Personal Update: What’s To Come

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Hey gang. This isn’t a particularly planned or structured article, as you can tell by me starting this out with “hey gang” instead of getting to the point.

May’s going to be a bit of an odd month for me, and for the work I do, so I thought I would give you an update and a quick overview of where I’m at right now, and what will be going on in May.

Firstly, the first couple of weeks are dominated by University work. It’s been non-stop since about January and I am so, so burned out right now, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I have three assignments left, two of which are practically done and ready to hand in. The last one’s a pretty big one, but after that I’m done. As in, done forever. No more Uni, no more coursework, no more assignments, no more deadlines, and, most importantly, nothing getting in the way of games writing.

I wanted to say thanks to you for being so patient with me during this. Last year I was able to pretty effectively balance Destructoid work and Uni work, but your final year is always the busiest one thanks to the dissertation/thesis/final project/whatever you want to call it. I’ve felt bad about not being able to do much, and it’s the primary reason why the Let’s Play Video Games podcast has been on hold for so long, but that will all change this month.

Once Uni’s done and dusted, I’m taking a short break in the middle of the month. Maybe a week, maybe two, it depends on how bad my workaholic tendencies get during that time and drag me back, but I need some major downtime. I’ll probably still be around on Twitter, but I am banning myself from Google Docs and Word during that time for my own sake.

After that, I’m going to be doing a major overhaul and relaunch of my Patreon (patreon.com/parlock). New branding, new description, the works. I want to focus on writing, Youtube, podcasting, streaming, basically just do anything and everything I can to keep afloat through the big scary world of “full-time games media”. I’m not sure if it’ll pay off just yet, but knowing how rad LPVG fans are, I’m not bricking it quite as much as I probably should be.

I’m not quite sure about what goals I want yet, but I know one of them will be a weekly Joe’s Animal Corner video series where I just talk about animals. Because if there’s one thing a games journalist should talk about, it’s animals. I also want to do a Youtube series of Zoo Tycoon 2 for the same reason.

I’ll still be at LPVG of course, and I’ve got some exciting other opportunities I’ll hopefully be able to talk about soon. I’ve got some ideas for large projects too, but I’m not thinking too hard about them this close after turning in a dissertation. I want to get content up daily if possible, multiple times per week if not. I also want to include friends like Laura and Vikki wherever I can too, but again, that’s specifics I haven’t got nailed down just yet. Go let them know you want them to do stuff with me ;).

So to sum up: May’s mostly going to be quiet from me work-wise, but will end in a big bang. Big Patreon relaunch, big plans for content, and the biggest naps I have ever had literally ever. It’s going to be great.

Thanks for the patience, have a picture of a bear. ❤

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I’m Scared of Stairs, It’s Not A Joke

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Climacophobia and bathmophobia are two terms you may have heard quite a lot of in the last week or so. Broadly speaking, they’re both defined as the fear of stairs. Bathmophobia is the fear of stairs and slopes in general, while climacophobia is the fear of climbing or falling down them.

The only people who’d ever hear these terms are people who trawl “weird phobia” sites for interesting things like triskadecaphobia (fear of the number 13) or hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliaphobia (the fear of long words). But after it was rumoured that the President of the United States may suffer from bathmophobia, news sites and Twitter feeds blew up with jokes, mockery and jibes about how daft it is to be scared of stairs.

Mocking people in positions of power is always important, especially when the person in power is someone like him. But when that sneering is due to something that hits quite as close to home to me as this, I feel like I should give some context for what exactly it is people are mocking.

So hi: I’ve got climacophobia. I’m scared of stairs.

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According to my parents, I have always had problems with them. I regularly used to fall down stairs at school (partially due to my joint problems), but it wasn’t until a school trip that my general difficulties with stairs really turned into an actual phobia. The entire year group had gone to a museum where two of the floors were connected by a flight of backless stairs suspended over large, open space on the ground floor.

