firewatch and abzu

Let me tell you a little story about two video games... one based in fire and words... the other in water and silence...

There may be a few mild spoilers, but I'll try and avoid anything major.

firewatch
Firewatch, from Camp Santo, is the story of Henry, who is spending the Summer of 1989 in the hills of Wyoming working as a fire lookout.

His only human connection is Delilah, his supervisor and fellow lookout who works in the next tower over. And he can only contact her over the radio.

On your first day he has to go and reprimand a couple of campers for letting off fireworks... and things just get stranger from then on.

As I said at the top of the post, this is a game that's very much about words. Speaking with Delilah involves a dialogue tree, so you can choose one of a set of Henry's responses depending on the situation (and interestingly, choosing no response is also a valid one, but sometimes that will just play a response anyway).

I've played through the game three times (well, all of it twice, I had a problem with a save file at one point, so I couldn't finish the second playthrough) and each time I've made different choices in the conversations... it doesn't make massive changes to the game itself but it does modify a number of Delilah's responses (and where and when she tells you things) later in the game.

The first time I played it I didn't go exploring, I went where the game was sending me, checking the map as I went. After I'd finished I discovered a list of events from the game that never happened in my playthrough. Which is a pretty strong incentive for starting again.

It's also got something I haven't come across in a game before, an audio commentary. There are trigger points all across the map that will play a couple of minutes of audio from the developers and cast about the back story to what's going on or some part of the development.

Likewise, a strong incentive for playing through the game for a second time.

And even knowing what's going on didn't hamper my enjoyment. Yes, it did remove some of the suspense I felt during the first playthrough, but it also meant that I could ignore that and just lose myself in the relationship and the visuals.

This is an incredibly beautiful game... it's not trying for hyper-realism, but it's real enough to feel like you're there. And the first person perspective definitely helps with that. One of the things that it does incredibly beautifully is lighting effects... from dawn to dusk and back again, the light and the colours of the sky are, on occasion, breathtaking.

It also has one of the most interesting opening mechanics in any game I've played. It makes complete sense to get you in the world and into Henry's head, but it's also incredibly simple and while I don't think it should be in every game, I can see it being used effectively in a variety of games.

I would recommend playing with headphones... not so much because of the dialogue or sound effects (although that does help), but for the music, which is haunting and beautiful and so very fitting for the tone of this game. And, full disclosure, I've been listening to the music while I finish up this post.

The movement is fairly simple, and since Henry is a middle aged guy, he's not jumping up walls like a superhero. He has a walk, a jog (thankfully), he can climb onto ledges as well as certain walls, and he can get up and down certain slopes with the help of rope. But there was often points where I would bump up against a spot with an invisible wall and think "he could bloody well get up that" (or over that, as the case may be).

The game is much more of a "walking and looking at things and talking" game than it is an action game... I wouldn't even really say that there are puzzles to solve... but there is a mystery to unravel. There is also a fair amount of backtracking, going over the same sections over and over. Not so much that it gets monotonous (but when I was doing the commentary there seemed to be a lot more of that going on).

It's not a happy game, but it is a beautiful one, and one that is well worth your time.

abzu
ABZÛ is as different as it's possible to be from Firewatch.

It's also the spiritual and literal successor to Journey... Matt Nava was the art director for Journey and is the creative director for Giant Squid Studios, who created this game.

There is a lot about this game that can be said to have been influenced by Journey... the silent, faceless protagonist, the linear style of the world, the backstory told through symbols and mosaics, the creatures that you can catch a ride on, the architecture of the buildings you discover, an innate sense of mysticism and spirituality... and last but by no means least, the beautiful score by Austin Wintory (who also did the score for Banner Saga and Assassin's Creed Syndicate, both of which I've played). Again, this is a game I would recommend headphones for.

The game also makes each area feel unique, similar to the way Journey did, but much more so. Between colour, light and creatures, each of the zones your wetsuit clad avatar moves through are distinct. And they're also incredibly beautiful... like Firewatch the use of light and colour in this game is sensational. There were more than a few moments that made me stop and took my breath away.

And like Journey, it gets quite dark before it returns to full on joy and light at the end.

Unlike Journey, where you're essentially alone except for occasionally running into one other character and the odd cloth beast every now and again, Abzu is essentially teeming with (sea) life. One of the most interesting things about that is the moments of meditation (no, literally, there are moments where you can chose to sit on top of a statue and meditate), which takes the camera away from you and picks a fish to focus on and you can either let it follow that or flick on to the next one. It's something I could see myself putting on if I just wanted some colour and movement on the TV.

The thing that I don't think they really nailed was the movement. Yes, when everything came together and I hit the button in the right sequence, she would pick up speed and really swim along with style and grace, but it was very easy to either be going the wrong direction or slowing to a slow swim for no apparent reason, or turning a complete loop instead of heading either up or down. I also lost count of the number of times I essentially faceplanted into the sand.

And I only discovered in the last section of the game that one of the buttons made her do a somersault in place. I don't remember there being an on screen instruction telling you about that.

The controls aren't hard... one trigger to "dive" (which actually means to swim forward, and it took me a little while before I understood that one), the opposite trigger to hitch a ride on one of the sea creatures, a button to give you a speed boost, one to interact and the final one to do the aforementioned flip.

I'm going to guess it was partly me not quite getting the controls... or maybe I needed to flip the controls (but I tried that and that felt worse), but I often sent her off on a tangent, or couldn't get her to go exactly where I needed her to go.

Comparing it to something like Lego Dimensions (unfair I know, but I've been playing a lot of that), which has both swimming and flying controls that are not that dissimilar, that is pretty damn simple by comparison. This just felt a little too sensitive or inclined to go out of control.

And I full acknowledge that that could just be me being a spaz.

A little like Journey, this is a game mostly of simple puzzles and exploration... and just taking a little extra time to absorb the creatures around you. I don't think I've come across a game like this which actively encourages you to sit and take a moment (or two or three or five) to just exist in that place with those other living creatures.

Like Journey before it, this game definitely knows how to send you away on a high and feeling good. It didn't have the emotional impact of it's predecessor though... but that's okay too.

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