Why ‘FireWatch’ fell short of being totally ground-breaking

After hearing a lot of hype and reading a lot of great reviews I recently purchased Campo Santos’ ‘Firewatch’ and here’s why what could have been the most ground-breaking game in decades fell short.

So, first off, what’s it all about?

It’s not your average game, you won’t face any villains or bosses and you certainly won’t need to fire a gun or brandish a knife. And yet this is one of the tensest games I’ve ever played.

august 2014 youtube
photo credit to YouTube Aug. 2014 trailer

Set in a National Park you (Henry) have recently abandoned your hometown of Boulder – for reasons I will not reveal – and taken a job as a Fire Watch. Your only contact with another human-being is through your walkie-talkie conversations with your boss, Delilah. You spend your days hiking through the park.

I bought this ‘interactive narrative’ game a few days ago and within one day I’d finished it. It is a pretty short game (what do you expect for a mere £14.99) but I was so taken in by the storyline and game play that hours flew by without me even noticing and before I knew it I’d reached the end.

I think the biggest hook of this game isn’t the interactivity, the fact that my choices could quite easily change my relationship with Delilah and therefore the game, but just the sheer simplicity of its parts coming together to create something truly emotive. That is really the game’s USP.

The storyline works so well with the simplicity of the gameplay and setting that you don’t actually need anything else. In fact confrontation with ‘bosses’ or other villains would actually have ruined this game and the often painful levels of tension.

The game thrives on confusion and the unknown and what better setting than a national park? When have you ever walked through a huge forest, alone, and felt safe? The setting, storyline and gameplay all feel well thought-out and each play their part in making a deeply immersive game.

So, after hours and hours of sitting on the edge of my seat, playing with baited breath, I reached the end. And here is where the game falls short. I’d read many reviews warning the ending was unexpected but that it gets you thinking about what it means to be human and to make choices. And that’s why the choices work well, the choices I made as Henry played a part in the outcome of the game and my relationship with Delilah, you realise that what has happened was because of the choices you both made. You feel like you really did play a part in the game.

popsci.com
Photo credit to popsci.com

Don’t get me wrong, that is powerful stuff, but I just expected more. The tension completely fell short by the end and I was left with a feeling of emptiness, like a broken promise. There are so many other options the creators could have taken that would have made the game feel so much more worthwhile. The story just kind of ended, as though they weren’t sure where to go next so decided just to stop.

It’s a shame because Firewatch has incredible potential. It used interactive narrative, a simple story and a perfectly thought-out, and often beautiful, setting to create something with so much impact, never before seen, but just falls short at the end. Nevertheless, this game is well worth playing because I can assure you it’s only the beginning, but perhaps that’s its problem. Interactive narrative has been developing hugely over the last few decades and I think this is a huge first step in making viable games that give gamers that little something extra we’ve been waiting for. So watch this space, despite its flaws I think Firewatch has just stepped things up.

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