I don’t often replay games. Unlike movies or episodes of TV, games tend to be incredibly long, often stretching across dozens of hours. With new games available weekly, I rarely make time to give an “old” game a second try. I will, however, make an exception if a game has one particular feature: an audio commentary.
While commentary is a pretty common fixture for special features on DVDs and Blurays, it’s rare in the gaming world. That’s a shame because the interactive nature of games and the context of the audio commentary are a winning combination. Instead of just listening to a director talk over a movie, you can actually walk around a space while learning about how and why it was made.
A great example of this sort of commentary is now available in Firewatch, which just launched on the Xbox One, after debuting on the PS4 and PC earlier this year. Along with the new platform comes a new mode, dubbed the “Firewatch audio tour.” (It’s available for all versions of the game, not just Xbox.) The commentary is akin to a narrated museum tour with each location being its own exhibit.
Firewatch puts you in the role of a middle-aged man named Henry, who takes a job as a fire lookout in a Wyoming national park in an attempt to get away from his problems. It’s a beautiful, mysterious, and heartbreaking game mystery. Listening is a core component. While Henry is mostly isolated from the world, he’s still able to talk to his supervisor Delilah over a handheld radio, and the two become close despite this strained connection.
This structure complements the audio tour mode. At the beginning, Henry is given a walkman and headphones (the game is set in the late ‘80s, after all), and as you explore the park you’ll come across cassette tapes. Simply pop them into your walkman, and you can listen to Firewatch’s creators discuss various aspects of how the game was constructed. Close to a hundred such tapes are waiting to be found, and they cover everything, from how pivotal scenes were written, to how the dynamic audio works, to why there’s a tiny turtle you can pick up and play with.
Firewatch isn’t an action game, which makes its pace a particularly good fit for this kind of commentary; you can listen to it while you leisurely climb hills and find your way through forests. It might distract you from the story a bit — I wouldn’t recommend the audio tour for your first time through the game — but since you can’t die or fail Firewatch in any way, it won’t halt your progress. In fact, it adds another fun element to the game, as I found myself making detours and exploring more in an attempt to find every tape.
What makes this new Firewatch mode especially impressive is that the developers at Campo Santo have gone a step beyond just audio commentary and added new elements into the world as supplementary material. Some of these additions are small, like bulletin boards plastered with concept art, while others are much more in-depth. One of the tapes features the game’s graphics programmer explaining how the time of day and weather systems work. A nearby interactive tool lets you swap between all of the different time and weather states as much as you like.
The new mode provides insight into a game I already loved, and justified a second visit to the park. While it’s one of the more in-depth examples of audio commentary in games, Firewatch isn’t alone. This week also saw the console debut of Dear Esther, the 2012 predecessor to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and it too has a new commentary track. The same is true of the recently launched remastered collection of the BioShock series, and a handful of other classics like Portal, The Last of Us Remastered, and Grim Fandango Remastered.
If you’re a fan of the medium, there’s a good chance that at least one of those games is sitting on your shelf. There’s an equally good chance that you think about replaying these games every now and then. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor: boot one up on your console or PC, and turn the commentary on. Your games deserve a second shot — a commentary may be all the excuse you need.