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The video gaming industry has plateaued. Where once different console manufacturers were hotly engaged in an arms race (thirty-two colours! double the joysticks!) precious little territory remains to be claimed.
The latest generation of consoles did little more than staple on more teraflops of muscle, and it is becoming prohibitively expensive to craft resources that take full advantage of the frankly irresponsible processing power available. Nintendo may have the cash to animate every blade of grass on Hyrule’s horizon while wafting a dozen different stylised particle effects through the impeccably fluid-dynamicked breeze. But we don’t all have Nintendo-calibre cash reserves. And so the gulf between triple-A titles and indie manufacturers has yawned wide.
Where the powers that be are reaching ever upwards, indie gaming is incrementing downwards, in dimension — 2D offerings like Cuphead and Undertale have amassed rabidly enthusiastic cult followings — or in resolution — the prevalence of retro pixel art speaks for itself, albeit in cutesy astromech beeps.
Accordingly, the definition of a video game has stretched looser to encompass releases that focus less on whiz-bang shiny graphics and more on storytelling. A question presents itself. If it tests neither brains nor brawn, if it cannot be won or lost, and indeed if it does not offer any sort of challenge, in what sense is it a game? Is a minor concession to interactivity enough to earn that particular label?
The moniker of ‘walking simulator’ has sprung up in recent years, a moniker that is undeservedly patronising. The Stanley Parable, for example, was very good. It featured at its core a nifty idea: a player and a narrator at odds with each other. You are of course free to follow the past-tense directions charmingly delivered to you by some warm, avuncular Englishman doing his best Stephen Fry, and will be rewarded with a fairly standard tour of a perfectly ordinary office building. But with each act of disobedience, the unseen narrator shifts from mild irritation to outright exasperation to utter bewilderment, your trajectory increasingly labyrinthine and decreasingly bearing any resemblance whatsoever to a perfectly ordinary office building. Purgatory is other people, claims The Stanley Parable. There is no heavy Portal-esque power dynamic here. The player and the narrator each have only limited influence over the other. They are both trapped. And gosh is it fun.
Though of course there are bad walking simulators too. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture tasks the player with finding out what happened to a tiny abandoned country town, but would have worked a lot better if it hadn’t unaccountably given away the big twist in its own title.
A walking simulator lives or dies by its story, which must itself be driven by the player’s actions, otherwise one may as well put down the controller or stow their keyboard and curl up with a good book and a nice hot cup of tea. Though, of course, sometimes this is the point. And so the new subgenre of storybook gaming has arisen.
Sometimes the aim of the game is not to overcome a challenge, but simple to immerse oneself in another world, like the stunning, stylised deserts of Journey or the hyperrealistic oceans of Abzû. Gameplay-wise, both amount to directing a glorified cursor to a certain place and pressing the contextual ‘continue game’ button. And yet at their respective conclusions, both leave the incapacitating impact of a deep, long-form narrative. (And it's worth noting that little insight is gained by such extreme abstraction. After all, the dozens of identical interchangeable first-person shooters flooding the digital shelves are basically Space Invaders with slightly shinier textures and sideways.)
Firewatch understands that stories, at their essence, are Soylent Green — they are people. The game is a tightly-spun study in the way paranoia seeps into the edges of the unoccupied mind. We play as Henry, who is taking refuge from deafeningly quiet domesticity, from postponing dreams as life and whiskey get in the way. His task is to sit in a watchtower all day in the middle of some national park in rural America and make sure it doesn’t burn down. His only company is Delilah, on firewatch atop the distant neighbouring tower, whom we never actually meet. She only communicates via radio. She is too far away to make social calls, and at any rate has her own duties to fulfil. The world doesn't revolve around you.
Henry goes about the busywork of his new position — checking the condition of radio towers and cables, retrieving supplies, telling off teens with illegal fireworks, all the while appreciating an immensely pretty cell-shaded representation of the American wilderness — as the easygoing chemistry he and Delilah share buds into something else entirely.
But as the days and weeks and months roll by, Henry begins to suspect that Delilah may not be as trustworthy as she seems. And even though we witness events firsthand, Henry may not be as reliable a narrator as we assume. As the clarity of his new life hazes over, so too does the park, its scenic vistas choked with smoke, its rich colours greying over until the final act of Firewatch descends into maddened, hellish red.
Without wishing to spoil, this is a story that leaves its threads untied. It is unafraid to lean into its anticlimax, as if to underscore its point that the conspiracy theories to which the bored and the lonely turn are never as exciting as they promise to be.
Storybook games are meditative experiences. Some more predisposed to the word than I may consider them somehow spiritual. There is something so pure about Henry’s mundane treks up and down the park, his experiences avatised and distilled into short segments. He is alone in his little slice of landscape, accompanied only by a soundtrack of pensive Americana.
Gentle guitar noodling, a few presses of electric piano, a disembodied voice in his ear and a diegetic map in his hand (that flaps delightfully in the breeze). Plus an extradimensional voyeur directing his every action. What better way to spend an afternoon?