Honest review: “Firewatch”

This game’s quiet moments are the loudest in a game with a story narrative driven by dialogue and achingly real characterization.

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“Firewatch” is the other walking simulator I played recently, one I enjoyed much more than FunCom’s “The Park.” Although this game too involved the death of a child (spoiler alert), the story was less horrific than “The Park” and featured more honest dialogue and engaging suspense than the jump-scares and disturbing interpretations of mental illness in “The Park.”

Full disclosure, the game did manage to lose my interest for a period, but that had less to do with its story and more to do with a stressful school week and the fact that walking across the map and taking in the stunning scenery of “Firewatch” doesn’t provide the kind of visceral stress-reliving pleasure that comes from shooting pixelated people.

That said, “Firewatch” was truly beautiful in every sense of the word: Beautiful dialogue, beautiful setting, beautiful characterization and a beautiful story. At the end, I was both wistful and heartbroken because the game had ended and I wanted to spend more time with Henry and Delilah.

I was also heartbroken because the story had ended and hadn’t answered all of the questions raised throughout the game play, but I’m incredibly hard to please, especially where a good story is concerned.

The game begins with down-on-his-luck novelist Henry who enjoys the happiest moments of his life and endures the worst any person can experience all within the first three minutes of the game. Although we see nothing of his life in those minutes, we read everything in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

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In the first few minutes of the game we get an introduction to Henry’s personality and the reason he might be running away from the world in a unique but unsustainable format.
Source: Thenextweb.com.

Although interesting, this style is abruptly abandoned after the first couple of minutes of the game as we’re caught up to speed on everything about Henry’s sad, lonely life.

The rest of “Firewatch” unfolds in a series of dialogue and story-heavy choices that follow Henry as he traipses through the Shoshone National Forest with the disembodied voice of fellow firewatcher and supervisor, Delilah, guiding him via the two-way radio gifted to him courtesy of the game’s time period, good old 1989.

Their conversations over the radio are at times unbearably charming and painfully pedantic, but, in the end, they give you the entire story in a format that’s less about what’s actually happening and more about the characters themselves and how they respond to what they see.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been more delighted in a game than in the moment where I made Henry adopt this turtle. It’s moments like these that really made the game outstanding.
Source: Firewatchgame.com.

The game really shines in the way it presents the character of Henry and Delilah. They are ordinary people with ordinary personalities and ordinary character traits dealing with decisions and situations both extenuating (a death, a mystery and a fire that threatens to consume all of the Shoshone) and ordinary (a desire to reconnect, to find a new identity and to run away from the real and sometimes overwhelming problems of our daily lives).

Although all of this ordinary may seem boring, it’s actually quite extraordinary because it gives us, the audience, a chance to play and interact inside a novel-like narrative.

Because “Firewatch” was a novel. It was a visually stunning one with interactive capabilities never seen before in the plain print medium that’s nearly as old mankind, but, at is heart, it was a novel with a lifelike and engaging story and real, connective characters.

Now, this isn’t the first time that games have been compared to the literary medium. Naomi Alderman of The Guardian has compared video games to literature with games like “Journey” and “Kentucky Route Zero.” Robin Burks of Tech Times has also compared the two in titles like “The Walking Dead” and “Mass Effect.”

But “Firewatch” is different in its refreshingly simplistic approach. Although the ending left a little to be desired and the end result (a dead kid) is still something that’s hard for some audiences to grapple with, a lot of “Firewatch’s” redeeming qualities are found in the quiet moments of its story.

And quiet moments are few and far between in the fast-paced, combative gaming world, a fact that may merit further consideration as games get more and more elaborate.

So watch on, dear gamers and firewatchers, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

Honest review: Funcom’s ‘The Park’

It’s hard for me to put into words how much I disliked Funcom’s “The Park.” The nature of the story material was incredibly disturbing, but, more importantly, the game’s depiction of mental illness and it’s horrific end were as troubling as they were hard to follow, much like the psychological horror and background narrative of the story.

“The Park” is not a title to take lightly. Although the game is short, the nature of this disturbing, atmospheric psychological horror left me with a lot more questions than answers and a sinking feeling in my gut that only worsened the more I thought about the game’s ending.

Fair warning, I’m not holding back with the spoilers so if you don’t want to know, I suggest you stop reading.

First off, the game’s story material is incredibly disturbing. The focus is on a young mother, Lorraine, and her romp through Atlantic Island Park as she tries to find her lost son Callum who ran back into the park. She calls out for her son in a genuinely sincere and worried voice and at times seems incredibly concerned about her son’s welfare.

