The sun is setting and I’m in the middle of a national forest in Wyoming. I have to get back to to my lookout post. Unfortunately, the path I took to get here isn’t an option. The rope I was using broke on a rappel down a short cliff so I’m forced to try and find another route back. I pull out my compass and try to get my bearings. Luckily, I found a supply box left for park rangers and I copied a few notes and landmarks on my map. Some make sense, some don’t. I’ve made my way to a river bed, and according to the notes I should be able to take a short cut to make it back. The only problem is the encroaching darkness and the shortcut leads through an even darker cave. I pull out my walkie talkie and ask my only companion, Delilah, if she thinks it’s safe.

Of course it is. There are no zombies, vampires or crazed lunatics waiting in the cave or anywhere else. I wouldn’t have a way to fight them anyway. No weapons. No violence. No blood. There’s not even a score. As big as the wilderness seems, it’s actually rather linear, with defined paths designed to get me where I’m going so I don’t miss anything. The main hook is the story. It’s been both fondly and critically called a “walking simulator”. This certainly doesn’t seem like the media’s idea of a video game, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s Firewatch, by a small 10 man team called Camp Santo, and it’s their first game together. Focusing almost exclusively on story has grown in popularity in recent independent releases and has spun into its own niche.

So without all the traditional trappings of a video game, what exactly is the medium evolving into? Are games following film and television by growing up and moving somewhere closer to art rather than mindless entertainment?

If you go back to gaming’s humble beginnings with the Atari 2600 and games like Pitfall and River Raid you get an idea of how far the evolution of gaming has come. Games then were all about large, colorful, 2-D sprites that barely animated and focused solely on beating a score in an unending universe that became more difficult the longer you played. Now the inverse is being explored. Games such as Gone Home, Contradiction: Spot the Liar, and Everyone’s Gone to Rapture are great examples of the new genre of story based gaming. Story comes before action. Settings are immersive and beautiful, or simply convey a tone, like the empty house in Gone Home. What caused the shift?

As the current generation of consoles become more powerful, development times and costs have risen and more games are being produced independently, with smaller teams. Thanks to digital content services like Steam and the Playstation store, this has become a viable way for developers to make their own games without having to compete with triple A titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. The smaller budget also narrows the focus of games: rather than be-all, end-all entertainment designed to appeal to everyone, studios can make a different kind of experience. Something as simple as walking around a national forest and slowly uncovering a mystery, with no level ups or enemy targets.

This “not for everybody” approach is something large publishers like EA and Activision eschew in favor of iteration on proven series, leaving the genre mostly to the independents. That also means there is no road map for how these games are going to evolve. Although I’m grouping them together, there have been a lot of differences in the way the story is presented in the games I mentioned. Gone Home confines you to a house and through notes and recordings you uncover clues that piece together a story, without ever interacting with another character. Contradiction brings back the Full Motion Video (FMV) format, using video clips of real actors to perform the story; the only interaction here is clicking on different dialogue choices. Firewatch gives you more interactivity than either of those letting you pick up a limited inventory to use in the outdoor setting, but fits the “walking simulator” definition best. You’re moving from one point to another to access more story, with little else going on.

No matter how they’re packaged, to critics of this genre find these types of games to be, well, boring. There’s not a nice way to say it, and it’s where the derogatory “walking simulator” moniker came from as if the game had nothing else to offer. They are more in the vein of visual novels or choose your own adventure books than Halo and some people simply don’t want to spend their time that way. I could argue the merits of climbing a mountain in Firewatch, only to be confronted by a mysterious silhouette and how immersive the experience is to be in the story rather than just a passive observer. But, pacing is different here. You might not have an encounter like that for another hour or two, instead having the time filled with backstory through conversation over a walkie talkie. It’s a stark contrast to loading up Call of Duty and immediately being in the streets of Afghanistan, watching buildings explode around you and ending every segment of the game with a cliffhanger or action set piece. Some aren’t going to like the slow burn like I do, and that’s fine. Nobody’s wrong, but much like cinema, different types of games are going to appeal to different people.

Maybe we’re getting closer to being able to legitimately call games art. Without body counts and trash talk, maybe people who ordinarily wouldn’t touch a controller can be drawn in to expand the market for these types of games. Offering a reward that’s more cerebral than visceral. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert once said games would never be art. His point was that games have rules, objectives and an outcome. Games without these, ceased to be games, he argued. He admitted he never played some of the best examples of art in games such as Flower or Journey, which makes it hard to take his opinion with anything less than a grain of salt. I certainly don’t agree with him, but the idea that once you take away the score and competition you no longer have a game stayed with me.

Character is the soul of Firewatch. You’re either going to find it’s worth your time to get to know Henry and Delilah or there isn’t going to be much else for you. I guess it’s going to come down to how you define art, but exploring the human condition falls within the definition for me. Maybe it’s not “high” art yet and we don’t have many classics akin to Citizen Kane or The Godfather, but as I play Firewatch, I’m more and more certain it’s this genre that has the best chance of producing one. Certainly not the only way, as the medium will keep evolving, but as developers begin to focus on not just story, but defined characters, it will come to be expected in games rather than being an exception.

It’ll be interesting to see where the genre goes from here as small developers see they can make a profit and a name with these type of games. I think games in this genre, especially Firewatch, would make great virtual reality experiences, especially with the release of three major VR systems this year. Although Campo Santo says they have no plans to release Firewatch for VR, as it wasn’t designed as such, it’s just these types of experiences that seem tailor made for the technology. More action oriented games have a greater risk of inducing motion sickness, even with some of the slick new goggles that offer up to 120hz refresh rates. Perhaps it’s a happy coincidence that this genre is coming to prominence now and that the VR push is taking off, but both sides can certainly benefit from it.

I’ve enjoyed my time with these games more than the large releases of late. It’s a solitary affair and as long as you know what you’re getting into, I’d recommend them to anyone. Firewatch may only be a five or six hour game, but it was satisfying and did all it promised to do, with great voice acting, characters and an original story. As I get older, with more responsibilities and my time becomes more valuable, I’m less inclined to buy the same types of games that made me fall in love with gaming in my younger days. JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Xenoblade are simply too long now. I have no interest in shooting something and seeing how realistic the blood effects are.

Apparently I grew up without meaning to. Maybe games are too.

  • madBowers

    Indie developers seem to be the one’s pushing boundaries and taking risks, while the triple A companies are playing it safe trying to appeal to a wider audience. As I grow older I find myself appreciating the unique games that you either love or hate.