One of the most interesting and recent evolutions of the adventure game genre is what many have dubbed the "walking simulator." In a similar way to visual novel games like 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
, their minimalist approach to gameplay and action allow the story to become the primary focus. Despite claims from some that these are not "games" in the traditional sense, the fact that we've benefitted from some excellent story telling from this space in recent years can't be denied.
Three of the best walking simulators in the past few years are Gone Home
, Life is Strange
, and the debut game from Campo Santo, Firewatch
. I've just come off playing the latter two in fairly close succession, and boy have I been having a lot of thoughts about them lately. I had high hopes going into Firewatch
, as the developers have some serious pedigree both in games media and production. Unfortunately, right from the start I found myself struggling to connect with the characters and had trouble reconciling the story it seemed to want to tell, the choices I was being given, and where I expected things to go. This continued throughout the game, and I was ultimately unsatisfied and conflicted.**Be warned: there be spoilers ahead! But if you're interested in this game, it's only about five hours long so it won't be hard to play it through and come back**
Firewatch's opening sequence is phenomenally presented, visually and atmospherically. It cuts back and forth between Henry embarking on a trip to Shoshone National Forest and static text that brings you up to speed on what brought him to this journey. The somber music and backstory also combine to paint a picture of a man with serious existential baggage. I love a good emotional tale, so I was all set to board the feels train. But even this early on, I found that the narrative choices I was being given to shape minor details of Henry's troubled relationship seemed only interested in making me not like him.
Personally, when I play a game with dialogue choices, I like to choose the options that represent what I would do if I were actually in those situations. These tend to be the ones that try to be nice to characters, solve problems, and be non-confrontational. With Henry's history though, the game didnít seem to want to let me do that. The biggest decisions all seemed to want to depict Henry as a jerk who doesnít handle stress well, has anger issues, likes to drink just a little too much, and was prone to running away from heavy responsibility. Giving me choices I wasnít entirely comfortable with seeded my distaste for Henry in a personal way. If this is what Campo Santo was trying to achieve, they succeeded. If this is the kind of character I was in for, I was ready to roll with it, but it also set an expectation for me that I wasn't going to be able to shape things in quite the way I wanted, and I expected the weightiness of Henry's internal struggle to come to an equally heavy conclusion.
To my surprise, this didn't happen. After the opening sequence, I found that Julia was rarely brought up again. As Henry gets to know Delilah better, their relationship seems to become the new focus. On playing through the game again in preparation for this article, I played around with different dialogue choices than I did on my first run and was actually able to coerce more details out of Henry, but still very little in the way of introspection. Each little tidbit he shared with Delilah was met with some form of "wow, that's messed up" or telling him he shouldn't feel bad for abandoning his wife.
As Delilah's own flaws are uncovered, things shift to the relationship between her and Henry. They get closer and more flirtatious in a way that the dialogue choices again left me unsatisfied with. I wasn't comfortable returning Delilah's advances, but I felt as if Henry actually would because of the selfish way he'd been portrayed. And by leaving her hanging, the subject just kind of peters out, which made it even more awkward when she straight up comes on to him and says she wants to be in Henry's tower with him. At that point, the dialogue choices didn't appear to make any difference whatsoever since they were non-committal instead of allowing Henry to either reciprocate or curb her clearly over the line invitation. This was troubling to a point where I felt it would have been better had the dialogue options been eliminated altogether and the game simply committed to one or the other.
The reason the conversation choices in Life is Strange
work so well despite its nauseatingly emo, teeny bopper banter is because it all feels genuine to Max's character and meshes well with the rest of the game. It let me tailor Max to be either confrontational or kind-spirited as I saw fit, and it all makes sense when those choices are made. Conversely, Gone Home
goes in the complete opposite direction. By revealing its narrative strictly as backstory in response to what you look at and read, the player is able to sit back and embrace the tale being doled out. The options Firewatch
gave me were to either enable Henry and Delilah's attraction in a way that felt filthy, or be wishy-washy about it all without any indication whatsoever that Henry was actually trying to sift through the internal conflict he was supposedly going through.
