Publisher: Panic Inc. | Developer: Campo Santo | Genre: First-Person Adventure | Platforms: PC, PS4 | ESRB: TBD | Release Date: February 9, 2016 | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Gamepad/Controller
I went into Firewatch expecting a profound adventure set within a beautiful world, with a rich story, provocative dialogue and emotionally intriguing characters. In return I received more or less of all of that. Nevertheless, Firewatch feels like a movie where afterward, upon exiting the cinema, you remark, “Yeah, it was good… But something was missing.”
Imagine spending your entire summer in a dilapidated, 100-foot tall watchtower, scanning the vast Wyoming horizon in search of smoke and potential fires. Firewatch centers on Henry, a man who attempts to escape his troubled marriage and life by becoming a fire lookout volunteer. After tentatively separating from his mentally-unhealthy wife, he’s assigned to keep watch over an area of the Wyoming wilderness, outside of Yellowstone. The job is a lonely one, analogous to a graveyard shift at the graveyard; however, Henry finds a kindred spirit in his boss, Delilah, who’s responsible for the various fire watch lookouts in the area. Henry’s only means of interaction and communication is with Delilah through a walkie-talkie. As she schools Henry in the ways of a fire watcher, he treks the wilderness and finds clues to a mystery that concerns the both of them. All the while, Henry and Delilah form a codependent relationship that is threatened by secrecy and the past.
The core gameplay mechanics behind Firewatch are rather simplistic. The three cornerstones of gameplay are Delilah, a compass, and a map. Delilah will assign you tasks over the radio while you navigate through the forest. Your first task is to find the people responsible for setting off illegal fireworks in the distance. Similar to Far Cry 2, you pull up a map and start your adventure toward the fireworks’ general direction. Delilah aids you in finding the way, but you’ll surely refer to the compass and map continuously throughout the entire game. Especially in the beginning, reliance on the map distracts you from the appealing world. However, eventually you reach the campsite belonging to the culprits. Almost every environmental object is capable of interaction and can be called in to Delilah. You can choose whether to inform Delilah about the multiple pairs of panties and bras littering the path toward the pyromaniac campers. This first menial mission sets off a slew of dynamic exchanges between you and Delilah.
Often you’ll be presented with a few different dialogue decisions and how you’d like to respond to Delilah. These conversational options are by far the most interesting and unique aspects of Firewatch. If you find a strange note or have a personal encounter, you judge whether or not to report it. When Delilah radios in, you can choose how to reply or even if you want to reply at all. Much like in The Walking Dead, these dialogue determinations end up shaping your relationship with Delilah. If you end up lying about your past, it could come back to haunt you. She may choose to drop the radio for a while and leave you alone if you insult her. Delilah is the only thing keeping you from solitude and thus a symbiotic relationship forms. The longer you play, the more she manifests as a real person with a palpable personality. You get to know her from both a player’s and a character’s perspective.
Henry and Delilah’s peculiar, anonymous relationship is reminiscent of ones I’ve personally developed with gamers around the world in MMOs, such as World of Warcraft. Although you don’t know who they are, how they look, where they live, or even their real name, you spend an inordinate amount of time together, and thus an intangible bond is forged. All throughout Firewatch, the conversation you have with Delilah at the other end of the radio is realistic and often heartfelt. The dialogue is snappy, realistic, and has fantastic pacing; the conversational “beats” are well timed and there comes a point where you honestly feel like you’re conversing with another person. This is where Firewatch ascends genres. Dialogue isn’t as essential in games as it is for a good novel, for there’s plenty of titles that have scarce dialogue or feature a silent protagonist. Nonetheless, when stellar dialogue is apparent, it’s worth celebrating, and in Firewatch’s case: bravo.
If you take the relationship with Delilah out of the equation, Firewatch is a barebones game. You end up spending most of the time staring at a map, backtracking to a previous spot, or finding the right path to progress. Rappelling cliffs and discovering caches in the woods provide some diversity, but it just doesn’t offer enough to stir excitement. For how potent the interaction is with Delilah, the same isn’t nearly as true for the core gameplay mechanics. Because the open-world doesn’t hold much besides the main story progression, there isn’t much of an incentive to explore it on your own. The overall direction is scripted, so Firewatch lacks the feeling of adventure and the incessant wondering: “What’s around this corner over here?” You would think that’d be the essential driving force for a game set in a wild Wyoming wilderness and within a world this pretty.
An air of redemption emerges when the mystery aspect begins to unfold. There lies a “Beautiful Mind” or “Fight Club” feeling to the story at one point, and this is when Firewatch hits its mark. The mystery is short lived, however, and its poignancy ultimately lands flat. Had the mystery been more actionable and prevalent, I would have walked away from the game satisfied rather than questioning its very point in the first place. Unfortunately, you don’t get carried away by the conundrum since half of it is detached from your character and based on Delilah’s own history.
The world and atmosphere is extremely well-crafted. With its pastel, almost clay-like scenery, the Wyoming forest is convincing and beautiful. These subdued graphics lead to a toned down but fundamentally good-looking ordeal. Besides the sounds of the birds, wildlife, and wind, Firewatch is primarily reticent except for intermittent musical score that fits the onscreen occurrences. The voice-acting of Henry and Delilah is truly remarkable. Their inflections and tone reflect within their speech, resulting in great performances.
Ten years ago I would never have thought a game like Firewatch to be relevant or appealing to a massive audience but to everyone’s benefit, gaming and gamers alike are evolving. Narrative- and story-based video games are becoming more prominent. Some games are beginning to resemble novels and works of art as something to be experienced more than played. Firewatch has all these principals, but to use a fitting cliché: execution is everything.
This review copy of Firewatch was played on PC and was provided by the developer.