Many modern, first person adventure games are labelled as "walking simulators," particularly the ones with a narrative focus. This term refers to a game in which players walk throughout the in-game environment without doing much else like engaging in combat or finding collectibles. It's a label that, while superficially accurate, is often applied to a game because players can't decipher much more beyond the surface characters or stories. However, more often than not that couldn't be further from the truth of what these games offer. Take, for example, Dear Esther
; it features the final fleeting thoughts of its narrator as his life fades away. It's true that the gameplay only involves walking from one set piece to the next, but what makes the game substantial is the emotions and memories the narrator presents. The walking simulator is the most effective at allowing players to really get into the head of a game's character.Firewatch
, the first game from Campo Santo, is the latest inclusion in the walking simulator category. The fact is that this game offers much depth of character, narrative interactivity, and even some role-playing which can only be achieved by utilizing this unconventional and divisive genre.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR FIREWATCH CONTINUE
READING AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!
Henry, a man in his forties from Boulder, Colorado, is going through a mid-life crisis. How Henry leads his life leading up to this crisis and how it bubbles up to the surface is up to the player. Before any gameplay begins, the player is presented with vignettes of Henry's past including: brief reflections of how Henry and Julia met, how they spent time together, and how they planned their future together. Unfortunately, one of those tragic surprises that life can throw at you now stands before Henry and as the player, you choose how he deals with this. Julia begins behaving erratically and emotionally, and it's not long before everything falls apart. Julia is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Do you hire someone to take of her or do it yourself? Either way, it's too much for Henry and he crumbles into a state of sadness and loneliness. One day, Henry finds an ad for a park ranger position in Wyoming and he takes it.
That's the set up for Firewatch
. It's a game about someone whose only method of coping is to run away from his problems and other people. Once Henry arrives at his lookout station, he is introduced to Delilah. She staffs the other station in the park north of Henry's and becomes the game's quest-giver. Quickly though, Delilah becomes more than that; she becomes someone Henry bonds with and really connects with on an emotional level. Henry and Delilah share their deepest secrets, like the roots of their sadness, and ultimately, the reasons for fleeing to the Wyoming forest.
Throughout the game, Henry reports various anomalies or park rules violations. The moments between investigating the reports, which occur as Henry hikes to the various sites within the park, work in two ways: (1) they establish the three sub-plots and (2) they add depth to the characters of Henry and Delilah. The sub-plots involve dealing with some rowdy teenage girls, piecing together what became of Ned (another park ranger), and discovering the fate of Ned's son Brian. These scenarios make up the bulk of the gameplay of Firewatch
While tracking down the girls, you come across the empty beer cans they've carelessly left behind. They're disrespecting the park, so you pick up after them. Once Henry finally confronts the girls, they're skinny dipping in the lake and there's nothing you can do despite your authority. The girls realize this and call Henry a creep and swim away.
The other two secondary plots revolve around Ned and his son. Ned is ex-military and going through some serious PTSD. He brought his son out to the wilderness to make a man out of him until a tragic caving accident resulted in Brian's death. Ned can't handle the guilt so he retreats into the woods as a self-imposed exile. The guilt and isolation compound Ned's trauma and he begins tapping into the radio conversations of the other park rangers. At this moment, Henry realizes that his burden was too much to bear and the cause of his desire to be away from his family.
It's also during these hikes that Delilah will radio Henry. These serve as moments to develop a relationship between the two as they reveal more about themselves. My interpretation of Henry is that he is vulnerable and alone, and as a result, he eventually began to fall for Delilah. He opens up about Julia's disease and Delilah confesses the guilt she faced by not having done anything to prevent Brian's death. She knew rangers aren't supposed to bring family to the park when on the job, but she kept her mouth shut, and after Brian's accident, she feels responsible. Henry consoles Delilah through her emotional storms and she is there for him. They need to escape, but they also need each other. Henry wants to get closer to Delilah and wants more intimacy with the only person he feels comfortable with, only to realize that they can't be together.
A lot of the criticism against Firewatch
is that there's very little to do in the Wyoming forest, and that its open world offers no incentives. Firewatch
definitely avoids any gamification common to modern video games. There are no collectibles and no achievements aside from the ones granted for reaching key plot points. In fact, anything like that would only detract from what the game sets out to do, which is to tell the story of Henry's emotional struggle. The setting of the forest helps amplify this because there's no distraction outside of Henry's duty of reporting any fires within the park, so naturally his mind wonders and goes places he rather it didn't. This escape is Henry's therapy and by the end of the summer, he learns what he must do. It's a case of having to distance oneself from the cause of one's sadness as a means of gaining some mental clarity. By taking this job, Henry confronts his trauma and with Delilah's help, he accepts what he must do despite being aware that it won't be easy. Henry, at least in my construction of him, wants to continue running by trying to spark something with Delilah, but reconciles with the truth that he can't run forever and has to go back to Julia and her parents.
Dealing with issues so abstract is common to the mediums of film or literature, but for a game to accomplish this is a testament to the progression of maturity and intelligence in today's video games. It feels like Firewatch
could be a novel, but it could only be achieved from an interactive medium. A novel would be too wordy as each scene and environment would have to be written out for the reader and while not impossible, it comes with the risk of boring the audience. As a game, Firewatch
can visually create the world for the players and therefore let them become immersed in the setting while getting them into the mind of Henry. Additionally, the player is active in creating Henry and can decide what his motivations are, something a film or novel can't accomplish. Firewatch
would not be as effective if it were passive media just feeding the details to the person. Instead, because it is a game, the player is given enough to excite the imagination and enough control to shape the main character.
It's not unusual for a discussion about walking simulators to progress into the games-as-art debate, but that's because this genre isn't trapped by conventional gameplay elements and thus allows the game to explore something deeper and/or more abstract. The focus shifts away from anything that distracts what the game is trying to do, and in the case of Firewatch
that's to look at how people cope with heartbreak and relate to others.