My Favorite Games: SimCity 3000

You can’t cut back on nostalgia for the SimCity series! You will regret this!

(SimCity 3000 art borrowed without permission from Ocean Quigley’s blog)

I think SimCity 3000 was the first game I ever lost a day to. I was at my parents’ house for a holiday break, and I stared playing it in the morning, and just never stopped. I got up for meals, but spent the whole time distracted thinking of city improvements and rushed back to the computer. I stayed up too late in the den, redistricting and listening to jazz long after my family had gone to bed. And I say that I “lost” the day because by the time I went to sleep myself, I didn’t feel like I’d actually accomplished anything except for learning the game’s systems.

One of those systems was the land value calculation, which was the first time I remember recognizing how video game abstractions aren’t the pure simulations that they might seem to be. There’s an inherent bias in SimCity 3000’s simulation, in which you were incentivized to maximize land value over having a more balanced city. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate, or just a side effect of having such gorgeous building art and lots that responded to rising land values by transforming into perfectly landscaped green spaces.

Whatever the case, it felt as if providing all the basic city services and building parks and recreation wasn’t some kind of altruistic responsibility, but a game about attracting rich people. It was essentially a game about making Lafayette or Ross, CA.

Years later, even after I’d worked on the sequel, I read the observation that the economic model for all the SimCity games was some kind of Reagan-esque fantasy of using tax cuts to solve any problem, and shaping a city with the ultimate eminent domain. I guess it seems obvious in retrospect, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d been subtly indoctrinated with Republican ideologies.

But the reason it remains one of my favorite series is that for me it was ultimate case of getting a bunch of interconnected systems and figuring out how they all work together. Cities: Skylines has become the best city-building game available, largely by mimicking the SimCity games almost slavishly, fixing the rougher parts and taking advantage of improving computer power to expand on it over and over again. But the games feel very different to me. Cities: Skylines feels like building a city, while SimCity 2000-4 feels like encouraging a city to grow.

I think SimCity 4 is pretty great, by the way, and it’s one of the games I’m proudest to have worked on, even though my contribution isn’t really part of what makes it great. The only reason I picked 3000 as my favorite is because I can’t play 4 anymore; I spent so many days building the same roads over and over again during development that it feels robotic. I do wonder if I could go back to it now and enjoy it.

I should also mention that the reason I’ve still got so much love for the SimCity series that I’ve never had for Skylines — even though Skylines is a better game in several ways — is that there was so much creativity applied to the rewards for understanding the systems. The buildings in every version, especially the most recent SimCity, are just beautiful, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they instilled in me a better appreciation for architecture as I drive around a city. The music has also been amazing in every version, and 3000‘s might be my favorite. But so many aspects, from the often-gratuitous animations, to the sound effects, to the digitized portraits of your advisors in 2000 that conveyed so much character in so few lines of text, feel that they were put there for no other reason than to be delightful.

My Favorite Games: Final Fantasy Tactics

Possibly my favorite video game of all time, and one that’s apparently impossible to recreate

I think I’d already declared Final Fantasy Tactics my favorite game of all time before I’d even finished my first play-through. I’d never played anything like it; it was my first exposure to tactical strategy games, story-driven strategy games, Final Fantasy as a years-long franchise that existed separate from blockbuster hit Final Fantasy 7, the job system, and even the super-deformed character style.

That’s probably why no attempt to recreate it has gotten it just right: so much of it depended on novelty. I get the impression that very little in the game is completely new, since it existed in Ogre Battle or Final Fantasy IV or any of dozens of Japanese games that I’d never heard of. But it was all new to me. So it defined not only how that type of game should work, but also how many details and interacting systems a single game can, and maybe even should, contain.

After all, this is a game where the damage an attack can do will be based on attack power (of course), defense (sure), level (naturally), resistances (standard RPG stuff), which direction the characters are facing (interesting), differences in elevation (very interesting), faith and bravery scores of the characters (okay I guess), gender (now hang on a second), and zodiac signs (what?). On top of that, there are all these interesting ways to manipulate the time and turn order of a battle. Then there’s an entire job class called Calculator whose abilities take effect based on esoteric arithmetic properties: every character whose level is a prime number, for instance.

