Wednesday, March 16, 2016

McKinney Reviews: Firewatch, or as I like to call it "Only Forest Fires Can Prevent You"

When I first sat down to write this review, I found myself at a loss. Firewatch defies most expectations of what a game is supposed to be. There's no way to lose, the puzzles (such as they are) are very, very simple, and you have a map of your surroundings with you at all time so it's almost impossible to get lost. It's very, very close to what some on the internet have derisively named "walking simulators"; games where the player has nothing to do but walk through an (ideally beautiful, or at least visually-striking) area, poking objects in the environment to recieve a series of nuggets of exposition. And at first glance, it seems that's exactly what Firewatch is. I know, viscerally, that there's more to the game than that, but the appeal of the game is not one easily put into words. Still, putting things into words that aren't easily put into words is basically what I've built my life around, so here goes:

In Firewatch, you play as a man named Henry. Henry has been having some "personal problems" lately, and to help clear his head he takes a summer job hiking through the woods of Shoshone National Park as part of the eponymous Firewatch. (It's less glamorous and ranger-y than you think) People are spread thin in that part of the world, and Henry's only source of companionship is chatting over a radio with the Firewatcher in the next zone over. Her name is Delilah, and she's a bit of an ass.

Delilah is fantastic, a well-rounded personality who is written well enough to be a selling point for the game all on her own. Much like Henry, she's got some hefty baggage to carry around. Unlike Henry, whose backstory is laid bare to the player in the opening moments of the game in a quick, simple "choose your own adventure"-style narration, Henry (and the player) have to figure out what Delilah's "deal" is entirely from what she chooses to tell them. I really can't oversell how multifaceted and real Henry and Delilah's relationship is, interwoven as it is through the narrative of the game. This is what truly separates the game from the much-maligned "walking simulators": it's not a walking simulator at all, but rather a talking simulator. By the end of the game I felt like I knew Delilah (both from what truth she told me, and what she lied about) more completely than I know some people I lived with for months. By the same token, Henry really seemed to have grown as a person, or at least bounced back from the borderline-depressed stat he started the game in.

While the back-and-forth between the two leads is excellent, (and depending on your tastes, might be worth getting the game for) it's only one of the plotlines that Henry follows on his journey from the beginning of summer to the end. While Henry learns how to carry out his duties on the Firewatch, he's free to explore the bounds of his assigned territory, uncovering the remnants of those who came before. This pastoral wilderness is full of places for Henry to explore, from Native American religious sites to notes and resources other park rangers left for each other. The end result is that every new day feels like the engrossing hike it should. I'm not much of an outdoorsman, but I think it's safe to say that this is what people who are nature-inclined go looking for. There are layers upon layers of history to explore, all of it punctuated by Henry's musings and Delilah's snark.

Now, you might have noticed I didn't say a word about what the actual plot is. There's a reason for that; the story hinges on several significant twists and to say too much would ruin one of the main reasons to play the game in the first place. While I chose to take the game in the way one would a netflix miniseries, others have binged on the entire game in one sitting. It's easy to see why; the writing and the narrative are both top-shelf, careening into new plot developments and bumping up against genre boundaries along the way. The strong writing, ironically, will likely be why many people who would otherwise love the game will come away with a bad taste in their mouths. It swings wildly at times between stories it seems to be trying to tell; it isn't until the last half-hour of the game that the player can finally think to themselves "oh, this is the kind of story they were trying to tell" and without spoiling too much, a lot of players have and will find the disparity between where the story is actually going and where it's really going to be disappointing. The game has a pretty significant variance in review score from one critic to another, and among those in the "target audience" the biggest divide is between those who think the sometimes maudlin changes in tone and apparent genre ruin the game or complete it.

I, as you can probably guess, loved it. It unifies the game as one that, more than anything, is about how much people change when they leave civilization behind, and how much some of them need other people to complete themselves. It's not a perfect game; it's short (around three hours if you stick to the main plot) and at $20 a little overpriced. The graphics engine sometimes stutters, causing your camera to jerk around unexpectedly (I didn't have this happen often, but whenever it did it sabotaged the carefully-constructed atmosphere the game was trying to develop). The mechanics of actually hiking around are a bit clunky, relying on context-sensitive button presses to climb, rappel, and jump instead of allowing the player to do this freely. But in spite of all of this, the game soars. It's not the kind of game you play endlessly, replaying the same sections over and over to see all of the different ways things can play out; while I fully intend to replay it once I get through my massive backlog of PC games, it will be a replay in the same vein as a rereading of a favorite book. I'll certainly try new things (apparently there are several turtles Henry can find and adopt, and someone pointed out that since all of Henry's dialogue is optional, you can go through the game ignoring her completely) but the core of the game, Henry and Delilah's tense, personal journey, will still be the same. The two characters I love will still be there, watching as the end of summer looms.

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