Tag Archives: story

Firewatch: A Review


It goes without saying Firewatch is an aesthetic marvel. Just look look at the gameplay screenshot above. Better yet, head to firewatchgame.com and get your fill. But it’s what lies within the exterior beauty that Firewatch shines.

Without taking the Up-like blow out of the first act, the game finds protagonist Henry having taken a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Henry communicates with Delilah, a veteran lookout in another watchtower, via radio through choice-driven narrative queues (à la The Walking Dead, Choose Your Own Adventure). Shortly after the opening, the two find themselves tangled up in a self-provoked mystery.

Throughout my play-through, I became so concerned for Henry’s safety that my own certainty about the wilderness and its role as a haven for the unknown and unexplainable began to fulfill itself. However, it’s at the mercy of a few cheap tricks that this unsettlement is allowed to creep in. One early trick creates the suspicion that something bigger is going on and you’re the only one not in on the secret. Another instills the fear of looking down or turning a corner; two actions that become impossible to avoid and occur at breakneck frequency throughout the entirety of the game. Campo Santo makes it impossible not to feel anxious.

The answer to the game’s mystery will be unsatisfying, but only because this is the wrong puzzle. I’d argue the real answer is to why the game’s mystery is unsatisfying. Therein lies the revelation. Ultimately, Firewatch shows that one’s own ego and neurosis can overshadow important details; that our narcissism and persistence to seek the puppet-masters blur what is right in front of us. Without doubt, an interesting mystery unfolds for Henry and Delilah; but it’s an exposé in egoism that lies at the heart of Firewatch.

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Ideas Are Scary

I love awards shows. The awards themselves don’t matter, but the shows are generally entertaining and inspiring. George Clooney put it best:

For the record: If you are in this room, you’ve caught the brass ring. You get to do what you’ve always dreamed to do and be celebrated for it, and that just… it ain’t losing. I don’t remember what awards Lauren Bacall won. I just remember her saying, ‘You know how to whistle, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.’ And I have no idea what kind of hardware Robin Williams took home. But I sure remember “carpe diem” and, ‘Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.’ I never forget that.

He described exactly what awards shows mean to me. Recognizing newly iconic pieces of acting, writing, cinematography, music, directing, etc. Though I had only seen a handful of films last year, maybe only two nominees, Clooney’s speech connected the dots and reminded me why I was watching. Needless to say, I was enjoying the show.

Then, during a latter commercial break, a little monster appeared on screen:

A fire ignited. I was watching something play out on television that had been living in my head for the past five years. That fucking monsterthat fucking idea ruined the Golden Globes!

Years ago, I had an idea for a story. A little creature has found itself alone in the “real-world”. Frustrated, I dug up my unfinished idea, last modified on 10/4/10, and posted it to Twitter:

He awoke to a light. This warmth was unfamiliar to him. As he sat up, he peered down at his hands. He had never seen them before. They seemed to emanate streams of dark smoke. He slowly sat up.

He began to walk. He had come to find that he was walking down a crowded sidewalk, passing shop windows. While looking through the windows, he noticed his reflexion. He stopped. He was a tiny figure, no more than four feet tall. His cartoon like body was shrouded in streams of smoke. His large eyes glowing solid red.

Nobody seemed to notice him standing there, staring into the glass. Nobody seemed to notice him at all. Hesitantly, he turned and proceeded down the busy street. As he walked, he could not help but notice every person was holding hands with another, be it man and woman, man and man, or female and female. At the end of the busy street, he came to a crosswalk. He decided to cross the street.

This street was much quieter. It was also much shorter for it was only home to one restaurant. He stopped in front of one of the large windows and gazed inside. Every table was full. At each table sat a couple laughing or smiling while sharing a bottle of wine. He hesitantly turned and continued down the street. He came to another crosswalk.

This next street was home to a playground. This playground was full of happy children, all of which seemed to be accompanied by both of their parents. The parents pushed their children on swings, threw baseballs back and forth, and played hide and seek together.

This was all becoming a little overbearing for him. He was not used to these surroundings. He was quickly growing tired of the happiness that surrounded him. He was living within a nightmare. No, he was a nightmare living within a dream.

Good or bad, finished or not, the visualization of this isolated creature, alone in the real-world, growing into something beautiful and shutting down prejudice and rejection was exactly what I wanted to depict. This was an idea I thought I could get back to at any time. It was my idea and no one was going to take it away.

