A Review of “Firewatch” for ESL/EFL Teaching

  • This review assess the potential for game-design enhanced second language teaching and learning of Firewatch. For background reading about the philosophical and linguistic-theoretic foundation for the approach used in this review, see here and here.

Introduction

Games for second language teaching and learning (L2TL) are very often used for very limited purposes. Something like “fun” or motivating language use. But as we have seen, games can do much more than that. Importantly, games can do language, learning and culture.

One area of L2TL that games probably don’t come up very often in, is in fiction reading– or novels. In what way can games be used that traditional fiction reading may have filled? We know that games and their mechanics are motivated and given life by the context and narratives that surround them. Many of the most popular games are historical or science fiction and fantasy. Many of these games are ambitious in their scope (think Star Wars or Saving Private Ryan and Mass Effect or Call of Duty). But most academic fiction reading revolves around a different kind of reading. Something more like Angela’s Ashes or Hatchet. What do games have to offer in these personal story or smaller scope stories?

With the explosion of Indie games, a lot actually. Smaller game companies or just individual developers are tackling smaller scope stories that have all the impact of a Hatchet. One of these games is Firewatch, a game and story that, like Hatchet takes place in a forest and is largely driven by the psychological well-being and related actions of one person, alone in that forest.

Our questions then:

  • Is Firewatch a useful game for L2LT? Could it be used in similar ways to a novel like Hatchet, or in other ways?
  • In what ways is Firewatch not useful for L2TL? And if so, are these overcomeable?

To engage these questions, we’ll start with a description of the game and its community. We’ll discuss the major activities of the game and some examples. Additionally, how the players of the game interact both with the game and with each other in attendant communities. We will then provide a review of the game’s usefulness for L2TL and finally finish with a short resolution to some of the games problematic issues.

The Game

Firewatch is a single-player, first-person, narrative-driven, mystery adventure game created by the indie game development company Campo Santos. While they are new, members of the team have previously worked on many critically acclaimed games such as Fable 2, Spore and The Walking Dead among many others.

The player’s purpose in Firewatch is to simulate the work of being a fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Park in 1989 (making it a possible contender for L2TL Job simulator lessons). The player controls the actions of a specific character named Henry, a 40 something year old man whose recent past has driven him to take the isolating job. The real work of a fire lookout mostly revolves around sitting in your lookout tower, so instead, the game’s primary mechanic is giving the player specific places to go in the park in order to accomplish some goal. The task of the player then is to navigate the park, putting the game somewhere in the walking simulator genre. This primary task of finding places in the park is facilitated by the use of a compass and a map, tools useful for navigation in a forest.

Firewatch_20160207013538
A very minimalist HUD design, with the player’s primary task very, very clearly marked.

While the player goes about their primary task of finding places in the game world, a parallel task of making dialogue choices with Henry’s manager, Delilah are played out. Firewatch is split into distinct and abrupt “days”, which cover an entire summer, or about three months. The player however, only sees a handful of those days that tell the narrative story of the game. Delilah then, plays two important roles in the game. She gives the player the primary tasks of “go to x” navigation, gives help and hints if the player is lost and drives the narrative story forward by stoking and settling the fears that the player has in the game.

Firewatch_20160601014802
Bottom: transcript of spoken audio. Center: dialogue options the player can choose along with a long white line that become orangish-brown. When no more white it shown, the dialogue is over. Bottom left: control indicators for choosing a reply.

And that’s the game. In total it took me around 5 hours to complete for the first time. The simplicity of the mechanics help free the player to focus on the narrative aspects of the game, which motivate them to further explore the space and solve the mystery of the game. There are a few gatekeeping moments and it is not strictly an open world game, but for the most part of the game, the player is free to explore, and examine the game world. Henry even finds a camera, which encourages the player to both take “camera” photos, but also screenshots of the environment with its big and little secrets.