There’ve been two sequels for the GameBoy Advance that added some interesting aspects to the game’s setting of Ivalice, but they feel like shallower imitations instead of full games in their own right. And there’s been something of a remake in the form of the War of the Lions version, which brought new cut-scenes and a new translation clearly intended to bring the English-language versions of the game the depth and gravitas the story clearly delivered.

Which I don’t like at all. And it annoys me that War of the Lions has become the only version of the game that’s still playable without digging out my old CD and my original PlayStation. I miss the awkward translation of the original. A few memorable lines from the original were kept for the new translation, but it seems like the vast majority of the dialogue in the game was carefully edited to remove any poor translations and instead have the stately, flowery English that was no doubt intended by the original writers.

I used to think I was being condescending when I preferred the awkward original, in a sense saying tee hee look at the funny Engrish. But now I don’t think it’s actually that, so much as missing the earnest charm that comes from these cute characters waving their tiny hands in the air and shouting nonsense before they incinerate each other or stab each other to death. The original seemed happy to be bizarre to American audiences, while the remaster feels as if it’s desperate to be taken seriously.

Which is a problem when the story is so humorless and overwrought and frankly, such a mess. It’s about factions and houses in decades-long wars conducting impossibly convoluted schemes to form alliances and undermine the power of the church to ultimately summon demons who will take over the planet. Or something like that. I’ve played through the game four times now, and I obviously couldn’t figure out what it was all about through any of it. I’m not even that embarrassed, since characters are named like Zalbag and Dycedarg and you’re just expected to be able to keep up.

I’ve spent the 20+ years since I first played Final Fantasy Tactics looking for a tactical strategy game that I enjoyed as much. Advance Wars is pretty great, although nowhere near as deep. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is probably the closest I’ve found to capturing that feeling of figuring out how a bunch of interconnected systems work with each other. But the holy grail of a true successor remains elusive: something with just the right combination of complexity, expansiveness, depth, and charm.

My Favorite Games: What Remains of Edith Finch

An ongoing list of my favorite games, starting with an astounding, metaphor-filled, exploration game by Giant Sparrow

One of the more pointless aspects of social media that I miss is the “what’s your favorite?” list-making. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back and updated my list of favorite video games, so why not do it as an ongoing series of posts instead of a one-time list? No order except in the order I remember them, and I’ll keep going until I run out.

On the one hand, I hate being reductive with What Remains of Edith Finch, distilling an hours-long experience into a declaration of what it “means.” But I also feel the need to state over and over again just how much it accomplishes, quietly, in the same way that watching someone perform actual magic would have me looking around in wonder, asking other people if they just saw the same thing I did.

As a good illustration of just how much I was impressed with this game: the writing is near-flawless, and it’s one of the least remarkable things about the experience. When I first got interested in writing for video games, the bar was set so impossibly low that competence seemed exceptional. But over the years, the industry — or at least the small part of it that I’m interested in — over-corrected with what was frankly pretentious over-writing. More and more, I saw dialogue with little sense of character voice, and passages more interested in chasing some kind of literary flourish instead of practical effect. What Remains of Edith Finch could easily have devolved into something insufferably maudlin or twee, but instead, it’s accessible, varied, often poetic, and often joyful.

But the most remarkable thing to me is that there’s no imbalance in the game. It’s not a game with weak mechanics but good writing, or an interesting environmental design but shallow interaction, or any of the trade-offs you’d expect to find in even an excellent game. Instead, every aspect of the experience works together to deliver its meaning, which is an extended metaphor for death and how it informs our understanding of human existence.

The stories in What Remains of Edith Finch are varied in length, tone, interaction style, and presentation; it seems that the only thing they have in common is that they all end in death. The first story suggests that the game will take off in the direction of magical realism — which, to be clear, would’ve been charming on its own — but it’s not long before you’re dropped into a new situation as mundane as a child sitting on a swing. You have to figure out not just what’s going on in the narrative, but how you’re supposed to interact with it and drive it forward.

