Critical Play: Walking Simulators, Firewatch

I decided to play Firewatch, a game where the main character (you) is escaping from a difficult relationship in the deep forest as a fire watchman. The game starts in the present, but presents flashbacks in the form of narration that give you the main character’s backstory. Between narration segments, you walk short stretches in the woods.

The first thing I noticed about the walking is that the controls of the game force you to interact with your surroundings more than a birds-eye or third-person navigation structure. The WASD keys are used for walking, while the mouse is used to direct your vision – this multitasking mimics the actual engagement of walking through a forest very well since the field of view is very similar to our real field of view. Unlike other games where you can see your character while moving, this is from a first person perspective. This results in the game forcing you to “turn your head” or look down at the pathway to see where you are walking. Especially in the opening segment of the game, the act of walking between flashbacks conveys a story of remembrance and melancholy, someone who is definitely trying to escape a reality. It also immerses you in the hiking atmosphere more, since when you are actually hiking, you often look around as you progress along a trail.

While playing through the first job the main character has, there are a few obstacles you have to hop over, and the game actually depicts the physical movement required to climb over a log or move up stairs. Although this made me a bit motion sick, I liked the small detail of forcing the camera view to mimic the actual head position required to navigate a physical space. This makes the storyline of a fire watchman more immersive, since players are forced to watch and experience the physical exertion required for the job. The setting is beautifully animated, and while there are concrete milestones you have to achieve, a lot of the game experience relies on world building to facilitate missions, therefore combining spatial/environmental narration with enacted narration. This combination is an extremely effective tool that develops a discovery aesthetic to fun.

Finally, the hardest part of Firewatch for me was that you actually have to walk and navigate the world as if you were really hiking. You are only provided with a map and compass, and figuring out which paths actually correspond to the map trails was surprisingly more difficult than I anticipated. I’m pretty directionally challenged in real life, and this definitely transferred over to Firewatch – I got off the trail multiple times, and when told to make it back home, I took a wrong trail and the sun started setting faster and faster. The light faded off of my map, and these small details in the game really made the job of fire watchman pop out of the screen. Because the main tool players’¬† have is walking, each decision on where the character walks has an impact on the story. He’s new to the job, now he’s gotten lost on his first job, and there isn’t any way to “teleport” back to home base – the only way to navigate is through walking, and because of this restriction, walking solidifies players’ understanding and provides more depth to the experience of the character’s job (the core element to the narration of Firewatch). The reading mentioned that it is hard to make walking simulation games that impose enough stress on players since they can’t “die,” and I think the sun setting as you are hiking definitely adds enough stress. It’s a pretty understandable fear to get lost in the woods, and the game makers leaned into this fear well!

I’m excited to continue playing the game, especially after reading the article since there was so much backlash on these types of games – I definitely got the feeling that this is more hinged on the story than a game like Legend of Zelda (one of my childhood favorites), but as an older gamer, I thought the format of a walking simulator was a refreshing new mechanism of game that put more responsibility on me as a player.

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