Friday, September 2, 2016

Games Review: Firewatch

Just because I have a PS4, it's not to say I've totally abandoned my trusty PC. Z and I are still playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, for starters, but I've also got a stack of unplayed games on my Steam account, and the PC gaming ecosystem is just so much more diverse than the console one. Also the Teenager is playing a lot of Overwatch in the lounge, so there is that, too. So away from the big and flashy excitement of the PS4, I've still be dabbling in the smaller, shorter gems I've not really got around to yet, and this is one of them.

Its interesting that over the last few years we've seen a few games that half-jokingly picked up the genre "walking simulator". The most famous of these was probably Gone Home, but more recently Everyone's Gone to the Rapture and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter have taken the same approach. There tend towards mystery and mood, as you explore a location, slowly, on foot. No action, no explosions. It was only a matter of time then, that a game actually decided to simulate walking, giving you a large sandbox, rough directions, and a simulated map and compass with which to get around. That game is Firewatch, set in a small corner of a Wyoming National Park, late summer 1989. 

Firewatch starts with a simple series of screens that walk you though your relationship with a woman named Julia, from meeting  her, to how your lives together unfold, to the tradgedy that overcomes you both. It's a series of simple choices, but really it serves to give you a sense of ownership of Henry, the character you will play for the rest of the game. Henry therefore becomes less of a blank slate protagonist with a tragic backstory; as the game works to make you feel that backstory, and let it colour how the game goes forward. And then it drops you into the wilderness, to take up your post as a lonely Fire Warden. 

In terms of actual gameplay, you go through a series of days which cover the major incidents in your time here. It mostly involves being given a rough objective - go check out the lake, for example - and then you grab your map and compass (the game has next to no UI) and radio and work out how to follow the trails to get there. The terrains design is excellent, so it's hard to get totally lost, but it's still and atmospheric and immersive mechanic that mirrors what you'd do in real life. Your only companion is the voice Delilah, your boss, another lonely and lost character out here in the middle of nowhere. 

Firewatch quickly becomes a game about pain, and loss. It's a game with older characters, ones with pasts they can't escape and troubles they struggle to articulate. The voice acting and dialogue leaves so much unsaid - a rarity in game scripting - and is a great contrast to the lush and vibrant visuals. Actually lets just take a moment here and appreciate just  how gorgeous the art in Firewatch is. 


I'm not sure that Firewatch is for everyone - these sort of rambling, mood-based games aren't everyone's cup of tea and I think Henry and Deliliahs stories will connect more with an older demographic than a younger, more care-free one. But I really loved it, really felt it. It's a great antidote to the daft, AAA escapism I've been playing a lot of recently. More of this sort of thing, please.