12 Months, 12 Games: February – Firewatch

I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.

Firewatch (Playstation 4)

Developer: Campo Santo

Release Date: February 2016

Finished: February 2019

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Released in 2016 from Campo Santo their first title, Firewatch is an award-winning title that is visually stunning to behold and experience from the onset with vistas and a presentation style challenging that of its more acclaimed contemporary peers. Having written and been in marvel of the scenery for the recently released Red Dead Redemption 2 which in turn has been documented and discussed as having been influence by the pastel works of C.M. Russell and John Sargent for example, it was a delight to discover as equally as stunning an open world type game to explore and stop to take in the views before me. Certainly there is clear inspiration from the posters and marketing of the National Park Service but far from being a criticism or hinderance the developers have taken this stylistic choice to create an ambitious and gorgeous game that you can stop to pause and just want to be there, taking in the atmosphere and world you explore. This is far from the walking simulator I had been reticent to explore further, and a pleasurable reminder that some of the most engaging and personal titles available to experience at the moment lie away from the big publishers and developers. I am certainly more optimistic for the developers next title than any announcement from Ubisoft or EA at present which is testimony to the merits of this game.

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The prelude sequence is an interesting mechanism and perhaps one of the areas I did find a little contentious but ultimately could overcome due to the impact and narrative that evolved and developed through out the course of the game. Without going into great detail for those still to experience this release you are presented with certain actions and responses you can make which, to some extent are shaped by the personality of your central protagonist even if it doesn’t match the user playing to any great degree. One of the most jarring for me was the set up for how your character met his paramour in a drunken state in a bar, I know this is a small detail to pick up on but having never experienced or wish to experience said behaviour I perhaps wish there could have been an option to bypass this or have a contrasting approach or option. Irrespective once that moment has passed the narrative continues overlayed to shots of your character arriving in the woods nad hiking out to his watch post as you learn in very short order a believable and moving motivation for leaving his new-found partner and escaping to find solace and peace within the solitude of the forest. Certain elements of the conversation I may not have accepted or found resonance with, but certainly the forlorn nature of the history of your character had an impact on me and made me empathise with his decisions and actions. One accusation you can’t level towards this game is the sin of elevating your character to God like status as seen in other open world releases, Henry is a flawed, damaged individual who is looked to find peace and acceptance in a world that is damaged.

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Certain small details can break me out of a game in quick fashion, once I am aware of them it becomes increasingly difficult to put myself within the mindset of the character I am controlling going forward. In Firewatch I experienced the reverse of this for one of the few times in my gaming history, a small touch and embellishment that made me come to love this game even more and one I fear will increasingly stand out going forward were such a dynamic to be emulated or duplicated. When using your map the light patterns on the surface reflect the environment around you, for example standing in a thicket of tree’s see’s the shadows and reflections duplicated on the map surface. Equally standing in a clearing with the sun on your shoulder the map is well illuminated, and turning around into the shadows creates a dark and dull effect. I love and adored this attention to detail. But equally appreciated the attention to detail as you walked with the map it didn’t rotate or alter the perspective you were looking at, quite simply if you went the wrong way well that was due to your poor map reading ability. There is a small handicap built-in with a moving red circle that moves as you do, a necessary inclusion perhaps but I did enjoy this more realistic take on navigation with a compass available early on to allow you to navigate the Forest using both skill and natural intuition as you become familiar with the area around you. I can confidently say I have come away after spending 6 hours or so with this game with a greater knowledge of this gaming world than all the time I have invested into Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s an open world game that only sign posts, literally, certain locations for guidance purposes as you would find in a National Forest with clear set paths to follow or your own skill and wits if you wish to go off the beaten path and find your own direction. I’ve been guilty on many occasion of playing an open world game by following the small navigation map in the corner for large portions of my exploration moving towards a flashing dot or other similar mechanic and missing a great deal of the environment and world before me.

One dynamic trumpeted is the game’s day and night cycle and due to certain restrictions of the game by and large it does work as you rise early and set off into the Forest beyond talking to your companion over the radio to keep you company as you explore the great outdoors. There is without question a tonal change as you venture out in the morning with the green luscious tree’s and forest surrounding you which slowly transitions through exposure to the sun and weather towards the dusty mid afternoon effects with the light in your eyes before the sun sets and the game’s environment takes on a more sinister and threatening tone. You do have the option to pick up a flash light from one of the supply caches in the game and this did become a handy addition, certainly towards the end when you venture into the games and the game once mor takes on a different dynamic as claustrophobia sets in and you have to manuever around the jagged rocks and confined spaces with a dimly lit light your only source of illumination. From as far back as Ocarina of Time I have always appreciated the use of light dynamics and time having an influence on the world around you, for its faults Wildlands certainly had a tonally different feel when operating at day and night. Equally, when I was out exploring the Forest around me I was pleased to return to my look out tower after the sun had set as the very real threat of reduced or minimal lighting took effect, just as it should when you are away from the light pollution of the city urban environment. The contrasting view of the fire when it strikes to the night sky was a spectacle, enhanced by the dialogue and discussion between the two characters that just felt, special and personal.

