I suspect that I did not play Firewatch at the pace it expected. In retrospect, I approached the game as a dual role-playing exercise, in unwitting partnership with the actor Rich Sommer, who so memorably provides the voice of player-character Henry. While I did love participating this unusual sort of time-displaced acausal improv, I may not have kept to the trail the game had marked for me, to my own detriment.
An earthy dude in every respect, Henry spends the whole game in radio contact with an off-screen colleague, and makes his opinions, desires, and emotional state all entirely transparent. Which is not to say blunt — Sommer portrays him with subtlety and sincerity. Henry is just not a man who hides his mood. And that mood is often I have to go do this thing, now.
I always took this, willingly, as a cue to hustle. While the game always tempts you to explore the woods freely using Henry’s (entirely diagetic) map and compass, doing anything other than making a beeline to his next goal would have felt like the letting the backside of the pantomime horse drag his feet while the front surged ahead. Despite my suspicion that the game would have allowed me to put Henry’s concerns on hold as long as I’d have liked to instead have him investigate odd spots on the map, the thought of it just didn’t feel right. Onward!
In so doing, though, it seems that Henry and I hiked right past a lot of interesting stuff, there in the game’s recreation of the Wyoming wilderness. Shortly after I finished the game, a friend asked whether I’d found the elk, a detail that a lot of players had apparently overlooked. No, I hadn’t found the elk. Today I learned that there’s a turtle of some interest elsewhere within the game, and a cabin. I did not find any of these things. I do not mind that I didn’t! I seldom obsess over “one-hundred percenting” games; I play until I feel done, and the ending Firewatch handed me felt like enough.
However, the fact that I did jog past all these sights made me reconsider how the presentation of the game’s story seemed unusually out of sync with my experiencing and processing of it.
Early on, we see some unsettling things, and we hear reports that people we’ve met earlier are missing. Presently, the main character becomes convinced that strange and terrible events are afoot, and that he or others might be in imminent danger. Shortly into the mid-game, these concerns become interleaved with a “B-story” regarding a boy and his dad who used to camp often the woods, long prior to the player-character’s arrival.
If I sound uncertain about these latter characters, it’s because I started learning about them while my focus as a player remained entirely on the tension of the “A-story”, all the scary stuff and unnerving encounters. I wanted to follow those, and see what happened next! The game, on the other hand, wants the player’s focus on the first thread to cleanly dissolve into the second, just in time for the reveals near the end of the story.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way for me. My Henry, in his hurried pace, started putting two and two together far sooner than I did, and began to speak his conclusions out loud while I was still jumping at shadows and thinking “Wait… who are these guys again?” The given denouement made sense, I suppose, but I still felt like I’d missed some important cues, despite my earlier efforts to closely wear the role.
Interactive narrative is hard, and interactive narrative that leaves pacing in the player’s hands — tying it to an explorable map, in this case — presents its own unique challenges. While text-based interactive fiction sits on decades of examples, beautiful, accessible, visually immersive “walking simulators” like Firewatch have only begun to figure it out for themselves. I very much look forward to more work like it.