Enthralling as a Forest FireThoughts on Firewatch by Campo Santo
Firewatch may be the most popular video game in the “walking simulator” genre. I played three other walking simulators before checking it out because I wanted a solid basis for understanding its success. While most folks will be able to appreciate the game on its own merit, this context certainly helped me understand its particular strengths.
Like Virginia, Firewatch uses a cell-shaded visual style, rendering objects in hyper-simplified form. That’s probably easier to do in Virginia’s urban setting, but Firewatch makes it work for a natural environment. Dramatic lighting is part of it, but there’s something to be said for landscape design, too. From rocky inclines to quiet clearings and stark ravines, the environment is varied but consistently exciting.
For a game about isolation in the woods, Firewatch’s story is surprisingly compelling. The pacing is darned near perfect, smoothly ramping up from mundane (though tragic) to thrilling over the game’s five-hour playing time. That’s partially thanks to spot-on writing since most of the action is accompanied with radio conversation between the two main characters. It’s full of awkward comments, playful ribbing, and (as the watchers get to know each other) vulnerable exchanges. The actors rise to the challenge with authentic performances, the realism of which almost lands in tension with the artistic visual style.
Although the writing and acting may be the game’s greatest strength, the biggest surprise for me was the gameplay. Despite the shining example of What Remains of Edith Finch?, I still had low expectations for the mechanics of this walking simulator. Most games I’ve played in the genre don’t try too hard here, and Firewatch was the first I’d played where walking (or, more charitably, orienteering) was explicitly part of the story. This works in part because of the scenic landscape I mentioned earlier–this representation of Wyoming is delightful in ways that Gone Home’s rickety old house can’t match.
More than that, though, Firewatch really commits to the concept of navigation. It eschews modern interface elements like the “heads-up display” for a magnetic compass and a paper map. By default, your map has a magical arrow that dynamically moves to reflect your current location. I surprised myself when I decided to disable that feature and instead find my way using landmarks alone. I’m generally not one to increase games’ difficulty settings since I prefer to experience their stories without frustration. Something about this game’s setting and characters made me want a more true-to-life experience, even if it complicated simple tasks. This made for a couple unique experiences:
- I misinterpreted the map, got lost, and regained my bearings by re-interpreting the steps I had taken
- After emerging from an unmarked exit of a twisting cave, I had to locate myself on the map without any context beyond my immediate surroundings
Challenges like these emerge organically from the environment, reminding me of the power of “literal” gameplay as often lauded by Tim Schafer.
Along those same lines, you’ll find that some interactive conversations are constrained with a time limit. If you take too long to select from the available responses, the conversation will proceed as if you decided to say nothing at all. This might feel stressful and even annoying if, like me, you typically try to optimize your performance in games. As a gamer, I’m used to conversational partners who stare blankly into space while I carefully weigh my options. The wisdom behind the uncommon time constraint quickly becomes apparent: it allows the non-player characters to realistically respond when/if you hesitate. This subtle gameplay mechanic makes that artfully-delivered dialog all the more believable.
Taken together, these strengths make Firewatch both technologically accessible and emotionally compelling. It’s not my favorite video game, but it may have the largest reach of anything I’ve played. I’m having trouble thinking of a game I can recommend more widely.