There’s a little bit of confusion: are they really going to make me go through the entire process of doing this? Because, you quickly realize, it’s not about being told a story, it’s about sharing an experience. The thing that makes these stories poignant is that you’re going through them, seeing them first hand. For those of us who were raised to believe in an afterlife (and are still undecided about the question), it echoes one of the most fundamental questions we had as children: if heaven’s so perfect, why do we have to spend all this time miserable on Earth? The answer, such as it is, that satisfied me, more or less, was that you can’t fully understand the wonder of our flawed and joyful existence unless you experience it yourself.

And as you wander through the Finch house, you can peek into windows on the door to each room to get a rough, distorted idea of the person who once lived inside. But you can’t really know each person’s story until you’ve experienced its end. These aren’t mysteries, really: you know that each story ends in death, and more often than not, you know how the character dies. And since death is as inevitable in this game as it is in the world outside of it, the deaths aren’t always tragedies. They give context to the lives that came before them, letting you experience first-hand what made these characters more than just a collection of random memories.

As a result, the stories have moments of startling impact: turning a senselessly tragic death into an experience of curious joyfulness, or showing the wondrous imagination that coursed through a life of seemingly tedious sadness. You’re left with a feeling of profound connection, to everyone who’s lived and everyone who’s going to die.


Thoughts about the beautiful serenity of not giving a damn

I read something on Twitter the other morning that made enough of an impression on me that I felt compelled to break my read-only rule1Just temporarily, Twitter is still garbage and comment on how false it was. It was from game developer Rami Ismail:

A reminder that being a terrible person that “loves crunch”, “yells at people”, and “says things they don’t mean” will eventually end your industry career, even if you manage to grow your tiny studio from just a few people all the way up to AAA size. Being a team player matters.

To be clear, I’m not trying to call out Ismail or anything. It’s an idea that I would’ve agreed with to some degree at several points over my career. And that is why I want to stress that it’s not true, but more importantly, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not true.

So let me stress first: it’s demonstrably false. I’ve worked for or with quite a few terrible people over the past 25+ years, and most of them have just kept failing upwards. Unless by “eventually end your industry career,” he meant, “you’ll at worst retire comfortably,” then I’ve never seen any evidence of the kind of cosmic justice that he’s describing.

I spent quite a bit of time in my 30s and early 40s holding out expectation for resolutions that were never going to come. First hoping for reconciliation, then vindication, then even schadenfreude, so I’d feel that there’d been some kind of justice. It almost never actually happens, and on the rare occasion it does, it almost never actually makes anything better.

So when I say that terrible people almost never face any real consequences for treating people badly, it’s not just empty cynicism or bitterness. Just the opposite, in fact: I’m saying stop wasting any time thinking about what may happen to other people some day, and just live your damn life.

Continue reading “Closure”
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    Just temporarily, Twitter is still garbage

Hooray for Niche Audiences, or, We Made it Weird

Modernizing adventure games, the potential lifespan of interactive media, and what it means to be a “niche audience” in the 21st century

(One of my favorite jokes I’ve written for a game is a reference to Zork, even though I don’t like text adventures. Sam & Max screenshot via

On his blog, Andrew Plotkin wrote an interesting post titled “Unwinnability and Wishbringer.” The basic concept is taking aspects of 80s text adventure games that have fallen out of style — for instance, letting the player get the game into an unwinnable state without necessarily realizing it — and thinking of how to modify them to be more appealing and less annoying to modern audiences.

The thing I found so insightful about Plotkin’s post is that he makes clear that many of the “annoyances” of text adventures weren’t flaws or mistakes, but design decisions. It’s easy for us to just assume that the frustrations of those older games were a result of their being old. Either limitations of technology (I have to draw my own map?) or primitive game design that simply hadn’t yet evolved elegant solutions to problems like being able to leave an area without a crucial item.

