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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Firewatch & Layers of Fear.

Transcript Edit

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!"

1: Premise Edit

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.

2: Walking Edit

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 Edit

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.

4: Payoff Edit

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?

5: Conclusion Edit

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.

Addenda Edit

  • 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

Screenshots Edit

Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells · Fifth Console Generation · The End is Nigh, and Yonder: Cloud Catcher Chronicles · Pyre · Splatoon 2 · Hellblade · Agents of Mayhem · Sonic Mania · Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle · Destiny 2 · Metroid: Samus Returns
Q4 Knack 2 and SteamWorld Dig 2 · Cuphead · Hob and A Hat in Time · Middle-earth: Shadow of War · The Evil Within 2 · Super Mario Odyssey · Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus · Assassin's Creed Origins · Sonic Forces · Star Wars Battlefront II

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