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Hands On: Firewatch

Brush With Danger

If you've already seen the Firewatch [official site] footage Alec posted last week, then you've seen what I've played. (Sort of. It's hard to imagine how someone could have played it quite so weirdly, missing out almost all of the best lines, ignoring lots of the things to do). Of course, watching and playing are rarely the same experience. And this is already something pretty special to play.

Henry is a middle aged man, his marriage coming to an end, his life not where he wants it to be. Deciding to get away to the wilderness of Wyoming for a few months, he takes a job as a fire lookout for the park ranger. He's certainly an atypical game character, his chubby cartoon hands still sporting his wedding ring, his movement calm and sober.

The demo picks up about 45 minutes into the game, with Henry sent off by his boss, Delilah, to investigate who is setting off fireworks in the park. And as you may have seen, he discovers not just an open fire, empty beer cans, and a bottle of whiskey, but also two sets of underwear. There are some teenagers skinny dipping, and Henry is already uncomfortable.

What becomes immediately apparent is that Firewatch is really, in the truest sense, an adventure game. It's reason to exist is to tell you a story, but to go to great lengths to ensure that your experience of that story is your own. There's no doubt this is a project led by the writer of the original series of Telltale's The Walking Dead adventures. However, it's also a first-person game, with running, climbing, exploring. As the game progresses (set over the course of a few months, jumping forward in chunks of time at various key points), the area you're able to explore grows larger. In fact, the developers draw comparisons with Metroidvania formats, deliberately showing you areas you cannot yet reach, then later equipping you with what you need to get there. Except here its not morphball modes, but rather some strong rope, or a missing key to a caged section in a cave, that allows expansion.

What struck me most, as I was immediately absorbed into the wonderful banter between the two leads, was that my primary method of interaction was the radio. Rather than "looking" at objects to learn about them, here Henry radios Delilah to report them. Find the beer bottles and you can call in to discuss them. Spot a pair of discarded undies and it can lead to a gloriously uncomfortable conversation about Henry's use of the word "panties". Or it can not. You can not report things, walk past, keep quiet.

This extends to conversations too. When you're given a choice of dialogue, you're always also given the choice to keep quiet. And that has as much of a narrative impact on how you experience your relationship with your boss as anything else. Staying quiet sends a message.

In fact, you can even walk straight past narrative points. The two skinny dipping girls - if you wanted, you could walk Henry right past them, ignoring their drunken naughtiness, and getting on with finding your way back to your lookout tower. The game will notice, the girls will react to some odd chap in the distance, walking away. Or you can be extremely nice to them, pathetically nice. Or, as I imagine most will be tempted to, pick up their stereo and throw it in the lake. That sure gets a reaction.

The reason so many options exist is because Campo Santo are spending a lot of time putting the unfinished game in front of people, and watching how they play. People kept throwing the stereo in the lake, so now that's a thing. But others think Henry is far more likely to politely place it back on the rock, and calmly scold the distant figures. I did both, after a rather fortunate bug in this early build allowed me a chance to restart and behave far more how I thought Henry might. In fact, you apparently could even pick up their litter, bring it down to the lake, and just start throwing it toward them. There's a reaction for that too.

That's a lot of work for something they're happy to let you just walk past. That's splendid. It'll be very interesting to see how far reaching such freedom becomes in the full game.

Campo Santo weren't quite clear on how much impact these choices will have on the narrative arc. There's certainly no doubt they're intending to tell their story, and how you experience it isn't going to open up fourteen different endings, etc. But it's still not clear how much your relationship with Delilah, say, is impacted by your tone throughout. Of course, let's all remember to look in the mirror and remind ourselves: how we experience each micro-moment of a story, based on how we play it, is our variation on a narrative, no matter how linear the arcing script might be. Our own reactions and feelings are our unique experience. It's a long mantra, but it's always worth repeating.

The art is clearly superb, the thick, bold cartoon style presenting a timeless prettiness. And it's outshone by the voice acting, which is as natural and smart as anything I can remember in anything I've played. I'm not exaggerating. This is as good as I've ever heard voice acting, the banter feeling spontaneous and genuine, personality so exquisitely exposed in minimal lines and tone. If the script can keep it up, can keep delivering as much pathos and humour as in this half hour demo, then my goodness, what a thing this could be.

We shall find out, I'm told, this year. They're cagey on exactly when this year, but hopefully before it turns cold again. It was agonising when the demo ended - I desperately wanted to play more. I wanted to know what happens next! Despite the fact that, looking back, what had happened so far was so relatively mundane. It was the strength of the characters, and the wonderful sense of place, that made me not want to have to leave.

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