Firewatch: Why The Official Photos Don’t Quite Work

My official Firewatch [official site] photos arrived a few weeks ago at my parents’ house and I’ve just got around to picking them up. While I was playing the game I also ordered a set of my own screenshots from a photo print service in the UK.

I wanted to talk about the differences between the two experiences, not least because paying to have your roll of in-game film developed is an optional part of the experience of Firewatch. There are going to be spoilers ahead because they’re unavoidable in this discussion:

I think the big thing with the official Firewatch prints is that I felt like the game was caught between two art styles. So the idea is that you find a camera in a bag as you play and you can use the leftover film to take your own pictures as you explore. At the very end of the game you get access to the images on the camera as if you’ve had them developed. These are free of charge, in that you can see them as the credits play, moving from your own images (basically a selection of screenshots) to the ones which were already on the camera and the accidental selfie you took as you picked it up.

It’s a kind of reveal moment in that you see yourself, rather than just your extremities, but it also illustrated elements of the plot you’ll have worked out by then.

After that you can also see those screenshots – again, free of charge – via an online photo album link (here’s the link to my own album). The money comes in if you want to have a physical set of prints sent to you.

When they arrive they’re gloriously detailed in their packaging. There’s an envelope of the kind you used to get to put film in to be developed and in which your finished pictures would be returned. The front has the actual shipping label needed for your home address but on the back you’ll find all those options you’d select when you sent something to be processed. The name of the customer (Henry), the date, the time, the size of the images you wanted, whether it was singles or doubles, glossy or matte, the film type, the ISO, the space for lab notes…

In and of itself it’s a lovely object which fits the conceit of the service. It also managed to confuse my mother, who phoned me to let me know I’ve received someone called Henry’s photos and was he a friend of mine or was there an error in the photo service.

What you’ll find in the package are all the photos from the roll of film. That means your own screenshots as well as those plot photos. This is where I sort of… prickled? Or where the experience wobbled after so faithfully trying to recreate a sense of a particular time.

The photos that relate to the plot, and the selfie you accidentally take, are all of a similar style which is a deliberate homage to those older point and shoot disposable cameras. The film is grainy. There’s a standard depth of field to the image. The lighting blows out some areas of a photo. There’s vignetting (where it gets darker or less saturated at the edges). One subject has red eyes.

Then you have the others – the ones you took. They’re pretty much just perfectly faithful as screenshots. The life and the illusion of that film roll drains out of them almost instantly. I think the only way in which they sort of fit the conceit of having a film roll is that you get no do-overs so my own images are ones I’m not entirely happy with – a sensation I know well from film photography. The way they’re similar to most of the prints I own is that I dislike them. Or at least feel ambivalent about them.

I’ve been wondering about this and I feel like perhaps I would have preferred the game to have a kind of post-processing on those particular shots which put them in line with the plot photos. I’d want that similar skew to the lighting. The imperfections because you couldn’t control for light properly, the addition of that same grain, an attempt to apply some sense of depth of field in the same way.

And then I really started to overthink it and I’m now obsessed by this picture:

Those disposable cameras didn’t have a timer function so how would this picture have been taken? It was just them. They were alone at the tower, right? The wonky angle makes it clear the camera is balancing on uneven ground rather than being held by a person but… it’s impossible, right? An impossible picture.

Then I get to my own screenshots. The ones I had developed independently. I haven’t edited them beyond cropping them and, in some cases, removing the white cursor marker thing that’s there to stop you getting motionsick. To me they feel more like a representation of my own trip through the game. I don’t know how much of that is because I was able to spam the screenshot button and then go back through later, culling the ones I disliked or which evoked nothing in particular, which is also why I tend towards digital rather than film photography currently. Or perhaps it’s their coherence?

Perhaps it’s because there’s no moment where I’ll hit a total shift in art style and have to recalibrate how I’m looking at them. Perhaps it’s because I got to crop them and that does apply an edit function, shifting a butterfly out of the centre of the shot and into the one third position which I far prefer. Perhaps this set of shots let me be myself whereas in the others I should have been role-playing Henry for it to work properly.