Instead, he suggests that the decisions were made for a reason, and you need to understand what they contributed to those text adventures before trying to modernize them. For instance: drawing your own maps reinforces the idea that you’re exploring a real place, and a closer idea of how the areas are related to each other. Having unwinnable states can help make the game feel like an active, living system, instead of a set of static puzzles waiting indefinitely for you to solve them.

What I really love about this is that I can extrapolate it out to say that text adventures are more than just a format, they’re a genre. And therefore, I can say it’s fine that I don’t like text adventures, and it just means that they’re not my thing, not that I’ve got too short an attention span and lack of imagination to appreciate them as a more intelligent and cultured gamer obviously would.

Continue reading “Hooray for Niche Audiences, or, We Made it Weird”

Let Me Show You My Pokemans

Let me show you them

Today the YouTube algorithm, in Its Infinite Wisdom, recommended I watch a video of some guy opening a box of GameBoys he’d bought from Japan. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except as part of the excruciatingly dull unboxing process,1Yes I’m aware of the irony he checked all the battery compartments to look for signs of corrosion.

That made me jump up and run2(or at least the best I could approximate after six months stuck inside the house) to my closet, where a mysterious box sits underneath all the detritus that an American consumer-focused nerd has been able to accumulate over a few decades. Inside that box is a de facto collection of Nintendo handhelds ranging from the GameBoy Color to the 3DS. (I never owned an original GameBoy, and I can’t say I’m particularly interested in getting one at this point).

I say “de facto” since I’ve never intentionally been a collector of these things; I just worked at video game studios for a long time, and they just kind of accumulated. If you work in games and aren’t keeping up with what Nintendo is doing, you’re not doing it right.

When my fiancé got into Pokémon Go a while back, I told him I’d played one of the games years ago, and I might be able to help if the game ever started to rely on which types were strong or weak against other ones. That was when I rediscovered the mysterious box, and I realized that I hadn’t played one of the games years ago. I’d played all of them. I just kept pulling them out of the box, one after another, like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from his sleeve, or Mary Poppins pulling impossible quantities of tea sets and coat racks from her carpet bag.

I don’t have an active memory of playing these things; it’s something like the lost time after an alien abduction. It might as well have been another person playing these things, but still using my name each time. We must share the same brain, though, because I can’t remember a single damn thing from AP Calculus, but for some reason I know in my bones that you should use a grass or water type if you ever come up against a Geodude.

That guy didn’t know how to take care of electronics, though, since all the devices that used removable batteries still had them sitting inside. Fortunately, none of them were ruined or even slightly corroded. (My Sony PSP’s rechargeable battery is oddly swollen, like a tick, but fortunately those seem to still be available and reasonably priced).

Weirder than that, the DS’s rechargeable battery had still kept its charge. Even more surprising to me, the AAs left carelessly in the no-longer-quite-so-Arctic-white GameBoy Advance (in its original package!) still had enough of a charge for me to remember how bad I am at Super Mario Bros 3. I’m so used to treating electronic devices like Star Trek red shirts, ready for them to die at any moment, that it’s remarkable to see something that just turns on and works immediately, after so many years lying inert. There’s something to be said for making electronics durable enough for children prone to dropping them or trying to eat them. Maybe instead of ripping off Apple, device manufacturers should’ve been trying to rip off Fisher Price.3I am curious now how many of my every-other-iPhone-since-the-original can still be charged up and function.

Also in the box are all the games I de facto collected over the years. I don’t have a grand, Super Potato-worthy collection, but I’ve got my favorites: Advance Wars, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance I & II, a few Zeldas and Mario Brothers, various colors and gemstones worth of Pokémons, Pokémon Pinball with its built-in rumble pack, a Japanese import of Nintendogs and the American release, and Super Puzzle Fighter.4A hugely underrated game, and none of the various games that inspired it have the same magic as that one.

It’s kind of an odd feeling, seeing so many people for whom these games are profoundly nostalgic, and realizing I’ve just got them tossed in a box in the closet. The nostalgia they conjure for me is being in my late 20s or early 30s and buying them mainly to avoid the fear of missing out. I still could never bring myself to sell them. I wonder if, when it’s finally time for them to be donated to someone, they’ll still have any magic left in them.

