Firewatch and Gone Home and Life Is Strange, Esther: These Are a Few of My Favorite Games (2016)

I stopped gaming for a while in 2015 because life had taken me to a strange place where it didn’t feel right to sit at my computer or my Xbox and live in some kind of world that didn’t exist in any way that felt meaningful right then. I stopped reading for pretty much the same reason or maybe because I didn’t have the attention span to sustain the concentrated suspension of disbelief that even a short story would demand. Maybe I was having a spurt of depression, that state where you suddenly find that you can’t take joy in anything. I’d been there before, but that was long ago.

So when the gaming urge reawakened in 2016, it did so with a vengeance. I’d been away on a personal voyage and the games must have been happy to see me back, because all at once they were so good. Sure, I played some mediocre games this year, but I didn’t play them for long. I also discovered games that touched me in ways that games hadn’t touched me before, reaching me at an emotional level I hadn’t experienced in the past. I don’t know if this was something new about games or something new about me that impelled me to seek out games with deeper, subtler levels beneath the surface.

It’s a bit of a lie to say that I hadn’t experienced this emotional connection with games before, but I only remember feeling it once, when I played Dishonored in 2012. I finished the game with chills running down my spine, realizing that what had seemed while I played it like nothing more (or less) than a brilliantly constructed mission-based stealth game had become something more. It was a game that not only allowed my moral choices to affect the game’s progress — games have been doing this since Ultima IV in the 1980s — but it was a game where I actually cared in the end about the wrong choices I had made and felt almost like crying at the realization I had made so many of those choices in a way I regretted. I’ve tried to play it again and make those choices correctly, but I’ve never been able to. The game makes it difficult and that’s probably how it should be. Why should it be easier to make the correct moral choices in a game than it is in real life?

This year I realized that my experience with Dishonored hadn’t been a one-off. There were other games that could offer me an emotional experience deeper than the exhilaration that I had usually considered the tipping point that pushed a game over the dividing line between being good and being great. I’m going to talk here about those games, the ones that affected me deeply — and perhaps a few that simply made me feel exhilarated.

These are my favorites among the games I played in 2016. Not all of them are from 2016; this just happens to be when I played them. But it was my year of gaming emotionally and that’s going to be the theme.

Firewatch

I don’t remember where I first heard about Firewatch. Maybe Steam was trying to push it on me in its running slideshow. Maybe I read about it at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Maybe I saw it mentioned on Electron Dance. For whatever reason I bought it and immediately started playing. It’s a short game and I finished it over the course of two or three evenings. I never looked back on the purchase with regret.

Firewatch both establishes and partially resolves its sublime confusion from the first moment, with a running text-adventure-style opening designed in the authoring tool Twine, where you make choices that essentially lead to a single conclusion: You met a wonderful woman, you fell in love, you got married and then, after a period of happiness, the end of your marriage and of your joy had entered your life as your wife began to display the first signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

That was when the game had me. I’d also lost a woman I loved to an unexpected illness that came on slowly and then took over our lives. There have been times since when I thought that she was the lucky one. She took death so well, while I had to figure out what do after it and I didn’t handle that nearly as well as she had handled death itself. In the game, your dying wife has gone off to live with her family in Australia and the game starts flashing between the text story and the three-dimensional life (designed in the Unity engine) you’ve chosen in your wife’s absence, working alone at a remote firewatch tower in a Wyoming national park. The juxtaposition makes it clear that you’ve chosen to handle the situation by running as far away from it as you can.

This doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a game; it sounds like the premise for a novel. But when I entered the firewatch tower and looked out at the beautiful, neo-impressionistic scenery I knew I was in good hands. I examined my new surroundings and began talking on a small radio with the director of the firewatch, a woman in a similar tower that I could just glimpse in the distance.

The view from your firewatch tower.
The view from your firewatch tower.

Firewatch combines that thing I love so much in games, exploration of an open environment, with something else: the slow growth of a relationship with someone who you only know by her voice. It’s that relationship that leads you to a gradual understanding of yourself and the choices you’ve made. There are also job-related missions to accomplish and a mystery to solve in the park, but they seem almost incidental to the emotional thread that runs through the game’s day-to-day routine. The voice acting, by Cissy Jones as the woman on the radio and Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer as your own character, is superb and you feel that you know both of them, even while, if you’re like me, you’re coming to know yourself a little better too.

