They create worlds: Firewatch

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

A lot of gaming is about power fantasies. Okay, perhaps most of us don’t fantasise about being a mustachioed plumber jumping on the backs of turtles or about manoeuvring oddly-shaped blocks in order to form lines, but the clichés are still true a lot of the time: you play in order to become a fantasy hero with a big sword or a soldier with a big rifle or a space warrior with a big raygun. These games can be tremendous fun (and not all power fantasies are as Freudian in nature), but the longer I’ve played games, the less they’re the ones that pull me in most. There are other fantasies (no, not that kind – at least not in this post!): games that let me exist in places where I could never be in real life. For me, it’s one of the main draws of the Assassin’s Creed games: not that they let me become a super stealth assassin with some cool threads and hidden blades, but that they let me explore revolutionary Paris or Victorian London or Ptolemaic Egypt.

And sometimes the fantasies are much more mundane – but fulfilling them is no less fascinating. I mean, how many of us have had the opportunity to become a fire lookout in a North American national park?

Firewatch, which came out in 2016, does exactly that. Wikipedia calls it an adventure game, and this isn’t entirely inaccurate (though it may be misleading to those with a relatively dogmatic understanding of video game genres) – but really, Firewatch puts you in the shoes of a specific character who doesn’t represent the player, and it tells you a story about that character. Henry (voiced by Rich Sommer, who played the obnoxious Harry Crane on Mad Men) is taking a timeout from his life, and his marriage, and spends the spring of 1989 in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. If you’re going to run away from yourself and the situation you’ve found yourself in for a few months, what better place? Henry’s days, at least to begin with, are filled with routine: you walk around the park and check out suspicious activities (such as a bunch of teenage girls lighting fireworks in a dry forest that’s a fire hazard), you talk to your collleague Delilah on the radio (and maybe she’s becoming more than just a colleague?), you keep your eyes on the wildfire that you previously spotted in the distance. It’s an odd situation: on the one hand, you’re surrounded by immense natural beauty, on the other, you’re there because that beauty is at risk, and you too may find yourself at risk, and while the job is an escape for Henry, out there in nature he can never escape himself.

I have to admit that, while Firewatch‘s writing and voice acting is good, whenever Henry speaks (the player has some limited control over what Henry says, but the choices change nuances rather than turning Henry into a completely different character) I found myself thinking of one of Mad Men‘s more grating characters. Sommer’s performance works, but his voice is very much Harry Crane’s voice. (Sorry, Mr Sommer!) However, there is a magic to the moments in the game that do entirely without writing or dialogue, where Henry just walks through the forest, especially as the day begins or as sunset approaches. People, especially ones that actively call themselves ‘gamers’, sometimes joke about the so-called walking simulator genre, in which players mainly just, well, walk around. No challenge, no conflict, just you moving around the environment, soaking in the atmosphere. Firewatch is largely that – and it succeeds at this admirably. A national forest in Wyoming may not be an alien planet, but it may as well be – especially if we take into consideration the game’s visual style. Firewatch isn’t photorealistic: its world has the hues and contours of New Deal-era posters advertising America’s national parks. It’s like we’re walking through the idea of a 1980s national forest, rather than the actual thing, but that’s not a criticism: games let us immerse ourselves in worlds that sidestep the real.

With Firewatch, this is even more the case due to a fan modification that lets people play the game in virtual reality (though you still need a computer to run the game). And once again, VR adds a dimension that isn’t there on a flat screen, even if the trade-off is that the game is somewhat more janky, and more demanding on your PC, than it is in its original version. Ever since I got my first VR headset, the thing that’s made most of a difference to me is how I perceive scale. In VR, it becomes a physical thing. If you’re surrounded by tall trees or mountains in a normal game, you move the mouse or press a stick to look up. You move your hand. In VR, you crane your head back. Obviously immersion is also a thing of the mind, of the imagination, but we are bodies at least as much as we are brains. The abstraction that comes from looking around using a mouse or gamepad puts us at more of a remove from the experiences games create for us. Trees feel taller if you need to crane your head back to look at them. Ravines feel like there’s actually something there you could fall into. And while it’s still more abstract than the real thing, collecting beer cans left behind by annoying teenagers feels more real if you’re doing so by clenching your hand. Even without VR, Firewatch does an amazing job at letting you enter this particular world, but the headset definitely enhances the experience. There were moments while I was playing Firewatch where I just stood there, between the trees, looking up at the trees and the sky, listening to the wind in the branches. People who sneer at ‘walking simulators’ might roll their eyes at this – how is looking at stuff a game? – but I don’t much care. Call it gaming, call it an experience, call it a walking sim: whatever you call it, it is something that the medium enables me to do that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And in the end, that’s what I play games for. Power fantasies come much, much further down the list.

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