Most involved in the industry were not surprised by Uncharted 4 winning the 'Best Game' category at the 2017 BAFTAs. It's an impeccable game that dazzles with its technical brilliance, polish and exciting story. Of course, I'm glad they won, it was well deserved, but the more minor categories tell the real story of games pushing the edges of the industry.
Firewatch was one of my favorite games of 2016, comparable to my 2015 experience with Life is Strange - a game which remains in the list of best I've ever played. Firewatch game won two BAFTAs this year, both 'Debut Game' and 'Performer'. It's a short, beautifully crafted experience which intrigued me and left me wanting more by the end. But it pains me to know that there aren't many games like it.
Firewatch is Thoughtful and Slow, But Tense
For those who perhaps haven't seen much of the game, Firewatch would mostly align itself with the so-called 'walking simulator' category of games. It isn't an inaccurate description, but it's often a pejorative term and doesn't do Campo Santo's project justice. Yes, there is a lot of walking in Firewatch, but there's also a rich mystery and a highly detailed world to explore.
Firewatch is set in 1989, following the Yellowstone Fires the year before. You play as Henry, who has taken the isolating job of a fire lookout after his wife was diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Throughout the game, you never speak directly to another person - your sole emotional and conversational lifeline being the walkie-talkie you carry, with your supervisor Delilah on the other end. It's isolating and fragile.
The player chooses dialog options as they progress, encountering new objects or milestones, learning more and more about Henry and Delilah. Interestingly, the player can also refrain from communicating, leaving the characters entirely as mysteries, even as the credits roll.
The world's most thorough completionists operating at a leisurely (or glacial) pace would still take no more eight and a half hours to complete Firewatch, so in no world can this be called a long game. This, however, is to its credit, and its price of $19.99 on Steam is more than fair. The length has meant Firewatch oozes quality, and if you haven't played the game yet, I thoroughly recommend picking it up on Steam, PlayStation 4, or Xbox One.
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Firewatch Is A Game That Cares About Design
This is not to say other games don't, but the art direction and creative work in Firewatch is something worth noting. It joins the growing cadre of stylized video games, shirking off the trend towards increased photo-realism in exchange for the creation of a far more unique appearance.
Campo Santo used a rugged, cartoon-like visual style in Firewatch, reminiscent of Life is Strange and The Long Dark. This is not to suggest it is any less incredible, as the vistas in the game are truly gorgeous.
The style only adds to the feel of the game. By avoiding issues of being nearly-but-not-quite realistic, the appearance of the game feels much more organic and designed than even the best looking photo-realistic AAA titles.
Voice Acting in a True Radio Drama
One of the awards won by Firewatch was for Cissy Jones' voice performance for Delilah, and it is well deserved. The voice work in the game is impressive. The leading role of Henry is played by Rich Sommer, known from Mad Men, and you develop a real connection with the character, controlling the tone of his conversation and learning about his story.
Delilah herself is never actually seen by the player, communicating by radio for the entire game, which leaves every bit of nuance about her character to be delivered by Jones' captivating voice work.
Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo spoke of the voice actors in an interview with Red Bull:
"Cissy was chosen before I started writing so that was always an easy choice for me, I knew she’d be perfect for the role. But Rich was an interesting one, he was about the fiftieth person we saw. I had a really specific portrait of Henry in my mind before we auditioned anyone, but Rich unlocked this character for me in a totally unexpected way."
There's a well-crafted aesthetic in Firewatch, which is one of the aspects that holds the experience together. The art style is immersive despite being impressionistic, and the design works well at conveying the rugged feel of the American west. Once combined with the marvelous story and perfect acting, we're left with such a cohesive experience that it's sad that this game isn't more widely known and appreciated.
More Games Need To Be Memorable Experiences, Not Just Fun Playthings
There were moments in Firewatch where I was genuinely tense, genuinely fearful for what was around the corner. I went in to the game blind, and knew nothing of its story. As its mystery unfolded, and I felt more and more connected to Henry and Delilah, I knew that this was a game to remember, not just one I would play and move on from.
Life is Strange was an experience that stuck with me, and so was Firewatch. When I find games like these, I jump on them, I want to meet their characters, fall in love with the worlds created. You should too. These are the kind of games that make our medium so amazing and unique. These are the games that get our medium noticed by the kind of people who normally dismiss it.
Firewatch tells a story of isolation, one possibly more relevant than ever. Even in an age of connectivity, we can be united and divided in 140 characters or less. Henry's adventure in to the wilderness is about escaping, something which more and more of us crave as our lives get busier. The strange pseudo-propaganda machine that is Call of Duty has the emotional range of a teaspoon, but games like Firewatch can fill bathtubs.
Campo Santo's Debut Victory Makes Me Excited For The Future
Winning two BAFTAs is a significant achievement. Recognized for their impressive debut, Campo Santo should have a bright future in game design, and I look forward to their next creations. Games like Firewatch are video games truly shaking off the label of video games as children's playthings. There's real storytelling here, the type that can only work in a game.
For its type, Firewatch caught a large audience, and with studios noticing it, perhaps we will see more major developers take risk of developing new IP for ambitious and detailed narrative-driven titles. While we're very much in the age of the action-RPG, I look forward to a new age of narrative adventures.
Have you played Firewatch yet? Are there any other games you have played similar? Sound off in the comments below.