How Firewatch Plays With Your Emotions To Deliver A Strong Experience
Isolation, relationships and the fear caused by letting your imagination run wild. These are themes rarely explored in video games, especially outside of the horror genre. They were, however, used to great effect by the team at Campo Santo in the recently released Firewatch to evoke unique emotions within the player.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
I believe that this was a deliberate move on the developer's part so that they could fully exploit the players lack of expectations. Like many gamers, my first contact with this game was the E3 trailer; a great video that made the plot seem extremely tense whilst keeping details minimal. This instantly generated discussion as to what the plot would encompass. The folks over at Campo Santo were extremely ambiguous in regard to the details of the game. This led to the majority of consumers having little idea as to what the game actually entailed. Despite being announced in 2014, gameplay details were very sparse and story details sparser still.
"It was also refreshing that in an age of trailers giving away everything, (looking at you Hitman movie) restraint was used to great effect."
More importantly, it meant that even I (someone who tried to go in blind) had expectations that something nefarious was afoot. This feeling carried on throughout the game causing me to over-analyse every small detail. It made me care about the story in a way that games haven't managed to do in a long time. It was also refreshing that in an age of trailers giving away everything, (looking at you Hitman movie) restraint was used to great effect.
Firewatch's opening was completely different to anything else I've played in a long while. For those who don't know, the game opened like a text based adventure where the player creates a backstory by making choices as to how their character's marriage occurs from the first date to the onset of his wife's dementia. The intro avoids being a complete exposition dump and through its moral choices and minimalist style, it creates a truly emotional beginning.
This is partly due to that fact that the game doesn't show you what's going on. It starts as it means to go on, by using the highest end processor -- the imagination. By picturing the events in your own head, you have a much more personal, emotional response to what you are reading. I was completely sucked in.
Despite the short intro, it got me fully emotionally invested. At one point, the player chooses whether to put their wife into a care home or to care for her himself. I chose the latter and justified this by thinking that I didn't want to abandon her. I was so invested, I wouldn't leave a made up person who I'd never seen. These morally grey choices create a realistic backstory that hooks the player into the narrative.
By far one of the game's biggest strengths is its unique setting and the loneliness that accompanies it. At a time when games seem to be full of clutter, it was refreshing to be left alone. The game really played on this feeling of loneliness as there were no other humans in the game other than silhouettes and of course Delilah (who we'll get onto later).
Firewatch is a video game and as such, you expect that when you are put into a large map like the forest, things won't be run-of-the-mill. Firewatch knows this and so creates items of apparent intrigue such as the disappearing teens and the mysterious fence. The isolation feeds this as you become scared and vulnerable latching on to anything that seems out of the ordinary.
The game does this so well that it doesn't need to create an intricate story. Instead you create your own web of conspiracies. Finding out that Henry wasn't at the centre of this mystery was surprisingly grounding and was one of the most satisfying story moments I've experienced in a game thus far. This was mainly because it subverted my expectations and made me feel like a real person, not a plot device.
Henry and Delilah's interactions were some of the most realistic I've engaged in as a gamer. This is partly due to the excellent writing and the stellar performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. They created characters full of life and realism that really made you care about their relationship. I agonized over every choice I made; not wanting to ruin this friendship. By giving the player choice over the frequency with which conversation occurred, it felt more natural resulting in the player getting more invested and taking the game seriously.
The greatness of the story is highlighted by the fact a friend of mine intended to experience the game through a let's play. However, he felt that such disconnect arose from his lack of control and promptly bought the game.
Fiewatch is a brilliant example of a game that uses subtle and engaging mechanics to draw you into its world and affect the way you think and feel. By taking you on a roller-coaster ride of emotions from depression to companionship and from fear to relief, it subverted expectations and created a unique experience I'll remember for a long time.