I’ve never been scared of heights specifically, but there was something about those stairs, their flimsy-looking wooden planks for steps, and the sheer drop it was suspended over that made something click in my mind. Add to that 100+ bustling children stuck in a crush on them and I lost it. At age 12 or 13 there I was, stood having a full on sobbing panic attack in front of everybody, unable to move or think or breathe.

Even if I couldn’t explain it at the time, I was utterly convinced the second I step foot on those stairs that they would collapse and everybody would die. I spent the rest of the day taking elevators instead, and had a lovely time once that episode was over, but the phobia didn’t go away.

For years any stairs at all would fill me with dread. The worst were backless ones, much like that museum’s. If I could see the drop, I’d turn into a petrified, hyperventilating wreck. Lessons at school had to be moved if there was what I deemed a “bad” staircase leading to it, and even the ones at home made me nervous. Holidays, day trips, school trips, hospital visits, anywhere stairs could be were an absolute ordeal.

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Phobias are, by definition, irrational. It wasn’t potentially falling down stairs that bothered me, as I’ve done that enough times and come out of it unharmed to be used to that. I was worried about the stairs themselves giving out from underneath me. In my mind, every staircase was put there by a cowboy builder who’d kept them together with celotape, or the years of erosion that I had imagined would finally give way that exact moment and crumble. I didn’t trust buildings, and I certainly didn’t trust the people I’d never met who’d built them.

I’m writing all this in the past tense, but the truth is that the fear still exists today. Forcing myself to confront stairs in the years since has helped reduce it from a full-blown phobia, but I still have to focus on breathing whenever a particularly nasty staircase rears its ugly head. It’s no longer causing me to have an emotional breakdown like it did at the museum that day, but it’s still deeply unsettling and even upsetting for me.

Don’t stop mocking the President. Don’t stop challenging him, don’t stop engaging in the political process and don’t stop your activism, because they’re important, especially now. But remember that when you mock him for a phobia he may or may not have, you’re also mocking hundreds of people struggling to confront their fears. Phobias exist, and people know they’re irrational. We get they’re silly and funny to others, but that doesn’t stop the panic attacks or the embarrassment they can cause.

“S**z If You Want To”: Watch Dogs 2, Ableism, and Cultural Ignorance

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Content warnings: multiple uses of a variety of ableist slurs and descriptions of ableist bullying.

Watch Dogs was a cool game that feel victim to its own overbearing hype, so when Ubisoft released the first trailer for Watch Dogs 2 and showed off it more light-hearted, teen-focused style, I was immediately excited to see where the series could go.

Except the trailer had one huge problem: the song. The trailer was backed by N.E.R.D’s song “Spaz”, which immediately put me, as a disabled person outside of America, on the defensive. It’s a word that keeps popping up in the media, often by creators with little to no understanding of the word’s international connotations.

Outside of North America, “spaz” is a slur often aimed at people with disabilities, particularly those with conditions that cause either cognitive or motor impairments. It comes from “spastic”, a term that historically has been used to describe people with Cerebral Palsy. A lot of its history as a slur comes from the appearance of Joey Deacon, a man with Cerebral Palsy, on the children’s show Blue Peter.

His appearance and mannerisms were quickly used by children as a way to insult each other, and eventually “spastic” gave birth to further words like “spaz”, “spack”, “spazzer” and “spacka”. From anecdotal evidence of those I’ve discussed it with, the word’s also grown into a slur in other European countries, and potentially in Australia too. The UK’s leading disability charity, Scope, was renamed from “The Spastics Society”, and using “spastic” in a medical context has all but vanished now.

(I hate this video, by the way.)

However, this progression of a medical term to offensive slur didn’t really happen in the States. The term was initially linked to disability, much like elsewhere, however, it’s since become more of a phrase to mean clumsy or erratic. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t much better than tweens using “gay” to mean “bad”, even if it isn’t technically considered a slur in its context.

