Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes hopping into the role of an action hero gets old. Even the extraordinary can become the mundane with enough repetition. Often, ordinary people can be the most relatable and interesting characters in fiction.
That’s why I picked up Firewatch — its protagonist is an ordinary, middle-aged man going through a very difficult time in his life. Firewatch is the story of him attempting to escape the serious issues he’s going through. Despite the game’s cartoonish visuals, the story is predominantly serious and remains within the realm of the conceivable. The mechanics are simple, and most of Firewatch is spent conversing with Henry’s supervisor, another lookout named Delilah.
Henry — and indirectly Delilah — stumble upon what appears to be a mystery that threatens them. Figuring out that mystery is both exciting and terrifying and gives them reprieve from their problems. But ultimately, this enigma proves hollow as it turns out that all the surveillance isn’t a grand conspiracy, but rather one man’s effort to hide from his own problems just like Henry and Delilah.
For the players, Firewatch is a few hours of intrigue, peppered with witty dialogue and character development, sandwiched between a sobering opening and conclusion. This is less of a game and more of an experience. The player meets interesting characters and is given things to do and a scenic vista in which to watch the story unfold.
Interestingly enough, the game’s story dodges expectation on multiple occasions. Some times, it looks like it’s going to be a love story. And for a while, the game looks geared up to be a sci-fi conspiracy thriller. However, these reprieves are temporary — in both cases, the story forces the characters back into their cold hard realities. This is a story of facing loss, and the game forces us to remember that.
Even though a full analysis of Firewatch would be fun, what I find to be even more compelling is the mixed reception Firewatch has received. Sure, critics mostly praised the game, but a significant chunk of the comments by regular players and user reviews on Steam suggest that this game is not so great. The critiques typically boil down to: the game is uneventful, it’s too short for the price, choices don’t have any real impact, and the conclusion is anti-climatic.
I think these comments are all fair, and I don’t want to take up time arguing that games don’t have to be a price to time played equation. But I also feel that these players have certain expectations to which this game doesn’t conform. It doesn’t fit into a lot of classifications that people want to ascribe to it.
People often describe this game’s genre as a “walking simulator,” which sounds tongue-in-cheek. I interpret Firewatch as somewhat of a visual novel — it’s designed to tell a specific story, one that involves the player but doesn’t necessarily allow the player to dictate the trajectory or ultimate message of the story.
I think in most respects, Firewatch is most closely related to 2013’s Gone Home (it’s probably also similar to Dear Esther but I haven’t delved into that one yet). Both titles involve a great deal of reading and discovery-based storytelling, they focus on normal people with no super powers dealing with real human issues, and the main character has little to no power over the ultimate outcome of the story. Both games were also received generally very well by critics but not quite as well by many players. I like both of these games — my favorite of the two is probably Gone Home, but the focus on human interaction and dialogue is a particular strength for Firewatch.
These seem like the type of games I wouldn’t appreciate because I’ve come to view the best video game stories as near mutual collaborations between designers and players. But these games don’t truly involve the players. Neither game really allows the player to have much narrative power, and in Gone Home, the main character, Kaitlin, catches up on the actual story long after it occurs. Appreciating both of these games required me to realign my expectations about what a video game should be, and I suspect it requires other players to do the same.
Triple-A video games — and even a lot of the smaller games — sell certain experiences to players. Namely, many emphasize intense, action-oriented, high-stakes experiences. And because often something as grandiose as the fate of the world is at risk, player choices are often crucial to the outcome of the story. Sure, we want choices and power in games, but because they’re so frequently available to us, we come to expect these types of experiences from essentially all games.
But that’s not what we get from Firewatch and Gone Home. These stories are about normal people wrapped up in events that they can’t control — in Firewatch, Henry’s wife is afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. This is the curse of the everyman — or everywoman — their lives are often dictated by forces, such as terminal illness or cultural expectations, that they have no ability to influence.
I think this is particularly true of Firewatch. It provides the illusion of power and importance only to return the characters to the firm ground of reality. In this way, it toys with our expectations of what a story-focused video game should be. Finding out the cause of the conspiracy in the end was a bit of relief for me — for a while, the game seemed like it was going to cave to the need to finagle sci-fi elements into a story that was perfectly fine within the realm of the conventional. Video games seem to need sci-fi or fantasy to function, and I appreciated a reprieve from the extraordinary in Firewatch.
Yes, the marketing for the game is misleading, but Firewatch has a solid story, engaging voice acting, and can be an escapist fantasy for anyone who is vaguely interested in a summer at the Shoshone National Forest. This game isn’t for everyone, but it doesn’t have to give us game-changing decisions or supernatural elements because those aren’t thematically appropriate in this case.
As the audience for video games continues to grow and more and more small teams explore the medium, it’s inevitable that we’re going to get more stories about normal people with no extraordinary abilities. These games especially require us to reevaluate our expectations. Not every game needs to involve mass murder or choices with consequences. Some just have a compelling story for the player to discover.
Marketing buzzwords shape what we expect from video games to some degree, which obligates later games to utilize those same buzzwords, even when they don’t quite describe the game they’re advertising. Games don’t always need to fit neatly within our expectations to gain approval. When reading reviews, I saw many of buzzwords I’m accustomed to hearing cited as reasons this game was insubstantial: open-world, choices that matter, replay value, and linear to name a few. I’m sure I’m guilty of talking in these words as well sometimes, but it’d be nice to get away from these consumer-focused expectations and start looking a little deeper at these games.
Firewatch is an emotionally-charged experience — it’s not entirely about what’s going on with the characters, but rather how they react to it. And in observing — and partially constructing — these characters’ reactions to their environment, we’re supposed to empathize with them. We’re supposed to feel these characters’ pain. This is something that fiction does particularly well, but I saw very little discussion in the reviews about the emotions of the characters. It’s a shame, but hopefully with time, games like Firewatch and Gone Home will gain a wider audience that understands the experiences these titles portray.