The biggest missed opportunity was when Henry wakes in the middle of the night to answer a radio call. He proceeds to have a sleepy-eyed conversation with Julia, but Delilah later reveals that he was actually on the radio with her and talking in his sleep. This was a fascinating insight into Henry's subconscious, but maddeningly, it's never capitalized on. After Delilah brings it up, the subject is dropped and never examined again.
By the time the story started diving deeper into Ned and his son's disappearance (and Delilah's connection to it), I was still so focused on trying to make sense of Henry and Delilah, and with Ned's backstory so sparsely touched on in the earlier half of the game, that I couldn't get invested. It's a shame because I felt like the death of Ned's son and what it had done to him was a great premise for a profoundly moving conclusion. But yet again, Firewatch
failed to realize its potential. By the time Ned's story comes to the forefront, Henry's already found Wapiti Station and started talking of conspiracy theories, making it feel like another abrupt shift in focus.
There was one dialogue option, right after Henry finds the axe to break into Wapiti Station, that made me think the game was going somewhere that would make all these rough story beats come together and make for an excellent twist. When Henry proposes that he's actually dreaming it all up and none of it is real, I wanted to run with that theory. I started thinking maybe it wasn't Julia who was losing her mind, maybe it was Henry all along and this entire crazy set of events were the result of his own mind trying to deal with early onset dementia. This would've been a believable connective thread and allowed for an eye-opening ending. Disappointingly, that idea is also abandoned and we move on to the Wapiti Station.
After finding Brian's body, then Ned's hideout, and discovering he'd been the one listening in and messing with Henry and Delilah the whole time, that should've been the moment of maximum investment and feeling. Instead, my attention had been elsewhere and unfulfilled for so much of the game that I just couldn't get there emotionally. There's a lot of little things that can be missed in the environment that prompt more interactions, so maybe I didn't do enough exploring or missed some hidden items, but even after discovering more of these things on my second playthrough, I still felt like the game wanted me to see and think about other things to an extent that it felt like poor balance and faulty misdirection.
The ending sequence in Delilah's tower tries to tie it all together, but falls flat and resorts to blatantly hitting you with morality. Regardless of how I chose to respond to Delilah's advances throughout both of my playthroughs, she ended up telling Henry he should go back to Julia, effectively rendering all those choices meaningless. Neither character went through any great arcs or learned anything they didn't already know. They're both damaged and deeply flawed, have failed at their jobs, and know the problems they've been avoiding haven't gone anywhere and need to be faced like adults. It left me feeling like Firewatch
couldn't decide on the story it wanted to tell. Henry's struggle in dealing with Julia and his abandonment clashes with the way his relationship with Delilah develops, and the whole thing falls by the wayside in the latter half of the game without it affecting where their relationship goes in the end. The Ned/Brian story wasn't allowed to breathe, comes into play so late in the game, and after so much untapped potential, it wasn't nearly as effective as it could've been.
I ultimately appreciated what Firewatch
was going for, but both Gone Home
and Life is Strange
are much more successful in telling their stories. By taking a completely hands-off approach, Gone Home
's narrative feels completely natural because you're moving through the house non-linearly and filling in the backstory of events that have already happened, painting a picture piece by piece. Life is Strange
, conversely, manages to weave the dialogue and story options so well within the characters and throughout the entire game that they come together in a way that feels balanced and genuine.
I'll be looking forward to Campo Santo's next game, as there's a heck of a lot of talent in the group. There are still some things to love about Firewatch
and I'm glad to have played it. The visuals are breathtaking and interestingly stylized, the musical score is beautiful and atmospheric, the voice acting is top notch, and the opening sequence is presented so eloquently that my biggest disappointment is that I wanted to buy into it so badly, but wasn't able to do so. If they could disperse and blend the story elements and characters more evenly on their next try, I'm confident it'll be just as striking as other games in the genre.
I'd be interested in hearing if anyone else was as frustrated by Firewatch
as I was. Were you able to make a connection I missed? Did you find a way to play Henry's character that made things more satisfying? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. And if you want to dig in even more on these games, check out Fleach's Firewatch
review and both of our Playcast's Gone Home
and Life is Strange