Firewatch, the new mystery exploration game from Campo Santo, opens with a text prologue in which the player is introduced to Julia. Julia is the future wife of the game's protagonist, Henry. The player is told the story of how they meet Julia, and embarrass themselves in front of her by being drunk. Fortunately she is charmed by this, and soon she and Henry are dating.
Over the next ten minutes or so, the text prologue hurries through Julia and Henry's relationship with a series of touching anecdotes (they decide to get a rescue dog from the pound, they talk about having children etc.) until it's glaringly obvious that the whole exercise is leading up to Julia dying or having something equally horrible happen to her. Sure enough, in no time at all Julia gets struck down with early onset dementia and, depending on the player's choice, either gets shipped off to her family in Australia or shipped off to a care home.
As a relatively young medium, video games are still trying to get to grips with the science of eliciting emotion from the player - at least, an emotion that isn't aggression or excitement or some combination of the two. After all, it's not as though this task is a prerequisite of the format; Tetris didn't require the player to really care about the wellbeing of the L-block, and when Mario falls down a pit in Super Mario World the player's anguish is directed at the fact that they have to start the level all over again, not at poor Mario's demise (no offense, Mario). But as demand for higher quality video game narratives has grown, the industry has been rising up on wobbly, coltish legs to try and meet the challenge.
Firewatch initially elects one of the cheapest and most common tactics for creating character impetus: give the protagonist a wife or girlfriend (it's almost always a wife or girlfriend - husbands and boyfriends are the extremely rare exception to the rule), spend the minimum amount of time possible establishing a relationship, and then kill/maim/kidnap the wife or girlfriend. Basically, if a game starts with the protagonist having a cute or romantic moment with his love interest, it's a pretty safe bet that the love interest will be in a coffin (or the plot equivalent of a coffin) before the tutorial is over.
The trope is so well-established that puzzle platformer Portal actually parodied it way back in 2007 - presenting the player with a "Weighted Companion Cube" (literally just a cube with some hearts on it), telling them to carry the Companion Cube through a single puzzle room, and then forcing the player to "euthanize" the Companion Cube in an incinerator at the end of the level. Ironically, the Companion Cube is actually a more compelling companion than many of the characters that have ended up becoming part of Dead Wife Mountain.
To Firewatch's credit, Julia isn't the only woman in Henry's life. The real "emotional lifeline" (Campo Santo's words) in the game is Delilah, Henry's boss, who communicates with him exclusively by walkie-talkie as he roams the forest, stomping out campfires and confiscating fireworks. Delilah alternates between asking probing questions about Henry's life and flirting shamelessly, and the two trade jokes and banter in a fierce attempt to win the player's affection before the game's four-hour campaign is over.
Along the way, it quickly becomes clear that Firewatch belongs to a growing genre of video games that are attempting to meet the challenge of creating emotional gameplay. That's not to say that AAA action games aren't emotional or compelling - many a gamer has shed tears over the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII or Dom's wife Maria in Gears of War 2 - but over the past few years the 'games with feelings' niche has developed into its own highly specific subgenre - the gaming equivalent of Oscar bait.
Here are a few common defining characteristics: minimal gameplay beyond walking and interacting with objects; a soundtrack consisting of soft piano or acoustic guitar music; god rays; colorful environments and breathtaking landscapes; audio log style voiceovers; and, above all, an 'issue' - cancer, suicide, addiction, child abuse, sexuality, or even early-onset dementia - something to let the player know that they're playing an important game as opposed to something frivolous or gratuitous. The colorful palette of these games is an act of defiance against the miserable sea of greys and browns - the busted-up cars used for cover and the concrete buildings full of enemies - that had come to define gaming through the Call of Duty titles and its action shooter brothers.
Perhaps the most quintessential example of the 'game with feelings' is Life is Strange, the teen time travel drama from Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix, which is set in the quiet seaside town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Life is Strange had all of the ingredients guaranteed to make games critics sit up and pay attention: from its young female protagonist, to its near-total lack of combat, to the "it's a pretty obscure band, you probably haven't heard of it" soundtrack and its emphasis on choice-and-consequence narrative gameplay - the hottest ticket in town since Telltale Games stormed onto the scene with The Walking Dead in 2012.
Firewatch definitely seems to be in the same vein as Life is Strange - albeit with better dialogue. The majority of the game is spent simply breathing in the atmosphere and shooting the breeze with Delilah. It's a lazy, relaxing, laidback sort of game that takes the player on an unhurried hike through the forest, slowly opening up more pathways and locations, and giving every opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the view. The quieter moments, along with the more mundane realities of being a fire lookout (at one point Henry has to awkwardly lecture a pair of skinny-dipping teenage girls on the dangers of setting off fireworks in a forest), are actually the best part of the game.
Where Firewatch goes astray is in its attempt to introduce a mystery plotline. Without giving too much away, Firewatch's larger story centers around an increasingly puzzling and sinister series of clues that ultimately turn out to be the work of a single character doing a lot of improbable things without any clear motive to do so. It makes for some tantalizing moments along the way (in a forest that's a two-day hike from civilization, Delilah spots a strange man in Henry's watchtower while Henry himself is out hiking), and some clever bits of misdirection, but the intriguing set-up only makes the relatively weak pay-off all the more dissatisfying.
While it may not be the most groundbreaking release of the year, Firewatch does mark another tentative step forward in exploring video game experiences beyond established genres like shooting and racing. It's an intriguing promise of what might come next, but also a sign that games based around story, exploration and characters may be settling into a pattern of their own that's a bit too comfortable.
Firewatch is available now on PC and PlayStation 4.