Firewatch has been very positively received by players, with a 88% very positive rating from over 20,000 reviews on Steam. It has been nominated for dozens of awards since its release and has won six, including “best indie game” of 2016 by the Golden Joystick Awards. For a more in-depth, and very spoilery, overview and critique of the game, see Errant Signal’s wonderful review.

The Game Community

Like many popular games, the players around this game can be found on most major video game communities. Because Steam is a primary platform for the game, many players also write reviews, make comments, complain and share screenshots there. Reddit also has a semi-active community devoted to the game. They mostly share in-game photos and real life photos that remind them of the game, along with links to video reviews. The content is mostly the same between the two communities.

steam firewatch.png
A typical screen from the Firewatch Steam page. Top Left: a community post related to the “delilah conspiracy” Top Mid: a recommendation Top Right: A community question about the game. Bottom: two visual posts, one a screenshot from the game and the second a video review in Spanish.

A primary activity of the game community relates to ideas of photography. Players are often invested in “photographs” or art that is taken in-game of a spectacular visual item. These generally are vistas or landscapes. Another popular item for sharing are screenshots or other art related to the fire lookout tower. Comments on these photos are mostly very simple one word responses, but what makes for a worthy in-game screenshot is a more complicated matter. Just any screenshot is not worthy of posting in the community, and there seems to be basic patterns or standards of aesthetic value in the community.

1479026927_TREE VII 4-3
The “Flame Tree” is another good object for screenshots

Being a narrative game however, many of the players are also very invested in the story of the game and as such, fan fiction is also a small but fairly active community. Fan fic primarily uses the platform Archive of our own, with a smaller set of storytellers on fanfiction.net.

Much of the fan fiction that has been written fits into one of two categories. The first is an exposition style that fills in the gaps of scenes from the game with Henry’s internal monologue. These borrow heavily from the game discourse itself, but give the reader more psychological knowledge and insight into the characters. The other style revolves around the relationship of Henry and Delilah. Because a primary theme of the game is ambiguity and vagueness, many players and fan fiction writers are interested in dispelling with some of that ambiguity.

firewatch fan fict
Example of a Henry/Delilah fanfic

Game-design Enhanced L2TL Review

Overall, Firewatch would be a very useful game for L2TL. It could easily be used to teach traditional grammar points like direct-giving and content-based classes revolving around photography in ways that give students more choice and an authentic community to interact with. Additionally, the game could replace traditional fiction-novel reading and writing because of its narrative-heavy direction.

At the same time, a few of the purposeful design choices that emphasize the vagueness and ambiguity of the theme could potentially cause difficulties. In particular, while the dialogues with Delilah do give important tasks and goals to the player, they can also be unimportant and easily ignored or skipped entirely by the player, which could lead to demotivation. A good Firewatch L2TL lesson will account and plan for these possible problems.

The following is my overall judgement and rating for each category of game-design enhanced TBLT.


Tasks and Goals| Not useful……………………………………………………X……….Useful

Tasks revolve around using a map and compass to navigate and using the mouse to choose dialogue options. The dialogue is vague and there aren’t wrong answers, but they give you hints for navigating the world.

√ Navigation is concrete and puzzle-like with correct answers and concrete tools. The navigation grounds the player in tasks and goals and the vague dialogue aids the player and moves the context forward.


Feedback| Not useful……………………………….X……………………………Useful

√ Direct feedback involves a signal from the game that an object is interactive. When the player approaches a rope or a removable item, a clear indication in text is presented directly in the center of the game. Additionally, when a player is using the map to navigate, the player’s current location is easily visible. Regularly checking the map triangulates the position and direction that the player is moving in.

√ | X A major theme of the game is ambiguity and part of that ambiguity is also conveyed by the feedback system. It isn’t clear whether or not you can die when you first start the game. None of the traditional health bars are in the game and there is a lot of vague conversation about dangerous things.


Interactivity| Not useful……………………………….X……………………………Useful

√ The game makes interactive aspects of the game similar and obvious but not out of place in the world. (no shading, no outlines or anything). They are shaped differently, colored differently. This adds to the puzzle-building of the world while also aiding the player in knowing how to move through the world by not having a ton of options.

