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A-flutter: The Butterflies Of Firewatch

But where are the caterpillars?

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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