Developer: Campo Santo
Genre: First-person adventure/exploration
Release Date: 02/09/2015
It is the 1980’s, you have accepted a job in Wyoming. Upon reaching your destination you park your truck, take your pack, and trek through the woods until you come to a tower. You climb the stairs until you reach your new home for the summer, a lookout tower for the early detection of forest fires. You fire up the power and immediately get a call on your radio. So begins your journey in Firewatch: a first-person adventure game that at its heart and soul is a months long conversation of two people as they get to know one another over the radio and also share in a mystery.
What in the Blazes!
Here is your warning: Firewatch is a story heavy game, there is no review without talking about what happens. Check out the summary at the bottom for a spoiler free round-up. Spoilers start now.
The game begins using only text where you choose your own adventure to create your character’s backstory. He will always get to the same place, but the path is yours. This intro, despite being entirely text, reminds me a great deal of Disney/Pixar’s Up. It is heart breaking and the foundation for the entire story.
Henry is our lead, he is a regular guy in his forties, not a hearty hero or mighty woodsman. Henry is just a man. Delilah is the woman on the other end of the radio, your supervisor and a chatterbox. Both of them are broken human beings who rather than deal with and confront the troubles in their lives, decided to run to a job in the wilderness to disconnect from the world. Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones do a fantastic job of making these digital damaged people feel like true life damaged people. The performances are really what the game is all about.
Why? Why? Why? Delilah.
As Henry converses with Delilah, you are exploring the forest and completing the tasks of a man working for the national park service. You explore the world and sometimes reach an obstacle you cannot pass without finding equipment. An early example is needing climbing rope to rappel down a rock face. None of this is overly difficult and really it is there to give you something to do while Henry and Delilah get to know each other. Conversations are a pretty standard text tree; you open your radio menu and choose what you want Henry to say to Delilah from one to three choices. It can be about the conversation at hand or an item or object in the world you want to know more about.
Firewatch isn’t tracking your choices though, you decide who Henry is and you internalize it. There is no menu at the end telling you “X number of players made this choice.” The game keeps it personal and I loved this approach, he will be my goofy, distraught Henry and no one else’s.
Going for a Walk
Firewatch is what some would derisively call a “walking simulator.” Personally I will never understand why exploring a world is a negative. While the game isn’t realistic looking it is simply gorgeous. It feels like you were walking in an art gallery and got transported into a landscape painting. The world isn’t static either; as the narrative moves forward the world takes on new shades and has more particle effects added. It absorbed me and didn’t let me go, and even when I had to retrace my steps, it always felt fresh.
The sound worked very well, but is sparse. The radio sounded how you’d want it, and everything else worked, nothing stood out because it felt authentic. The music worked very well, even if it was only chiming in now and then. The track choice at the end was a nice fit, and felt like it added some closure.
Not everything is roses in Firewatch though, as on PS4 the game has some annoying technical issues. The frame rate hitches are especially bad during auto-saves. It is still playable, just kind of irritating. I also had a very early bug where the game gave me a button prompt but didn’t actually respond to my input. So Henry just ended up sitting in a chair unable to do anything. The other problem I had was a lock-up during a load screen. All it took was a reload to circumvent these issues. Hopefully Campo Santo will be patching this as soon as they can. From all reports I have read the PC version is smooth and pretty flawless.
Burns Out Bright
By the time the story ended, I was thrilled. Firewatch took a route many games don’t: ambiguity. It didn’t hammer home the “correct” ending, you have to extrapolate information from your playthrough to decide what your ending really is. A lot of people will probably hate this, but I found it refreshing. You are given enough information to construct the rest of the narrative to a conclusion that is satisfying for your version of Henry. Maybe the most amazing thing is that it all feels adult and I don’t mean swear words, blood, and boobs; it is all about the situation and how the communication is handled. It feels right and it feels like it comes from people who have lived. The resolution to the mystery left me a little cold initially, but as I stepped back and thought about it more I realized that thematically it fit the rest of the story to a tee. I am now glad it turned out the way it did.
Short Attention Span Summary
Firewatch is something special, it is the story of people who ran away from life and how they had to come to terms with that choice in seclusion. A lot of people can relate to this tale for a variety of reasons; personally I have worked for a park service, giving the environment more weight. If you are looking for a story that is acted wonderfully and creating characters that feel authentic and set in a world that absorbs you, strap on your backpack and climb the watch tower and give Firewatch a chance. It is an experience well worth having.