I feel like the latter would have made the film images more successful for me. I should have gone back through and committed to taking the pictures I would have taken at that time, with those kinds of camera. Not vistas. Not pleasing rock formations. But pictures of food or a campfire or a butterfly which actually leaves the shot as I push my finger down to take the picture. But I do miss the imperfections. Those pics would still have been crystal clear, every detail available. To fully commit to eighties disposable cameras you need mess. You need a visual.. crunchiness? Ineptitude? You need to feel the limits of the camera and you need continuity.

In the UK one of the big photo lab chains used to put stickers on rubbish pictures with tips to explain why the image had gone wrong. There was advice for blurred shots, for colour casts, for obstructions to the lens. Imagine some of these screenshots, with a grainy effect and a weird shadow over part of the image. Then imagine a removable sticker on the physical print “QUALITY CONTROL: Henry’s pudgy meat fingers appear to be obscuring the image”…


  1. heavyweather says:

    Just thought I’d link to a Firewatch blog post from Panic about the creation of Fotodome. Sounds like parts of it came together very last minute. I could see how you could write some software to apply those film grain filters etc, or more easily use Photoshop actions to attain the same effect, but they’re a small team and opted to allocate those resources elsewhere. For something that only came together at the last minute though, it’s still pretty cool.

  2. w0bbl3r says:

    I see the flaws in how they did this but it’s still a great feature that I don’t remember seeing in any other game, especially having it be a roll of film partly used by the guy and his kid, so it has old pictures there that remind you of the backstory of the place.

    • invitro says:

      It hasn’t been done before because no one else thought that people would be so consumerist and have so much money that they would waste it on this trash. I mean really, is anyone who purchases this crap going to even look at it past the day when they open it?

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        john_silence says:

        I could probably point to ten things you bought last week that appear to me an utter waste of money. And if not – well then you really have a pathology.

        I was quite happy to get my roll. I probably won’t look at it much, just as you surmise – just as I never look at any of my old real-life pictures.

        On top of being a nice object, and the rare physical item that really complements its digital springboard, it was a way to share an attractive aspect of Firewatch with my fiancée who is not very much into games. Better than the Algiers T-shirt I bought to support those devs a while back (where are they btw?) that was a horrible Made in Bangladesh shame.

        Pip’s post sparks a very interesting reflection on the meshing of art styles and period faithfulness. Also on the way a game frames our perception.
        For my part I thought the screenshots, however mediocre, still towered high above the atrocious art in the pre-existing shots. But the high-res prettiness is jarring if you try to envision them as 90s photographs.

        Advice embedded in the photos though: never had that, but it’s fun!

  3. n. says:

    Wasted dead trees.

  4. cockpisspartridge says:

    In your face, trees.

  5. Raoul Duke says:

    It seems a tad churlish to complain about what is basically a cute gimmick…

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      kfix says:

      It’s more than slightly churlish to describe a fairly detailed critical look at a feature, pointing out both the glorious and lovely as well as the bits that wobbled, as just a complaint.

  6. RabbitIslandHermit says:

    I’m still annoyed that didn’t include the negatives. What is this, Wal-Mart?

    (yes yes I know it would be very weird and expensive to make negatives for this I’m being facetious)

  7. Velox says:

    Wow. “Then I got to my own screenshots. The ones I developed independently.” Those two sentences made me realize how cool that would be. Making Screenshots throughout beloved games, that tell my own experience and actually photo printing them. Sure, not all games will be suitable for that but still. Wow.
    Interstate 76 needs a remake damn it.

  8. polecat says:

    Maybe the picture of the two of them together is meant to serve as a plot reveal in itself, like dubious flawed love interest radio girl? (Delilah? Played this ages ago.) Or it could have been taken by the person they took over from as they arrived?

    • polecat says:

      Sorry, the first half of that as in Delilah could have taken it?

    • onodera says:

      Yeah, I have always interpreted it as a “smash to black” ending.

  9. ButteringSundays says:

    I bet your mum’s confusion was allayed when you explained that they were in fact not photos delivered to the wrong person, but were instead printed screenshots from a video game addressed to the character you played as.

    “Oh! Oh…”