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  • Realism In Games: What Makes Firewatch Feel Personal

    - Randen Banuelos

  • The Story and Characters

    Photo from FemHype

    The story of Firewatch is one of its most acclaimed, and panned, aspects of its whole. Henry's journey as he tries to come to terms with his wife Julia's dementia, mixed with the looming threat of a government conspiracy watching his and fellow fire lookout Delilah's every move, makes for a thrilling, yet sympathetic narrative. As the government conspiracy comes to its apex, with Henry having discovered their tracking technology and notes on his conversations with Delilah, Firewatch reveals the truth about this great enigma:

    There is no conspiracy.

    What truly happens involves a side plot that develops slowly in between Henry and Delilah's conversations. Delilah gradually tells Henry the story of Ned and Brian Goodwin, a suspectedly traumatized veteran and his young son who took on the job of Two Forks Lookout Tower rangers prior to Henry's arrival. As the duo were settling in quite well, they mysteriously left one day without alerting Delilah or anyone else for the reason why. Prior to the big reveal of the conspiracy hoax, there is another major reveal that Henry discovers as he is locked in a cave by a mysterious entity:

    Brian is dead.

    It's at this point that all the pieces surrounding the "conspiracy" comes together, as Ned Goodwin tells Henry via a cassette tape that after Brian's death in a climbing accident, his grief prevented him from going back to society, and thus he has been living in the forest ever since; it's also revealed that Ned was the one documenting Henry and Delilah's conversations, planting evidence at a biologist's research camp to make it seem like a government conspiracy.

    This sudden twist in plot did not sit well with many players, as they felt cheated out of a climax of suspense and revelation, and instead were met with the tragic story of the Goodwins. Some players also lost interest in the story as a whole, feeling bored by the story of an average, melancholic man spending his days watching over the forest. On the other end of the spectrum are those that loved the story and its twists, and these twists are what make Firewatch definitively feel human.

    The story of Firewatch does not fit well into any particular genre-not suspenseful enough to be a thriller, not quite fitting the criteria of science fiction, and so on. Instead, it is best to consider the game's story as realist: weaving the lives of complex characters together over a mostly normal plot structure. There are no moments of extravagance, no affairs, no extraterrestrial mysteries. The plot seems to build up to a big conspiracy, but Firewatch is not dystopian, instead turning towards the experiences of a shell of a father blindsided with grief.

    Players may have wanted a government scheme at the climax, but Firewatch is emulating life, and this simply would not fit into the realist flow. By following this theme of realism all the way through, Firewatch is able to focus on its characters and develop them intricately, making them seem alive with their own thoughts and emotions. Mixed with the mundane, yet tranquil nature of Henry's daily routine and the calming atmosphere that envelops the player, the game ends up feeling personal, something that players can both empathize and sympathize with, and an experience they may relate to in their own lives.

    Conclusion: What Makes a Game Realist?

    It's rare for a game to try and closely mimic real life, after all, games are sometimes meant to be an escape from the real world, not necessarily a reflection of it. Yet, Campo Santo decided to take the "realist" approach for Firewatch, stripping down UI, menu and gameplay complexity, and even fantasy elements from the plot in order to create a game that feels personal and emotionally intelligent. The game does not entice players with an atmosphere of the supernatural or science fiction, but one of human empathy and experience, one of connecting with the characters on screen.

    Thus is the realm of realism in games, making up for its lack of extravagance and escapism for down-to-earth narratives with intricate characters and a highly immersive atmosphere thanks to its similarity to real life. The realist approach does not suit every player, being very low key in action and fairly straightforward with gameplay, yet for establishing a narrative with characters that feel rich and complex, realism can be a powerful tool that goes against the grain of what games are thought to be like, and Firewatch shows this in full force.


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