Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. Some of these are forgotten gems, some you will guess straight away. Others cover more than one game in a series, or compare two similar games.
This week we look at a fascinating debut adventure game that took one of our oldest genres in a wonderful new direction.
#45. FIREWATCH, BY MITCHELL AKHURST
To take a short walk before we talk about the title proper, a game such as Firewatch appearing on a general top 50 seems almost unbelievable.
Science fiction and fantasy geeks above a certain age—such as the people writing here at OnlySP—were drawn to video games from day one. This draw is often the case for a new medium, lacking some of the cultural cringe toward science fiction and fantasy stories present in film, for example. The majority of games present on OnlySP’s favourites list being fantastical, action-packed, spacey adventures—or at least sci-fi adjacent, using dream imagery, magic, or the supernatural—makes sense, then.
The logic follows that Firewatch should be pretty outlandish and spectacular to stand alongside tactical war games, underground monsters, terrifying robots, and plenty more to come, but this is not the case. From a touching and all-too-real opening to the unfurling mystery and resolution that will not be spoiled here, Firewatch instead constructs a story fit for an award-winning indie movie.
Firewatch is the debut game from independent studio Campo Santo, a first-person adventure that follows two people’s developing friendship as they crew fire watchtowers at the end of the 1980s. What makes the game so memorable are exactly the elements that make other narrative games memorable: an appealing game world, a story of twists and turns with well-realised characters, and a clever way of interacting with both.
Exciting? No, but very beautiful. Groundbreaking? Not really, plenty of first-person story games exist. Influential? One can only hope.
A WONDERFUL WORLD
For a relatively grounded story featuring human beings, Firewatch eschews both the photoreal tradition of most crime games and also the cinematically stylised approach of say, Far Cry or Heavy Rain. Instead, the beauty of Firewatch comes from Olly Moss’s sunset-soaked key art, expertly transposed into a chunky cartoon landscape by Jane Ng.
This cel-like appearance is not entirely original to Firewatch, of course, but is usually presented in more fantastical settings such as Sly Raccoon, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, or The Witness. Here, the striking comic book colours offer an unprecedented command of visual composition, though in essence it still remains a natural environment. The game never exploits its unreality so far as to break the connection that it has with the real-world Shoshone National Forest.
Firewatch just looks wonderful, but in a way that synthesises the strengths of comic books and old-school adventure games. By using stylised environments, rather than photo-real, the designers can exercise fine control over player direction, more akin to Nintendo games than say, Alan Wake—another beautiful adventure set in the western United States.
A TOUCHING PRESENTATION
Nestled within the game’s gorgeous art design is a well-told narrative that must be experienced to properly appreciate. Firewatch opens with an interactive fiction prologue that tells of player character Henry’s back story that, without spoiling it here, can be quite heartbreaking. Following the events of the prologue, players hike into the Wyoming wilderness as Henry takes on the job of a fire lookout at Shoshone.
The other main character is Delilah, in the watchtower across from Henry’s, with whom he communicates by walkie-talkie as the game progresses. The two develop a friendship whilst attending to various goings-on in their assigned areas of the national park, and Henry begins to open up to Delilah about his life.
Along the way, events make the player realise that all is not well in the park. As people tend to be when their lives are falling apart, Henry is anxious and any little thing out of place has a strangely sinister edge. Who left these photographs behind? Why is there a government camp out in the forest? What happened to those two unruly teenagers?
At the time of its release, the fact that the game did not explicitly contain supernatural or science fiction elements was actually a point of contention among players and critics. For so long, gamers have been used to Twilight Zone-esque fables of little things spiralling out of control or aliens being only a stone’s throw away. Firewatch is not a genre piece in any way, at least not a speculative genre.
Instead, the story’s appeal lies with Henry and Delilah’s experiences working at the park, their relationship, and the various threads of other people’s lives that intersect in strange ways at such a remote and sublime location. Though Firewatch does also include a satisfactory mystery and payoff, it succeeds on its own by having very different goals than most adventure games.
As an adventure game, however, Firewatch is even more ambitious than in its deliberately character-focused narrative might suggest.
The first-person adventure is nothing new. Whether including action (Half-Life, Metroid Prime) or centering more on story threads and atmosphere (Gone Home), most first-person adventure games share a focus on exploration and discovery. Firewatch certainly does too—even applying light Metroid elements to its semi-open world, such as needing a fire axe to pass through thick brush—but as befitting Sean Vanaman’s previous work on The Walking Dead, the game also has an entire system for dialogue that is truly innovative for the first-person genre.
With the walkie-talkie as Firewatch‘s dialogue mechanic, developer Campo Santo has created a system that combines the ease of point-and-click with the immediacy of a first person shooter. Players simply aim at the point of conversation and hit the left trigger (the same way most shooters have players aim their gun) and use the right trigger to select what they want Henry to say.
Even with the requisite exploration and inventory mechanics of the adventure genre, the walkie-talkie system provides enough interactive elements and meaningful choices to support the entire game. Better still, the switch from third- to first-person controls perfectly splits the difference between console and mouse-and-keyboard players. In Firewatch, players experience an adventure game that compromises neither the console version by including a cursor on the screen (i.e. most point-and-click games), nor the PC version by adding awkward direct controls (such as Grim Fandango or the newer Telltale games).
Together with the excellent narrative and beautiful art, Firewatch‘s walkie-talkie mechanic makes it a must-play. After all, even for those of us who prefer fantasy and science fiction, these are all elements to be included in adventure games going forward.
Campo Santo saw great success with Firewatch, selling over a million copies and even having the game optioned for a film adaptation. The studio’s next project, an Egyptology adventure called In the Valley of Gods, looks to develop the conversation mechanic even more. This time, the character that players interact with will actually share the same space with them.
However, in the time since the second game’s announcement, Campo Santo was acquired by Valve, a studio whose own first person games Portal and Half-Life were similarly cutting edge before a complete pivot to online services with Steam and Dota 2. Firewatch‘s development team is now part of the greater Valve community, so although it promises to release In the Valley of Gods under the Campo Santo umbrella in 2019, its modus operandi may have changed since it is no longer independent.
We hope that the walkie-talkie system will not go unnoticed and instead make its way into more adventure games. The relationship that develops between Henry and Delilah in Firewatch proves that players do not need to sacrifice interesting mechanics or interactivity to have emotionally honest and believable characters in video games.
Luckily for fans of single player, Campo Santo has announced that Firewatch will be coming to Nintendo Switch before the end of the year. Of all the current crop of first-person adventure games, Firewatch‘s cartoon shading and well-honed mechanics will make it an easy recommendation for that audience.
Thanks for joining us for a look at a beautiful new development in one of gaming’s oldest genres. Leave a comment with your own preferred first-person adventure, or maybe your favourite part of Firewatch (don’t forget spoiler warnings!), and we will join you next week for another series that took its genre in weird and wonderful new directions.