Into the Woods

Written by on October 17, 2016 in [, , , , , ]


In recent years, video games have gotten really good at tugging at your heartstrings. Of course, there have always these types of moments in gaming. Remember Aeris’ death? How about Dom’s big sacrifice? Does The Last of Us ring a bell? Those were all heavy moments, but they were all predicated on things that happened in either a fantasy situation, or fantasy world. The first time I remember feeling bad for a character in a realistic situation, was in Max Payne. Years later, Heavy Rain did it to me as well. I’ve never had any children, but I could just imagine what it’s like having to go through life with something like that resting heavily on your soul. Then there was the attic scene in Gone Home. I think that put me out for about a good week.

Figuring that I needed some recoup time after getting emotionally rag dolled by Gone Home, I thought, “Oh! Firewatch looks good!” Steam was having their summer sale, and I saw it for a great price. I had noticed a lot of people online were demanding refunds because the game was so short, so I was a little iffy about it at first. Eventually, I decided to give it a shot, because the Internet can be such a herky-jerky place when it comes to opinions.

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As I turned the game on I noticed a menu screen. Apparently, it starts with a Choose Your Own Adventure text story. You meet a girl in a bar, you two go out, get married, and then she falls ill. After some time her parents come and take her back home. Well, at least that’s how my story went. I like this type of storytelling because it puts your character through the ringer even before the game can truly get going. I also like the interactive aspect of this, as it makes it feel as if it is actually happening to you, as opposed to just sitting back and watching a story unfold. I sat and carefully weighed every decision I had to make, even the seemingly small and insignificant ones.

The game begins and it’s 1989. I felt like my character, Henry, had some heavy weight on his shoulders. After these nightmarish series of events had unfolded for you back home, it was probably best that you take some time to get away from all of it for a while. Thus, a fire lookout job becomes available and you take it.

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Fade in. You’re in a parking lot out in a park. You find yourself standing out by your truck. Your next objective is to go on a long hike to find and settle into your lookout tower. There couldn’t have been a better job for you to take. Here you are seemingly isolated in the woods. There is plenty of time to ponder life and think on the situation with your wife. Myself, as a sentimental person, I did just that. My wife is dying and here I am trouncing through the woods. This was something I thought as I made my way past the brush, over the hills, and through the big blades of grass.

After you finally reach your lookout tower, you see the condition that it’s in. It’s an old wooden shack on legs, basically. There is a sleeping area, a desk, a stove, reading material, and a slew of other things. You climb into the small twin bed and drift off to sleep. When you wake up you hear a light-hearted woman’s voice calling out to you over the walkie-talkie. Her name is Delilah, another lookout. Over the course of the game you get to know bits and pieces about her through your interactive conversations. The level of your relationship depends on how you talk to her.

On your first day as a lookout, Delilah notices someone shooting off fireworks in the distance. She asks you to investigate, thus, you have to hike there, the entire way. A lot of people didn’t care for this element of the game. They called it a “hiking simulator” and quickly wrote it off. I saw it for what it was, a way to get in touch with the environment that the game designers laid out for you. I was amazed at the sound the leaves made as you crushed them under your feet with each step. Insects made noise around you and it made me want to stop and take it all in. I haven’t felt this much immersion or seen this much attention to detail in a game’s world since Shenmue for the Sega Dreamcast. In Shenmue, you can walk around and hear a living, breathing world around you. That’s what I really love about game developers, they put so much attention to detail that not many appreciate, but they do it any way.

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Admittedly, I’m not an avid hiker. It’s been almost three years since the last time I went out to Possum Kingdom Lake with my friends with only a compass and the threat of a possible puma attack. Nevertheless, I felt right at home in my surroundings with Firewatch. The simulated forest was like an old friend saying hello again. After awhile, I just started taking walks in-game, much like I did throughout Florence in Assassin’s Creed II. This time there were no annoying lute players. The only sounds you heard were of birds and bugs in their natural habitat.

As the game progressed, I began to see the similarities between Firewatch and Gone Home. Both of them have a really interactive environment, and both involve a possible sinister plot that is slowly unraveling. Things happen, and you manage to run yourself through a gauntlet of emotions: anger, sadness, joy, sheer fright, and peace. The big reveal has a cinematic quality to it, as if it belongs in a Hitchcock movie, rather than a PC game I bought for $20.00 on Steam. It was a suspenseful thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat, much like 1938’s The Lady Vanishes.

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Apparently, I was not the only one who saw the cinematic side of Firewatch. Indie studio Good Universe is planning on making it into a feature film. While that would normally be a good idea, I think it’s a little too on the nose. What made Firewatch great was that the player could have this great experience firsthand, through a first person view. We never saw Delilah, and we never really saw Henry, outside of a drawing in Delilah’s cabin. To be honest, we never really saw anyone in the game. I think that’s what made it so great, the feeling of isolation, the realization that you’re all alone in this great big forest with only your thoughts and a woman talking to you on the radio.

Firewatch is one of those games you have to play multiple times. There is a lot of depth to it, and a lot of things to analyze. Any psychologist worth their salt could have a field day playing this game. I could also see this game possibly used for therapy patients, to judge how they respond to the choices they make in the game, and then dealing with the consequences.

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As for the game itself, Firewatch is almost perfect. Yes, it’s only 2-3 hours, and people have complained about that, but look at just how much effort and work went into creating those 2-3 hours. They took an idea and made this immersive thing is capable of completely grabbing you and taking you for a ride.

In conclusion, the “tugging of the heartstrings” is only used as a vehicle to set the tone for the rest of the game. I was worried that the game would rely too much on emotion and depression to get you through it. That’s why I’ve never played games like That Dragon Cancer. Throughout Firewatch, none of the depression actually exists outside of what’s already in your own head. How you react to the big reveal of the game is totally up to you as person, along with your life experiences. This mind trip of a game is so masterfully done that I’ll keep recommending it to everyone. It’s available now on Steam, the PlayStation Store, and Xbox Live Marketplace.

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Author: Samuel Colunga View all posts by

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