This is an analysis of Firewatch’s form. While specific details of the main story won’t be mentioned, I will be talking about the beginning and ending of the game. So: spoiler warning.
Campo Santo’s game Firewatch has been out for a couple of weeks now, and seems to be performing well enough to ensure that it will be “part of the conversation,” one of those games that takes enough chances and glows with enough wattage to ensure games coming out in its wake will be seen as referencing it. Developers interested in building on ideas in Firewatch may be looking for other games, perhaps less well known, that attempt similar things. They should look at Nordic Larp.
If you’re unfamiliar with Nordic Larp, it’s a form of live-action roleplaying that was developed in the Nordic countries of Europe. Instead of medieval battles or superpowered vampire adventures, stories are character-focused and often more grounded in the real world (although notable exceptions exist). The players are like actors, cast into the roles of people with their own opinions and goals that may not be shared by the players who bring them to life. An individual larp can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, or in rare cases, weeks.
The basic structure of a Nordic Larp is: workshop, larp, debrief. I’m going to talk about each of these phases in turn, and how I think Firewatch fits them. I’m also going to talk about a few other concepts that inform larp design: Bleed, and Playing To Lose, and how they are incorporated by Firewatch, or might be incorporated by similar games in the future.
A larp workshop is a pre-game activity that serves a couple of purposes. It acts as an icebreaker to bring a group of people together in a shared activity and defuse the fear of looking stupid in front of each other. It is an opportunity for the facilitators to teach any special techniques required to play the game. Finally, it’s a chance for condensed character development, where players can establish back story and introduce themselves to each other so that when the story-proper begins time doesn’t need to be spent establishing characters and relationships.
Firewatch notably opens with a sequence where choose-your-own-adventure style text is intercut with short playable sequences within the game’s standard 3D first person engine. The text portions will feel immediately familiar to anyone with experience of Twine, an interactive story engine that has become associated with character- and narrative-heavy games, and usually have a voice that is much more mature than commercial games allow.
In the text sections, the player quickly figures out that they are establishing the backstory of Henry, Firewatch’s main character, and the events that lead to him taking a job sitting in a tower alone in the woods. In standard commercial games, these sequences usually give the player choices between a couple of different personalities or points of view: kind or cruel, brave or cowardly, violet or reserved, etc. Not so here. When you play the sequence where Henry meets his eventual wife, you are drunk, and none of your choices of flirty introductions make you come across as suave or intelligent. When the game then informs you, “One week later she is your girlfriend,” it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, it feels like maybe this woman is not terribly picky. While not every choice the player is given makes Henry come across as a total sad-sack, the player is never allowed to define the kind of person Henry is; the choices are of degree, not kind. In effect, the game developers are guiding the player through the experience of being Henry, helping the player get into character.
The 3D sections are more familiar to videogame players, and acclimate the player to the basic movement controls: looking around, walking, picking things up, and using things.
So ignoring the group icebreaker portions of larp workshops, we see that Firewatch’s opening sequence teaches the basic mechanics, and also takes the character through a condensed character establishment sequence so that when the action of Day 1 begins, we already know Henry’s secrets and can focus on the plot and on the evolving, present relationship with Delilah.
The main play phase of a larp maps cleanly onto Firewatch. Henry and Delilah evolve as characters and the relationship between them develops similarly. A plot unspools over the course of several scenes. Given that modern adventure games and Nordic Larp can trace roots back to 70’s D&D and all of the human storytelling tradition, it’s not surprising that there’s so much overlap here.
If Firewatch has a debrief in the Nordic Larp sense, it is the final radio conversation with Delilah. In larp, debriefs accomplish a couple of goals. They allow the player to validate their experience of the game with the other players. They begin the process of turning the experience and emotions of the larp into lasting memories, reflections and learning. Finally, they let players voice any difficulties they experienced so that they can be addressed, and reinforce a culture of mutual trust within the larp community.