√|X Deliah allows the player to be creative and build the narrative themselves by choosing within a limited amount of options. These narrative choices directly relate the to goals and tasks of the game, but are also intentionally vague to build suspense in the narrative.

X|√ The online community spends most of its time interacting in the LOOK of the game. Sharing photos and things that remind them of the games feel. But it is a little limited.


Context and Narrative| Not useful……………………………………………………X….Useful
√ The context of being a worker and doing jobs with a manager is an interesting part that most people can relate to. The language between them and other boss/worker situations is interesting.

√ The narrative of navigation and vagueness are important themes for life and the idea of escaping into the wilderness. Games themselves and other media are often ESCAPISM, but the plot of the game rejects this. There is no “loot” in escapism. Constructing the real world is more important.

√ The primary game mechanic along with its task and goals is navigating the world with a map and compass, which is situated well with both its time (the 1970s, no internet, GPS and place (a forest). While the game abounds in vagueness and ambiguity as a theme, the relationship between the primary game mechanic and the game narrative is clear.


Motivation| Not useful…………………………………X………………………….Useful

√ The plot points directly tie into the navigation tasks such that listening carefully to Delilah and the vagueness of the conversations is and can be very important to completing the tasks. This makes even the *walking* to be engaging. Besides just looking around, there will be plot points to discover by reporting information to Delilah and listening to what she says.

X While there are no fail states, the *puzzles* are good enough and the game is short enough that you never get bored (unlike mycafe, for example). By the time the game is over, it’s unlikely that you’ve exhausted your fuel. If the player can’t follow the plot well though, it would become tedious.

Somewhat Useful and Less Useful aspects and some ideas about what to do to about it

As mentioned in the overall review, interactivity and motivation are two potential sites of concern for L2TL. In my mind, the core problem between these two categories is largely a single idea, how to tell a story about vagueness without 1) taking all the player’s choices away narratively and 2) not losing the player’s interest by being to vague.

The game design itself tries to fight these problems in a few ways. First, the game creates player buy-in by giving them a choice in co-creating Henry’s backstory. The choices are necessarily limited (the game has a pre-determined story), but there are a few choices and the player must actually select them. Before the game even properly begins, the player has made choices about the direction of the game’s narrative. Throughout the game, as the player interacts with Delilah, the player is co-creating who Henry is. What his personality is and what his relationship with Delilah is. However, this perceived choice is largely superficial. The game has an underlying story that is linear and will be told or the game will not finish. Either/or. If the player feels this disconnect too strongly, they may be tempted to skip the dialogues altogether. This would probably be demotivating and may also lead them to miss hints and tasks.

Second, the game is filled with small secrets (such as finding the baby turtle) that surprisingly satisfying and trigger a set of optional dialogue choices. These b-stories that are not directly tied to the direction-giving tasks and goals are potentially motivating (A; if they are found and B; if they found in the right way).

In L2TL, the exact way the students interact with the game can possibly help with these problems. One possibility is letting students play the game in pairs. Like other jigsaw TBLT tasks, playing the game together will allow the students to split the cognitive load of 1) playing the game and 2) reading and processing the dialogues. By doing this type of game-play in the beginning, the students may become more aware of how to play the game earlier on in the game and get invested in the narrative. Latter, when they play alone, they will have a head-start on the specific task-learning skills necessary to succeed.

Conclusion

Strongly narrative-driven games can sometimes be derided in the gaming community as not proper games, but instead some sort of interactive story. The argument (and who gets to decide) is the same Humpty-dumpty argument most media engages in. Nonetheless, Firewatch is, I think, the type of narrative-heavy game which incorporates its primary game mechanic seamlessly into the context and tasks such that it is hard to describe it anything other than a game.

The same features that Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) mention as being the critical features of games for improving TBLT are what Firewatch does right. Having clear and performable tasks and goals that build throughout the game, motivated by a clear narrative and context of use.

Next, a game-design enhanced TLBT lesson using Firewatch.

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