The world of Firewatch, this presentation of the American National Forest is a stunning realisation of this special and sacred environment, there is minimal effort required to capture a stunning shot when playing the game and they present themselves so often you just realise that a great deal of the games time is you standing there taking in the view of the world before you. Drawing influence from the National Forest Service advertisement poster’s, and discussed in great detail due to the absence of characters and individuals around you the Forest takes on a personification in its own right, from the tranquility of your look out tower, the exposure of man at the Scout Camp to the sinister threat of the fence and the mystery beyond each time you come across a new location it has a charm and distinctiveness of its own that makes you appreciate it just a little bit more. Whether Video Games are art is a topic for another discussion and has been done so in far greater detail but in the space of a few months I’ve been fortunate to play two entirely contrasting games that to some degree have both replicated the American frontier in similar artistic styles presenting a world and environment you could legitimately discuss and highlight to those who challenge or question its merits. Yes I have spent a great deal of time exploring and going into detail on how in Assassins Creed London was replicated to such a degree but there in lies the creative challenge when starting with a concept of creating a believable and engaging world, do you try to replicate to the smallest minutia the nuance and detail of a living world, Skyrim for example and its many highly detailed rocks for example that after a time become redundant and basic in contrast to more recent titles. Or do you go the direction of Red Dead and seemingly Firewatch and instead present an aesthetic that is both recognisable but stunningly realised from an artistic perspective, this title opting and choosing a more pastel style with rich, contrasting and strong colours that as shown whilst not as realistic in contrast to a photo for example certainly capture the intended spirit and atmosphere of standing on a vista overlooking a Forest canopy. The world of Firewatch is stunning to see.

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Whilst, tonally the prelude suggests a certain forlorn spirit and solitude the overall experience is entirely different thanks in no small part to the casting of two engaging actors and a believable script and interaction that ensures at no point do you ever feel alone or abandoned during the course of the game. You develop a real bond and connection with Delilah, your companion and overseer as you explore the world of the forest around you, undertaking certain small tasks initially before the scope and nature of the narrative opens up and the two forge a closer connection in the face of adversity. It’s a mechanic that works through its simplicity, perhaps I would have opted for some form of connection towards the end or physical presentation but I as with her drawing of Henry you discover towards the end you do as a result of hearing her voice build up a mental picture of who this woman is on the other send of the radio. Henry’s story wasn’t my story perhaps or my set of choices or decisions but the pathos you feel going through the prelude chapter you understand the damaged nature of his personality but equally and in no short order you discover the experiences and past of Delilah and forge a common bond, two damaged humans escaping to the wild and solitude of the frontier and finding comfort and peace with each other. How you respond and what nature the conversations take supposedly shape the outcome for your relationship together, for me I guess it was coming to peace with my characters decisions and deciding to move forward. The nature of the game restricted further characters and interactions occurring,  a slight shame but then equally the tighter narrative structure having a small handful of people to encounter and interact with makes this game feel more personal and at no point for me did that experience ever feel restricted or reduced even if I wasn’t coming across other campers or hikers during my time in the mountains.

The musical score composed and performed by Chris Remo that plays throughout the title are some well written largely acoustic tracks that capture the atmosphere of the environment. In contrast to the more bombastic themes heard during Red Dead and its attempt to emulate the Wild West orchestral scores, the simplicity of Firewatch puts you in those worlds, a type of music you could listen to should you find yourself standing there overlooking a particular vista at dusk. Like Life is Strange, the temptation to infuse or pay for a licensed track could provide a temporary benefit or recognition but it does come at a cost, certainly when it comes for release across multiple platforms and in terms of periods of time the tracks are licensed for. Opting for an independent artist to score, compose and perform the soundtrack instead allows costs to be saved and results in a more intimate and moving score that compliments the world of Firewatch. I’m a fan of simple, acoustic tracks of this nature having been won over by a similar approach found in Last of Us, stripping away the bombastic scores and themes found in large-scale releases results in a more primal and visceral experience. Whilst, perhaps there isn’t a stand out track or memory that holds as strong as the visual worlds of the game certainly the score should be measured on its own merits, that both captures the innocence of the forest world, delving deeper into the mystery before the forlorn conclusion and resolution as the game draws to a close.

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The games conclusion drew a substantial amount of criticism and derision on its release, an atmosphere I was aware of but not necessarily the detail. Having now experienced and concluded my time as Henry I can perhaps share my feelings. Tonally, the game shifts during the course of its narrative, the sadness and solitude of your arrival, the growing bond with Delilah then the conspiracy and mystery that hints towards a larger more Machiavellian threat. As the mystery is resolved and the game draws to a conclusion you are, I supposed left with many questions both of your companion and the game in question but in truth, I accepted even welcomed the change in pace and direction in contrast to other titles. It had a touch of the The Wire finale, Henry and Delilah’s journey reaching a natural conclusion but ultimately, the forest lives on and next season presumably new rangers would take their place and forge memories and experiences of their own. For me, the lasting impression I took of the game playing as Henry was a broken and hurt individual who had sacrificed a great deal for the woman he loves, perhaps loved. The Forest presented a chance to heal and find peace in his soul and in the choices he had made. Certainly the direction of the narrative would suggest a world pulled out from him and in the few months he had exploring the forest he was able to form a new connection and find an element of control in his life once more, perhaps even reflecting a few of his own demons onto Delilah and finding a means to move on. It feel’s like a game where any attempt to bring these two characters back together in a sequel would feel like a forced construct and break whatever believability was there, in that respect I take this game for what it was, a moment in time with no real beginning or end but one you could relate to and I guess take your own answers and make your own conclusions.

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8 thoughts on “12 Months, 12 Games: February – Firewatch

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