Saturday, March 19, 2016

Firewatch: a very short review

Although I bought Firewatch when it first came out, about two months ago, it sat on my (virtual) shelf for a while, waiting patiently in my Steam account for me to find some time.

The reason for that is that, when I first got it, I started playing it a little bit.

But I quickly realized that Firewatch is not the sort of game you can step into and out of. It is the sort of game where you want to immerse yourself and be swept away, sort of like one of those books that you save up until you know you're going to have a big chunk of time to dive in and explore the book.

In fact, comparing Firewatch to a book is a pretty reasonable thing to do, I think.

Although, Firewatch is very definitely a video game, perhaps best classified as a "first-person mystery adventure". It is set in the Wyoming wilderness, about 25 years ago, during a long hot summer, in which you find yourself taking a summer job as a wildfire lookout, keeping an eye over a remote wilderness area, patrolling, watching for fires, keeping an eye out for trouble.

And trouble, there is.

Moreover, it turns out that you're not actually a very good wildfire lookout, nor are you very good at keeping trouble away (well, what did you expect? It was a summer job; you had no experience!).

So you wander around, try to understand what's going on and why, and report in.

You report in a LOT; in fact, the entire game involves your discussions, over the radio, with your supervisor, named Delilah. Delilah is also a fire lookout; she works in the next tower over from you, and she is the one who hired you.

And you also wander around a LOT, because you have a lot of wilderness to monitor, and there is a lot there to see. And where you go, and what you see, and what you do when you see it, is fun too, because the artwork in the game is delightful: understated, with just the right sort of "feel" to let you slip away and imagine yourself out there, with just a backpack, a flashlight, and a radio, hiking up an unknown trail for the first time, wondering what you will find around the bend.

In a lot of ways, Firewatch is like reading a thriller, except that you can affect the outcome, by making different decisions. In particular, when you talk with Delilah over the radio, you will find that you have certain choices about what to say, and whether to even call Delilah or not, about the various situations that arise during your summer in the Wyoming wilderness.

And that's what makes Firewatch a game, rather than a book, because you don't just follow the story, you ARE the story.

I'm not really doing a great job at describing Firewatch, so let's grab some quotes from some others who have tried to describe it:

  • Firewatch: The Kotaku Review
    If you want to strip it back, all you really do in Firewatch is run around the woods. You talk, and sometimes you’ll need to climb up or down something, and very occasionally there’ll be a door to open or a tree to cut down, but for 95% of your time interacting with a controller or mouse in Firewatch, you’re doing nothing but moving through an empty landscape.

    Which sounds terrible! And yet, your movement in Firewatch is simply a means of giving the story space to play out. Aside from a few very brief (and distant) confrontations you are entirely alone throughout Firewatch. It’s just you, your fat fingers and the Great American Wilderness.

  • The video game Firewatch and its origins in 1980s text adventures.
    While it’s common for players of mainstream games to skip through dialogue scenes in order to return more quickly to the action—a sign of how ancillary those words really are—the dialogue in Firewatch isn’t just there to just adorn or enrich the game. It is the game. Despite the pleasures of traversing its magnificent, three-dimensional landscapes, the heart of Firewatch is a conversation, one that unfolds across a walkie-talkie over the course of a summer. The choices you make, the stories you tell, the questions you ask, the ways you open to Delilah or don’t, listen or don’t—the sum of all of it is a relationship, because that’s what relationships are.
  • Friendship and paranoia are explored in “Firewatch”
    Upon settling in the watchtower, you are introduced to Henry’s new boss Delilah. Delilah is not seen; rather, you talk with her via the park service’s radio. Delilah then gives you your first task, kicking off your ability to explore the park’s glades, canyons and cliffs. As you roam, you’ll radio your discoveries back to her, and answer her questions by choosing from a list of responses.

    What unfolds next is a tale of loss, paranoia and friendship where you get to gently steer the narrative by deciding how Henry interacts with Delilah. How much of Henry’s personal history do you want to reveal? What kind of advice do you give Delilah when trouble hits? “Firewatch” asks you to forge a relationship while simultaneously forging across a dangerous rockslide.

  • Video game reviews: Indie games 'Firewatch,' 'Unravel' fall short
    Most of the story in "Firewatch" emerges from those conversations with Delilah. The only "gamelike" obstacles occur when Henry has to chop down a tree or climb some rocks, and those are accomplished with one push of a button. Eventually, Henry stumbles upon some nefarious doings in the forest.

    While Henry and Delilah try to solve the mystery, he does a lot of walking. And if I wanted to spend the weekend hiking, I might, you know, go hiking.

I can see that Firewatch isn't for everyone.

It probably isn't even for most people.

In fact, it is probably the sort of game that would most appeal to a middle-aged man who spends too much of his time in an office, behind a computer, but who loves to read and who dreams of those occasional times when he actually gets out into the Real World to walk around and explore and see things, and who can even stop for a moment and wonder: what would his life have been like, if he'd taken a summer job as a ranger, long long ago.

So yes: I AM the target audience. (I wonder how they knew; surely they didn't make a whole video game just for me? It can't be that there are any other people like that, right?)

Having just finished Firewatch, I am probably just going to let it sit in my head for a while.

But I can imagine I might go back to Firewatch sometime later, and try it again. Have a different adventure, take a different path, make some different choices.

Just think, what might that be like ... ?

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