Sunday, July 3, 2016

Game Review: “Firewatch”, Summer Slump

Over these recent warm-ish summer evenings, I have been playing the indie game “Firewatch”, by Campo Santo Studios. I just finished it a few days ago, and I was left deeply touched, if a bit mournful. There are some indie games out now that are so well-written they’re more literary than certain novels I've read. Games have always been an art form, but there is so much literary richness in a lot of these new games that I would almost sooner curl up with a game than a good book anymore.

“Firewatch” centers on Henry, your basic everydude. At the beginning of the game, it tells the story of his wife, an ambitious professor who is struck in her forties with severe early-onset Alzheimer’s. The game asks you to make a series of choices about how Henry handles the tragedy, although I have a feeling that whatever choices you select, the outcome is more or less the same. I chose for Henry to have her institutionalized rather than try to take care of her himself. (I didn’t trust Henry to handle caretaking.) At any rate, a rift in the family ensues, and Henry flees to Wyoming to be a fire lookout, which involves holing up in an isolated watchtower in the middle of the wilderness. Henry’s only connection to another human being is through radio contact with Delilah, his hard-living, boozy supervisor with a murky past.

As the days wear on, it’s clear that Something is Terribly Wrong in the idyllic Wyoming outback. Henry and Delilah are being watched, and possibly stalked by nefarious forces. But the ins and outs of the plot are not the most interesting part of the game—it’s the metaphorical brilliance of the human tragedy being played out against the backdrop of the Wyoming wilderness; the ever-present threat of fire and its eventual engulfing of their lives. As much as Henry and Delilah have tried to run from the fires in their own lives, they are thrust back into them by the forces of nature, and, in spite of their emotional connection, they end up as alone as they were when they first fled. It’s a superbly well-written story, brought to life by top-notch voice acting and effective, if somewhat simple, graphics. I don’t think that “Firewatch” would have worked without the skilled voice acting, as the relationship between Delilah and Henry is central to the heart of the game.

If you’re not an experienced gamer, this is a great “starter” game—it’s easy to learn, with fairly straightforward story advancement. If there is one little quibble I have with it, it’s the conceit of the dialogue choices for Henry, as well as the action choices at the beginning. Since none of them ultimately make a difference in the outcome (at least, I am assuming they don’t, considering that the ending seems pretty much inevitable), it seems like an inefficient way to move through the story. But at least it gives you some sense of autonomy, however futile. Nonetheless, I fully recommend this game--just be prepared to feel the sads for a few days afterwards.

 I was looking for something on this blog last week and stumbled across a post I wrote a few years ago about coping with writer’s block. It’s like going back in time and reading my own advice to my future self. It’s advice I can use right now, since I’m in a bit of a creative slump. A lot of it has to do with not having closure on the novel; of having poured my passion into it for so long and seeing it not go anywhere. A part of it is just general lack of confidence combined with a dearth of creative vision. (“Wolfpine” is still rattling around in there, but it feels too big and exhausting for me to get my head around right now.) I know all of this is temporary, and probably the best thing for me to do it just let go and give myself permission not to write for a while. I feel a strong impulse to do something with my hands, anyway; to paint or draw or maybe make another rug. Really just to do anything besides staring at a blank Word document, panicking because I am devoid of creative energy. And on that cheery note, here is a trailer for “Firewatch”. Enjoy!

-Kristen McHenry

P.S. I'm off the night cheese and have sworn off Goldfish crackers. I beat Big Cheese at it's own game!

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