Let me admit up front that I’m not much of a gamer, and when I do game, it tends to be more casual and very old school; on my iPad I keep a Sudoku game, a Solitaire game, backgammon and I’m currently on a big jigsaw puzzle thing (I highly recommend Jigsaw Puzzle). Not exactly cutting edge. A few months back I bought a Playstation 4 so I could do more gaming, but even there, I’m old-school: I game solo, my preferences run towards faux-medieval RPG stuff, and so I dove into Elder Scrolls Online, which I’ve enjoyed thoroughly for the last almost four months. But now my character has run through all three story tracts, is a veteran 16th level, and I’ve hit that point where either I have to start playing the game collaboratively (I’ve been skipping the multi-player dungeons) or head off into Cyrodiil for the group warfare, neither of which really interest me. Another option would be to start up a new character and run the game again in some other form but, well, not right now.
So think of me as that guy who remembers Dragonlance fondly and you pretty much sum up my gaming habits — I’m a dungeon crawler at heart. I’ve found that I have no real interest in driving games, no real patience for platformers, and, well, more on fighting and first person shooters in a minute…
That’s put me in “so, what next?” mode, and I haven’t really found a good answer to that, although I haven’t been trying very hard, either — I’ve been putting energy into other things now that I’ve dragged myself through the last bits of Tamriel (for now). But for the last couple of evenings, I’ve been exploring Firewatch.
Firewatch is a game by a group called Campo Santo. They’re affiliated with well-known developers Panic, which caught my attention and the game got some nice chatter on my twitter stream recently and the premise intrigued me, so I bought a copy and gave it a try. I got mine on the Playstation, but it’s also available for the Mac via Steam.
At some level you could call it an RPG, but what it really becomes is an interactive story that turns you into the lead character and then has you explore the environment around you as your story unfolds. You are Henry, who has signed up to sit in a fire tower for the summer in Wyoming, and the story opens as you hike out to the tower to start your stay. Henry is a troubled person who is frankly looking to hide from some personal problems and use the solitude to get his head together.
His only contact with the outside world is via his supervisor Delilah, and his contact with her is limited to conversing via a two-way radio. The story this game navigates you through is both about self-discovery and about exploring through the forest as things come up and Delilah has you investigate. Broadly speaking the story breaks down into three parts: the introductory arc where Henry and Delilah get to known each other and Henry learns around his responsibilities and the area around him (and incidentally teaching you how to operate the game and navigate the landscape). The middle part of the story complicates the situation and turns the story into a bit of a mystery — what’s going on? are we in danger? none of this makes sense?
You spend some time digging into this mystery and trying to understand what’s going on. you ultimately solve the mystery and lots of curious and loose ends all tie together quickly — not always satisfactorily — and the final piece of the story is where the relationship between Henry and Delilah sorts itself out and Henry hikes his way back out of the forest and to his future.
Overall, I really enjoyed the game. It took me about six hours of game play over a few evenings to play through. The graphic design is very stylized and I loved the look and gameplay. The world they’ve built isn’t free-ranging — this is very much an “on the rails” game and not a “explore the world” like Tamriel, but given this is about interactively telling a story, it didn’t bother me. Ambient music is used to great effect. This is a game that really requires the use of audio for the conversations, and I didn’t check to see if it was closed captioned for the hearing-impaired, but if you’re the kind of old-school luddite who mutes most of your video games (ahem) you’ll find this game unplayable until you remember to put on the headphones.
As much as I appreciated the design and imagery of the world they built here, what made this game work for me was the characters. Henry is a wonderfully flawed person running away from his problems — except that he is his problems. Delilah is a strong counterpoint to that and you learn over time that she is effectively future Henry in a world where Henry decided to simply keep running. The story is really about Henry and his need to make a decision whether to deal with his inner conflicts and move forward, or whether to become what Delilah is, someone who chose to crawl in a hole and stay there. I found I really cared about Henry, to some degree rooted for him, and really wanted to see how he chose to move forward in his life.
The game isn’t perfect, though. That middle part — there’s a point where the game turns itself into a mystery. Things happen, maybe there’s a conspiracy, maybe Henry is in danger, maybe, maybe… And in fact they build up a fairly interesting mystery and you run around the world trying to figure out what to do…
And then you resolve the mystery, and, well, thud. Because it’s all really irrelevant to the story and it feels like they did a first cut of the game and said to themselves “we don’t have enough here. What if we have a clown walk up and hit him with a pie and run off yelling ‘your dog is next!’?” — it’s filler, it’s interesting at the time, but it ultimately doesn’t really move the story forward or fit with the main story arc, and it just doesn’t work for me. This story tries to be two things and it’s really good at one of them.
Still, to me, that is a minor flaw, and I still give the game overall strong marks. It was fun to play, stunningly beautiful to look at and I ended the game satisfied that the time I spent on it was worth it.
Firewatch is highly recommended, especially since it’s a fairly rare style of game in that it’s character driven, non-violent and about story telling and mood more than finger twitching and violence. I’d love to see more games like this.
One other game I’ve dipped my toe into is Fallout 4. This is a highly regarded game from Bethesda Studios, also the makers of the Elder Scrolls series of games I like so much. This is a future-dystopia first person shooter and world exploration game and what drew me to it was the open game exploration aspect similar to Elder Scrolls.
Running through the entry into the game, you’re placed into a world that’s very much “1950’s in the future”, a world with jet-powered flying personal robots, and TVs that are still glass-screened CRT style beasts. The game opens in a time of great world tension and threat of nuclear annihilation, and you’re given access to one of the vaults designed to protect citizens in case of attack, and then the bombs start dropping and you run for the vault and then the world blows up and you end up in a stasis pod, and then you wake up some unknown time later and you’re alone and the vault is abandoned, and…
I have to say I loved the design of the world, very detail-heavy and idiosyncratic. It really has that feel of a classic 50’s movie of the future, and as I was starting through this I was impressed and really looking forward to exploring the world. And along the way through finding my way back out of the vault I found the gun and the ammo and started killing the things that were trying to kill me, and wandering the world, and then I ran into my first human raider and started getting shot at.
And I shot back, and by pure coincidence caught him with a perfect head shot, and his head exploded and the body fell over headless. And I put down the game controller and turned off the Playstation, and I found myself sitting there, raised pulse, stressed, and going Jesus…
We could have a fun philosophical discussion about why I’m okay with wandering around Tamriel with a bow and longsword hacking away at Orcs and giant spiders, but wandering around a faux-future with a rifle killing bandits freaks me out, but in reality, it doesn’t matter. I long ago realized that I’m okay with fantasy violence, which is why I’ve always gravitated to the faux-medieval worlds like Dragonlance, but I just find the games with realistic human-on-human violence, especially the graphically gory ones, disturbing. And you can put down the reply buttons, because I want to make sure you understand this is a personal preference and I’m not making a judgement on your gaming preferences whatsoever. If you like those games, great. I’m cool with that.
But me? I stopped playing the first person shooters around Doom 2, and every time I dabble in them, I end up regretting it and moving on. Fallout 4 looks to be one hell of a game, and like Firewatch, I loved the graphic design and the world that they were building there — but it’s not for me. I have this same reaction with fighting games; they’ve generally gotten either too platformy (massive finger twitchy button smashy play) or headed off into gore glorification, or both.
I’m not sure what’s next on my list. I’ve got copies of Destiny and Star Wars Battlefront and dabbled a bit in both, but neither had dragged me into it and convinced me I want to spend my next few weeks there. We’ll see.