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  • Realism In Games: What Makes Firewatch Feel Personal

    [03.19.20]
    - Randen Banuelos
  • Note: This post will contain spoilers for the game Firewatch.

    Campo Santo released Firewatch in early 2016 to high reviews, praising the game's narrative and immersive atmosphere. From a writing standpoint, it was not an out-of-the-ordinary premise-you played as a middle-aged man, Henry, who, after his wife has developed Alzheimer's disease, has taken a summer job as a wildfire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest for introspection. Yet, this story, and the characters in it, has captivated players time and time again, so how did Firewatch do it? The answer is not simply in the narrative itself, but the very essence of the game itself, from the UI to visuals and gameplay. It sets itself from other games by embracing realism, that is, by feeling realistic, something that is akin to ordinary life more so than sci-fi or fantasy games. To explore more of what this means, let's break down the different aspects of Firewatch.

    The UI


    Photo from firewatchgame.com

    Modern game nowadays can sometimes get carried away with their HUD and UI design, filling the screen with dozens of variables to keep track of, like time of day, weather, mini map, objective summary, and more. This creates a multi-layered film between the player and the game itself, and while some of these add-ons can be turned off, it can still feel artificial having data points in the corners of the screen as you explore the game world. What does Firewatch use as a HUD? Well, nothing really.

    Firewatch has a very minimalist approach to UI, consisting of a single dot crosshair, which can even be turned off. Besides this, there's little else that will pop up on screen, outside of dialogue options for your radio, the names of objects than can be interacted with, and banners on the bottom of the screen to indicate your current objective. Aforementioned, there is no HUD to be found on screen, with your only method for orienting yourself, unless you memorized the entirety of the Shoshone, is a traditional paper map and compass. There's next to nothing in the way between you and the beautiful natural world you explore in-game.

    This approach to UI can disorient players who may get lost in the forest trying to find the next cache box to open, but this is one of the many ways Firewatch tries to emulate real life. Back in the 1980's where the game is set, this method of map and compass was really the only way to get around a giant forest like the Shoshone, and getting lost in the woods could happen often if you weren't careful. Firewatch wants to put you in the shoes of a fire lookout, traversing the forest with nothing but a map and intuition, and as the game progresses, you get adjusted to the many trails and rocky slopes to get to key areas.

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