A-flutter: The Butterflies Of Firewatch

Over the weekend I was playing Firewatch [official site]. I actually played it twice because I wanted to spend time in those environments and with those colour palettes. As I spent more and more time in the game it occurred to me that the game’s relationship with insects is an interesting one.

So you’re out in Wyoming, in a national park watching for fires. It’s the sort of game where the soundscape is this sparse, gentle thing. You’ve got the voice of your supervisor on the other end of a walkie talkie but there’s also a quiet within the game, especially if you decide to explore or to take roundabout routes on the way to plot points.

There’s a loneliness as well, although I realised I wasn’t lonely in the sense of human companionship. I mean, in the second playthrough I was so aware of Delilah (that supervisor) and her continued presence that the only time I actually felt alone or entirely peaceful was in a section which purposely removes the ability to communicate by radio signal.

The loneliness I’m talking about is the absence of the majority of tiny life in the game. Even in the heat of summer I’d expect insects all over the place in this park area. I’d probably be spending my time inspecting the activities of ants, or wondering about a particular beetle or being bitten to itchy oblivion by any number of flying evening jerks.

I loved the macro beauty of Firewatch, but I missed the micro beauty I associate with the real outdoors.

Obviously there are reasons why that stuff wouldn’t exist. For one, it would ramp up the technical requirements of the game. The computer would have to render far more and the whole endeavour would have taken so much longer as artists had to create the assets and make sure they spawned correctly.

Another aspect is that having too much noise and possibility for interaction on screen would slow the process of exploration down, obscuring the story and creating this tension between inspecting something tiny and being primed for expansive vistas.

Firewatch is a game which flows from vista to vista, leading you to curated moments of beauty which suddenly appear as you round a corner. If you’re checking in with the ants or the stink bugs or the candy-striped leafhoppers you’re not going to have those same moments of revelation.

I say this to point out that I get why the decision would have been made and I don’t actually think it would have been appropriate for this game anyway so I’m not complaining that it was absent. But what it did teach me is that an outdoors without the presence of that other tiny world which hums and buzzes and sometimes wanders across your foot starts to feel very strange after a few hours.

I think that a total absence of that kind of thing is felt by game creators, though. You’ll see this yen to have it in some form in something like Dota where you get little stag beetles cycling through animations in order to add a living quality to the forest. You also often get particle effects in games that get deployed as clouds of mosquitoes in a boggy biome in one game or another. Perhaps you’ll encounter rudimentary animations that are suggestive of a creature even if a closer look reveals them to be two sausage shapes strung together and attempting to move like a squirrel.

That’s why I was delighted to see the butterflies in Firewatch.

Where the rest of the game is about wowing you with vistas and trees, the butterflies are delightful.

They’re on animation loops which is how I got to photograph them but they’re so detailed – far more detailed than I’m accustomed to when it comes to gaming. They seem to be modelled on genuine species which is a nice touch.

So often a game is like “Well, lady, enjoy your two triangles flappin’ away there.” With these I’m looking at them and going “That’s got to be a Monarch butterfly, right?” or “COME BACK AND LET ME WORK OUT WHAT KIND OF SWALLOWTAIL YOU ARE”. There might have been a tortoiseshell in there too but I’d need another playthrough to confirm that.

At one point I also caught sight of a dragonfly, but I couldn’t quite work out the animation loop so couldn’t get close enough for an ID on the species if there was one.

Maybe this will seem insignificant to other players, but I wanted to highlight it as a tiny thing that I really enjoyed given so much has been said about the other aspects of the game: the general absence of insects (and indeed caterpillars) and then these sudden bursts of beautiful presence.

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  1. RaoulDuke says:

    Its so great to see real butterfly species being portrayed, TBH it seems rather lazy *not* to model them on the real thing. If you have a picture of a certain species you essentially have a front and back texture for the in game model, then you just make a basic body et WALLA! [http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=walla]

    Firewatch has

    • RaoulDuke says:

      * a very particular art style but it looks like they just saturated the colours a bit and added glow/bloom to make it fit in.

  2. lupinewolf says:

    When I played and that orangey butterfly (technical term) appeared, it made me realise in that instant that I hadn’t seen one since I was… 9 or 10. It filled me with nostalgia of playing around in the garden and watching the butterflies. They stopped coming at one point, like the fireflies. What happened?

    Anyway, I was very glad to see them again, in virtual form even.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Climate change or pollution, probably. Butterflies are very sensitive to changes like that. Hence if there are many butterflies somewhere it’s generally a sign the environment there is doing well.

      • Llewyn says:

        They’re also really susceptible to changes in planting (both type and density). In the UK at least, the way people use their gardens has changed hugely over the last couple of decades, and you can see the effects on butterflies and birds (as well as countless other things we’re less keen on watching).

        We had a real surprise one summer recently after planting a variety of thistle near an existing buddleia – the number of butterflies around the buddleia increased hugely the following summer. Turned out that the thistle was perfect food for the caterpillars of the butterflies we had, and the two plants in close proximity created a kind of feedback loop.

    • ElementalAlchemist says:

      If you are in the US and are talking about the Eastern Monarch, it’s because they are on the road to extinction. They’ve suffered an 80% decline over the last 20 years of population monitoring.

      link to nature.com

  3. Ghostwise says:

    FWIW Skyrim has a well-known mod full of hi-def bugs and butterflies – link to nexusmods.com?

    It might be your thing.

  4. calcifer says:

    I knew this was Pip’s writing the second I saw that title!

  5. drezworthy says:

    As a person with entomological tendencies I loved to read this article. Very thoughtful. And I’m glad to see such a game allows for such thoughtfulness.

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    Cyphran says:

    What a lovely post!

  7. rickenbacker says:

    As a former amateur entomologist, and a very world-explore-y gamer, I approve 100% of this fantastic post.

  8. Rag says:

    I made an account just now to say: look up the turtle/tortoise encounter! I missed it in my own game but if you do something specific you can interact with a cute little…i’m gonna guess tortoise.

    This article made me wish there was a little more complexity to Firewatch. While I did enjoy it, it could’ve had a lot more secretive touches. I’m thinking like Shadow of the Colossus

  9. rustybroomhandle says:

    Here’s a detailed catalogue of all the wildlife in Firewatch, with specific species identified. :) For extra homework.
    link to steamcommunity.com