Ideas can be frustrating. They are easy to push aside for another day. But if an idea is realized by someone else, it’s defeating (and can ruin the Golden Globes). Especially when it is used in a brand-beefing commercial.

Ideas are scary, but become scarier when you realize they are not sacred.

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Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, on Serial, as quoted by Wired:

“So as people discovered that podcasts can be compelling in their regular media consumption, maybe we should’ve seen Serial coming from a mile away,” Thompson says. “As podcasts get more and more sophisticated, of course one is going to say ‘Wow, look at Fargo, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos—look at all these great stories being spread out and talked about before the next episode comes. Why not do it with a podcast?’ It seems so inevitable.”

Serial is unique in the sense that you as a listener are along for the ride. You are experiencing it with Sarah Koenig and the Serial crew. You’re being let in on a secret. And if you don’t listen right away, the secret is already out.

Not all serialized content lends itself to brilliance. Serialization is not the key. Great storytelling is the key. That’s not to say that episodic content can’t house great story too, but the water cooler conversation is dismantled by the uncertainty that others may not have the same desire to catch the latest episode. There is no grand secret.

What I would like to see from more podcasts, books, movies, TV shows, and video games is complete pre-meditated stories built out and enfold in chunks, teasing audiences along toward a grand reveal. I wonder if Tolkien experienced a fortunate accident? In the case of Serial, the experience has been a layer deeper. The audience has been tuning in to someone else unraveling a secret. And whether or not Koenig solves the mystery, the truth is finite.

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Water Coolers, Spoilers, and Serial

On the way to work, my wife and I caught up on Serial. On our commute home, she mentioned that Zach Braff had tweeted about the podcast:

I can’t look through my Twitter feed without seeing a mention of Serial. Everyone’s onboard. Everyone’s got a take. But the extent of sharing is “OMG! WTF! #serial” We are all on par with Laura’s confusion in episode 8.

Serial is great. Definitely not my favorite podcast, but it’s a spectacular display of fine editing and editorial guidance. But more importantly, Serial has brought back the water cooler conversation. Everything about Serial thus far is based on presumption. If you tried to explain what is happening, you’d leave behind mountains of critical detail. Because the questions hurdle by ad nauseam, there aren’t answers big enough to spoil the show. Think LOST, with hatches and polar bears and Dharma, but rooted in the nonfiction investigation of a 1999 homicide case with cell records and reenactments and Jay. This is pre-meditated in the sense that Sarah Keonig and the Serial crew know that answers won’t come easy. There are no spoilers. This is great storytelling and we are along for the ride.

This thought led me to other serialized media. Serialized TV is larger than ever, but the good stuff (Game of Thones) is adapted or released in bulk (House of Cards). I kid, I kid. Admittedly, I have not watched True Detective. But in all seriousness, TiVo culture and binging has struck deep fear in sharing too much about nightly TV. While this sounds like a backwards argument against on-demand podcasts, again, Serial doesn’t offer enough answers to divulge spoilers. Again, this is great storytelling.

This led me to thoughts on film. What was the last (semi-)pre-meditated, non-adapted, serialized film series released? Pirates of the Caribbean (2 & 3)? The Matrix (2 & 3)? Star Wars (5 & 6)? Nearly every (if not all) serialized film series released within the past few years has been adapted. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Divergent. The answers to these series have been lying around in text years prior to the film’s release. The best we can hope for is that we haven’t read the book or the film is so far off from the source material that it feels like a unique experience.

We need more original, pre-meditated, serialized content. Someone write an original three part film trilogy with segments so good they can stand on their own as solid films. Someone conceptualize a three, four, or five season TV show from start to finish. Calculate the journey or take us along for the ride. Stop adapting. Stop playing by ear. If you do play by ear, root it in nonfiction. Make sure you can’t make stuff up.

I realize this is less a message to creators as it is to producers, with overhead and risk to take into consideration. But if you want to give us story, allow us to risk our time and money. Trust creators.

Tomorrow, my wife and I will listen to episode 10 of Serial and the most we’ll be able to share is “OMG! WTF! #serial”

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Visual Polish

Ed Catmull, excerpt from Creativity, Inc.:

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right.

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Ben Kuchera on sex in Wolfenstein

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

Sex in games is almost exclusively used to give players, who are assumed to be male, something to ogle at between blood baths. The last place I expected a more realistic, and often touching, view of sex was the latest Wolfenstein game.

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