Reviewed on: PC
Within the first 10 minutes, I knew Firewatch had me in its grasp. Much like the opening to Pixar’s Up, Firewatch introduces a cute, if implausible, story of new love that mere minutes of exposition later broke my heart. The game hadn’t really even begun yet and already I knew it was going to be something special.
While I can’t say I felt exactly the same way by the time the credits rolled, I can still look back and acknowledge Firewatch for what it is: a beautiful, captivating and engrossing piece of interactive narrative fiction.
Developed by Campo Santo studios and written by Sean Vanaman (of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One fame), Firewatch is the tale of a man named Henry who is running from his relationship problems by taking a job that requires him to live alone in the Wyoming woods for an entire summer in the late 80s. His job? To watch for fires (see what they did there?) and report them in. His only point of contact is Delilah, the woman in charge living in the nearest station to the north who speaks to him via radio.
Their time bonding together takes a turn for the worst when two teenage girls Henry had previously busted for setting off fireworks are reported as missing, making him the last person to see them alive. I shan’t say more for the sake of spoilers, but the tension of the missing teens raises one particular question: if Henry didn’t kidnap/kill them, then who did? Perhaps he’s not as alone as he thinks…
Let’s be up front about this: Firewatch is a literal walking simulator in so far as it is designed, both in terms of narrative and gameplay, to simulate hiking through the wilderness. The game is short, clocking in at around four hours of playtime and I completed it in a single sitting. For some that may seem too short, but Firewatch is all about quality over quantity and for the majority of its runtime it makes for one of the most well crafted games of its kind.
The hiking aspect requires actual navigating skills, adding a level of fidelity to the walking simulator genre. There are no conventional objective markers to aid in Henry’s daily activities, no fast travel system, no vehicles, just him, his compass and his map. The map and compass operate as they would in actual orienteering, with the exception that by default Henry’s current location is always marked on it and moves in real time with him. But the realistic aspect of the map is that it is a literal map, rather than a pause menu option, that Henry must pick up in his hands, stop walking and look at in order to get his bearings. Once you’ve plotted your course in your head, lowering the map and using the compass to maintain a sense of direction is all that guides you to your goal.
Suffice it to say, I got lost a couple of times, but realising that and using the map and compass to reorient myself really helped sell that I was wandering through this gorgeous, open world. And it is open, in so far as you can walk in any direction and to any location that you want at any given time. Granted, there isn’t really a lot to do in the Wyoming woods other than pursue the storyline, which is a little disappointing. But the environment is so pretty it makes you want to explore it, and thankfully the amount of player input required to properly traverse the landscape kept it from being boring. It just would have been nice to have more of an actual gameplay related reason to explore.
Nevertheless, as I wandered around I often felt truly alone with nature, which was initially an incredibly calming experience. But that calm quickly became sheer, paranoid terror once the story got going and the prospect of not being so alone set in.
All of these atmospheric triumphs were complemented by the wonderful performances from the game’s two leads: Rich Sommer (Henry) and Cissy Jones (Delilah). The chemistry between these two characters is clear right from the start, both in terms of their playfulness in the beginning, to how they come to know each other across the summer and to how they treat each other when the situation becomes very stressful. All their conversations felt fluid and natural despite player controlled dialogue options dictating how Henry responds to particular questions. I never once felt like the options I had chosen created mismatching behaviour in Henry or Delilah, and that is a testament to the quality of the writing and acting involved. Seriously, this is voice acting at its best.
As for the overall writing, the story is incredibly captivating right up until the third act. I won’t spoil anything, but essentially the first two thirds establish Henry and Delilah as two people who are running from their problems, and this is something which they bond over across the months they are communicating. As the under lying mystery within the game develops, the tone suddenly shifts from a strong character drama to an intense thriller and it was often pulse-poundingly terrifying. You got the sense it was building towards some massive revelation and then it just… doesn’t. It seems to shy away from what it was establishing and instead opts to take the easy way out, offering an explanation that doesn’t entirely stand up to scrutiny.
The fear I felt for so long quickly disappeared and all that was left was disappointment at what my mind had previously imagined could have been.
All that aside, I would recommend checking out Firewatch for no other reason then to experience such amazing acting, atmosphere and pacing within its stunning landscape. Anyone who loves video games as a method of storytelling really owe it to themselves to give it a look.
Pros: Drop-dead gorgeous visuals, stellar performances, powerful atmosphere.
Cons: Cop out ending, not much real motivation to go off script.