Before delivering any digital impressionist vistas, Firewatch throws us into a black screen where we get to choose how we have failed our loved one. We can only fail them, however hard we try, and that is our introduction to the game. It’s a brief section, but it weighs a tonne. Not only does it set player expectations for narrative decision making within Firewatch, it demonstrates how even the smallest piece of player agency can make for something emotively charged when done correctly. As with Telltale’s The Walking Dead it’s not about mechanical branches, but about the player participating in the drama, providing the human angle to the game’s events. As blockbuster games become more elaborate with the way they deal with cause and effect, lower budget works are isolating moments of reflection, forcing the player to consider their own values as they work through what’s happening on screen. Kentucky Route Zero does this with free association such that the player begins unconsciously drawing out their own fears and anxieties, but in Firewatch we simply participate in constructing Henry’s bullshit. He’s doing the wrong thing, reasonably or unreasonably, and when called out he’s unlikely to tell the truth, because he himself has lost his mooring. Whatever we say is the right thing, because anything we could say would be wrong.
Firewatch has received widespread praise for its visual style, and for good reason. Where similarly expressive works such as Inside and Shelter are so commanding in their style that the player can only act in accordance with their logic, Firewatch holds back for an openness that makes it feel conventionally navigable. Its colour palettes draw on the jarring experiments of Proteus but its forms and textures are staunchly mimetic, and its pastel finish draws it back into stylisation compared to contemporary The Witness. This last point is critical, as the diffused colours and light effects make the game feel like an echo; like it’s happening in past tense. Whatever narrative reason frames the game, there is a wistful quality to Firewatch that brings with it a knowing melancholy that this is all a fabricated memory. Even when outside influences threaten this rose-tinted utopia, when the developers employ cinematic ellipsis to have the world of Firewatch step down in favour of character-centric drama, the player feels it calling back through time. The parallel here to Henry is obvious, as he clearly needs to get back to the responsibilities of his life outside of Firewatch, but as the mysteries of the game grow more pronounced and even dictate our engagement in the dream-environment, the player’s affective link to it is broken in favour of someone else’s enacted drama. Prince Avalanche, another work in the wake of the Yellowstone fires of 1988, better handled this temporal unease, allowing the viewer to wander around Alvin and Lance’s narrative instead of being chained to it. The story in Firewatch is good in the sense that it’s well paced and often frightening, but a stronger work would have been made if it had been pushed into the background, allowing us to become one with the environment, and with loss itself.
There is the sense that Campo Santo are well aware of this, and opt for a balance between the much derided ‘walking simulator’ and a more obvious narrative compulsion to satisfy all potential parties. Rather than feeling lost, we come to watch someone else being lost, and the most compelling embodiment of isolation (the environment) becomes the stage for dialogue-driven storytelling about precisely this. I’d opt for an inverse balance of narratological and ludic components (in order to enhance the emotional significance of both), but can’t begrudge how well the developer goes in the opposite direction. The dialogue is perfect, the performances uniformly tender when tender counts and guarded when it doesn’t, and the map is circular enough for almost invisibly linear storytelling. The story is a con, the conclusion invariably a betrayal, but where the game’s scripted ‘moments’ and role-plays subside are the small instances of individual panic and satisfaction that the player takes with them into the day, the week, the month. I can’t wait to see what Campo Santo will do without feeling the need to compromise.