“But Joe, Watch Dogs 2 is developed in Canada by a French publisher for a game set in America! It isn’t a slur there! What’s the problem?” The problem is the game is being marketed worldwide, including to countries where it is considered offensive. The trailer was released globally online, and pieces of media released internationally should consider how the words it uses are accepted in different cultures. The line “spaz if you want to” being repeated constantly doesn’t actually add anything to the trailer, and any other song could’ve been used, and nobody would’ve cared. The song adds nothing to the trailer in the States that no other song could’ve done, and it causes more issues internationally.

I have a disability which affects my motor skills and muscle tone (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). I have very poor proprioception, and because of that, I did badly in PE (Gym class) in school. I didn’t have the stamina or the coordination to do what the other children were doing, and so because children are probably demons from the ninth circle of hell born to torment all those who are even the slightest bit different, that of course ended up in a lot of bullying.

I was called everything from “spaz” to “spack” to “Forrest Gump”, both in PE and outside of it. One time, in particular, we had to do long-distance running, and I remember the entire class decided to run alongside me mock-singing “Is This the Way to Amarillo”. Ableist bullying, like any other bullying, hurts. It being condoned or tolerated by teachers because they thought it might “push me harder” hurt (quite literally too, thanks to my condition). While I’ve gotten over it as I’ve grown up, seeing people uncritically use, or even worse defend, the use of those words that were used against me, feels wrong.

Ubisoft globally releasing a trailer – a commercial product trying to drum up interested purchasers – that uses language that disparages probably a large proportion of its consumer base, is, quite plainly, ignorant. Words have different meanings in different countries, sure, but when a French company releases a globally available trailer, there has to be some consideration that the content of the trailer isn’t needlessly, unjustifiably offensive.

Watch Dogs 2 looks great already, Ubisoft. We didn’t need to “spaz if we want to” as well…

The Disabled Gaming Resource

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Being a fan of videogames while being disabled can be difficult. When we’re not flat-out ignored, the resources we need to enjoy our hobby are often scarce and difficult to find.

To help rectify that, here is a collection of resources, tools, and communities, both for those with disabilities and those who want to make things easier for us.

I hope this list of resources helps. If there is anything I have missed, please tweet @JoeParlock or email parlock (at) outlook (dot) com, and I will try and add it to the list.

Please note: While I am not able to personally verify every resource on this list, I have been sure to exclude defunct or too-small organisations.

I also do not claim to necessarily share the personal politics, opinions or beliefs of anyone on this list. We all just work toward the same common goal: making lives easier for disabled gamers.

I’m a disabled gamer, or know a disabled gamer, and need help:

SpecialEffect (UK) – http://www.specialeffect.org.uk/

AbleGamers – http://www.ablegamers.com/

CanAssist (Canada) – http://www.canassist.ca/EN/main/programs/technologies-and-devices/hobbies-and-leisure/gaming-controller.html

Accessable Games – http://www.accessablegames.com/

MERU – http://meru.org.uk/

The Controller Project – http://thecontrollerproject.com/

OneSwitch – http://www.oneswitch.org.uk/

I want reviews of games that take disabled accessibility into account:

Unstoppable Gamer – http://www.unstoppablegamer.com/category/accessible-game-reviews/

GameCritics.com – http://gamecritics.com/

I am a developer and want to make my game more accessible:

Includification – http://www.includification.com/

Brannon Zahand’s accessibility guide – http://www.brannonz.com/accessibility/disabilities.html

BBC’s Accessible Game Standards (more for web-based games) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/futuremedia/accessibility/games.shtml

IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group – http://igda-gasig.org/about-game-accessibility/game-accessibility-top-ten/

Game Accessibility Guidelines – http://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/

Alan Zucconi’s Colour Blindness tutorial – http://www.alanzucconi.com/2015/12/16/color-blindness/

I am a disabled gamer and want to find other disabled people to play with:

/r/DisabledGamers – https://www.reddit.com/r/disabledgamers/

AbleGamers Steam Group – http://steamcommunity.com/groups/ablegamers

Disabled Gamers and Friends – http://steamcommunity.com/groups/GamingHeals

I want to read more about gaming with disabilities:

