Late Thoughts on Firewatch and Storytelling in Video Games

Through solid and efficient character development and a well thought-out and structured story, Firewatch made me care in a way that few games lately, if ever, have made me care about…well, anything. Firewatch is a video game by Campo Santo that has released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. This is not a review of Firewatch. Please check out Kyle’s review of the game here on PSVG. However, having recently finished the game, the emotions that it provoked in me convinced me to sit down and write some thoughts about the experience. Firewatch is an interesting game because you spend the first 10-15 minutes making “life” choices about Henry, the character you play. You spend the following 3-5 hours, depending on your playstyle, in first-person mode, hiking and rappelling around a national forest, chasing down skinny dipping teenagers, and talking on the radio to your supervisor, Delilah. Firewatch is a first-person mystery thriller. There is no shooting. The closest you get to a weapon is an axe that you end up using three to five times. Firewatch is a short but well-built game that made me care deeply about the characters, their choices, their words, and their fates. If it taught me anything is that video games have yet to learn much about storytelling, and that many series that used to do a good job at it, have forgotten much.

Joy, laughter, fear, anger, sadness, pity, happiness, anxiety and hatred (maybe?) were all emotions that I felt at some point playing Firewatch. In some games, I regret feeling such emotions. For example, I don’t play scary games or watch scary movies because I don’t enjoy fear. I simply don’t. I have a lifelong personal policy that I will not pay money or waste time on an experience that puts fear in my heart. I simply don’t understand the appeal. I’ve always said to other people, “why would I make myself afraid when there is real evil out there in the world? There are real terrorists, murderers, rapists, and tyrants out there. Why would I ever choose to be afraid or fearful?” And yet, when Firewatch made me feel scared, I didn’t regret it. When Firewatch made me anxious, it gave me purpose. When Firewatch made me angry, it drove me to push ahead. Campo Santo spent an incredible amount of energy and creativity into making a very short game that is packed with character development and first-person experiences that made me care about Henry and Delilah, the main characters, and about Ned and Brian, secondary characters. How did they do it? By finding ways to use every single “mission” and quest in the game to help me learn more about each character and helping me better embrace my own role-playing as Henry.

There is a growing frustration within me with modern video games, but maybe this has been happening in video games for a long time. Let me pick on one of my most-played games: Halo 5 Guardians. When I finished the campaign for Halo 5, on legendary difficulty (damn right), I felt extremely proud of what I had accomplished. Boom! Legendary mode conquered! Woohoo! And yet, even though I was proud, I didn’t care about it because even though I had conquered my in-game enemies, I felt nothing for the characters I had portrayed throughout the experience. I didn’t care much about James Locke or even Master Chief. I didn’t care about the fact that (spoiler alert) at the end of Halo 5, you are one of the last hopes left against your AI enemies. I didn’t care because 343 Industries didn’t build in-game mediums through which I could have learned more, and by extension care more, about the characters I was playing as. What did I actually feel? I felt frustration. I was frustrated at how a super budget game like Halo could spend so much energy on graphics, mechanics, and dedicated servers, but fail to understand that at the heart of any story with characters in it you need…good storytelling! Good writing for Pete’s sake! You need good writing in video games. You simply do. I don’t know how else to say that.

By now you have realized that this article is about much more than just Firewatch. It has to do with my outlook on games, television, and film in general. However, I target storytelling in video games because to me it seems like it is easier to get away with bad writing. When watching a film, you pay $10-$15 and go watch it. If it was a bad movie, well, at least it was just $12. With TV, most of the costs are sunk costs: cable or service memberships (TWC, DirectTV, Netflix, Hulu, blah, blah). If we watch a bad TV show, don’t watch any more episodes. Choose something else to watch. However, with video games the price tag exists around $60, on average. Also, even though there are plenty of good reviewers out there, video game reviews try to cover so much (gameplay, mechanics, storytelling, multiplayer modes, connectivity, graphics, etc.) that it is often hard to determine how good a story is until you are playing it. By the time you beat Halo 5, 9-10 hours and $60 later, it is too late. They profited from your experience. They could listen to my feedback and rants, or they could just not give a damn. They already made a lot of money from me. Who cares.

I hope the gaming community is forcing developers and publishers to think twice about their products. 343 Industries took a lot of heat for delivering a bad story with underwhelming characters, even though they have never truly apologized for it. However, I look at yearly games like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, among others, and realize that as long as chumps exist, there will also be bad writing, bad character development, and bad storytelling. Trekking through the bottom of the valley of despair, Firewatch was a refreshing moment this summer. Unfortunately, it was just a moment—a blink. Triple A game developers need to take a page from Firewatch. What did I care so much about Henry? Why did I feel fear and anxiety for his life and fate? Why did I suffer with Henry? Why did I laugh and smile with Henry? Much like Halo’s Master Chief, I never got to see Henry’s face. I saw drawings and depictions of it, but I never actually got to see his (my) actual face in the game. And yet, the emotions I felt playing Firewatch reminded me of the same emotions that a much younger version of myself felt playing Halo: Combat Evolved (Halo 1) many years ago.

Storytelling and character development are extremely important, at least to me and many other gamers that I know. So powerful and long-lasting is the impression left behind by a great story and narrative, that experienced and picky gamers like I will even forgive glitches and bugs, if we are rewarded with living out great writing. I thoroughly enjoyed and will forever cherish playing Campo Santo's Firewatch, not because of a multiplayer mode, incredible mechanics, or incredible graphics, but simply because it made me care. Thank you for reading.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @UnratedPodcast and for stuff beyond video games at @Quauhtli360