While the state of the gaming industry was strong in 2016 having seen amazing sequels, AAA quality indies, and the long-awaited releases of games that have been in development for nearly a decade, my own personal gaming habits have taken sharp dive over the last 12 months. I’m not playing as many games as I used to. I still get excited over announcements and trailers, but when it comes to sitting down and picking up a controller, I simply don’t have the same interest (or time) to do so. As a result, I’ve become much more selective in what I play now.
I became enthralled with the final adventure of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. PlayStation VR has taken my gaming to a new and exciting dimension. I’m currently on a roadtrip with my Final Fantasy XV crew, albeit a very slow one. While these are all things I have enjoyed this year, the one game that has excelled in every area and lingered in my mind the most is Campo Santo’s debut title, Firewatch; my 2016 Game of the Year.
Firewatch is the story of Henry, a Shoshone National Forest fire lookout, following the 1988 Yellowstone fires. As the days pass, strange events begin to unfold within the park and Henry must investigate what’s happening on his own, with the only communication being between him and his supervisor Delilah via walkie-talkie. In addition to the mystery surrounding the game, Firewatch tells a deeply personal story driven by its two lead characters, one of whom you never actually get to see.
Henry and Delilah are two of the most interesting and real characters in gaming in 2016. They’re not adventuring heroes or war-torn soldiers on the battlefield. They’re simply two people working their jobs as fire lookouts. There’s nothing particularly special about them, yet they have the most interesting things to say. The conversations between them flow naturally as their relationship develops over the radio. Their dialogue often propels the story forward, but it’s the mundane chit-chat that I found myself looking forward to the most. There are so many little side conversations that can be triggered by going off the beaten path. Using The Walking Dead‘s dialogue tree structure injects a personal feel to Henry as you get a say into how Henry responds to Delilah in most situations. With each conversation, you learn more about them and what drives them.
The gameplay is simple and straightforward. You play as Henry who is tasked with investigating the ongoing events in the park. Using a first-person perspective, you traverse the park gathering clues, reading notes, and interacting with objects to unlock new areas. It’s an open world with lots to explore, and there’s no real wrong way to play.
Early on you find a camera, allowing you to take pictures of whatever you like be it a landscape or evidence of the mystery unfolding. Normally I don’t care for the “camera” feature of games, but for some reason I was drawn to Firewatch‘s. You have a limited number of shots you can take, which makes each snap all the more important. You also get to see the results of your work while the credits roll at the end of the game. Furthermore, if you’re playing on the PC you can actually order real prints of your photos as a keepsake.
You’ll want to use that camera too, because the game is absolutely stunning. Artists Jane Ng and Olly Moss have done a fantastic job at creating this beautiful world. It’s amber color palette is perfect for the nature setting, and the story lends itself to some picture-perfect scenic shots. A day and night cycle offers up some variety, and can really capture the isolation of being alone in the forest. I often found myself getting lost within Firewatch‘s world and forgetting about whatever worries I had at the time. It’s one of those games that evokes a calmness and is great to just put on and allow yourself to decompress from the day.
Firewatch is a small game with a big impact. You can complete it’s main story in a matter of hours, but you’ll want to keep playing in order to explore everything the park has to offer. I’ve come to realize that I no longer have the same amount of time to devote to gaming as I once did. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is my love for the stories they tell. As rushed and crazed as my 2016 has been, Firewatch has been a much needed reminder to slow down and appreciate the little moments. That is why it is my 2016 Game of the Year.