Going all the way back to E3 2015; there was one trailer that intrigued me more than any other. The first person explorative game Firewatch appeared to be a captivating and mysterious adventure in which you embody a park ranger delegated to the wilds of a Wyoming National park. Taking us across majestic mountainous terrain, highlighting pyromaniacs that threaten the serenity of nature, and ending on a chilling cliff-hanger; the 60 second clip certainly stood out from the crowd of numerous HD remasters and tedious first person shooters. Ultimately, the final product masterfully delivers on the promises that accompanied the trailer, however Firewatch also fell just short of my expectations in a few key areas.
My biggest problem with the game – and unfortunately the thing that struck me first whilst playing – was a lack of technical polish. Within my first few minutes of trekking through the thick forests of Firewatch, I experienced noticeable lag. This unstable frame rate continued to plague my experience over the course of my journey, and instances such as distant trees or rocks popping in as I approached them, only highlighted the game’s mechanical shortcomings further. I also experienced a few game crashes on loading screens, which meant that I had to replay sections of the story that I had just completed on a number of occasions.
If it weren’t for these issues, the visually distinct game world consisting of rolling meadows drenched by an orange sunset, and canyons illuminated by creeping blue moonlight, certainly would have been more engaging. As it stands though, the stylised art direction and impressive lighting effects combine to create an aesthetic marvel in Firewatch. This is by far the best looking game I have played this year — even if it is only February. Also, the tantalising soundtrack of soulful and immersive instrumental music left me in awe at times. Further still, the game’s technical faults were soon a side note as I became engrossed with the story and characters.
The game’s events begin in 1975 where we are introduced to a young romantic couple — Henry and Julie — and are shown key moments for the pair over the course of the next decade or so. Following this introductory segment, we are taken to the year 1989 and re-join Henry who has gradually grown distant from his wife due to reasons largely outside of his control. To escape from the pressures of his life, Henry takes up a job in the middle of nowhere as a fire lookout. Now, his only real connection to the outside world comes in the form of his new supervisor, Delilah.
In Bioshock-inspired fashion, Delilah never comes face to face with Henry but instead instructs him on how to do his new job via radio. One of the highlights of Firewatch was just engaging in lifelike conversations with Delilah; Henry and her will often engage in playful banter and talk about everyday things like past relationships, doing crossword puzzles, and occasionally a bad pun will even crop up. These phatic conversations — fantastically brought to life by voice actors Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones — really drive home a sense of realism that is absent from many triple-A games nowadays. Henry and Delilah feel like genuine people as opposed to just another pair of exposition spurting characters in a video game.
these phatic CONVERSATIONS really drive home a sense of realism that is absent from many triple-a games nowadays
Firewatch has an episodic structure in that its main plot occurs over the course of an entire summer with players getting to experience only a few select days of Henry and Delilah’s escapades. This initially leads to a relatively chilled tone as Henry is literally shown the ropes by his distant supervisor and gets to grips with his new surroundings. However, after a while, it will become abundantly clear that you are not alone out in the wild.
There was a thematic shift from light-hearted and explorative, to chilling and suspenseful after around the first third of the game. From this point on, I often found myself turning around to check if I was being followed, or double-taking after thinking I had seen a shadowy figure in the undergrowth. It was an effective change of pace — and due to prior character development shown through Delilah and Henry’s radio conversations — one that motivated me to keep playing so that I could see what happened to the characters I had grown to know. I could not put the controller down after a while as I was compelled to keep playing until I had uncovered the sinister mystery of the forest. Certainly, if Firewatch was a novel, then it would be one hell of a page turner.
Sadly though, the ‘pages’ of Firewatch will run out quickly. More novella than novel, the game is only 4 hours in length and the linear storyline and lack of collectibles don’t do much for the title with regards to replay value. Also, whilst the characters of Firewatch may be well developed, the gameplay can be mechanically shallow and overly intricate at times. Navigation can prove complicated as using Henry’s map and compass, whilst arguably adding to the game’s immersion, was more bothersome than simply having a mini map feature to use. In addition, Henry can’t do much except run around and interact with specific items or landmarks, so a little more freedom when it comes to movement would have been appreciated.
On the flip side, however, Firewatch never gets bogged down in over-ambition or loses sight of what it is trying to achieve. It’s a game about the harsh realities of life; relationships don’t always work out, people aren’t perfect, death is a fact of life. Staples of the modern gaming industry such as arbitrary action set-pieces would only feel out of place in a game like this as stuff like that doesn’t actually happen in everyday life. That’s not to say that just because the game is realistic with regards to its narrative that it is monotonous however. In fact, the game’s plot is one of its strengths. The grounded characters and recognisable struggles that make up Firewatch will surely resonate with anyone who has gone through a rough patch in life. Even the big revelation towards the end of the experience — which felt wholly underwhelming at first — actually makes a lot of sense in retrospect.
Developer Campo Santo have shown that a fire that burns twice as bright, although burning for half the time, is one that is far more likely to be remembered. Firewatch may be brief and have a few technical hitches, but it is an experience that is essentially beautiful and compelling. It is an absorbing tale of isolation, friendship, and tough decisions that has set a new standard for spoken dialogue in games, and it is not an experience I will be forgetting anytime soon.