Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
There’s a type of game that encourages players to take the experience at their own pace rather than rushing through to the end (see: walking simulators). This type of game is perfect for an avid photographer like me, especially when it literally gives you a camera, as Firewatch does.
Firewatch is about a guy taking a working holiday from his problems at home. Henry takes a job in the Wyoming wilderness as a fire lookout. His only support during this job is his boss, Delilah, who works at another lookout point and is always available via a handheld radio. As Henry, players can explore the grounds as a narrative experience unfolds. Early in the game you discover a backpack containing a disposable camera with 19 shots remaining—and those 19 are all you get.
I’m the type of person who on vacations always has my DSLR to take photos with interesting composition. This means I’m looking for things that have interesting combinations of shapes, textures, and colors, and when I’m at a loss for how to frame a photo, I think back on the tried-and-true Rule of Thirds to draw attention to a particular spot. I can be snap-happy with my digital camera—I’ve walked through gardens or forests with my DSLR and spent hours taking hundreds of photos only to come out with one or two photos I love. But that’s not possible when your film is limited.
With only 19 available photos in the game, I needed to take pictures I was close to certain I’d be proud of. I once passed a bare tree I thought looked haunting, but there was something missing from that photo. I passed it again later, and this time there was a drop-dead gorgeous sunset. I paced Henry back and forth as I tried to find the right angle through the camera’s viewfinder. It took a few minutes, but it was worth it.
Photography in some sense has existed in any game that allows players to take screenshots. Screenshots capture moments in time like a camera would even if players aren’t fiddling with white balances or lighting. Some people use it to get a quick snapshot of something to remember or share, and others dive more into artistic screenshot capturing, even modifying the game itself to change perspective or other elements, which takes preparation and thought.
By giving me both a beautiful landscape to explore and an actual camera in the game—the PC version of the game even has a feature for you to order real prints of your “photos”—game developer Campo Santo gave me every reason to play Firewatch slowly and take it all in. The game’s sunsets and fires are beautiful, and because the game does not punish you for proceeding at your own pace, I felt a liberty to wander, looking for potential photo opportunities.
Even though I did miss a couple of opportunities because the game was moving on from one day to the next, being able to visit the same places again allowed me to come back to areas and grab a photo that I missed. While Delilah and Henry gained a sense of intimacy between each other from their daily conversations, I became intimate with the scenery. I checked my map less frequently and noted the difference in how the landscapes appeared at different times of day and across the different days I experienced with Henry.
In hindsight the camera seems like a natural addition to Firewatch, set in the remote wilderness as it is. Delilah says most people take the job to get away from their lives, and Henry does this both for reflection and to give him some time to think about what he wants to do when the job is over. He interacts with very few people: Delilah via the radio, two girls who are littering, and a man he first sees from a distance. The job mostly entails hiking in silence. When I’m already taking in the sights by myself, putting a camera in my hands further ensures I’m patient with my surroundings. Photography isn’t just a series of clicks of the shutter. And it doesn’t hurt that Firewatch’s art is stunning.
Not everyone approaches the game the same way. Some players end up using their cameras to document criminal activity because Delilah first tells Henry to use the camera to take a picture of a wrecked tent. I went into the game knowing about the option to order prints, so I already framed the game’s camera as a tool for me to make art rather than to use it as a plot device. Some players have thought they were supposed to be gathering evidence, so they were disasstisfied with their photos at the end.
I don’t love every photo I took in Firewatch. There are a couple I captured on the spur of the moment—during a conversation with Delilah as she urged me to look out the window after the sun had set to see a fire lighting the night sky. I knew it would not look the same tomorrow. I had to preserve that moment in time. Sometimes you only have a moment to get the photo.
In other cases, beauty is not so fleeting, and you can take that extra time to just simply be in the wilderness before you take out the camera and fire away.
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