It’s becoming clearer and clearer that video games can be an effective medium for storytelling, at times on par with TV and movies. There have always been games that have focused on narrative and character development (many with great success), but the evolution of the industry has meant a bigger platform for games to showcase their ability to tell a compelling story. Most big name titles nowadays have development budgets on par with major movies: for instance, Grand Theft Auto V (265 million dollars) cost around the same to make as Avengers: Age of Ultron (250 million dollars). I’m not going to pretend that I know where all that money goes; the point I’m making is that with increasing budgets and access to acting and writing talent, video games have more capacity than ever to craft interesting, well-told stories.
That said, despite the expanding resources available to the biggest developers, the most intimate and moving narrative-driven experiences often come from small teams with microscopic budgets (at least in comparison to the industry’s big players). One such team is Campo Santo, a self-described “small but scrappy video game developer in San Francisco”, whose debut title, Firewatch, released in February 2016. Before I got my hands on it last month, I’d been intrigued about this game for over a year after seeing an extended demo at E3 2015; I don’t play many indie games, but this one hooked me. I picked the game up a while after it came out, and I heard mostly positive chatter surrounding it, managing to steer clear of any major spoilers. Now I’ve finally had the chance to play it myself, I’d like to share what I made of it. I’ll do my best to avoid any major plot details.
I’m not discrediting the rest of the game when I say that the prologue is its standout moment. It starts with a short vignette describing the moment Henry, our protagonist, met his wife for the first time, then cuts away to Henry hiking up to a watchtower some time in the future. From then, your action in the present day (which is actually 1989 in the game) is punctuated with further poignant accounts of his past. It’s beautifully contemplative: you read about Henry and the events that led him to where he is, then you’re given a few seconds of quiet solitude to digest what you’ve learned. It sets the tone of the game perfectly: unhurried, honest, introspective, with a dry sense of humour and unexpected tragedy. It’s a brilliant opening, and I honestly took a few seconds after finishing the introduction to reflect on what I’d seen.
Once you arrive at the tower, your walkie-talkie crackles and a voice on the other line invites you to respond. The voice belongs to Delilah, another member of the lookout team in the park, and your only point of human contact for the duration of the game. The conversations between the two of you are not only the game’s core mechanic, but also its heart: as you wander through the woods and as the story unfolds, the lone constant is Delilah’s voice on the other end of your walkie-talkie, and as their relationship gently evolves you can feel the bond between them becoming stronger.
Henry and Delilah are excellently-realised characters. They are superbly written, but it’s the performances of Cissy Jones (as Delilah) and Rich Sommer (as Henry) that truly stand out: they infuse their characters with warmth and humour, and importantly, an endearing fallibility. Neither of them is anywhere close to perfect, which makes them both relatable and memorable. You can pick up your walkie-talkie and chat with Delilah at various non-essential points during the game – marvelling at a stunning vista, for example – which allows for neat little moments of connection between the two of you. I found myself picking up my radio whenever the opportunity arose, eager to hear the next morsel of conversation and learn a little more about each character.
Firewatch favours simplicity in its design: there are only two characters, there is seldom any action outside of rappelling down the odd cliff face, and there is no HUD. The absence of on-screen clutter, coupled with the first-person perspective, gives a sense of peaceful isolation. You have your backpack, your walkie-talkie, a map, and a compass – and you walk. You walk a lot. The only way to reach the various points on the map is to get there on foot, and the game doesn’t sell out by offering any shortcuts, so it often takes you a while to get to a given destination. A cynical part of me was worried that this would prove tedious, but for the most part it’s beautifully serene and allows for welcome periods of reflection. The game finds inventive ways for you to explore the park, and even when you’re walking through paths you’ve been down several times before, it feels comfortingly familiar rather than repetitive.
The main reason I didn’t mind the game’s ambling pace is the fact that it looks absolutely breathtaking. I lost count of the moments when I stopped whatever I was doing to gaze at the stunning scenery (I nearly wore out my share button taking screenshots). The art style perfectly captures the essence of a hot summer, from crisp, clear mornings to deep red sunsets. There were times during the game when I felt slightly frustrated at the amount of ground I had to retread in order to trigger the next plot point in the story – at one point you almost have to get from one corner of the map to the other – but any exasperation usually evaporated as I took in the quiet beauty of the park.
With characters as strong as Henry and Delilah, the plot doesn’t need to be groundbreaking for the game to succeed; the central mystery flirts with conspiracy and danger before coming to a tragic end. I wasn’t blown away when the pair eventually stumbled upon the truth behind the strange happenings in the forest, but the point of the story has much more to do with Henry and Delilah than finding out what’s going on in the park. They are the game’s true heart; what makes it memorable is the way the events of the story are seen through the prism of their relationship.
Firewatch commits to telling a very human story with likeable but imperfect protagonists, driven by brilliant central performances from its cast. It’s not a deep game in terms of mechanics or gameplay, but it makes the most of its opportunities to draw you into its compelling world, and shows an assuredness in knowing how to flesh out its story slowly and keep you on the hook. I fell in love with Henry and Delilah, and I can’t think of many more fully-realised characters in a video game than these two, which is all the more impressive considering you never actually see what either of them looks like (outside of an old photo of Henry). This isn’t a game that will dominate your free time, but if you want to lose yourself in something for a few hours on a given afternoon, I can think of few better ways to do it.