Saturday, July 09, 2016

Firewatch (2016)

Firewatch has a great premise: it's the late eighties, and you're a middle-aged man named Henry who is having serious trouble in his marriage. It's probably not TOO much of a SPOILER--as this is all revealed in the prologue--to say that his wife has been given a devastating diagnosis of early-onset dementia, and is currently residing with her family in Australia. To try to distract himself, Henry gets a job as a fire lookout in the wilds of Wyoming. His only contact is his unseen supervisor, Delilah, with whom he converses via walkie talkie. All this plays out in absolutely gorgeous first-person. It's no secret that this is all deeply influenced by Gone Home; like that game, there's also a strong emphasis on real-looking found objects (though here, you can't freely rotate things to examine them--a bit of a loss), though, given the type of setting, naturally fewer of them than in the earlier game. There's even one explicit Gone Home reference which, if taken at face value, means that OMG FIRE WATCH TAKES PLACE IN THE GONE HOMEIVERSE! I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO WITH THIS INFORMATION!

So anyway, as I noted, there's a really, really great set-up. But the execution is...not so great, and from hereon in, there will be SPOILERS APLENTY, because there's really no way to explain what irked me about this game without them.

So look, I'll admit that Gone Home is not a perfect game. The side-stories about the parents are poorly integrated into the whole, and it's at least arguable that the occasional attempts to make you think you're playing a horror game are out-of-place. But mostly, it focused on the highly affecting central narrative, both via voice clips and found artifacts, and in that it was extremely successful. In contrast, can see where I'm going here.

Reading the above summary of the game's set-up, you naturally think, okay, so this game is going to focus both on Henry's dealing with and coming to terms with his marital situation, as well as his developing relationship with Delilah, and maybe some stuff will happen in the forest that obliquely comments on it, and it's going to be GREAT, right? Well, no one's stopping you from thinking that, but you're WRONG AS HECK. In fact, Henry's past is largely absent from the main story. Sure, it's theoretically present as subtext, and occasionally he relates bits and pieces of it to Delilah, but this never goes anywhere, and at a certain point you realize--in a bemused sort of way--that the game doesn't particularly care about it. This is really, truly, genuinely bizarre, but after setting you up to assume that the entire game would revolve around this internal turmoil, it then...doesn't. It is seriously as though it was made by aliens who had heard of this Earth concept of storytelling but had never actually seen it in action.

There is Henry's relationship with Delilah, and even if their elaborate, jokey sarcasm can feel a bit over-done, that's actually the best part of the game. The writing and voice acting are fine (Henry is voiced by Mad Men's Rich Sommer!), as far as that goes. But, again, that takes a backseat to the action in the wilderness, and that is just bafflingly terrible, even taking into account the way the developers are ignoring their initial premise.

So there are two main things: firstly, there are two teenage girls about who are creating fire hazards and strewing beer bottles about, and possibly getting pissed off at you for your efforts to stop them (as in Gone Home, you never actually see people in the game (except very dimly at a distance), so there's no real interaction here). Note that the game isn't actually so bad while you're playing it without knowing the ultimate story; you're vaguely intrigued about where it's going with all this, and you don't know yet that it's essentially abandoned the initial premise. So where is it going with all this? Well, the girls do their thing for a while and then OMG THEY DISAPPEAR AND YOU WERE THE LAST ONE TO SEE THEM...ALIVE! WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?!? But don't spend TOO much time wondering what this has to do with anything or why we should care about any of this, because soon enough, you receive word, oh, never mind, they've been found, everything's fine! Seriously. It's a big heapin' helpin' of NOTHING, that really, really looks like it's only there because the developers felt they needed there to be something.