Some people have complained about the ambiguity of the game’s ending, but that ambiguity is essential to the game: You’ve made a decision by then and whether you actually carry out that decision is irrelevant. What matters is that you’ve made it.

I’m not going to bury the lede. I’m giving this my Game of the Year award. I’ll try not to make it all downhill from here.

Gone Home

Gone Home, released in 2013 and set in 1995, isn’t as overt in its emotional themes as Firewatch, but they grow throughout what at first seems a simple exercise in exploration and mystery solving. Your character is an 18-year-old woman returning from a trip to Europe to her family’s new home, an old house somewhere in Oregon, and the mystery to be solved is why your family isn’t there to greet you. You solve it by examining objects in the house and solving a few simple puzzles, gradually piecing together what’s happened while you were away.

The house interior in Gone Home
Home is where the family’s missing

The game takes an interesting bait-and-switch approach that I won’t describe further so that it won’t be ruined for anyone and it cheats occasionally by rewarding you with brief voice narrations by your younger sister as you make certain discoveries, but your exploration leads to an unexpected emotional connection with people you, as the player, have never met. Like Firewatch it’s a short game and I played it in about the same amount of time, but once caught up in its mysteries I couldn’t quit.

Gone Home is a small game in its technical ambitions — it uses the ubiquitous Unity engine to create a fully realized, interactive, three-dimensional house and not much else — but within its limited confines it creates what feels like a genuine experience. And the resolution of that experience is an unexpected one, both in its solution to the mystery and the emotional impact that its resolution carries.

This is a small game. It’s a great game. You can find it cheap. Buy it.

Dear Esther

I’d heard Dear Esther, from 2012, described in advance by the sometimes derogatory term “walking simulator,” meaning a game where all you do is walk through an environment and admire it. It’s that, but it’s more, ultimately a great deal more.

You have, for unknown reasons, arrived on the shores of a barren island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. As you begin to explore it, and it’s a startlingly beautiful place to explore, you begin to hear snatches of a narrative from an unknown narrator speaking to someone named Esther, in the form of what seem to be notes addressed to a loved one and that turn out to be…well, let’s not go there.

The barren Hebridean coast
The barren Hebridean coast

Dear Esther turns out not to be a walk but a journey, one that the landscape and narration guide you gently through until the end, when it forces you through the culmination of your odyssey and you realize why you’re there, who you are, and what those spoken messages have been.

The heart of the game are the spoken messages themselves, read wonderfully by narrator Nigel Carrington, with a tone that implies both gravity and tragedy plus a paradoxical touch of joy. Like Firewatch, Dear Esther is about a tragic relationship that I found I could also relate to, but the ambiguity of its narrative make it nicely replayable as you try to parse out the deeper meaning of the poetic prose that early on seems metaphorical but gradually becomes more concrete.

Dear Esther is the shortest game in this list and it isn’t for everyone. But for me it was a powerful emotional experience, one that lingered on after it was done. I found myself staring at the closing screen for a long time — and there was nothing on it.

Life Is Strange

I played the first installment of Square Enix’s Life Is Strange, an episodic adventure game in the TellTale Walking Dead mode, when it came out in early 2015. I was ambivalent about it. I was impressed by its lovely, largely realistic 3D graphics (run on Unreal Engine 3) and the characterization of the viewpoint character, a high-school senior named Maxine “Max” Caulfield (a rather heavy-handed nod to The Catcher in the Rye). But its depiction of high school was uncomfortably realistic for someone, like me, who couldn’t have gotten out of high school fast enough, and its central gimmick — that Max discovers she can rewind time and remake choices that don’t seem to turn out right initially — struck me as a laborious mechanic, though at least it removed any need to save the game so you could go back and correct anything you felt you’d done wrong.

