We should know by now what videogames can and can’t do as a medium. When they’re not aping movies, they can tell riveting environmental stories in contained settings with gratifying payoffs (Gone Home, Bioshocks 1 and 2, Portal). In the context of gameplay, they can use animation, voice acting, and writing to establish effective relationships among characters (Uncharted, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Grand Theft Auto V). They can create a sense of mystery (Myst and a hundred other games).
What they can’t do is what Firewatch is attempting.
After the jump, putting the watch in Firewatch.
Firewatch probably should have been a short movie. Or a short story. Or a radio play. It should have been something other than a minimally interactive multi-hour first-person perspective videogame. It’s too modest an undertaking, too divorced from any meaningful player involvement. It is not the stuff of videogames. It doesn’t work.
But if Firewatch doesn’t work, why does Gone Home work? They share similar sensibilities, similar interest in their characters’ inner lives, similar tones of mystery and even dread, similar running times. They are both independent games of modest production values, created by people who clearly know good stories, good writing, and good character development. Why does one work, but the other doesn’t?
Gone Home was a self-contained environment filled with clues that you uncovered at your own pace. You assembled them in your head, deciding how and whether to relate different pieces of information discovered at various times. It wasn’t like a book or movie, where that work is done for you and all that’s left for you is how to feel. Gone Home was a space to be explored, a place where something had already happened, a story to be uncovered. It did things that videogames do well: exploration, revelation, atmosphere.
But Firewatch is a series of events. A happens, then B, then C, then D wraps it all up. What little exploration is available is optional and unimportant, because Firewatch is mainly concerned with the A, B, C, and D. Okay, if you want to read the back of a book cover, go ahead. If you want to open the door of an outhouse, feel free. If you want to turn left at a fork in the path instead of right, that’s fine because you’ll hit a wall and you’ll have to go right eventually. If there’s choice and consequence in Firewatch — I have no idea — it’s not evident. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. It’s as inevitable as a cutscene or a ride at Disneyland.
But even if you resign yourself to playing a mildly interactive cutscene — lord knows, you could do a lot worse — the setting is problematic. Firewatch takes place over the course of several months in the Wyoming wilderness. This is a terrible setting for a videogame for a couple of reasons. The first is related to time. The several months are important to both the plot and the relationship between the two characters, but several months don’t play well in a first-person interactive medium. If I am Henry and Henry is me, if I’m seeing through his eyes and puppeting him through dialogue trees and pre-assigned routes, then Firewatch intends me to feel Henry’s thought processes and experiences. Gouging out huge chunks of his experience is necessary, because the game isn’t going to make me play for days on end to get to the next story beat. But how can a game that directly emulates an experience create the experience of boredom, tedium, prolonged solitude?
Editing allows movies to play with the passage of time because we’re watching from the outside in rather than the inside out. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee show us what prolonged solitude and introspection do to the character we’re watching. It’s not happening to us; it’s happening to her. In Castaway, when Robert Zemeckis cuts from a well fed Tom Hanks pulling a bad tooth to the lean shaggy babbling survivor he becomes months later, the effect is intentionally jarring. We’re shocked observers. But videogames have yet to find a solution when you’re living inside someone else’s skull. On day 14, a title card reading “Day 49” suddenly interrupts the moment-to-moment experience of me walking Henry to the next waypoint. Now here I am in day 49, taking for granted whatever was supposed to have happened in the intervening 25 days. It’s the narrative equivalent of getting beamed into a UFO and having my memory erased. There’s a reason found footage movies play in relatively real time.
The second reason Firewatch is a terrible setting for a videogame is geographic. In Gone Home, you’re exploring a haunted house. Haunted houses are the setting for most videogame mysteries, from the ridiculous (Resident Evil) to the sublime (Bioshock 2). In an interactive medium, it’s much easier to manage interactivity by locking the player into a haunted house. Firewatch attempts the opposite by putting you in an expansive wilderness. It’s not much of a wilderness and it’s certainly no expanse. It is instead a modest corral of generic trees, rocks, and bushes, with a short cave level. Moving around in this wilderness is a matter of moving from waypoint to waypoint. There’s not much wild about it. It’s as intimate, cultivated, and sterile as the island in The Witness. I saw six living creatures, four of which weren’t indigenous, three of which were distant shapes, and none of which were interactive. Until the final moment of Firewatch, Henry’s only physical contact with another creature is a raccoon cutscene.
Because you’re playing the main character in Firewatch’s story, it’s a very different situation from Gone Home, with very different opportunities. In Gone Home, you were a character relevant to the story, but the story wasn’t about you. This gave you a motive to care. It gave you a reason to root around in dresser drawers and unlock locked doors and read other people’s mail without feeling creepy. You weren’t plundering; you were solving. You weren’t the protagonist; you were the detective piecing together the story of the protagonist.
But in Firewatch, you are the protagonist, Henry. The heart of the story is your/Henry’s relationship with Delilah, another ranger in the park who communicates with Henry over a walkie-talkie. These two characters encounter a mystery out in the forest. Something possibly sinister is or isn’t afoot in a National Park. Wyoming noir, if you will. Although you might not be free to explore the wilderness, you are free to play the obligatory multiple choice dialogue tree. Which option does Henry say? How much does he say? Does he just let the other character talk? Do I get to decide how he feels about Delilah, or am I just deciding how much of it he expresses? Henry’s feelings are clear even if the intent of his comments isn’t. And does what he says even matter in the larger scheme of things? Does Henry have any effect on the A, B, C, and then D? I don’t think so, but I do think his powerlessness is partly the point.
To its credit, Firewatch never marginalizes its characters for the sake of mystery or even gameplay. It might not work as a setting, but it works as a story about Henry and then Delilah, expressively voiced by Rich Sommers and Cissy Jones. The actors and script capture the content rapport of people who’ve come through a lot and ended up with each other.
Along with these performances, the most successful part of Firewatch is how it establishes who Henry is and why he’s out in the wilderness as the rent-a-cop equivalent of a forest ranger. Dead Calm, another wilderness thriller that relies on isolation, begins by introducing you to a horrific tragedy visited on a young couple. The tragedy initially defines them as characters. Before you can get to the bits with Billy Zane as a high seas Hitcher, you’re asked to understand something about why they’re out to sea. This is an important device in thrillers. There’s nothing compelling about a character in peril if you don’t care about that character. That’s called a slasher movie. A good story establishes empathy. Who is this person and why is she here? The Descent is another example. Sarah’s husband has been killed in a car wreck. Now she’s spelunking with her friends. Characters trying to bounce back from trauma are inherently more interesting than interchangeable victims.
Firewatch does something similar when it introduces Henry. A text sequence adroitly demonstrates that you’re in the capable hands of a good writer. But that’s about ten minutes, tops, and then Firewatch turns into a videogame about several months in the Wyoming wilderness. The effective writing gives way to a few hours of gameplay filler. Walk here. Walk there. Now walk here. All the walking does nothing to create any sense of wonder or even scenery and it only gets in the way of the interesting character development. I love the story in Firewatch, and I was delighted to meet two vividly written and warmly acted characters. But I would have rather met them someplace other than an ill-fitting videogame padded with filler. Firewatch might be short. But it’s not short enough.