Antagonise the Horn’s disabled writing masterpost – http://antagonizethehorn.com/2015/01/28/disability-and-gaming-resource-list/

My own collection of writing – https://joeparlock.wordpress.com/tag/disability/

 

Review: Dying Light: The Following

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I loved Dying Light. It took the light-RPG slashfest that was Dead Island, stripped out most of the bad bits, and added a really fun parkour system to make easily one of the finest zombie games we’ve had in the last few years. It’s one of the few games where I’ve completed every single side-quest and loved every second of it.

Sadly its first major expansion, The Following, feels like a hell of a step back.


Dying Light: The Following – Enhanced Edition (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Released: February 9, 2016

MSRP: £15.99/$19.99

The Following takes place in the countryside bordering the city of Harran. Mr. Kyle ‘Generic as Hell’ Crane goes to investigate rumours of people who are somehow immune to the zombie virus plaguing the city, and in doing so he gets caught up in a story of cults, bandits, and lots and lots of cars.

The vast majority of the gameplay is just as it was in Dying Light, and your character and all his abilities can carry over from it. The parkour is still great, the grappling hook still adds a whole new layer of movement, and the combat still feels adequately brutal.

The Following feels a lot like the core game’s fantastic side-missions expanded out into a full campaign. You’re treated to a mystery revolving around a cult: why are they immune? Who is the Mother? What are the Faceless? It’s all really exciting stuff, and it’s certainly a step up from the generic military guff we had in Dying Light’s main campaign.

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If that was all The Following was – a few more missions in a new map – I would’ve been incredibly happy with it! Unfortunately, there is one major thing that returns from Dead Island that drags down The Following in a major way: driving.

I don’t like driving in games at the best of times – usually they control poorly, and not very many games actually do interesting things with them (car chase missions need to just stop forever, please). It often feels like vehicles are just placed in a game because it’s what is expected instead of being a fun and worthwhile feature, and nowhere is that more painfully obvious than The Following.

The few pockets of built-up areas where the already excellent parkour mechanics can shine are separated by miles and miles and miles of absolutely nothing. When there is stuff to explore, it’s great: power plants, watchtowers, water pumping stations, and farms are all enticing and detailed enough to make worth checking out. But if you want to actually get to any of them, you’re going to have to drive to it in your rickety, unresponsive buggy that slows to a crawl if you so much as graze a zombie.

Most of the missions seem built around it too: drive to the needlessly faraway place, do X, then drive all the way back again to turn the quest in. Things do get switched up a bit with forced racing segments, but thanks to the awful driving controls they still feel like an unnecessary slog. Nothing seems new or interesting here – if you’ve played a driving mission in Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row, or Sleeping Dogs, chances are you’ll experience the exact same things in The Following.

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That on its own wouldn’t be particularly egregious, but then in stumbles the poorly planned out vehicle degradation system. Crash into a tree: vehicle damage. Crash into a car: vehicle damage. Crash into a zombie: vehicle damage. Don’t even think about driving through those big, tempting pockets of squishy undead found scattered on the roads, because there’s a chance the buggy will break or run out of petrol before you come out the other side.

Once the buggy does give up the ghost, having to scavenge around for car parts on foot in that big, empty map feels like more hassle than the buggy’s actually worth. It’s nothing more than irritating padding that actively prohibits the player from having fun, and it doesn’t thematically make sense when elsewhere in-game you can stick a battery onto a machete and then drop-kick a zombie to its death.

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When it’s good, The Following feels just as good as the core game. Its characters and missions are consistently more engaging than any of the main game’s nonsense, and the urban areas are perfectly designed to make the parkour as fun as ever. If that was all The Following was, it would be great!

And then that buggy comes along and ruins everything. The world is made huge and empty just to fit it in at the cost of the already great set of mechanics Dying Light has. That problem’s made worse when even the slightest bit of fun that could’ve been had from it is let down by an arbitrary vehicle degradation systems that punishes the player for daring to have fun with it.