  • 1
    Yes I’m aware of the irony
  • 2
    (or at least the best I could approximate after six months stuck inside the house)
  • 3
    I am curious now how many of my every-other-iPhone-since-the-original can still be charged up and function.
  • 4
    A hugely underrated game, and none of the various games that inspired it have the same magic as that one.

Habitat and the MADE

I learned from a video from NoClip the disappointing (but not surprising, unfortunately) news that the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment here has had to leave its building in Oakland. They’re looking for donations, and have started a Patreon, to find a new home post-COVID. The thing that stood out in that video was the reference to Habitat, the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

I was extremely into QuantumLink in the early 80s, and in retrospect, it was probably the beginnings of my not-entirely-healthy relationship with social platforms on the internet. 1It also charged by the minute, which led to one of the only times I got into serious trouble as a teenager. Habitat was near legendary. It sounded like the coolest concept ever! It was being made by the company that made Star Wars games! And it always seemed to be just about to come out, any month now.

I never got to actually play it, as I stopped using QuantumLink before I ever got a chance to. I’m still not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Knowing how obsessed I got with LucasArts adventure games later on, it seems like I would’ve spent entirely too much of my parents’ money on it and burned out on video games altogether. Or maybe I would’ve known back in the 80s that I wanted to work in games, instead of a decade and three college majors later. In retrospect, even the biggest Q-Link bill was probably cheaper than a year of film school.

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    It also charged by the minute, which led to one of the only times I got into serious trouble as a teenager.

Virtual Reality Check

I bought an Oculus Rift S, and now you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Back in 2016, I became a convert and likely insufferable evangelist for virtual reality after someone let me try out the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. At the time, I was completely enamored with Valve’s The Lab and the seemingly endless potential for immersive experiences made possible by dropping you into a world that completely surrounds you. I wasn’t one of those super-early adopters who bought the Rift development kits, but what I lacked in timing, I made up for in enthusiasm.

I took to VR headsets like Mr. Toad took to motor cars. Which means that over the last few years, I’ve tried all of the major commercially-available ones, and I’ve wasted disposable income on several of them. So I’ve got opinions, and I think they’re reasonably well-informed. Here’s my take on the current state of things:

