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Video Games Where Hearts, Not Guns, Drive the Action


The new video game “Firewatch,” set in the Wyoming wilderness, is an interactive drama. Credit Campo Santo

One of the top-selling video games of the past month or so doesn’t have any shooting or puzzles, and almost no jumping. It’s called “Firewatch,” and it’s an interactive drama about two lonely fire lookouts in Wyoming who substitute talk for action.

Think more Richard Linklater, less Michael Bay.

Yet, soon after its release last month, “Firewatch” hit No. 1 on Steam, the largest marketplace for PC games, and stayed in the Top 10 for a week. The game has sold about a half-million copies on PlayStations and computers in its first month, according to its creators. It’s the latest example — and among the biggest hits — in an emerging category of video game that, despite its popularity, hasn’t even settled on a name.

It may seem strange that a video game that replaces conventional challenges with thought-provoking exploration and story has gone mainstream. But the reality is that success for this type of game is not all that unusual anymore. Similar games — “Dear Esther,” “Gone Home,” “The Stanley Parable” and others — have received not only acclaim but also commercial success.


An image from the game “Dear Esther.” Credit The Chinese Room

“Firewatch” belongs to a genre that’s sometimes called the “walking simulator” — a label that designers have adopted with a mixture of ambivalence, irony and enthusiasm. These video games aren’t going to sweep away the likes of “Grand Theft Auto” or “Call of Duty,” franchises with billions of dollars in revenue and tens of millions of copies sold. But they have carved out a durable niche in the marketplace among connoisseurs.

“The fact that ‘Firewatch’ doesn’t feel 100 percent foreign to anyone is definitely something that helped it out,” said Jake Rodkin, one of the founders of Campo Santo, the 11-member studio in San Francisco that designed and published the game.

In “Firewatch,” a 40-something man named Henry decides to spend the summer of 1989 working for the forestry service, to avoid facing his wife, who has early onset dementia. Henry — voiced by Rich Sommer, who played the ad executive Harry Crane on “Mad Men” — does not dodge falling trees or escape from dangerous blazes. He is never really in peril, no matter what the player does. There is nothing to fight, no ciphers to crack.

Instead, players roam the Wyoming wilderness and choose dialogue for Henry to exchange over a hand-held radio with Delilah, another forest ranger. Players can make other small choices, like whether Henry wears his wedding ring in the morning before a hike, or when and where he takes photographs using a disposable camera.

The game’s players are exploring Henry’s emotional range rather than testing the limits of his physical agency, Mr. Rodkin said. “The place that a player is expressive in ‘Firewatch’ is with what they say and when they say it, and what they withhold,” he added.

Techniques like these, once considered avant-garde, are popping up even in blockbuster action games from the likes of Sony and Microsoft.


An image from “Gone Home.” Credit Fullbright

“Uncharted 4,” one of this year’s most expensive and anticipated action games, will feature more than one section that might be thought of as a walking simulator, said Neil Druckmann, a creative director and writer at Sony’s Naughty Dog studio. (The second “Uncharted” game included a stroll through a Tibetan village.)

“I’m very curious to see the reaction,” Mr. Druckmann said. “It has a very different pace to it. We’ve kind of fallen in love with these kinds of sequences.”

By most accounts, the earliest walking simulator was “Dear Esther” (2008), which began as a modification of “Half-Life 2” — one of the most beloved and influential first-person shooters — before being expanded for commercial release. In it, players wander an island and listen to a disembodied man read from letters to his wife.

Walking simulators incorporate design elements of the first-person shooter, which helps to make them immersive. Players feel they have become different people in another world beyond the screen. In “Firewatch,” the controls that normally are used for shooting are adapted for selecting dialogue.

“You’re pressing the buttons that you press all the time in video games, but seeing a pudgy middle-aged guy, and a hand with a wedding ring on it,” Mr. Rodkin said.

Any standout shooter game invests heavily in the design of its world, said Dan Pinchbeck, the creative director at the Chinese Room, the British studio behind “Dear Esther.” “That sense of anticipation, of quiet moments of being in the world, is so fundamental to their design,” he said. “We just kind of exaggerated it.”

Designers of these games do not see themselves as working in opposition to mainstream interactive entertainment. Rather, they seek to distill part of the core experience of video games to its essence.

“We’re trying to capture what we love about games,” said Davey Wreden, the writer of “The Stanley Parable.”

“I played ‘Half-Life 2’ and I thought, What if you had a game where it was nothing but the walking bits?” Mr. Wreden said.

The genre’s family resemblance to shooting games sometimes provokes controversy. In “Gone Home,” players learn about a romance between two teenage girls by rummaging a 1990s house in Portland, Ore. The game was acclaimed by critics and designers, receiving a Game Developers Choice Award from industry colleagues. Still, a subset of players complained enough about the dearth of action in it that six months after its release, its writer and designer, Steve Gaynor, gave a lecture that he titled, “Why Is Gone Home a Game?”

Walking simulators are recognizably video games, said Frank Lantz, the director of the game design program at New York University. (Mr. Wreden’s “The Beginner’s Guide” is his favorite — “a masterpiece.”)

“I think people who are reacting in this knee-jerk way are the equivalent of the philistines who hated modern art because it did not have representative images in it,” he added.


NYT > Technology

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