March 23, 2017

Unravel, Firewatch, and the Great Outdoors

Unravel is an extremely high quality Swedish nature simulator and Firewatch is a stylised but evocative representation of the Wyoming wilderness.

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Sudden urges to fly halfway around the world to Wyoming.

I was going to make the joke that this was the only thing I got from the games, but that would be harsh, because they’re both absolutely fantastic in other ways, too. Unravel’s story is beautiful and the protagonist, a small doll made of yarn called, appropriately enough, Yarny, is just too cute. Firewatch is a nuanced tale of mystery and features two great characters – Henry and Delilah – who feel very real. Both of them come extremely highly recommended.

However, the nature part is what I want to talk about for the moment.

I was basically brought up in the outdoors. I am lucky enough to have travelled a lot in my life, and whenever it was with my parents the protocol was to fly into a city and then get out of there as quickly as possible to some stunning wilderness or another. And when we were at home there were constant weekend trips to the woods and hills around where I live.

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One of our favourite spots.

Then, of course, when I was a teenager I had a bad reaction to all of this “outdoors” stuff and decided I didn’t see the point in walking unless you were actually going somewhere. If we were travelling abroad, I would usually participate (except that notable time that I spent a South African safari playing Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations. Oops. I promise I looked up when there was something there that wasn’t just dry grassland). But if my family was going for a picnic on a weekend I would often ask to stay behind. I would spend a lot of this downtime writing or playing video games, and those things are clearly still important to me, so it’s not something that I regret. However, as I got older I began to appreciate the outdoors more again.

Or, I thought that I did. It wasn’t until I played Unravel and Firewatch, back to back, in the same 48 hours, that I remembered what it really was to appreciate all the little things that I used to notice: the beetles crawling around; the behaviour of birds; the sounds of footsteps and insects and nothing else.

In Unravel, these details captured me because they were, for want of a better word, unnecessary. I mean this in the best possible way – they were extra work for the developers at ColdWood Interactive that weren’t vital to the game’s story or setting, but they certainly helped create the world, and the constant appearance of new animations rather than recycled sprites was beautiful. I read an interview with the creator of Unravel, Martin Sahlin, before playing the game, in which he talked about how they had made one of the crabs incredibly detailed, mandibles and all, simply because it was fun and they could. I’m absolutely enamoured by the work that they put into all this detail – it’s my favourite thing about Unravel.

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There are three different mushroom species in this shot alone, among everything else.

And then my appreciation for all of this effort took an outward turn with Firewatch, which reminded me of childhood memories in weirdly specific ways. For example, my family and I once visited Canada and spent a lot of time in the forests, listening to a ridiculous amount of Africa by Toto. So when protagonist Henry sings a line of this song to himself I was transported back there with such force that I had to take a break because I lost focus on the game itself. By the second half, it became a story about other people rather than my obscure childhood memories, which was actually nice because the way that it had been finding tiny thing after tiny thing to remind me of my past was beginning to freak me out more than a little. Nonetheless, this first half, and the setting throughout, reminded me of what good times I’d had as a kid in the remoteness of various forests and made me want to get back out there, along with the desire to appreciate in real life all the little things that I had found and loved in Unravel.

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Bonus: Turt Reynolds

The feeling was a strange one. It’s not even that I’m a particularly indoors-y person nowadays – I work as an ecologist which involves a lot of meetings in muddy fields; wading into ponds and rivers; and climbing trees (this is my favourite part and I don’t get to do as much of this as I would like; climbing into spidery lofts, on the other hand, I also have to do and would like to do a lot less of). I also take walks down to the park and the river a couple of times a week, usually with a podcast or audiobook to keep me company. But this new appreciation for what I was experiencing during these outdoor pursuits was squarely from the feelings invoked by Unravel and Firewatch.

Certainly the feelings came in part from nostalgia. In greater part, they probably came from the fact that I didn’t have to experience the negative parts of the outdoors. In Unravel there are mosquitos and a snowstorm, but I didn’t actually get itchy or cold. I didn’t have to be cut off from human contact like in Firewatch. I was free to focus only on the parts that I enjoyed.

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Getting lost in Firewatch is much better than getting lost in real life.

But these feelings have nonetheless impacted my behaviour outside of games. I’ve made a greater effort to get out of the house for no particular reason, and to take routes to errands that allow me to walk among trees and by the water. It’s only been a few days, but it’s been good for me both physically and mentally. I’m not one to tell other people what to do with themselves, but getting myself outside and moving around has always been good for me – but only when I don’t have to force myself. This new inspiration is making it so that I don’t feel that I have to go for a walk, I simply want to.

And that this push to go enjoy the outdoors comes from video games, traditionally considered the world’s most indoors activity, makes me particularly happy. I love the way that games can be the opposite of insular if you look at them right. They’re at their best when you approach them with context and nuance and then allow them to be part of the context and nuance of the rest of what you do.

Now I’m off to work, which today means climbing some trees and wading into a river. I’m excited to use the inspiration from Unravel and Firewatch to make it more enjoyable, and I can’t wait to explore more of the outdoors in real life and in more games to come.

Firewatch screenshots from www.firewatchgame.com.

Jay
About Jay 18 Articles
Writer, gamer, human, though not necessarily in that order. Both happiest and at my most critical with a controller in my hand. You can email me at jayplaysthings@gmail.com.
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