  • VR isn’t just a fad that’s already gone the way of 3D Televisions. For about as long as I’ve been interested in VR, people have been declaring that VR was “dead” or at best, that it had no future in gaming and entertainment. The most common comparison that people made was to 3D televisions, which TV manufacturers tried to convince us were an essential part of the home theater of the future, but which just about completely disappeared within a few years. Even though interest has cooled a lot, I think it’s impossible for home VR to go away completely, simply because it still suggests so much potential for new experiences every time you put on a headset.
  • VR will remain a niche entertainment platform. That said, home VR as we know it today is never going to take over as The Next Big Thing, either. A few years ago, a lot of people were suggesting that VR headsets would become the new video game consoles, and therefore the bar for success would be an HMD to achieve PS4 or Xbox-level sales. That’s not going to happen. I’ve been pretty disappointed in the PSVR overall, but I think in terms of market positioning and ease of use and overall philosophy, it’s the one that most got it right — it’s an easy to use accessory for specialized experiences.
  • VR needs experiences designed for VR, and not just different presentation of existing games. For a while, I was starting to become convinced that VR had “flopped” since I almost never went through the effort of setting up and putting on the Vive or PSVR again, so they just sat collecting dust. When I was in the mood to play a game, I almost always went to the Switch, suggesting that The Future of Games Is Mobile and Accessible. But I think the real conclusion is that there are different experiences for different platforms, and the one-size-fits-all mentality of video games is a relic of the “console wars.” Not every type of game is going to work well in VR, and IMO the ones that do work exceptionally well in VR can only work well in VR. The comparison to 3D TVs is apt, since it shows that people thought of VR as a different way of presenting familiar content, but it’s actually an entirely new type of content. Altogether.
  • Stop trying to make “epic” VR happen. Related to that, I think a lot of people (including myself) assumed that the tipping point for VR adoption would come as soon as one of the big publishers made the VR equivalent of Skyrim or Halo: the huge, big-budget game that will incontrovertibly prove the viability of VR as an entertainment platform. But actually playing Skyrim or Fallout in VR turns out to be a drag, in some part because you can’t just lose hours to a game in VR without noticing. The fact that most VR experiences have been brief isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The success of Beat Saber doesn’t mean that VR is a baby platform for stupid casuals, unless you’re a teenager on a message board. Instead, it means that we’re getting closer to finding out what kinds of short, dense experiences work inside a VR headset.
  • The biggest obstacle to VR is that it’s isolating and anti-social. I think it’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest investors in VR — and in fact the greatest chance for VR to reach wide adoption — is a social media company, since putting on a VR headset is about as anti-social as you can get. Sony had the right approach with their initial PSVR push, emphasizing it as the center of a social experience, but I think it ultimately came across as gimmicky and limited, like Wii Sports. Sometimes you want to shut the rest of the world out — I was surprised to see so many people touting the Oculus Go as perfect for media consumption, since I can’t imagine anything I’d want to do less than watch a movie with my sweaty face stuck against a computer screen. But I think the real key to longevity and wider adoption with VR will be a way to have that sense of immersion and isolation but still have a lifeline to the outside.
  • Ease of use and convenience are always preferable to “better” technology. Back in 2016, I was 100% on Team Vive, because it had the better tracking technology, and better technology meant better immersion, right? I’ve done an almost complete reversal on that. In practice, an easier experience beats a “better” experience every single time. I think the PSVR tracking is throw-the-controllers-across-the-room-in-frustration abysmal, and the display is disappointingly fuzzy and pixelated, but it still ended up getting more overall use than the HTC Vive, simply because it was more comfortable and easier to jump into. And I suspect I played more with the Oculus Quest in the first week after I owned it, than I’d spent over the entire past year with the Vive. I wouldn’t have thought it would be a huge difference being able to set up a play space in seconds as opposed to minutes, but just that one change made VR something I looked forward to again, instead of feeling like a burden. All the videos about haptic gloves or force feedback vests or two-way treadmills to guarantee a more immersive experience seem not just silly now, but almost counter-productive in how much they miss the point.
  • At the moment, the best headset is the Oculus Quest. It’s still a mobile processor, so it sacrifices a lot of the graphical flourishes that can make even “smaller” VR experiences cool. But being able to just pick the thing up and be playing a game within a minute is more significant than any other development. I have to say that Facebook/Oculus’s efforts to make it easier to jump in and more social when you are in, are just more appealing to me than anything else happening in VR.

Facebook has been holding its Oculus Connect event this week, and in my opinion the biggest announcement by far was that the Oculus Quest —their wireless, standalone headset with a mobile processor — would soon be able to connect to a PC via a USB-C cable. That would essentially turn it into an Oculus Rift S, their wired, PC-based headset.

Full disclosure: I have to say that I was instrumental in bringing this change that made the Oculus Rift S functionally obsolete, since about a month ago, I bought an Oculus Rift S. I never expected Facebook to add a feature to one of its hardware platforms that would invalidate another of its hardware platforms, but then I’ve never really understood Facebook’s business model. And honestly, I’m kind of happy that I don’t.

But the end result is that if the technology works as described, it’ll be the best of both worlds for the Oculus Quest. You’ll still be able to have the just-pick-up-the-headset-and-start-playing experience for a lot of games. But on the occasions where you want to play a larger-scale game like No Man’s Sky, or if you’re just playing Moss and are sad at how bad the downgraded water looks when it’s so evocative on the PSVR, you can sacrifice mobility and ease of setup for higher fidelity and a bigger library.

And the other announcements — in particular, hand recognition so that there are some experiences that won’t require controllers at all; and the “Horizon” social platform that may finally make VR feel less isolating, if they get it right — are encouraging to me. I feel like the way towards wide adoption isn’t going to come from taking the most advanced technology and gradually making it more accessible, but from taking the most accessible technology and gradually making it more advanced.

