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Firewatch critical analysis
I absolutely loved Firewatch. I do think it's failed in some regards and I'd like to try and reconstruct why I think it's failed in the ways it has and also in what it has been successful in achieving.
February 17, 2016
10 Min Read
Firewatch is a recent first person adventure game which is trying to achieve very similar goals to Alaska and I absolutely loved it. I do think it's failed in some regards and I'd like to try and reconstruct why I think it's failed in the ways it has and also in what it has been successful in achieving. In recent years there has been a general thrust in smaller studios to explore verbs in first person games that use mechanics other than crude remote agency tools (guns).
The collapse of Irrational after Bioshock seems to have caused what some people hoped would happen with the Looking Glass alumni. That is, it seeded studios all over the world with immersive sim developers. That didn't happen with Looking Glass/Ion Storm because those developers where almost entirely absorbed into large studios and those individual developers either failed to change the culture (like Harvey Smith at Midway) or stopped trying (Doug Church at EA, Warren Spector at Disney). I hope that's a fair assessment. Happily, these developers have settled somewhere they seem comfortable now.
What made the Irrational alumni different is the era in which they were working. Developers from Looking Glass were known and respected throughout the industry as individuals and the studios who hired them wanted their brand. Irrational's brand was Ken Levine, the perceived auteur of Irrational and so it seemed the people who actually made his games didn't carry as much weight with big studios. Those studios had seen what they'd done with the likes of Levine, they feel like they'd created monsters and their response was to shut down any individual credit in their games and also to refuse to hire credited individuals. As a result of this and other factors the industry began to go through a second corporate revolution. EA found themselves on the other side of the table from where they started, they were the corporation that EA was created to wrest creative control from and developers where leaving EA to wrest control back from them. So developers from irrational went off and seeded a large number of teams with immersive sim development as a foundational culture, something that hasn't happened since Arkane and Ion Storm were founded in the late 90s. Ratus Apparatus and Campo Santo while not being Bioshock alumni are part of the same wave of developers trying to build immersive sims without the gameplay crutch that is the gun verb.
Chose your own adventure
Firewatch starts with a chose your own adventure sequence which is designed to set the scene of the game and funnel the actual person who you are into the start of the game in a tailored, plausible way. This sounds like a good idea on paper, an interesting attempt to break the computer game amnesiac trope. Unfortunately it's execution is lacking, in a first person game binary agency is always a problem (in this sense, first person meaning things happen to you, not the literal camera view point being the eyes of the avatar). In the opening moments the game alienated me by giving me so little choice over what I would do that I wasn't able to accept that I would end up at the beginning of the game at all, in failing to ease me into the beginning of the game it actually made the introduction more dissonant than if it had just dropped me there and told me the character's background because quickly resolving that traditional dissonance is a skill I'm familiar with and is also a disbelief I've already chosen to suspend before I started the game. The dissonance of having binary agency however meant that *I* had done things that I would not do and that dissonance is unfamiliar and inside the context of the game and so lingers in the players mind. It does eventually dissipate, resurging when the character's back story comes to the fore but it becomes tolerable.
Saying that, the back story is absolutely inconsequential to the plot of the game it is completely and absolutely superfluous, the game would have worked, and much better, if the player had been allowed to bring whatever back story they so chose to the game. This is one of many perplexing ways in which the game fumbles with its narrative.
The game's primary mechanic, other than the chose your own adventure dialogue, is its metroidvania gating. I loved it, I have an irrational love of this mechanic especially when they are executed well and clearly distinct and signposted, the abilities you unlock in Firewatch are exactly that clearly distinct and well signposted, it doesn't take someone familiar with the metroidvania style more than a few seconds to parse the language of the game and understand whether something is gated and whether they currently have the tools to unlock it. Contrast that with Batman: Arkham Asylum which is one of my favourite metroidvanias, if not my favourite, I spent quite a while trying to figure out the first hacking puzzle I came across not yet realising that I didn't have the tool to unlock it yet, not even realising it was a metroidvania yet & this was about an hour into the game if I remember correctly.
