Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.
More than a year ago, you responded to my 2016 review of Firewatch with a letter titled “A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch.” Before I respond to your thoughts on my review and Firewatch itself, I must say that nothing between 2016 and today has convinced me to stop hating the term “walking simulator.” I don’t believe it’s an acceptable descriptor, as you suggest. I believe it’s an abomination similar to Metroidvania (which gives too much credit to Castlevania), roguelike (used by, for the most part, people who have never played Rogue and thus don’t know what it’s “like”), shmup (toddler’s gibberish), and Soulsborne (what did Bloodborne even accomplish that warrants this reference?). The only game I’ve played that follows the implications of “walking simulator” is Manuel Samuel, a comedy in which the player controls the individual legs of a contemptible rich snot.
At the same time, I realize you are more interested in the games that get the clumsy label rather than the clumsy label itself. I, too, admire Proteus, which I called the ninth best game of the 2010s. Dear Esther? Not so much. I wasn’t fond of Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and What Remains of Edith Finch for various reasons. But I do try to recognize titles in this genre that don’t receive the attention they deserve. On that note, if you haven’t played Cosmo D’s brilliant games — Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite, and Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 — they come with my highest recommendation. If only those games, along with Proteus, could steal the spotlight from inferior critical darlings.
I appreciate your complimentary tone about the conclusions in my Firewatch review. I appreciate it all the more considering that I don’t think the review is one of my stronger articles. I still feel the review’s proclamations in my bones, though. While I agree with you that Firewatch’s subject matter is less juvenile than that of your average “recycled action movie,” Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman’s handling of the subject matter doesn’t strike me as that mature, especially with the loony Vietnam vet stereotype tying everything together. The game doesn’t really confront anything outside of the lurid elements of its farfetched plot. It makes references to early onset dementia because the creators were too scared to depict it (“It is impossibly hard,” the text-heavy introduction impotently declares). It teases sexual chemistry between two people because the creators lacked the basic inspiration to showcase human interaction. The dialogue demands our attention when we play, but there’s no meaningful takeaway from the words.
Not unlike extravagantly detailed settings in big-budget releases, the “beautiful world” in Firewatch is a distraction from the game’s fundamental lack of humanity. Notice, too, that we can go on about the pretty colors and pretty trees and so forth, but we have trouble answering this question: what does the setting communicate? As we both agree, it’s relentlessly artificial. I would argue it’s far worse than a national park in the United States. If you wander from the prescribed paths in Yellowstone, you might end up on an animal’s dinner menu. In Firewatch, there is no danger, there is no wild, there is pretty imagery that fails to convey why people find the natural world spiritually rejuvenating.
The camera mode in Firewatch is an insult. Do we have nothing better to do than take fake pictures of fake woods with a fake camera and show them off on social media, the fakest of all communities? According to the creators of Firewatch, we should marvel at the fakeness because it is there to be consumed and recorded and gawked at. But again, I ask, what does it mean? What are the artists trying to do?
My best guess is they were setting the table for nihilistic shock value, which is the very card Rodkin and Vanaman played in The Walking Dead. The beautiful world — the one we were encouraged to fetishize with the camera — goes up in flames. Cue our emotional devastation. That is, if we’re not keen about the tricks that Rodkin and Vanaman like to pull. If we have any exposure to the masterpieces of “literature, theatre, or film” (to borrow your examples), we will likely stop caring about the characters and story in Firewatch once it goes off the rails into risible B-movie territory, well before the disastrous finale. So our main attachment to Firewatch ends up being the pretty woods, and boy, do they burn well, says Rodkin and Vanaman.
This is why it would have been a critical failure on my part to overemphasize the beauty of Firewatch’s setting. I would have been selling the crud that Rodkin and Vanaman want everyone to swallow. My issue as a critic in this context has little to do with the possible aesthetic glory of a “walking simulator” and everything to do with my distaste for charlatans who wouldn’t understand Mother Nature if a moose attacked them as they gazed at a mountain in Montana. If you want aesthetics, play Proteus or Off-Peak. If you want to watch trash burn, play Firewatch.