Sometimes ‘just more of the same’ is a good thing.

Review: Steam Controller

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My Xbox 360 controller and I have been through a hell of a lot in the seven years since I got it.

It survived a whole summer-long binge of Left 4 Dead, came with me on my move to PC gaming, been thrown against walls because of Dark Souls, had its handles lovingly taped back on after said incidents. It’s weird placing emotional fondness onto an inanimate object, but I think I can safely say my 360 controller has been there for me in my darkest of days.

It’s now been unceremoniously dumped into a box under my desk, because I got a Steam Controller and damn is it amazing.

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Steam Controller

Manufacturer: Valve

Input: 1x USB Bluetooth dongle (included)

MSRP: £39.99/$49.99

The Steam Controller is unlike any controller I’ve used before. It gets rid of the twin analogue stick design that’s been so common ever since the PlayStation 1 days, and instead opts for a single, small stick and two huge trackpads. At first, I wasn’t convinced this would be a very good way of playing games, seeing as playing anything on a laptop’s trackpad is about as useful as controlling the game from fifty foot with a joined up collection of bendy straws.

Despite that, the trackpads on the Steam Controller work really damn well, mostly due to the advanced haptic feedback system under the right pad that allows it to feel more like a second analogue stick than a laptop. I’ve discovered I can quite comfortably play Team Fortress 2 (and get kills!) using the controller, which is something I never liked doing on my 360 pad.

The rest of the buttons also work really well, too. I love the triggers, which are really chunky and have both haptics-driven soft activation and physical switch hard activation points, which just feels so comfortable to use. The soft and hard points can also be bound to different functions too, which I found is pretty good for stuff like aiming down ironsights or sniper scopes.

I’m a big fan of the back paddles, which are in just the right position for my hands to not require too much effort to activate, but give off a really satisfying *click* noise whenever they’re pressed. Most games I play on it have now been rebound to use the paddles to jump and crouch just because of how accessible they are.

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Speaking of rebinding controls, every button is entirely customisable for every individual game you launch through Steam, including non-Steam games. At first, the amount of options and settings Steam gave me to configure was totally overwhelming, but as I started using it more and more, I got to know my mouse joystick from my mouse region and was soon able to set up almost any game to control just how I wanted it to. There are also configurations made by members of the community, which is a great way of quickly finding optimal settings.

I’m still struggling to get some games to work, Left 4 Dead has weird sensitivity no matter what I do for example, but overall the sheer reconfigurability of the controller is a massive plus.

The biggest appeal of the Steam Controller is its ability to easily play genres not usually suitable for controllers: city sims, point-and-clicks, RTS, that sort of thing. I’ve not delved into these too much, as they’re not generally types of games I like to play anyway, but I did give Cities: Skylines a try and found that with a bit of tinkering and reconfiguring, it is an entirely viable (if someone tiring) way to play. The right pad works really well as a mouse control, and there are enough extra buttons on the controller to allow for more finely-tuned control. Even Crusader Kings 2 is playable on it!

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Ergonomically, the Steam Controller is by far the most comfortable controller I’ve ever held. The face of the controller is concave, rather than convex, which means your thumbs don’t have to stretch out to hit the farther out buttons, but instead just rotate how they would naturally. It feels strange to hold at first, but it definitely helps reduce fatigue with longer gaming sessions, especially for people like me who may have gammy hands to start with.

There are only two complaints about the physical design I’m able to make. Firstly, I think the small thumbstick on the left side of the controller is raised a bit too high and placed too close to the centre. I do feel some strain on my left thumb after a while, especially when swapping between it and the left trackpad, which is actually placed lower than the base of the stick.

Secondly, the haptics are incredibly loud. Using the right pad and its haptic-driven virtual joystick produces a constant, audible buzzing noise. While it is drowned out by the sound of the game, people who stream or record videos may need to learn to play with them disabled just to reduce audio interference.

