This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Firewatch & Layers of Fear.
I'm not saying video gamers have become a sedentary bunch, but twenty years ago, simulators were for getting a life as an Olympic athlete or daring heroic pilot whereas now most of them seem to be about being someone who is capable of getting off the couch and bumming around the house. So Let's Talk Walk... ing... simulators.
Let's not fall into the trap of saying walking simulators keep popping up because they're lazy. Actually they're a bold new form of storytelling that are coincidentally much, much easier to make than a game with actual gameplay, in the same way that it's really easy to make a bread sandwich. Let's do something we haven't done in a while and put the two most recent walking simulators head-to-head: Firewatch, a dramatic character-based experience set against the backdrop of watching fires; and Layers of Fear, a spooky horror set against the backdrop of horrific spookiness that just came off Early Access.
Quick question: who the fuck buys a story-based experience on Early Access, getting the whole thing spoiled for you while it's still crap? "Um, it's about supporting creators, Yahtzee, you wouldn't understand. Now excuse me while I eat this handful of dry spaghetti!"
Firewatch follows the adventures of Henry, a stubby Zack Galifianakis lookalike who takes a job as a lookout at a national park in order to escape from the difficulties of his life and forms a verbal relationship with his supervisor as a mysterious intrigue develops.
Meanwhile, the premise behind Layers of Fear is "Isn't a shame Silent Hills got canceled?" It's essentially the playable teaser for Silent Hills stretched out to an entire house, not just two rooms of it. You're a tortured artist alone in your spooky mansion and it's swiftly hinted there was a wife and child at some point, so yeah, you probably murdered them or ate them or strapped them to the couch and forced them to watched televised snooker until they lost the ability to reason, and that's why you're now haunted by visions of men wearing very tacky waistcoats.
So if we're rewarding points, I'll give the first impression prize to Firewatch, because it's not immediately clear what it's building up to, if you're in for horror or drama or just two middle-aged hairy outdoors people sexting each other all summer, whereas Layers of Fear immediately looks like we've got on the Haunted Mansion Ride at Disneyland.
Wouldn't be much of a walking simulator without it! We're saving the sitting-on-the-couch simulator for when the average BMI goes up again. So Henry's task is to wander around the park completing the objectives that his boss gives him, which range from "go to a place and look at a thing" to "look to a place and go to a thing", but that's only if you're one of those tiresome squares who see life as nothing more than a to-do list. You can also explore the park freely and look for secret things, which is the to-do list for cool people.
The main purpose of walking in Layers of Fear is to bum around the room inspecting the furniture until something spooky happens, after which you leave the room by the door you came in, except now it leads to a different room because illogical architecture is spooky. Well, before it's happened ninety bloody times, anyway, and then it just becomes the new logic, and it would've been spookier if the doors went back to being sensible because then I would suspect they were up to something. Still I did notice that our protagonist walks with a limp, which was a neat little background storytelling detail, but then I wondered why I was noticing something like that, and concluded it was because I'd explored three hundred identical drawing rooms and was more bored than a lesbian at a sausage festival.
3: (What Grudgingly Passes for) Gameplay
Both Layers of Fire and Fearwatch make the usual halfhearted burbling sound that walking simulators make for want of a challenge, that being "find all the documents", the kind of challenge one can enjoy at a fraction of the cost by spending the afternoon tidying up your home office. Firewatch spices it up with "find all the conversations," as you eagerly radio in to report every bit of scenery and discarded rubber johnny.
Otherwise, Layers of Fear's main challenge is to summon the courage to keep playing in the face of an endless sequence of cheap jumps and scares, which aren't difficult to predict after a while. There is no end to the game's fascination with making things happen behind you. At one point, the words "DON'T LOOK BACK" appeared on a wall, and there was a creepy noise behind me, and I could almost smell the game's disappointment as I ignored it completely and kept walking.
Firewatch's more open-ended presentation lends itself to orienteering gameplay, which became a lot more interesting after I found the option to turn off the map marker showing precisely where you are, but I only found it during the second run-through and by then I'd bummed around the park enough that it was as familiar to me as my home office, although with slightly less organic life growing in it.
Firewatch's dialogue-based storytelling did draw me in; there's a lot of character to it and quite a lot of variation based on what order you do things and how much about Henry's personal life you reveal to the voice in the box. It must be jolly complicated, as evidenced by the occasional fart, like when the lady started yelling about finishing her crossword halfway into the deepest point of the scary intrigue. But I found myself disappointed by the explanation of the mystery by the end.
"Oh, all mysteries are disappointing once explained, Yahtzee. That's why no-one listens when you explain that the Loch Ness Monster was your grandad doing the backstroke with his knob out." I know, but it didn't help that the main explanation was given on a very poor quality tape recording so I could only work out half the words! That's part of the reason I went through it a second time: to put the fucking subtitles on for that bit, and also to see if the actual events of the plot change at all if you picked different dialogue choices and actions, the short answer being "like fuck they do." So the overall payoff is a profound feeling of anticlimax.
Meanwhile in Layers of Fear, it turns out your wife's dead and you're probably in Hell or something! Bloody typical, am I right, fellas?
The problem with Firewatch is it's the kind of game where I'll say "I don't like it because X" and everyone will say "X is the whole point!" I'd say it looks alright and the dialogue is strong if occasionally hovering around the city limits of Sarcastic Clever Clogs Joss Whedon Town, but I left feeling underwhelmed 'cause nothing much happened and what did happened didn't mean anything, and they'll say "Ooh, that's the point. It's a mediation of the futility of escaping the petty miseries of modern life." Yeah, but I can get the same feeling from immersing my head in a bowl of water and my doctor told me to stop doing that!
As for Layers of Fear, like P.T., it's not much more than a showcase of spooky set pieces, but P.T. never claimed to be a complete game! Makes me think of Evil Within; you're trying to make an entire game out of a delusional nightmare sequence and it gets boring 'cause it never lets up and the nightmare becomes the norm. Bid us to sit down and pull the chair away as we do so, but don't keep doing it. Do it once, then apologize, let us sit for a while, wait until we're calm, then throw spiders at our face and burn the house down! That's what I do and I've never heard complaints...not coherent ones, anyway.
- The watcher on the walls: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Grandad never came forward about the Loch Ness Monster thing 'cos he was afraid of having to explain why his knob had a little mouth and eyes on the end
- This video brought to you by the spider marketing board