The other main thing is what the game's main story, such as it is, is based on, and if anything, it's actually worse than the thing with the teenage girls. You truly would not think professional designers, intent on making an original, story-based game, could come up with something quite this inept. But here we are: so Delilah off-handedly reveals to you at one point that some years ago, she was working with a fire lookout named Ned, who was there with his teenage son, Brian. Okay, but that's just a background detail; you're not actually going to--SHUT UP. Soon after, we receive clues that these two are still somehow skulking around the area, and everyone acts as though that's a perfectly natural, normal thing to be happening and not a weirdly artificial development to which everyone should be going uh...what? Also, it turns out that Ned is recording all of Henry and Delilah's conversations, for reasons that aren't hugely clear (cause he's paranoid or something, just forget it), using some kind of crazy futuristic technology. And also, he's apparently some sort of ninja, given that several times he gets up close enough to fuck with Henry despite remaining unseen. This is all meant to be some kind of thriller, I suppose, but it's just really painfully dumb. Oh, and Brian? DEAD. Also, we can find a bunch of really unconvincing artifacts showing what a D&D-type NERD he was (seriously, people, there would never be a pen-and-paper RPG called "Wizards and Wyverns" because the average man in the street has no idea what a "wyvern" is, and also because it's not nearly iconic enough as a monster. This is just me caviling, given the game's much larger flaws, but come on). It's supposed to humanize him and make us feel how tragic this is. I suppose, anyway; it's so incompetently done that you don't feel much of anything. Also, even when they're totally freaked out, on several occasions Henry and Delilah lapse into their former jokiness as if nothing were happening. It might sound like I'm making shit up here--the story can't really can't be that bad, can it? Ha! Some people complain about the ending, but the ending in itself is not the problem. Of course it's indeterminate; how could you have imagined it would be otherwise? That would be fine if the game had actually built up its initial concept, but instead, it fritters away all its time on this ridiculous bullshit. Given that, there was never any way that any ending would feel satisfying.

I don't know. I suppose I'm making it sound marginally worse than it actually is. Don't get me wrong, it is bad, but it's undeniably incredibly beautiful (though you may do a bit more stumbling around, trying to find the correct path, than you'd like), and as I noted above, the experience of playing it cold isn't that bad, since you don't know what's gonna happen and everything could turn out really great, as far as you know. Hmm...looking back on it, I don't know that that last bit is really much of a defense of the game, per se. But dammit, don't blame me. I have no chip on my shoulder in this regard. I really, really wanted to like Firewatch. But I didn't, on account of it being bad.

The guys behind Firewatch had previously been responsible for Telltale Games' first Walking Dead game, which everyone raved about. I've never played it (or seen the show, or had any interest in the milieu), but this doesn't exactly inspire confidence that it's as good as everyone says. I mean, I suppose I may be verging on criticizing it for not being something it was never trying to be, but gosh, what it was trying to be instead is so, so bad. I have the uncharitable feeling that the idea actually was to be something like what I was envisioning, but at some point the developers realized that that would be a hard story to tell, and so they drowned it out with all this irrelevant nonsense. Still, what do I know? ALL the reviews fuckin' LOVE this game! Some of them may cavil a little about certain aspects of the story, but none of them appear to notice that, in fact, the whole thing is kinda sorta broken on a fundamental level. Are they far more literate than I, seeing things I'm not, making connections I'm missing...or are they, instead, so bent on pursuing that damn "GAMES ARE ART" hobgoblin that they have willfully blinded themselves to all of its flaws? The world may never know!

At any rate, I'll give it credit for one thing: it makes me really want to replay Gone Home. All the things Firewatch does wrong really throw into contrast all the things that its inspiration does so, so right. Did you know there are lots of people--not people you'd want to meet, I think--who really, really hate Gone Home? I think it's mainly because they were diabolically tricked into playing a game with very little "game" content that--and, let's face it, this is the main point--is a sympathetic story about gay people! You will see the term "SJW"--which is rapidly superseding "PC" as the all-purpose it's-not-fair-that-we-keep-getting-called-on-acting like-total-dickheads acronym of choice--thrown around a lot. So anyway, play Gone Home because it's great and also--on a less noble level--as a fuck-you to some very unpleasant people.


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