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Firewatch: Why The Official Photos Don't Quite Work

Leaving your prints

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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”…

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Philippa Warr

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