[Spoiler Warning: This post discusses major plot points from Firewatch.]
When I first started playing Firewatch, I found the game relaxing. There was a sense of mastering my surroundings, and learning the best trails through Shoshone National Forest was deeply satisfying. I enjoyed talking to Delilah, my supervisor, and hearing her stories about the forest, her job, the previous lookouts. She told me about Ned, the lookout who had brought his young son, Brian.
As I progressed through the game, I found mementos of Brian’s time in the forest: pen and paper character sheets, fantasy novels, comic books. Delilah knew Brian wasn’t supposed to be there, but she liked the kid, and as I discovered bits and pieces of his life, so did I.
So when I discovered Brian’s corpse at the bottom of a cave, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I vividly remember the cold chill of horror that ran up my spine, and then the heavy feeling of sadness that settled in my stomach.
It was the sort of moment that sticks with me today, and it’s a story I easily could have missed among the weightier titles in my backlog. A game like Far Cry 3 offers dozens of hours of play in a sandbox. I purchased the game in a Steam sale for $5 in 2014, and I had vague intentions to beat it before I ever purchased Far Cry 4 or 5. The crushing weight of commitment to such a game odyssey means that these titles sit in my backlog, forever calcifying in the shame of being uninstalled. We live in a golden era of games being used as a vehicle for storytelling, but the larger my backlog gets, the sweeter short stories become.
I threw myself into games like the Dragon Age series or Star Wars: The Old Republic; enormous sandboxes with seemingly limitless world building and side quests, full casts of companions and enemies, and an enormous scope. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, there are beautiful moments of storytelling that I still remember... mostly. A romance with Cullen, when my Inquisitor staggered out of the snowy drifts after being presumed dead, and being met with a hymn of celebration and faith...
But those memories are buried under the slog through the Hinterlands, the endless side quests throughout the Forbidden Oasis or the Fallow Mire. The signal fades into the noise.
After playing Inquisition, and BioWare’s following title Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was worn out. I couldn’t take another MMO-style single player experience, or endless side quests. To this day, the brightest memories from those stories compete with the content clustered around them, and the finer details fade away.
My backlog had mounted to ridiculous levels while I worked through massive single player RPGs and dabbled in MMOs, so I made a concerted effort to start clearing out my backlog. Out of necessity, I focused on smaller games: The Beginner’s Guide, Orwell, Doki Doki Literature Club, Tacoma, Night in the Woods, Stories Untold and Hotline Miami.
I found myself transfixed by these smaller, sharper games. The developers were often working with fewer resources, and creating smaller experiences, but the stories stuck with me in a way that Inquisition couldn’t. I still remember the feeling of dread and betrayal at the climax of The Beginner’s Guide, or the intense discomfort of watching Mae argue with her mom over college and finances in Night in the Woods. The final story of Stories Untold and the mid-game twist of Doki Doki Literature Club still make me feel cold and unnerved in a way that the massive horror MMO of a game like The Secret World couldn’t, even after hundreds of hours.
I can’t imagine that those stories of horror, personal loss, and human nature would have retained the same potency if I had sat with them, digesting the message, for ten or twenty hours. A climax in a long game sometimes feels less like the celebratory high point or emotional rush it should be. Instead, there’s the dull feeling of ...Finally.
The more I play these games in a sitting or two, the more I actively enjoy burning through my backlog, instead of seeing it as a nightmarish chore that will haunt me until the day I crumble into dust.
There’s a trick writers employ where they’ll take a look at their first draft and then axe 10 percent or 20 percent away from the story, forcing them to really focus on what’s necessary and cull away the chaff. Developers like Team Salvato or Davey Wreden are working with smaller budgets, and so they have to cut the chaff. Even violent, frantic shooters like Hotline Miami are tight, concise, and polished. The end result is that there is no dead weight, and you’re left with just the message the developer is trying to convey: nothing more, nothing less.
As I mow through my backlog and meticulously organize games, I’m sure I’ll return to the giant titles that I once loved to escape into for dozens of hours. But at the end of the day, there’s something so satisfying about having a game arrive in a nice little package, unfolding it over a session or two, and then taking your time to digest the meaning the developers were trying to get across. It lacks the flash of an in-depth, evolving combat system or the nuance of several crafting and character advancement trees, but it captures the thing I love most about gaming: story and emotion.