This emotion is undercut by a short monologue later on in the game where she reveals her hatred for parents that gush over their children and describes the pleasure it would give her to abandon Callum. According to her, he owes her everything, and to abandon him would serve him right. And from the way she says it, the only thing holding her back is a desire to collect on his debt sooner rather than later.

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She’s clearly going through some stuff, but I still can’t reconcile the concerned mother at the center of this game with the one who hates her child. ~ Source: Laegrinna.wordpress.com. 

From then on it’s hard to reconcile that dark version of Lorraine with the one calling out for her son and asking a misshapen Nathaniel Winters, the founder of the park and literal Bogeyman of this story, where he is and what he’s done to Callum.

And the fact that the game ends with Lorraine supposedly killing her own son, is something I was not prepared for, nor something that fit with the main narrative: a scared mother looking for her lost son.

My second point of discontent with this game is the background story, one that I didn’t even become aware of until after I finished the game and did some online research to try to figure out what the hell I just played.

Apparently, “The Park” has strong ties to another Funcom title, “The Secret World” which is an online multiplayer set in the same creepy modern-fantasy universe Lorraine finds herself trapped in after she re-enters the park.

Like I said, I only figured this out after the game ended and I was left confused and disoriented as I tried to figure out what was independent of “The Secret World” and what was actually supposed to be connected to the earlier title.

Lastly, as a person who has suffered from mental illness, I found Funcom’s depiction of Lorraine’s depression to be the worst part of the game by far.

Lauren Orsini of “Forbes” magazine writes, “As a person who diagnosed with anxiety and depression, my life is very much like anyone else’s. I go to work, spend time with loved ones, and have hobbies I enjoy . . . The only difference is that I use cognitive behavioral therapy . . . and it has never given me a single hallucination.”

Playing through the game, I didn’t realize that Lorraine was suffering or had suffered from mental illness until close to the end. To be fair, there were hints: a disturbing flash back of Lorraine being shocked on a table in the bumper car pavilion with the accompanying achievement description reading “Learn about shock therapy” and a pill bottle in the Sideshow Alley that Lorraine says is hers.

There are some other telltale signs, but it’s not really until Lorraine enters the witch’s mouth and moves through the house of horrors that Funcom stops dropping hints and starts being almost glaringly obtuse with notes from the psychological service that diagnosed Lorraine with depression and gave her electroshock therapy and drugs as a paltry form of treatment.

From Lorraine’s clothes and car, we can assume that the time period might actually be one in which electroshock therapy was still in use, so the fact that they used it on her isn’t nearly as surprising as it could be. What is surprising is that Funcom treated her depression like psychosis and had her walk through a loop of her hallway and apartment where each time the scenery and notes within got more and more disturbing. It’s hard to parse out whether this was intended to be Lorraine’s mind on depression or whatever demented psychosis the park imposed on her already fragile psyche.

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This isn’t the image of depression so much as it is a nightmarish hellscape masquerading as Hollywood mental illness ~ Source: Engadget.com. 

And all this comes to a head when, under the influence of the Bogeyman, Lorraine kills her son and comes back to herself, talking to a detective that, as it turns out, is the same man that let her into the park to begin with before the whole cycle starts over again.

There are a myriad of theories out there and while I think Funcom did a good job of crafting a creepy atmospheric title with an ambiguous ending meant to tease and tantalize our minds, I wish it wasn’t Callum’s death we were trying to dissect.

If I had known “The Park” ended with the death of a child, I wouldn’t have played it. And I certainly wouldn’t have suffered through the confusing background story involving Chad the Chipmunk – the textbook definition of an unnecessary background bogeyman – Nathaniel Winters – the main, but no less confusing villain of this story – and his damn park – which apparently existed for the sole purpose of harvesting energy and making Winters immortal (still not sure about that part).

For my part, I interpreted the ending like this: Callum was the boy found dismembered and discarded behind the cotton candy stand. As a result, Lorraine fell back into depression and is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that her son is dead. Therefore, she continually returns to the park in her nightmares and imagination where she ends up killing him more because she feels intensely guilty and less because she actually killed him.

But that’s just my interpretation. One that favors innuendo and metaphor over any literal interpretation of the story because I have a hard time reconciling my own emotions with the fact that I may or may have played a character that murdered her own child.

But you can come up with your own interpretation. All my grievances aside, the graphics are decent and Funcom does a good job of making the game hellishly creepy with whispered words coming from the parks’ speakers and discordant music underlying Lorraine’s voice as she calls out for her son in an increasingly distressed tone.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you still want to play “The Park,” at least now you’ll have a better understanding of what exactly you’re signing yourself up for, something I wish I’d had going in.

Either way, game on, thrill-seekers and horror fans, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

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