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Other than those two problems, the Steam Controller is easily my favourite gamepad ever. I am a bit of a unique case because of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome meaning I have specific ergonomic requirements, but even then I think anybody will be able to benefit from the comfortable design and versatile controls the Steam Controller supplies.

Sorry, Xbox 360 pad. I’ve met someone new, and it’s over between us.

This review was made possible by the generous support of my Patreon backers! If you like this sort of content, please consider pledging!

Review: Firewatch

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Before it came out, I was only vaguely aware of Firewatch. I’d seen a logo here, a bit of artwork there, but hadn’t really paid attention to it, what it was, or when it was coming out.

Now that I’ve finished it, I am so, so glad that I went into Firewatch completely blind. It’s a fascinating and lovely, if sometimes bumpy, experience that is definitely my first true contender for the best game of this year.

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Firewatch

Developer: Campo Santo

Publisher: Panic Inc. and Campo Santo

Released: February 9, 2016.

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4

MSRPG: $19.99/£14.99

Firewatch places you in the shoes of Henry, a depressed man who’s escaped from his personal problems to an isolated job keeping an eye out for fires in a national park. Secluded away in your tower, far away from any civilisation, your only line of communication is with Delilah, your sarcastic and confident boss.

The game is a quote-unquote “walking simulator”, where Henry must hike to various locations in his sector of the park to uncover a growing, dark mystery while also trying to prevent any potential fires. There are two major components to any good walking simulator: a beautiful world to explore, and a narrative that can really hook you in. While there is one area where the game stumbles, Firewatch manages to succeed on almost all fronts.

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The world is absolutely gorgeous, with its colourful and low-poly style. While I didn’t feel particularly drawn to explore like I was in something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the environments I did go through were often memorable and a treat to look at. This was emphasised by the really cool camera mechanic, which gave me a limited number of photos I could take that would show up in the game’s credits, and could even be bought as physical prints. Campo Santo knew how good looking Frewatch was, and they weren’t afraid to flaunt it.

The layout of the forest was also very well designed, with enough alternate routes to dampen the irritation that came with the often frequent backtracking. Over time I grew from having to frequently consult my obtuse map because I’d gotten lost yet again, to being able to traverse through it pretty much from memory. This fit pretty really with the game’s narrative, which takes place over roughly two months and sees Henry grow into his role as part of the firewatch.

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The biggest appeal of Firewatch by far were its characters. The game’s almost entirely carried by radio conversations between Henry and Delilah, and every single bit of dialogue I heard was written and acted impeccably. Stumbling across new conversation points was a delight, and they could deftly swing from being hilarious to emotional in only a few seconds. The chemistry between the two is so endearing, and I’d happily go as far as to say this might be some of the best writing and performances I’ve seen in a game in a very long time. I really hope we get to see some more of Henry and Delilah at some point, even if it’s just as a prologue.

Unfortunately, my biggest complaint with Firewatch is with the actual story itself. It’s not an especially long game – my run was about three hours long, which is fine considering how high-quality everything else is – but it still drags on a bit with the mystery’s build-up, only to follow it with a very unsatisfying and kind of rushed conclusion.

For the majority of the game I was completely engrossed in the mystery, only for it to all be brushed away with a naff explanation in the last twenty minutes or so, leaving me wishing I’d taken more time to explore instead of getting so caught up in the events.

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Despite that, I think Firewatch is a game that’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simply listening to Henry and Delilah’s conversations, listening to them work through their personal problems, and watching them grow to be more comfortable with each other while explore a beautiful park was good enough for me.

If you’re looking for a groundbreaking plot or deep mechanics, I’d recommend you look elsewhere because I’d argue that isn’t what Firewatch is really about. If you want a fantastic world to hike through with some exceptional dialogue that isn’t afraid to explore some darker topics, I absolutely and completely recommend you take a look at Firewatch. You won’t regret it.