And while I’m predicting the future (almost certainly incorrectly, since I think I was completely off in my predictions just three years ago): I think all the efforts that see AR and VR as competing or even different-but-complementary technologies are missing the point. I believe that the future isn’t going to look like VR or AR as they’re pitched today — putting on a headset that blinds you and has you start swinging wildly at imaginary monsters only you can see, or just projecting an existing type of mobile game onto a real-world table or showing a Pokemon on your living room table — but is going to be more like the immersive AR shown in the movie Her. People will need to be able to treat it as a continuum that goes from private to social, where they can shut out as much or as little of the outside world as they choose to at any given moment. And whether that’s an isolating dystopian future, or a magical one-world-united future, depends less on the technology itself and more on how we decide to use it.

If You See Something, Say Something

Another thing I like about Firewatch

While I’m thinking of it, one more thing I like about Firewatch is the walkie-talkie. Specifically, how they took one of the most mundane elements of adventure games and turned it into the emotional core of a narrative game.

I’ve worked as a writer on around 13 adventure games, and while I do sometimes miss writing for games, I definitely don’t miss writing examine lines. They’re the lines of dialogue for when the player click on an object in the environment, like a rock, and the character walks over to it and says, “It’s a rock.” Maybe I’m revealing too much about my lack of imagination.

Ideally, you can use these lines as opportunities to make jokes, give clues to the solution of a puzzle, or both. But there are only so many jokes you can make about rocks and other mundane objects — at least, only so many that I could make — before you start to suspect that maybe games aren’t an effective medium for storytelling after all, and maybe they’re just meant for shooting bad guys.

Even worse is when you get some pretty good jokes in there, but there are so many that it all just turns into noise. Like having a guy following you around saying “Eh? Eh? Get it?!” repeatedly while you’re just trying to find your keys, or the combination to the safe you saw two screens ago.

One of the neat things about Sam & Max games was having the opportunity for these examine lines to be more conversational; Sam could observe something and Max could make a joke about it. It made it a little harder for them to fall into a rut, but the core problem still remains that the lines are purely mechanical. They exist to tell a joke, or to drive a puzzle forward. It’s extremely difficult to do story development or character development with them. (For several reasons, such as the fact that they’re usually optional).

So the method that Firewatch used — the player presses a button on their walkie-talkie to have Henry “report” something back to Delilah — lines up in tons of clever ways that made me happy to see:

  • Henry’s a newcomer to the job, so the stuff he doesn’t recognize is likely to be the same stuff that a player wouldn’t recognize.
  • Delilah’s role as your supervisor lines up with her role as semi-omniscient narrator, but she’s also a little bit unreliable, which is much more interesting.
  • Banter isn’t used just to describe an object or to solve a puzzle, but to establish character or advance the plot.
  • Henry starts to rely on Delilah as his one point of human contact, and the player relies on that connection as a guide through the game.
  • When the game starts to mess with your walkie-talkie, Henry’s panic resonates as your panic.
  • Because he’s having to describe stuff to someone remotely, it actually makes sense for the player character to be walking around describing what he sees out loud.

Of course, there are some aspects of Firewatch that make the walkie-talkie mechanic work better than it would in a traditional adventure game. It’s more linear, so most of the lines are critical path, and the player’s unlikely to miss a crucial character beat because she didn’t try to examine a specific picture on a desk somewhere. It’s not puzzle-driven, so there’s little need to be giving obtuse clues to puzzles; in fact, it’s more realistic to tell the player outright what she should be focused on. And it’s more evenly paced, which is to say there are fewer interactive objects in the environment, so there’s no attempt to create a constant firehose of jokes, red herrings, or insightful observations.

Instead, it uses one of the oldest tropes of adventure games to tell a mature, thoughtful, and character-driven story about connection and isolation. Kind of like an adult contemporary short story about Link and Navi.

One Thing I Like About Firewatch

Being an independent developer means you can take uneventful hikes through the woods.

