Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Getaway: Campo Santo’s Firewatch

Video games are expensive. They’re expensive to develop, to publish, and to manufacture. Your average title, regardless of which gaming system you use, will usually run you anywhere from sixty to eighty dollars or more (in Canada). They’re sometimes cheaper if you shop digitally, instead of trucking to the store to buy a physical disc copy, but it takes patience and a discerning eye to watch out for these infrequent deals. So, naturally, since they can often only afford a few games per year, many gamers are very careful to make sure they’re going to get full value for their gaming dollar.

So the question then is: how do you judge value in a game? It’s easy to associate hundreds of hours of playtime with significant dollar value (and even if your game offers “only” sixty hours’ worth of play time, you’re at least breaking even). This has led to an industry trend of developers artificially padding out their games with time-consuming filler content so that they satisfy this “gameplay hours = dollar value” formula, which is leaving little room for smaller, more compact, and more focused games to compete. An indie developer with a staff of just twelve people may have an excellent game to offer, but they can’t hope to sell more copies than Fallout – so they are being forced to carve out their own niche, catering to a smaller market with shorter, cheaper games. Good thing, too, because allowing these games to exist in their own category means that the occasional special title will shine out, and generate even more buzz than the big dogs.

Case in point: Firewatch, by San Francisco indie dream-team developer Campo Santo, which is available on PS4 and PC for $20, and which has demanded tons of media attention since its announcement last spring. I say “dream team” because the staff at Campo Santo boast impressive resumes, having worked on critically-acclaimed titles like The Walking Dead, Bioshock II, Ori & The Blind Forest, and Mark of the Ninja (not to mention those with experience outside the realm of gaming, like Rich Sommer of Mad Men fame, and revered illustrator Olly Moss, whose custom poster designs have been a staple in the film world for nearly a decade). This gathering of talent is a large part of why Firewatch has been on everyone’s radar, but the primary reason it caught my attention was its setup: it’s 1989 and you play as Henry, a volunteer lookout in Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, who escapes his troubled past by retreating to these bucolic surroundings, only to find himself caught up in a strange mystery once he ventures into the woods. His – that is to say, your – only connection to humankind is through his handheld radio, which transmits the voice of his boss, Delilah. As Henry, you face strange and emotional questions, and make interpersonal choices that can deeply affect your only meaningful relationship, which only exists at the other end of your radio.

I completed Firewatch in just under five hours. If we apply the aforementioned value formula, that means I only got a quarter of the value I should have received for my twenty dollars. But this game functions as a perfect example of how flawed that formula is, and that an experience like this, that is singular, unique, and well-crafted, is just as – if not more – valuable than one that takes up hundreds of hours of your life.

There’s not much gameplay to speak of in Firewatch. You see the park through Henry’s eyes, walking its paths on Delilah’s instructions, occasionally pulling up your map and compass to check your bearings, and sometimes traversing steeper terrain by climbing or using ropes. You find a disposable camera at one point, and you can take snaps of whatever you like. There’s no health bar, no combat, no failure state (through death or otherwise). The gameplay is really just a placeholder for the meat of the experience, which is the rich and satisfying story that is brought to life by Sommers (as Henry) and Cissy Jones (as Delilah). You are given several ways to respond to Delilah when she poses you questions, which are sometimes terse, sometimes gentle, and often joking or sarcastic. You learn that she reacts well to humour, and that she’s a bit of a flirt, and that she dislikes it when you are guarded or silent. (You can tell she’s often just trying to pass the time in her lookout tower, posing you absurd questions, or asking you to describe yourself so she can draw you.) As you complete some simple tasks and the game jumps forward in time, your relationship with Delilah grows depending on these choices you’ve made, and you begin to feel very attached to her – which is, of course, when the ground falls out from underneath you both.

I’d do a disservice to Firewatch’s effectiveness as a story to delve into the details of its mystery plot, but suffice it to say that it incorporates elements of Twin Peaks and the works of Stephen King, and that these more thrilling aspects of the story are secondary to the relationship at the core of the game. Sommer and Jones create two realistic, believable people to whom you are instantly drawn, and whose chemistry is natural and charming – even though they only communicate through a radio. It’s fascinating character work, full of the emotional complexities that often support or undermine our real relationships. It’s an experience that brought me to tears. Fallout sure didn’t do that.

The other reason Firewatch has been such a hit is its incredibly beautiful and distinctive visual style, pioneered by Olly Moss and Jane Ng. Moss lifted the colour palette and iconography of New Deal-era National Park Service posters in the creation of the game’s key concept art, which Ng then translated into 3D environments the player could wander through. This resulted in a singularly stunning look that had me gawping at every forested path and cliffside vista, which are further brought to life through smooth and stylized animations (for Henry’s hands and feet as he hops over fallen logs and picks up miscellaneous items, and for everything from a startled deer bounding away to a copse framed by falling leaves). The soundtrack by Chris Remo is minimalist and gorgeous, plucking through solemn and evocative strains that connect you deeply to Henry’s emotions and the beauty of his surroundings. It just goes to show that a sense of artistic vision is much more important than graphical verisimilitude.

A neat aside: it turns out that Henry’s disposable camera serves a tangible purpose, as well. The snapshots you take on your journey are not only shown to you as a slideshow over the end credits, but you’re given a link that allows you to download your shots, and even have prints of them sent to you in the mail. (All the screenshots of the game included in this review are shots I took myself using this feature.) Video game collectibles have always been popular, but I can think of few examples of tie-in merchandise that are connected directly to your unique experience, and therefore carry that level of emotional heft. It’s a brilliant idea that allows me to look back on my time with Firewatch as fondly as if they were pictures of a real place.

Firewatch isn’t for everyone. It won’t satisfy those who look for action or excitement in their games, and will certainly fall short for those who demand a certain number of gameplay hours to feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth. It’s a narrative experience, designed simply as a beautifully-written story – which is not to say that it’s not interactive, because the choices you make, large and small, feel incredibly impactful due to your connection to Henry and Delilah. For my part, I loved the game. While it can be satisfying, I found it so refreshing to break away from the “kill everything & become all-powerful” formula, and just be led by the hand through a well-told tale. I loved that it was only as long as it needed to be, and that it rewarded skills like being observant, and taking your time, and enjoying yourself in the moment. Too few games, whether triple-A or independent, bother to engage with the player on an emotional level first, and a skill level second. And sometimes, that sort of getaway is just what the doctor ordered.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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