Sunday, July 17, 2016

GAME REVIEW: "Firewatch" (Campo Santo, 2016)

Over the last two years, I've become more involved in gaming, and more interested in narrative design - how to tell a story in an interactive way, hopefully while giving the player a sense of control and agency (whether they have it or not).

As much as I love novels, it's a different experience writing for a reader who is sitting still, a reader committed to reading your story in order, from left to right, from page 1 to page 400. It's something different to tell a cohesive story to a player who will want to explore and run around and try as many different things as they can (or as the game will allow).

My exploration of interactive storytelling led me to the precious, independent gem that is Firewatch. I had such a profound narrative experience playing it, and I am in utter awe of how every aspect of this game came together perfectly to tell a riveting story.

The year is 1989, and you play Henry, a man recently hired as a summer fire lookout for a vast Wyoming forest. The job is isolating (the three-month gig involves sitting in a lookout tower and watching for fires), and that's just the way you like it. You're not exactly alone - your supervisor Delilah (who mans a nearby lookout tower) keeps in touch by radio.

But something's not quite right about this forest. The first day you start, someone breaks into your tower. The next day, some campers go missing. It's up to you (with the help of Delilah) to find out what's going on in the woods.

There's no combat in Firewatch. It's first and foremost an explorative narrative game - and every aspect of the game is specifically designed to contribute to the exquisite pacing, tone, and direction of the story.

The theme of Henry's isolation is conveyed through the pairing of a massive, wild environment (the gorgeously-designed forest) with a restricted gameplay perspective. Everything is viewed through Henry's first-person POV, and his interactions with Delilah (while extensive and beautifully acted) take place entirely on the radio. Ultimately, the only thing Henry can be completely sure of is himself, and the undercurrent of uncertainty creates a rising, visceral tug of suspense as the story proceeds.

But this isn't a horror game. There's also beauty, empathy, and a lot of humour as Henry and Delilah - connected only by walkie-talkie - rely on the anonymity of radio chatter to explore themselves and their own reasons for abandoning the world to spend a summer looking for smoke.

Some people would call Firewatch a "walking simulator" (since there's no fighting or puzzles or traditional active gameplay), but I find that label reductive. "Narrative Experience" is more fitting, if also a bit more vague. Regardless of how it's categorized, Firewatch is an outstanding example of visual, aural, environmental, and interactive storytelling.
A+

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