Playing What Remains of Edith Finch? reminded me how much I love video games that do interesting things with interactive storytelling, and writing about it renewed my interest in writing about things I love on this blog. The idea behind this series is to counter-act my usual tendency to over-think, over-write, and reduce an entire work of art to the one thing I think it “means.” So this is the start of what I hope becomes a series in which I write about one aspect of a piece of art or entertainment that I really like, and I try to explain why I like it.

One thing I like about Firewatch is its opening walk from Henry’s truck to the watch tower.

The introduction to a game has to do a ton of stuff, introducing the game mechanics, setting up the narrative, setting the tone, and even just grabbing the player’s interest. There’s a lot going on in Firewatch’s opening, and it’s all pulled off with subtlety and confidence. Emotional and tough-to-write scenes are all front-loaded, distilled into vignettes with the most impact, and presented in a surprising choose-your-own-adventure format. (And they serve as a good example of why the argument “your choices don’t matter!” is a mostly vacuous one when it comes to narrative-driven games).

The mechanical controls are introduced along with the narrative premise: Want to run away from your troubles? Press the W key. The relationship that defines the core of the game is established purely through banter during the opening. As you walk, you’re gradually exposed to more and more of the stunning environments that would be the hallmark of the game. You can even tell that someone agonized over the editing down to the microsecond — the last line of dialogue welcoming you into the game slams you into a black title card almost too abruptly, a final bit of punctuation on the conversation. Even the selection of typography impressed me. The entire thing was so slick and mature that I was completely on board.

But my favorite aspect of it is that the whole sequence is the very first thing that would be cut in “normal” game development.

By my count, there are six distinct environments in that opening. If I remember correctly, only the very last one — the watch tower itself — is ever revisited in the game. Maybe that doesn’t seem that remarkable, but the thing about environments in Firewatch is:

  1. They’re beautiful,
  2. They’re meticulously planned out, and
  3. They’re reused a lot.

The reuse would be perfectly justifiable for a small, independent studio making its debut game, but I don’t even consider it a negative. The game compresses three months and a huge expanse of open space into an experience you can navigate over four or five hours, and the reuse helps turn a foreign landscape into a familiar home. It even created a weird sense of nostalgia as I was playing and realizing that the story was drawing to a conclusion. I’d gotten used to the place and was starting to regret having to leave.

But whether that was intentional or not, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a finite amount of work a small team of developers can do in a limited amount of time. It would’ve been a lot more efficient and practical to scope it down. Put all that time and money into the watch tower, which you know has to be the most developed and detailed, and start the game there. Sure, keep the flashbacks, but have them play out while you’re on day 1 of the story, exploring the space around the tower and learning the controls.

That’s how it would’ve gone in all the production-driven studios I’ve worked at. In fact, I’ve heard similar so many times that I wouldn’t have even proposed it. I’d have scoped it out from the start, convincing myself that the time and money would be better spent elsewhere, and asking for extra environments is pretentious indulgence. And instead, I’d have saved that energy for the inevitable argument that the beginning is too slow, and we gotta grab ’em from the start with a big action set-piece.

Which would be a huge loss, because the opening of Firewatch is absolutely crucial to the rest of the game. It’s establishing mood as much as plot and backstory. It has to make you feel as if you’ve withdrawn and escaped, isolated yourself miles away from any human contact. Your character mentions that he’s been hiking for two days, but without taking parts of that hike yourself, it’s just an abstract idea.

The changes in daylight show that passage of time, but what really drives it home is that you’re walking in a straight line through nondescript (but beautiful!) woods, in that period of time dilation at the beginning of a game when you have control of a story and are eager to drive it forward. There are interesting things to look at, but you’re not really exploring. You’re just traveling, and it’s taking a long time. In other words, you’re actually hiking.

For Firewatch to work, it’s got to nail that mood of isolation. It can’t just be a bunch of beautifully rendered environments, because without the context, it’d all be hollow. The game does a fantastic job of establishing a place — at first breathtaking, then familiar, then dangerous. But what makes it resonate as more than just world-building is that feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world except for two threadbare connections, one to a stranger in the present and one to a difficult past. And it would’ve lost something invaluable if they’d started with Henry in the middle of the woods without showing you how he got there.