There has been a welcome resurgence of the pc (and sometime console) adventure game. Old-timers, like myself, remember the days of King’s Quest, 7th Guest, Longest Journey, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and on, and on–games focused on story, character, and puzzle solution. These games were not so much games as they were interactive movies. I’ve been thrilled to see the success of games like The Vanishing of Ethan Cater and Gone Home, which capitalize on the slow-paced narrative structure of those classic games, rather than intense button-mashing action gameplay. Don’t get me wrong. I love hack-n-slash dungeon crawlers and, dare I say, even the team PvP matches of Battlefront, Call of Duty, and Destiny. But, my first love is storytelling, and when it comes to spinning a tale, the adventure game does it best.
I had been watching the development of Firewatch, by Campo Santo, for more than a year, and was excited by what I’d seen. It had all the elements I’d come to expect from this generation of adventure games: a unique aesthetic, accomplished writing, top notch voice acting, and adult themes. These are games to be played over hours, not months. They are typically personal, intimate experiences. They rely on exploration and discovery to unpack their plot, and they resist the frenetic, and too often empty, ADHD mechanics of the gluttony of shooters produced today. That being said, Firewatch could have used a touch of action…or at least a cup of coffee and a cigarette to keep its audience awake.
Firewatch promises much in its opening minutes and delivers on, quite literally, none of it. You play as Henry, a man who is trying to escape his past–an illness and the collapse of his marriage–by dropping himself in the middle of nowhere, occupying an isolated watchtower, loosely tethered to the outside world by a single two-way radio. Great premise. Great start. While the game’s opening sequence is almost entirely exposition, with some minor dialogue choices made by the player, it carries all the emotional weight of Firewatch’s developing story arc. The setup is deftly handled: the love story is complex, the writing precise, the dialogue realistic. Before the title card splashes its way across the TV screen, you feel completely invested in the lives of Firewatch’s characters. Things looked pretty good. And then, the actual gameplay began.
When comes to storytelling, I like to pretend I have an open mind, that there is room for every type of tale, that every work has value in a subjective way, that all art can be successful on its own terms. Then, I realize what bullshit that is. Sometimes, a work is just objectively bad. And, how do you know if a story (even a game story) is bad? Well, I’ll tell you–and I’ll conveniently use Firewatch as our example.
1. Unrealistic Dialogue
I have read more than one review in praise of the “authentic” dialogue put into the mouths of Firewatch’s characters. Keep in mind, the two main characters are middle-aged adults working for some fictional park service. Let me be clear. The only way the dialogue of Firewatch could be judged “natural” or “realistic” is if these character were fifteen-year-old gamers. Admittedly, as a middle-aged man myself, I have used the word “fuck” on occasion. However I, and no one approaching my age, drops f-bombs like these horribly written cardboard cutouts. Never, in all my years of employment, have I started my day with so many Fs: fuck you, fuck me, fuck off, fuck that, fuck this, fuck, fuck, fuck–you get my point. There is a moment, unless you’re spending your golden years in a state penitentiary, that the use of “fuck” isn’t quite as prominent as it once was in your vocabulary. Game writers that haven’t figured this out are clueless to social/generational norms and are, quite simply, bad writers.
2. Closed World
Firewatch claims to be an experience where players explore an open and engaging environment, where every interaction with this world matters. Well, actually, you’ll spend all three hours of this game running back and forth along the same three circular trails. And, you will not be able to leave those trails because of formidable obstacles. What are these impassable obstacles keeping you penned-in along these trails? Bushes. A branch. Six inch high rocks. Two foot tall embankments. A chain-link fence, just like the ones you used to scale when you were ten, but are now impossible to climb. Honestly? What really keeps you from exploring beyond that little hedge? The game developers–because if you got off that trail you might find out there isn’t much of a game here.
3. Dropped Plotlines
Dramatist Anton Chekhov once wrote,”One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This is Firewatch in a nutshell. It pulls at so many narrative threads and never sees fit to follow them to an end, whatever end that might be. One of the most notable dropped threads is the tale of the missing girls. Henry’s first real crisis at his new job introduces him to two female skinny dippers. It is an interaction that will later implicate your character in the girls’ death/disappearance, including discovery of their violently destroyed campground and a suspiciously threatening letter. Just as you start to investigate, Firewatch inexplicably tells you, “never mind, the girls turned up, everything is fine, forget it.” This reveal happens during a random info dump by the game’s only other character, Delilah. This is just one example. Plot lines get dropped again, and again, and again. Firewatch places loaded rifles all over its mountainside but is either incapable of or too inept to pull any of the triggers.
Firewatch is a game that attempts to create a realistic, compelling, personal experience. For the first five minutes of gameplay, it succeeds. If I’d stopped there, I might have been largely satisfied with what Campo Santo had created. Unfortunately, nothing happens in Firewatch that is interesting or that makes much sense in relation to its parts. It is a collection of pretentious themes, unresolved narrative threads, and extremely limited exploration elements. Firewatch feels like an abbreviated version of some of the worst modern novels I had to read in grad school. So finally, the modernists have a video game all their own, and its name is Firewatch. Well, at least it was shorter than Finnegans Wake.