Friday, 16 September 2016

Indie Gaming: Firewatch

Firewatch, Campo Santo games, 2016
In many ways, our protagonist in Firewatch is typical of gaming: White, male, bearded... but rather than joining the clones of gaming past, his characterisation saves him. We get introduced to him via a short choose-your-own-adventure style story, in which you get a summary of his relationship with his wife, with a few choices along the way. These choices grant you a more close relationship with your character than most games, as even these simple choices can give you a greater understanding of the role you will be playing.

Henry is a man tormented by his choices, with a feeling that he has not only made bad choices, but also doesn't know how to, or doesn't want to deal with the repercussions. This leads him to become a lookout during the summer fire season. He seeks an escape from his problems, a quiet solitude in which he can immerse himself in other tasks. He seeks an escape from his wife, who has Alzheimer's and (due to his inability to care for her) is with her parents in Australia.

One of the few first-person games to actually give you a body to look at, so you don't feel like a floating camera
What he finds is a prospect of busywork and monotony, long hours spent watching the forest or trying to stave off boredom. However, a voice on the end of a radio provides him with a purpose, and a friendly ear. Delilah is a more experienced lookout, and has been doing this for several years, so provides an informative mentor for Henry. She's also very talkative, quick to joke and there gently develops a tender relationship between the two, bordering on the romantic.

One of the many beautiful views
The initial hours of the game allow for a gentle exploration of your surroundings. You are guided to a certain extent, but allowed relative freedom to explore the trails surrounding your lookout tower. The pace is quite relaxed and the friendly tones of Delilah are a great accompaniment. Not long after, things start to speed up.

The story threads begin with almost no consequence, a couple of troublesome campers, a stranger on the path at night. The tension builds up slowly, the two teenagers causing you more trouble, your lookout tower broken into, the telephone wires cut. It comes to a head when you find a clipboard with transcribed radio conversations, a radio, and get a knocked out for your trouble.

After the slow burn start, now the mystery begins. It feels like an adventure, much like the trashy spy novels you find scattered around the place. Slowly you uncover this conspiracy, a remote listening post, strangers lurking in the woods, missing hikers and missing teenagers (including the two from earlier). To add to it all, a huge fire begins to spread through the forest, in the distance.

Your map gets annotated as you explore
Danger, mystery, exploration, all the hallmarks of a proper gaming adventure. As the fire builds to the south, the heat, the tension and the smoke build, and you can't help but get invested in the struggle that the characters are having. These two are miles apart, linked only by a radio. Not wholly sure that they can trust what each other is saying, they have to rely on each other because there is no other help to call on. There's a real sense of paranoia to their interactions after a while, as they start to fray at the edges.

The kicker of course is that the grand plotting mostly exists in the heads of Henry and Delilah, and by extension, you the player. These clues and mysteries that you find are not some big conspiracy, there's no secret recording station experimenting on forest fire lookouts, there's no vengeful killer picking off helpless hikers in the hills. The antagonist turns out to be a father, broken by his choices, unable to face the consequences of his actions, driven mad by grief and regret.

Here is the dark path laid before us, and as Errant Signal points out, a mirror to our protagonist. Another man approaching middle age who has made some terrible decisions and sought refuge in the wilderness. The difference being that Ned took his son along with him, contrary to the rules, selfishly pushing his son into activities unsuited for him, and ended up accidentally killing him. Henry's sins are less severe, but he still acts with selfishness in the introduction when he makes it difficult for his wife to take a new job, and when he rejects having children. Henry then cannot cope when his wife gets early-onset Alzheimer's, and his drinking lands him with a DUI and his wife with her family in Australia.

Henry, unlike Ned, has a chance at redemption, but it is not with a grand adventure, not as being a hero that saves the day. His chance is to not change his choices, but rather make his future ones better than his past ones. Ned escapes from his responsibility by running away, the death of his son makes him recluse himself further, hiding in the wild. Henry engages in a struggle with him, knowingly or not, for that secret to be kept buried. The fire that consumes the forest pushes both of them to leave, but as Ned retreats further into the wilderness it forces Henry to go home, alone, and consider his future.

The finale subverts most narrative expectations, by turning the big mystery into a small one. The big conspiracy turns out to be the work of a lone man, and the burgeoning love story gets curtailed. The setup for a grand adventure turns into a small mystery, and while many will feel disappointed by this, and I did too, but not to the detriment of the experience. Without wishing to trivialise it, there's a certain Scooby Doo nature to the reveal, that there's no killer or government conspiracy but rather one bad man.

It is also surprising how much thought into choices and consequences a game can provide while it actually has very limited choice throughout. With the release of a remastered Bioshock this week it does make me compare the approaches. Both are very linear games, with minor choices throughout, and both contain thought-provoking experiences on the nature of man and the choices we make. But I feel that Firewatch makes a much better point of it, especially since it doesn't have to wear the skin of an action shooter. While the game mechanics of Bioshock undermined it's point I feel like Firewatch instead finds a very good balance.

A key example is the radio conversations, present in both games. In Bioshock they are exposition dumps, a method of communicating the plot to the player in a convenient fashion. Firewatch leaves the majority of this to the environment, filled with short notes and objects to flesh out the world. The radio is used instead as a conversation tool, a way to build your relationship with Delilah in a two-way fashion, whilst also allowing you to curate your experience of the world to her.

You can choose to be open, and tell her what you see in it's entirety, asking her help and input at every turn. Or you can take a much more minimal approach, relying on the radio conversation only when necessary, as the game gives you the option to ignore her conversations at times (she may continue talking however, but you don't need to always reply).

This gives the characters much greater depth than a one-sided speech could ever manage. The ability to respond, even in a cursory way which may have no real impact, makes it a much more rewarding experience. It takes care and good writing in order to create this illusion though, and for a negative example you could look at a game like Fallout 4, or sometimes the Mass Effect series, in which there are often examples of badly written conversations where the illusion of choice is far too apparent and so feels cheap and unrewarding.

Time to leave...
Of course there's a certain advantage to indie games, they have the ability to explore the medium in ways a big budget game cannot (or will not). Much like "arthouse" or indie cinema, indie gaming provides a chance to see experimental and thought provoking games that we wouldn't otherwise. Long may this continue, and I hope these sorts of games can find the wider audience that they deserve.

No comments:

Post a Comment