It’s hard to explain exactly what I felt in the moments after I had finished Firewatch. It wasn’t a sense of elation and it certainly wasn’t disappointment, it was more like being stuck in an emotional purgatory; one foot firmly on the ‘I want more’ side, while the other was on the side of ‘is that it?’ The more I let the smoke clear (fire pun no. 1) and digested what I had just spent the last six hours playing, I realised that my initial expectations of playing a game set in a Wyoming National Forest is where my emotional ambiguity had come from. Firewatch, first and foremost is an experience – it is about the player’s journey, not the destination.
Firewatch is the debut game from both publisher Panic, Inc. and developer, Campo Santo. The developers do have some talent on their books in the form of former writer of several Telltale: The Walking Dead episodes, Sean Vanaman. The game’s main setting is the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming in 1989, which is beautifully depicted thanks to the art style inspired by artist Olly Moss. Players take control of Henry, a man who has taken a job as fire lookout for the summer to seek solace from the tragic breakdown of his life back in Boulder, Colorado. The opening moments of the game see you thrust back into a time machine of Henry’s life and the events that led to him taking a job in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. Instantly you have control over what Henry’s responses will be and even though your choices don’t affect the outcome, the weight of the situation will certainly play a part in your decision making. It’s a sure-fire (pun no. 2) way of getting the player to have a connection with Henry straight-off-the-bat.
Ah, the serenity
As Henry begins his new career at Two Forks lookout, you’re introduced to the game’s other main character, Delilah. Delilah is your supervisor; she is the only person that you have communication with which also makes her your sanity. On your first day you and Delilah notice fireworks going off (a big no-no) in the distance. Delilah asks you to go and check it out and from here you’re given a basic rundown of the game’s mechanics. I say basic and I mean basic. One button on the D-pad brings up your map, while another brings up your compass and a third your disposable camera. The X button lets you ascend or descend obstacles, R2 lets you pick up and inspect items, and for those concerned that this would be another walking simulator, there is a ‘jog’ feature which is utilised with the square or L3 button. The game’s most important mechanic (aside from movement) is conversing with Delilah which is simply done by pushing L2 whenever you are prompted.
Communicating with Delilah through your handheld radio is the crux of the game, and much like the game’s opening scenario, you are given a choice as to how you would like to respond. There are no overarching or branching storylines so your choices have no direct impact on the outcome of the game. However, the choices you make are related to how you would respond in these moments. In fact you aren’t forced to respond at all and if you wish to ignore Delilah you can. Keep in mind though that your choices do have an impact on your relationship with her. For example, there is one instance where you overhear Delilah speaking to another of the lookouts, when she returns to your call you can either carry on where you left off, question her about the other call or end the dialogue (don’t answer). Delilah’s reaction will depend on how you choose to respond. She may decide you’ve overstepped your boundaries and refuse to speak to you for a period of time, or she may make a witty quip to try and lighten the mood or burn you (pun no. 3). It’s easy to relate to both characters and for the all the dialogue choices in the game I never felt there was a wrong or right answer to give Delilah; each answer will vary depending on the player’s personality.
Before there was Google Maps
Henry closing in on the chortle
The game world is visually breathtaking and every vista looks like a painting you would get lost in while admiring it in an art gallery. The game’s first person view adds to the appreciation of these charming backdrops. Running on the Unity game engine, the developers have made use of rich and vibrant colours using a bold cel-shading technique, and although the world doesn’t look realistic in a graphical sense it certainly has an aura of believability. The only downside is there are quite a number of frame rate drops. These are more of a nuisance than game-breaking and hopefully will be ironed out with a patch. The world is quite refined and appears larger than what it is, however it can be easy to get disoriented while traversing Shoshone National Forest without using your map and compass, as there are no waypoints for you to follow. It plays in the same vein as Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you go from point A to point B and find yourself not doing a great deal inbetween apart from walking and observing. There are no puzzles to solve and no guns to shoot, there are however numerous items scattered across the forest, but almost all of these serve no purpose except the odd letter here and there which will give you some insight into the game’s plot.
The game world is visually breathtaking and every vista looks like a painting you would get lost in while admiring it in an art gallery
A map of Mordor?
The plot seems fairly straightforward at first, yet as you progress you get the sense that the plot is more passenger than pilot. Like I said in my introduction, Firewatch is about the journey – your own personal journey in dealing with the transition occurring in Henry’s life. There are no moments of happenstance and every encounter is linear by design which helps the developer tell a focused story to its fullest. What you feel about the game’s story will be highly subjective and this will be no more evident than in your interpretation of the game’s almost nonchalant ending.
Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, who provide the voices of Henry and Delilah, do an excellent job of delivering their well-scripted dialogue and as a result the relationship between the two main characters never feels forced. Firewatch’s score, which is composed by Chris Remo, is another highlight especially in some of the game’s more poignant moments. However in a game designed to draw out emotion there are often long stretches of time where there is nothing audible but the quiet bustling of the forest. Given that music can be a powerful emotional tool, a subtle backing track in some of these moments could have been used in those instances to enhance the immersion.
It’s guaranteed that some people will get an experience they weren’t expecting, and it would not surprise me if some people identify (and curse) Firewatch as being another indie trying to appeal to the hipster gamers out there. However, in a generation where games often sacrifice style over substance (or vice-versa), Firewatch manages to capture both these elements and execute them in a way that tells a thought-provoking story set in a captivating landscape. It’s not a game for everyone and that’s the best thing about it, it knows what it wants to say and does it with minimal fuss. If you go into Firewatch open to an experience that doesn’t necessarily resemble a traditional game, you may find yourself getting happily lost in Shoshone National Forest for the next six hours.
Reviewed on PS4