Firewatch: how games are getting inside the heads of their characters

FireWatch

In some ways Firewatch, the beautiful and intriguing game recently released by San Francisco-based studio Campo Santo, is a mystery adventure.

You play as Henry, working for a season in a firewatch tower, far out in the Wyoming wilderness. He is alone except for a walkie talkie, but very quickly he realises that something is going on out there amids the endless forest. There are kids letting off fireworks and leaving threatening messages, then someone ransacks his tower. Something is happening.

But then, right from the start, we realise that Henry is in turmoil. A mini-text adventure at the beginning of the game tells us that his wife is very ill, he has come here to escape his life. Quietly and subtly, we are encouraged to ask questions about what’s really going on. Can we trust Henry?

(Spoiler alert: next paragraph contains Bioshock and Heavy Rain spoilers)

Games have, of course, played with the literary device of the unreliable narrator for many years. The first-person shooter Bioshock used it to devastating effect in its tale of a failed underwater utopia, experienced via the duplicitous voice of Andrew Ryan; while the psychological horror game Heavy Rain famously pulled a character plot twist so audacious, some players could barely forgive the writers for their transgression.

(End of spoilers!)

Firewatch is certainly more subtle than those examples, but it cleverly explores the conflicted emotions of its lead character, while allowing the player to maintain a skeptical distance. In a medium where the default mode is for us to identify with the character, it’s a refreshing change to be told that the person we’re ostensibly controlling may not be entirely trustworthy. And it’s an approach that’s becoming more common.

Another intriguing example released this year is Cibele, a semi-autobiographical game about designer Nina Freeman’s relationship with a man (known as Blake) she meets in an online role-playing adventure. The player effectively takes on the role of Nina as she meets her boyfriend online, and we listen in on her conversations with him, in a familiar adventure game style. But at the same time, Freeman wanted us to understand the friction between the way the in-game Nina presents herself to Blake and what she’s actually thinking. To this end, the player gets access to in-game Nina’s PC desktop, which contains poems, journal entries and photos – these are all genuine relics from Freeman’s life. And they often contradict the story she’s telling Blake.

“I kind of realised I had to establish a critical distance from what was happening,” explains Freeman. “As I was writing the script, I realised there were things I want to express that I couldn’t through dialogue alone; I decided it had to be more than just playing in this online game and listening to conversations. So I added real things from my life so that people could understand who I was from many different angles – they could infer what I was like without really being with me. That’s where the folders full of my pictures, blog posts and poems came from – it was to give the player context so that they can feel like they understand the character outside of what she’s just saying.”

What both Firewatch and Cibele have in common is the idea of experience being the central component rather than action or puzzle-solving. They do, of course, belong to a loose genre known as experiential games, most commonly associated with two titles – The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther and Fullbright’s Gone Home – which stripped back all interactive components, and put the focus on simply experiencing the environment and narrative. Again, this isn’t a new idea, but the rise of indie game development (facilitated by digital game distribution and the availability of cheap development tools), has made it easier for smaller, more experimental teams to start exploring more personal, more challenging game design concepts. There’s an emerging generation of designers who are asking more questions about how we relate to the games we play and the characters that inhabit them.

There are several fascinating examples on the way – and all, in some ways, insert the same sorts of questions between player and character. Fragments of Him is a forthcoming PC game designed by Mata Haggis, a professor at Breda’s NHTV University. It’s a narrative adventure, following a fatal car crash in which one of the four player-characters is killed. In a series of interactive scenes, we explore that characters last thoughts, as well as the aftermath of the accident for his closest friends and ex-lovers.

Importantly, though, the player doesn’t really control any of the characters first-hand. Instead, they can only prompt them to interact with key nostalgic objects. “The player sees the world from a first-person perspective, like many classic video games such as Doom,” explains Haggis. “But unlike those games, the player is not in the head of the character; instead, our player is their ‘mind’. The mind can wander around the rooms in the game, but nothing happens without them interacting with pre-defined objects. Those interactions prompt the character to perform an action that fits precisely with who they are, and so there is no way that the player can force the people in the story to perform actions that break their character. The people in Fragments of Him always remain consistent in the narrative.”

This system came from combatting a truth of traditional video games – that the player, through in direct control of the character, always has the ability to subvert, halt and break the story. The emotional impact of any moment can easily be destroyed by simply jumping on a table during a romantic monologue, or trying to punch the non-player character conveying some devastating plot point. In most games this is fine, it’s part of interactivity. But for the small minority of games looking to provide an emotional experience, that want the player to investigate the character as much as the environment, this is a barrier.

“In Fragments of Him, we have removed difficulty, puzzles, timers, scores and all forms of challenge, and kept the core storytelling experience,” says Haggis. “It is impossible to ‘fail’ in our story. Some might argue that taking away all of these elements stops Fragments of Him, and games like it, from being games at all. I think that there is something in that, but at the same time it also feels like a built-in limitation of the term ‘games’ to describe the true potential of interactive media. We sometimes semi-jokingly refer to Fragments of Him as a Playable Interactive Narrative Experience, partly because we like the acronym ‘Pine’, but mainly because we feel that discussions about what truly is, or is not, a ‘game’ is besides the point of what we are trying to achieve.”

Also due later this year is Elsewhere Company’s a.part.ment, in which a character, Nick Connor, wanders his home, analysing the reasons for a recent relationship breakdown. Wherever you go as a player, certain objects and areas unlock partially interactive memory sequences, that slowly build a picture of the love affair. But again, we’re invited to ask how reliable these fragments are. Memories are subjective. At certain points we’re able to explore the apartments and romantic memories of the lead character’s neighbours, and these enhance, compliment and contrast his own reminiscence.

This whole question of memory and reality is also explored in Town of Light, a forthcoming psychological adventure from Italian studio LKA. Set in the real-life Volterra asylum, it concerns the story of a woman named Renee who returns to the creepy, now derelict building having been a patient there in the 40s. Again, though, as she explores the wrecked building, reliving what she thought had happened, she discovers her clinical records and realises that her memories are inaccurate.

Inspired by creative director Luca Dalcò’s own experiences of how depression affected a close friend, there is, once again, this disconnect between the player and the character – we’re partaking in their experience, but as a discreet entity. We have to question Renee in a way we may not question a character like Nathan Drake or Lara Croft.

We’re entering into a new era of game design in which studios are using the standard conventions of interactivity to ask questions about what it means to “be” a character on screen. Narrators are becoming unreliable, stories are becoming character studies. The Henry we see in Firewatch is not the actual Henry, it’s not even the interpretation of Henry experienced by every individual player. It’s a strange amalgam of all those elements. In Cibele, we play as Nina, but we’re simultaneously watching, being and judging her, and we can’t trust all that she says to Blake or to herself.

“It is an incredibly exciting time for stories in games,” says Haggis. “We are seeing the limits of what a ‘game’ is being tested, we’re part of a new wave of experiments in how interaction can produce meaningful experiences.

“Fragments of Him and other games in this emerging field still use very familiar mechanics, but with the aesthetics altered from battlefields into spaces for stories to be told. All the pieces of interaction and mechanics design for this emerging field are in place, now we just need passionate storytellers who understand those mechanics to step up and explore.

“In our game, the player can choose small alternative paths for the people in the story, giving a slightly different angle on the events. These are things that are not possible in a film or in most theatrical performances.

“Fragments of Him is certainly not a film, but it may be something other than a ‘game’”.

This is, in a way, the theme that links all of these games. They are all mystery adventures, but the mystery is about our relationship with them and the people they invite us to be.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 22nd February 2016 07.00 Europe/London

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