Saying that Firewatch didn't use the mechanic perfectly, one of the key components of the pay off of a metroidvania is that it has to show you where you can't go a fair amount of time before you can go there but it also has to show you why you want to go there and it was rare to look beyond one of Firewatch's gates and see anything interesting or different from the side you were on, you generally got the reason to go there after or at the same time as the tool to get there and you were remote from it so the visual feedback to fuel the desire wasn't there. Sometimes, and this is quite damning, it is infact the antithesis of the genre, the first time you see a gate is when you approach it to get to the other end AND you already have the tool to cross.
The one perfect execution of the metroidvania mechanic is the gate in the cave, there is a visual reason to go there, you don't have the tool to get there, you receive a ludic reason to go there, you acquire the means to go there and then there is a pay off once you do. This is perfect, textbook metroidvania design at its best.
Types of twist
As background to my thinking re. the twist(s) in the game I recomend this article by Anthony Burch about satisfying twists (tragically it's no longer available at the original site so I had to get an archive.org link):
The twist in Firewatch was clearly signalled right at the very beginning of the game, you can't deny that the player had a lot of the information required to deduce at least some of it. There were, however A LOT of red herrings. I'd estimate about 80% of the game was red herrings, plot threads that went know where or plot threads that claimed to feed into the twist but upon reflection reveal themselves to be a lie. I'm going to go into detail now so spoiler warning!
The primary Red Herrings I'd identify are:
Henry's back story
The Girls in the lake
The research station
Ron and Dave's letters
Henry's back story - LIE: As I've detailed before Henry's back story didn't play into the plot of the game in the slightest, it's nothing more than quite a poor a reason for him to be where he is. However it falls into the lie category because it is used to support the idea that some power organisation is orchestrating events. At the tent Henry claims they have information about him that he hadn't talked about over the radio, implying whoever was spying on him knew about him before he came to Two Forks.
Delilah's trustworthiness - NOT TWIST: Delilah's trustworthiness is brought into question several times through the game leading the player to believe she may be involved, I actually think this is done quite well especially as you can see the same thoughts clearly going through her mind. However near the end of the game it is revealed to the player that she is lying because she has a boyfriend and is a polygamist. As I said it is done relatively well but it does contributed to the confused state of the ending.
The Girls in the lake - NOT TWIST: The Girls in the lake also present a sense that the actors orchestrating events are malicious and again right at the end it is revealed to be a coincidence that the true perpetrator supposedly exploited.
The research station - LIE: I would categorise this as a lie, it is a bit of a stretch but the idea that Ned would go to the lengths he supposedly did is unconvincing at best. I'll address this better in the following section.
Ron and Dave's letters - ???: Seriously did I miss something, what was this all about, it didn't seem to try and say or do anything.
Ned's behaviour is downright odd. Everything he does after he loses Brian is poorly established and his behaviour, being completely insane, is at odds with the rational measured way he goes about things and expresses himself. Failing to convince the player that Ned is insane, means they undermine the entire game, it's critically important they achieve this but I don't feel they did. Throughout the game Ned reveals himself to Henry once at the beginning, bizarrely. He deems it appropriate to exploit the missing girls despite them inevitably turning up. He tries to convince Henry there's some sort of bizarre science experiment. He fashions and uses radio equipment but somehow manages to accidentally make them aware of him with a cough. All of this to supposedly protect his secret in the cave and then gives the key to the cave to Henry in an attempt to shut him in? Behind a gate he just gave Henry the key to, what? Not to mention getting out without the key was trivial? It's perplexing that such a well made and plot focused game would have such glaring issues.
Why I liked it
This post might come across as very critical so I want to reiterate that I loved Firewatch and express why. Firstly, and primarily, with Firewatch, Campo Santo overreached. They stretched themselves past the point they were capable, this isn't a game that has been cleverly designed to have constraints that match the developer's budget, Firewatch is the game they wanted to make and then they tried to make it and in doing so didn't quite manage to complete it. That to me is far, far more interesting a game than the a master developer at the peak of his craft producing something less than his best.
Secondly, the game is very polished in its presentation. The visuals, the script, the voice acting are all absolutely coherant all working together to polish over the lumpy interior, the huge compromises that had to be made to systems and plot to get the games development under control. I think it is amazing how well it manages to get you, the player to ignore what should be and would be in a lesser game glaring issues.
Lastly, it happens to be exactly my kind of game, a first person immersive sim metroidvania, it's all my favourites and it's why I'm trying to make one too. With Alaska, I hope I can manage to make something even as half as good as this game.
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