Max Caulfield and her childhood friend Chloe
Max Caulfield and her childhood friend Chloe

When I came back to it a few months ago and played through all five episodes, it had somehow become a different game. I found that I identified intensely with Max, who has returned from Seattle to a private school in her small Oregon hometown, to attend a class in photography taught by a once-famous photographer who she yearns to learn more about her photographic hobby from. The second time I played through the first episode I lingered more on the character moments, especially Max’s interactions with the other students and with her childhood friend Chloe, who feels that Maxine abandoned her after Chloe’s father’s tragic death in an automobile accident. Chloe has turned from a sweet young girl into a surly, rebellious late adolescent and Max’s attempts to rekindle their relationship are some of the most powerful parts of the story. I discovered that when the game offered you the opportunity to simply sit on a chair and think that you should always take it, because Max’s thoughts opened a window into a seemingly immutable past that she felt she could never regain. I also discovered that the game is deeply felt and deeply moving.

And the time-rewinding mechanism turned out to be much more than a gimmick. It was a tool for exploring player agency in the context of a game genre — adventure games — that typically offers very little or at best, as in the TellTale games, the illusion of it. Photography also plays an important role in the game, much of which is about capturing the present and rediscovering the past. At times photography becomes almost a deus ex machina, but one used intelligently enough that it ultimately doesn’t feel like a cheat.

In the end, Max’s agency within the game pivots on a single, unrewindable decision, one that’s foreshadowed from the beginning, a decision that I wouldn’t dream of giving away but that sums up the emotional impact of the story in a single act. In its finale Life Is Strange turns out to be less about recapturing and possibly changing the past than it’s about determining a future and in a way its ending is as ambiguous as Firewatch‘s, if only because you’ve come to know Max so well that you want to know where she’ll go from there. But I’m not sure I really want to know. I feel I know her well enough now that I can imagine a better future for her than she’ll possibly have.

To be honest, Life Is Strange would tie Firewatch as my game of the year except that it wasn’t released in 2016. It was serialized entirely in 2015. But I give it a belated Game of the Year award for the year when I wasn’t really playing games.


I also wanted to talk here about The Witness, Tyranny, The Stanley Parable, Rise of the Tomb Raider (which I’ve already written about at some length), The Long Dark and Tales from the Borderlands (the most charmingly delightful of TellTale’s episodic adventures). But those aren’t as deeply emotional as the games listed above (though some come close) and I have to get back to writing things that will actually earn me money.

But I reserve the right to talk about all these games again, even the ones I’ve described in some detail. My head (and my unfinished drafts folder) are full of blog posts where they’d fit perfectly. I hope you stick around for them.

Zorked, Doomed and Firewatched: A Gaming Memoir

I got my first personal computer in 1981 and the first thing I did with it, even before I started using it for word processing and teaching myself how to program, was play games. My memories of computer gaming stretch back over the four decades since, which is longer than half the people on the Internet have been alive. I like to think that gives me a unique perspective on games, both new ones and old ones. Whether it does remains to be seen.

Screen from the original Zork text adventure
Computer gaming circa 1981. Don’t get eaten by a grue!

I’ve written about games several times on my Adrift in the Infosphere blog, but that never seemed the right place for it. I like to use that blog for writing about television, movies and Disneyland, which is so close to where I live that you can hear the fireworks going off at night. But I wanted to create a new space where I could write about games and nothing else.

This is that space. If you’ve stumbled in here and don’t care about computer games, you should probably stumble back out. No offense, really. I just worry that you’ll be bored here. There are a lot of things I like to do, but bore people isn’t one of them.

Now that I’m just talking to the gamers in the audience, let’s circle our PCs and Macs and smartphones (because you’re probably not reading this on a Playstation or an Xbox) and chat about the thing we love most, the sublime confusion of a good computer game. I call it sublime confusion because that’s how I know when I’ve discovered a genuinely great, innovative, obsessively playable new computer game. I find myself utterly and wonderfully confused by it. I have no idea what I’m doing, but somehow I know that the game is going to tell me. That’s how I felt the first time I played an Infocom adventure. That’s how I felt when I booted up my first computer RPG. That’s how I felt when I first plunged into the original Doom. That’s how I felt when I saw the opening text of Firewatch. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was experiencing. I just knew that I loved it.

A well-designed game doesn’t let you stay confused for long. It either resolves that confusion for you level by level or, better still, lets you resolve that confusion yourself, through exploration, experimentation and problem solving. If you’re still totally confused by a game an hour after you’ve started playing, then something has gone wrong on the game designer’s end. Or you’re just not trying hard enough to figure it out. Sometimes it can be a combination of the two.