In Firewatch, Delilah guides the player through a final conversation where they try to figure out what just happened. The mid-game in Firewatch takes a left turn into techno-thriller territory (with possible supernatural elements) that is ultimately revealed to be an elaborate hoax. Henry, without player input, summarizes what the player witnessed, and Delilah confirms it. Then the subject changes to the future of Delilah, Henry, and their relationship. The player gets to propose the ending they’d like to imagine for Delilah (whether or not it would “really happen”), and Delilah tells Henry what she thinks should happen to him. By summarizing the player’s story, and letting the player propose an epilogue, Firewatch validates the player’s experience and starts to package it into some sort of takeaway.
The missing component of a larp debrief here is the discussion of difficulties. But of course, this happens anyway. Early players and critics went online to voice criticisms about the length of the game, the lack of open world exploration, whether the ending worked, and so on. Could Firewatch have given the player agency through Henry’s voice to tell Delilah about these issues? Would it have reduced negative coversations about the game online if players had been able to express those feelings in the game itself? Right now, there is no way to know. However, if Firewatch is a larp, or at least larp-like, the decades of development within that form suggest that some amount of formalized airing of grievances improves the overall reception of games of this type.
The idea of the player using Henry as an avatar to express their own thoughts and feelings is known by larp makers as Bleed. There are two kinds of Bleed, Bleed-In and Bleed-Out. Bleed-In is when the real life out-of-character experiences and emotions of the player override the motivations of the character being played. Bleed-Out is, like you’d expect, when an in-character experience or feeling influences the player back in their real life, usually after the game is over. Here, I’m mainly interested in Bleed-In, so when I talk about Bleed, that’s what I mean.
In most videogames, especially first person games, it’s assumed that the character is mostly an empty avatar. The character’s motivations don’t matter, everything they do is at the whim of the player. Videogame designers assume All Bleed All The Time. This is why no one bats an eye when the player learns about an imminent, existential threat, and promptly wanders off to rescue lost cats and loot random dungeons before getting around to dealing with the end of the world some 60 hours later.
In Firewatch, the player is always stuck in the voice of Henry. Henry is kind of a dick, but he has a sweet spot, and mostly he just wants to avoid conflict. In the low-stakes world of Firewatch there’s not much opportunity to push outside of those parameters. Even moments in the game that could lead to Henry growing are undercut: crimes are never properly investigated, conspiracies are imaginary, you can’t even do anything about the fires that are your whole reason for being there. But that powerlessness enables the player to have Henry break character during moments of perceived crisis. When you learn about a crime, you can make Henry advocate reporting it, or covering it up. You can worry about the fire, or assume it’s all under control. As the player, you can pilot Henry’s inner journey, which it turns out is the only thing actually under Henry’s control.
Playing To Lose
This brings me to the last larp concept I want to talk about in respect to Firewatch: Playing To Lose. This phrase is used to express the idea that a character-focused game where all the characters are acting as their best selves does not make for a very good story. Instead, players are encouraged to get into character and make choices that create narrative grist, rather than compromise in hopes of getting a “partial victory” for their character. Neither Henry nor Delilah are their best selves. Both run from responsibility, drink too much, are petty, and somewhat ashamed of themselves. While the game doesn’t explicitly reward the player for leaning in to Henry’s faults or compare the player’s choices to some sort of data curve that describes a developer-approved character arc, it puts Henry in a position similar to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, where he sees the world progress as if run by the sort of person he was when he first arrived in Wyoming. Even in the event that the player Bleeds In and makes Henry advocate for taking responsibility, Delilah is there to secretly undercut those choices. By never acting as her best self, Delilah keeps the story tumbling forward.
Is Firewatch a larp? I doubt the developers were actively trying to incorporate Nordic Larp techniques into their game. But the fact that so many parallels exist in the structure suggests that digital game developers interested in building on what games like Firewatch have done have an entire ecosystem of games to draw from with decades of thought put into how character-focused narrative games can be made better. If “Walking Simulators” aren’t larps, perhaps they are close enough.