I'd been avoiding Firewatch, though I couldn't really figure out why. I'd followed the careers of the Campo Santo team individually for years (I'm sitting here wearing an old Threadless t-shirt designed by Olly Moss as I write this), so the culmination of their talents should have been something that I was naturally drawn to. But... I don't know. Something didn't feel right, and I wasn't entirely sure what.
When I finally got around to it, I finished Firewatch in a single sitting, not something that happens frequently. Maybe it's because I've finally conquered my Dota addiction (2 months already, one day at a time) I can now play other games for longer than an hour without itching for a fix, but I sat glued to my TV for the entire game. Even when I was asked to trudge from one end of the map to the other I did so with neither complaint nor pause. I looked forward to the conversations that took place and, after an early fuck up, I quite deliberately sought to be a better participant within them. I'm typically pretty reserved around people I don't know, though to play through Firewatch in this way seemed only to deprive myself of what gave the game it's charm. So I opened up, and I fed the discussions through to their conclusions, even if I did otherwise play the role of Henry as a cantankerous old grouch (Fuck yo' boombox).
There's going to be some pretty heavy Firewatch ending spoilers in the immediate future. You've been warned.
The end of Firewatch was ultimately... disappointing. You could argue that disappointment is perhaps deliberate, as Henry has the potential to articulate a similar sentiment. Once I'd finished I dropped my controller next to me on the sofa and sat through the credits. And I couldn't help but feel slightly pissed off.
"Henry there's... there's something I should have told you about this area" confesses Delilah, relatively early in the game. "It's... outside. The whole thing. And people come and go as they please. It's madness!"
Which was a nice line, and it made me smile. Except they don't. Throughout the game, at every major beat where you could conceivably meet someone you find nothing but echoes, the implication of other people. It's cleverly done, and it tells an intriguing story - by design it helps to feed into the atmosphere of isolation and paranoia. Except after a while it stops feeling natural. After a while I stopped being surprised at the complete lack of any human presence, despite all the clever little clues the game drops as a substitute for any actual physical characters. But I kept hoping that sooner or later I'd find someone. "I'm about to get monked, right? It's going to wait until I think that nobody else exists in this world and then I'm going to get chased by a Sasquatch or something". But time and time again, nothing. Even as I climbed the stairs to the final tower I dared to hope that I'd actually find some cheese at the end of the maze. But no. The princess is still in another castle. But there's no more castles; All we have is a clunky helicopter dude with a helmet covering his face to minimise any humanity he might otherwise have had.
So I sat there on the sofa, and I thought about it. I felt cheated. And I'm prepared to bet the writers of the game will happily smile and say something smug like "That was intentional" but being the cynic that I am, I can't help but think "that's a pretty shitty excuse for not hiring a character animator". That doesn't feed my paranoia, that breaks any suspension of disbelief the game might otherwise have established.
I spend too much time wandering around dead, empty worlds.
Gone Home, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, The Witness, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable... even Portal. The primary similarity between them is that they are all abandoned worlds. They create personality through other means - audio logs, narration, notes and diagrams, graffiti. In Firewatch you are limited entirely to silhouettes on the horizon. But there's no actual people there.
Animation is tough, character animation especially. When I started out making films my original plan was to go into animation, but that didn't last long. I was, fairly bluntly, told that my animation ability wasn't good enough. It was a brutal lesson, but it stuck with me and I learned from it. Animation is arguably the most competitive specialisation in the film industry, and it's been glorified by companies like Pixar and Disney so it's also the most well known and relatable. It's also, arguably, the most creative aspect of the entire CG pipeline. It's an art form in the traditional sense, and the only way you can get good at it is years and years of practice. It took me 5 years of hard work to get anywhere close. Naturalistic animation is fiendishly difficult - it's easy to spot when it's wrong and invisible when it's right. It's also been the bane of the videogame industry for years, especially character animation. Even big budget games are guilty of sloppy facial expressions, overlapping armour plates clipping through other objects (or even the characters wearing them), and weird algorithms that trigger certain animations only after a certain condition has been met, making the entire process feel disjointed. Collectively, the industry has rarely been able to get it right. Even the best examples I can think of (Naughty Dog?) fall back on pre-animated cut-scenes, even if they are using the in-game engine, to portray anything more complicated than a simple exchange.
So I guess it's no surprise that indie teams making games like the ones I listed above choose to skip it entirely. It makes sense financially, and from a production standpoint. Maybe I'm being too harsh and it's not realistic to expect small indie studios, usually programmers, to shell out for animators, as even established game designers struggle to integrate animation into their games. But I really, really wish they would try. Because otherwise the result is that the player is forced to walk around an abandoned museum. It might be an interesting museum, but it's still abandoned. The first time that isolation was overwhelming, stifling, it was interesting and innovative. Now it feels lazy.
"Look, bumping into someone in the middle of nowhere is part of the fun", laughs Delilah.
She's not wrong.