Doom, the original one, is my benchmark for confusion resolved through gameplay. While Doom-style gameplay has become almost too familiar over the years, on its first publication it was something new under the pixelated sun. The original DOS version dropped you into that first level like a paratrooper who had landed on a battlefield without being briefed beforehand about the mission. All you knew was that you had a weapon, you had something that looked human shooting at you and you died before you got out of the first room. The second time you played you were a little more prepared but you still died before you got out of the second room.

The third time, you started fighting back. And winning.

We’ve entered an era, though, where games can offer such deep confusion that you’re expected to go outside the game to resolve it. I dare anyone to play Minecraft for the first time and figure out how to survive the first ten minutes of the Survival Mode without watching a YouTube video (which Mojang used to, and may still, provide on its website) about surviving the first ten minutes. I’m not sure it can be done. Minecraft is so opaque in its mechanics that it not only resists providing an in-game tutorial (which, given how tedious in-game tutorials can become, may be a good thing) but you need to find an out-of-game tutorial (which can be even more tedious) to learn how to carve a cave out of a stone wall to protect yourself from the things that go bump in the night. I haven’t played it lately, so maybe Microsoft has added a help file. At least Minecraft provides gameplay that’s worth the effort of learning it. But that’s a subject for another time.

I know I’ve found a mediocre computer game if I feel no confusion at all. A mediocre computer game is one that feels like you’ve played it before, even if it had another name and a slightly different premise. Sometimes this can be a sublime familiarity and may explain the popularity in recent years of retro games. A retro game is intentionally designed to look and feel like the games you played on your Nintendo Entertainment System or your 256-color VGA graphics card. There’s a nostalgic charm to these games and I enjoy playing them too. I don’t always want to be confused. Sometimes I want to settle into a game like it’s an old chair, one softened by years of use yet still somehow strong enough to support the increased width of my backside. Nostalgia can be fun.

In the many posts that follow, I’m going to talk about old games like Doom and I’m going to talk about new ones like, well, the latest remake of Doom. There’ll be a place at the end of each post where you can leave comments, so I hope you’ll talk about these things too.

witcher
Computer gaming circa 2015. Don’t get eaten by anything larger than you are!

First, though, I’m going to do something I enjoy doing a little too much: I’m going to talk about myself.

I’m a writer. I’ve written books on astronomy, I’ve written books on biology, I’ve even written three science fiction novels and 11 books in the Hardy Boys series. But what I’ve mostly written about is computers. Some of those books were about game programming and I think a couple of them were pretty good. My 1993 book Flights of Fantasy was the first book on the market to explain in everyday language how anybody with some C++ programming experience could create professional quality animation on the screen of a DOS PC, especially 3D animation like you’d see in the out-the-window views of old flight simulators. Flight of Fantasy stayed on computer-book bestseller lists for several weeks.

The second of those books, Gardens of Imagination, was about programming what we later started calling first-person shooters. It didn’t sell as well as the first book because by then other publishers had realized there was a large market for books on game programming. I had competition and it was outselling me. I had created a market that became so crammed with books I could no longer compete in it.

Flights of Fantasy and Gardens of Imagination are extremely dated today. I don’t recommend buying used copies as a way of learning how to program AAA-quality games like Fallout 4 or The Witcher 3, though I’ll probably talk about those games at some point in this blog. I wouldn’t have the first idea how to program a game like either of those because I haven’t kept up with the state of the art in game programming.

I have, however, kept up with the games.

Right now I’m playing a series of retro adventure games with occasional side journeys into Shadow Warrior 2, but a few days from now I’ll probably be obsessed with something else. If it’s a game I’ll discuss it in these pages. Given my erratic attention span, I’ll probably be stopping by here often to talk about the new games I’ve discovered, but I’ll generally do so by giving some of the history behind the genres that those games belong to, because I was there for a lot of that history.

That’s enough for one post. Your own attention span is probably starting to wander. But I promise I’ll be back to discuss one aspect or another of the computer games that have obsessed me from the 80s and 90s right into the 2010s. You’ll know what aspect I’m going to talk about when you read the next post, but right now even I don’t know what aspect that’s going to be.

I just hope you come back to find out. I can guarantee that I will. I’m curious to see what it is I’ll come up with.