Firewatch

. 1412 words; about 8 minutes.
Category: Games.

After signing up to GOG to buy Superliminal, they offered me a new user discount on a chunk of games. As part of my inburgering I am obliged to buy anything marked with a 35% KORTING or better. Firewatch was "-75%" so a 40% better deal than that oven-ready satay badger with a use-by date of today.

Performance and interface

As before, I set upon Firewatch with my Road Apple, its trackpad, and my southpaw hands.

It has much lower hardware requirements than Superliminal: on a Mac, it just wants a discrete GPU (so screw you if you have a Mac Mini) and on Windows and Linux it just wants a GeForce 450 or better. I left the graphics at their default of "High".

Again, this game has the industry sinistrophobia and defaults to "WASD" for movement, but to dig the knife in deeper, complained that the cursor keys were already in use when I went to rebind them. So I have to find what was already squatting on the cursor keys and rebind those, but not to WASD because it'd then just moan about those being in use. Other games don't get so uppity and will unbind whatever else was previously bound to a key, but this one has to be Special.

Plot and game mechanics

Firewatch's GOG product page informs us that the genre is "Adventure - Simulation - Mystery". The trailer and screenshots imply an open world game. I've played Skyrim so many times that even the download has worn through. This looked very much like something I'd get on with.

The game opens with studio credits which fade in and out white and orange text on a neutral background, i.e. the sort of thing we all just tune out while waiting for the game proper to start. But it hasn't changed for a while: it's showing the orange text "You see Julia." Wiggle the mouse to see what happens, and an underline appears when hovering over it. Apparently it's some sort of link, so click on it, I guess. The screen changes to:

She's about your age. Late 20's. Laughing with well-dressed professors and grad students from nearby CU Boulder.

You, Henry, are out drinking with your pals.

…with an orange link of "You approach her." Er, no I wouldn't. But clicking on it is the only available option.

You are drunk.

From here, there's a choice of things to say: "So… what's your, you know, major?" or "You… You're pretty." Er, again, nope. Sod it, just pick one so I can go and wander around the universe.

Now we fade-up to the 3D game universe: I'm trapped in a lift. A hint overlay tells me to left-click "to use objects". The plural is optimistic because there's only one object that responds. Not the lift buttons, but a backpack. Putting on the backpack makes the lift open its doors, because that's exactly how real lifts work. Outside is an underground car park with loads of things strewn around for me to wander around and fruitlessly wave the cursor over on the offchance I can "use objects". To be honest, it was clear what was expected since there's some wheels parked up, but I had forlornly hoped there would be more depth. There wasn't: the only things that you can do here is walk up to the TRUCK BED (urgh, grating Americanism) and "use" to LOAD GEAR, or perhaps you'd try something utterly different and walk up to the TRUCK DOOR and GET IN. Either way, it's the same animation of chucking the backpack in the boot and driving off.

Oh, great, fade-to-black and we're back to the white text and orange links. This is not what I signed up for. Just randomly click at stuff to make it go away; this must be what it feels like to be a typical Windows user.

To cut the (not actually) long story short, there was a woman having a good time with her friends before you staggered up and belched booze fumes into her face, which apparently made you boyfriend and girlfriend, you move in together and you continue to chug beer all the time, yet somehow she hasn't booted you out for being a drunken wastrel, but instead get a dog (you may pick between two dogs, but the choice is of no consequence), talk about whether to have kids (another inconsequential choice), and something something marriage, whatever. What a complete and utter pile of hackneyed heteronormative bullshit. We also discover across several later click-fests that after a few years, the dog's for the glue factory, the kids aren't happening, and your wife went la-la so you dumped her in a home and cut off contact with her family. How delightful. But you're starting to get on well with her sister, fnarr, fnarr. You answer a job ad which puts you in the arse end of nowhere, i.e. the setting of this game.

At this point, Dorothy Jones Heydt's eight deadly words have finally set in: I don't care what happens to these people.

But we've faded up to a scene in open countryside, helpfully labelled with a noticeboard entitled "THOROFARE TRAILHEAD". (I wrinkle my nose again at this ugly Americanism.) The posters on it warn that the trail is potentially dangerous and full of bears.

Well, that gives me somewhere to explore, and with luck maybe our protagonist—who could be readily replaced by a rag on a stick—will get eaten by a bear. Wandering around was curtailed by being unable to step over a gate consisting of a single pole 3ft off the ground, or a handful of small stones. Down the path which is the only exit from such insurmountable obstacles and, bam, surprise fade-to-black. Some more indifferent "plot". Fade-up, and Ragstick Boy is able to jump down off a 20ft high cliff edge without injury but remain unable to deviate off the path and up a 1-in-10 slope. The tutorial kicks back in to inform that it's space to jump over a fallen tree, which results in falling arse-over-tit and landing head-first on the ground. Sadly the fade-to-black was not the sweet release of death, just more vapid story delivered at the breakneck speed of one or two sentences every few seconds.

Fade up. I'm locked to the spot and can only look around 180°. This is to guarantee I can't miss the JOURNAL which I should PICK UP. In it is a nude sketch of a man by the wife who allegedly loves you. That's you, that is: balding with a straggly beard and a micropenis. Yet somehow she stayed with you. No, I don't get it either.

Fade-out. Click, wait, click, sigh, click. Fade-in.

Back to walking along the path, and then onto a log bridge over a stream. Somehow he is incapable of falling off this log despite it being quite on-brand for someone apparently so feeble and accident-prone. Finally a tower comes into view, so climb that and get taught how to use a handheld two-way radio using annoying key combinations. There are loads of items in there, but it is not possible to do anything but gawp at any of them until they have immediate relevance to the plot and the interface screams out "use me". Congratulations, you've finally made it through the tutorial level.

I persisted with the main part of this "game" for a short while, but it became painfully obvious that it would continue to be more of the same. Only the item which is currently needed to advance the plot is usable, and it will sometimes just freeze you in a spot with limited camera movement pointing at one thing to force your hand. The tutorial hints will continue to occasionally prompt e.g. "N to use compass" which feels much like Netflix's "Are you still watching?" Because that's all this really is, a tiresome film-cum-Visual Novel in which you have no actual agency. Monkey press lit-up button, monkey get a small reward.

I've seen train simulators which were less on rails than this alleged game.

At the €5 discount price, I feel somewhat ripped off. Had I paid the €19.99 list price, I'd have been furious.