perhaps essential after the fuss that followed Everybody's Gone to the Rapture's slow pace? I'd happily recommend the game to anyone, not least of all because it can be finished inside, I guess, four hours.
It's much the same as 80 Days, in that even if you think you hate video games, or simply haven't been around them for years, it's something that you can get into and be a part of without it actually feeling too "game-y", if that makes any sense?
In conclusion: I really like it, basically. And I'm guessing that you do, too.
EQ: Yes, it's a very simple game, there's no real learning curve with the controls and you don't really do anything apart from walk, talk and pick things up. However, it's also incredible. I think it will certainly hold up as one of 2016's most surprising triumphs, the way it tugs at your emotions being like nothing else I've ever played, which is hugely impressive when you consider that Firewatch is a game with almost no physical human contact.
I didn't mind the backtracking either, and I also didn't mind being lost, which happened a few times. What I did mind was being lost when I was under pressure – not because it frustrated me, but because I wanted to know where I was going so I could run like the wind! In fact, getting lost only added to the intensity of certain situations, getting my map out and tracking myself being the last thing on my mind when panicked. It's easy enough to get around the world, as like you said it's not huge, but there are some situations where you really don't want to cover your face, which your map does. The run feature was a godsend. Firewatch needed that extra energy at times, and I felt being able to run was vital.
I would definitely recommend this game to, well, anyone. The fact that you can just sit down and complete it in a few hours makes it ideal for people who want a short burst of interesting fun. And like you said, it's accessible. Sure, it has game mechanics, which is why it's classed as a video game, but it's the narrative that's the real star here, making it more of an interactive story experience than anything.
I loved Firewatch and part of me really wishes I could erase my memory of it, just so I could play through the story again. It's that good.
Firewatch is out now for PC, Mac and PlayStation 4. More information at the Campo Santo website.
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