Notes on Firewatch

In my notes on Gone Home, I said that the mechanics of the game forced the story to be told in the past tense. I didn’t see how one could create a story exploration video game with that degree of subtlety any other way.

Then, a few months ago, Firewatch was released.

I won’t spoil any plot details, and instead only say that, although there are past events that you uncover, the main story is yours, and it unfolds as you play—in the very beginning as a text adventure that quickly moves you through several years, then in the remainder as a “walking simulator” experience that takes place over a summer spent as a fire lookout in the forest, and that is as much about the conversations and other events happening as you go as it is about the past you are uncovering. And it works.

So, no, Gone Home’s retrospective style is not the only option for this medium.

From what I can tell from playing and what I have read, Firewatch follows the same basic plotline no matter what, but customizes its dialog based on your choices as a player. The writer, Sean Vanaman, explained to Slate:

“The conversation is putting itself together dynamically, and that means it can be hyper-specific,” said Vanaman. “There are 10,000 events in the game—speech and everything else—that can happen.” Rather than simply shunting you from branch to branch of a dialogue tree, the game looks at everything you’ve said and done, and picks the truest and most specific thing that can happen next. “There are so many [variables] in our game that are so silly and weird. There’s stuff like, has Henry ever mentioned the outhouse? Maybe that matters.”

It’s a fascinating way to tell an interactive story: Exert total control over the main plot points while letting the player’s choices shade the experience. It makes real one of the first things you see when you play the game: The statement “You are Henry.”

Some people have been frustrated with the ending. Those who were disappointed seemed to think they were playing a potboiler and discovered at the end they were playing literary fiction.

But it seems obvious that this was intentional misdirection on the part of the authors, and if you’re receptive to a climax happening on an emotional register instead of a blowing-things-up register, the fact that you weren’t sure which type of ending to expect makes it that much more impactful.

Aside from the issue of the ending, I would guess that the issue of audience comes into play: The story deals with marriage and kids, and it wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I had played it before experiencing those things.

If you want a more thorough meditation on the ending and don’t mind spoilers, see “The End of Firewatch” in The Campo Santo Quarterly Review. (Campo Santo is the company that developed Firewatch. Any development company that runs a literary magazine on the side is one to follow.)

What makes Gone Home a game

In a previous post on the story app Karen I wondered whether it was appropriate for The New York Times to call it “part game” since there is no way to lose. Turns out, Steve Gaynor, the writer and designer of Gone Home, presented a very thoughtful answer to this and related questions about what makes a “story exploration video game” a game in a 2014 presentation.

He lists the aspects of Gone Home that have been criticized for being un-game-like:

  • No combat/puzzles
  • No story branching/player builds
  • No failstate
  • Short runtime

And then lists the things that Gone Home does have that, by his definition, qualify it as a game:

  • Variability of player experience
  • Central focus on player agency
  • A spirit of playfulness within its themes and rules

The whole video (55 minutes) is well worth watching.

Gone Home is a departure

In his article about why games aren’t art, Roger Ebert observed that you don’t win art. Games are something you compete in, solve, or win, and art is something you let happen to you, that transports you.

A few days ago, I played Gone Home, a game that you don’t win. Maybe, as such, it isn’t accurate to call it a game—maybe “interactive narrative experience” or something like that. Vocabulary aside, it felt like the way forward for a community of storytellers trying to figure out the most effective way to use new technical affordances to tell engaging stories.

Rather than presenting a “multitude of drastic things” in a branching narrative, “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, Gone Home has only one story. Your control as the player is over the plotting: the order and pace at which you find and piece together the story information. You do this by wandering around a house in the character of a young woman coming home after a long trip to find her parents and sister missing, and trying to figure out from letters, voicemail messages, ticket stubs, and other detritus of daily living what happened to them. At first, your goal is simply to orient yourself, then to figure out what happened to your family in the immediate past, then finally to figure out what happened to them years ago, even before you were born.

(You could argue that your wandering around the house is part of the story, and thus you have some small measure of control over story as well as plotting. Let’s not split hairs.)

Having only one story, situated in the past where the player can’t change it, meant that the creators of the game were able to imbue it with a subtly I haven’t seen in other games. I thought I had pretty well seen what there was to see after I finished the game in just short of two hours. I caught not just the main thread of the story about the sister, which you can’t miss, but also pieced together backstories of secondary characters like the mother and father and even the father’s relationship with the grandfather, each thread reflecting on and strengthening the others like in a good novel.

Twenty minutes after I finished the game, though, I remembered: What was the deal with the uncle? What was in the locked office cabinet? I hadn’t read closely enough. Indeed, when I cheated and looked up the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes online, I found I missed an entire layer of the story.

The idea that a game could be subtle enough to reward close reading or multiple readings, the fact that in completing it you don’t “win” it but feel a sense of closure, the fact that that closure is not a feeling a triumph but one of catharsis and only qualified relief (love wins out, but it isn’t simply happily ever after) — all this is evidence of a promising avenue for people interested in using software to tell stories.

There are some roadblocks to get past: Part of the fun of the game is in subverting the expectation that something will jump out and say “Boo,” and you’ll have to fight it, or that you will have to solve puzzles, and as the influence of Gone Home spreads that expectation will fade. It’s hard to see how this could be done with the story in anything but the past tense. And while Gone Home cleverly gives you limited control over the plotting (e.g. not allowing you to uncover the story climax until the end) through the use of locked doors and a series of keys, that mechanic could feel stale after a while.

Of course, a lot of novels and movies feel stale too — it’s on the creator to avoid cliché.

I don’t have a conclusion here, only a sense of excitement and a suspicion that the argument over whether games are art is a distraction that is slowing the development of a better vocabulary to describe experiences like Gone Home, which will be remembered as a milestone in the emergence of software-enabled narrative.