Firewatch

Firewatch. A game that, along with Oxenfree, paves the way to what games could be. Particularly when it comes to interactions with other characters. A game that, to me, feels much more a roleplaying game than most games under the RPG genre.

Of course, I understand why RPGs are the way they are. They were, after all, Pen & Paper RPGs taken to the computer, and those were mostly based on violent conflict resolution1. RPGs were, and still seem to be, despite attempts by the genre, about roleplaying heroes muderhobos. Combat is, still, one of the most developed systems, and, in video games, the focus of it.

Along the way attempts have been made to produce things that don’t involve fighting, yet still feel fun, engaging and video gamey (for lack of a better word). The horror genre being the most successful of them, by necessity.

At some point, Proteus came. Dear Esther. Gone Home. Attempts to break free from the rules set before. Rebellious. Experimental. Non-games, by virtue of what games were at the time. While in the other direction, RPGs attempted, slowly pushed and tried. Yet, still restrained by the very things that came to form the genre within video games. Combat. It needs to be there, and it needs to be fun. Some sort of progression. The player needs to feel they are progressing, they are getting stronger. And thousands of things to do. Even if non-violent resolution was put in place (Shadowrun games, for example), combat is still expected.

And then there is Oxenfree, a game which I did not play, and Firewatch. Interaction through dialogue takes the forefront. Not only is the system they used still great, if still not particularly innovative (choose one answer from a set of answers, as seen in games older than, say, Fallout), but the execution, that is, the delivery of what the characters say is leaps beyond what games have been doing before. If RPGs had (great) characters, these two managed to get closer to people.

Part of it is the ability to interrupt each other, something that rarely happens in scripted dialogue. And, in Oxenfree, how characters retake their previous line of thought after the tangent was solved. In Firewatch, it was the wonderful dialogue that, for the most part, felt like listening in on the conversation between the two voice actors. I was surprised to hear that they did not record this in person, in front of each other as they said their lines and smiled (or got angry) at each other.

And both use time, perhaps following what Telltale has been doing for a while, in the conversation. If you want to say anything, then you mustn’t miss your chance or the other person will keep taking, or even believe you’re displeased with them. Silence is valid. Silence has meaning. Silence is an option.

I think it’s because of this lack of analytical approach to it, in part brought by the natural urgency of talking, that Firewatch managed to be a better Role-Playing game than most of what I had played until then. For a few hours I became Henry, and I was Henry. It managed to capture what Pen & Papers have been doing for a while, and it didn’t need any levels, nor crafting, nor anything else to achieve that (although I did spot a hint of a progression system, what with getting different items throughout). It was about the characters and how they interact with each other, and really not at all how you kill x goblins or gather y items to craft z.

1. Something left from the origin of one of the most successful RPGs in history. The Wargaming roots is still visible, even if the entire genre seems to be a push away from wargames.

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