Firewatch is a narrative based exploration game, which takes you into the wilds of Wyoming. Playing as Henry, a forty-something man who has dropped out of life to avoid facing up to issues with his marriage. Henry takes a job in a national park, which puts him on fire watching duty. His only company is the voice of Delilah, the watcher from the neighbouring tower, who talks him through the job and tries to show him the ropes.
The game begins with a choose your own adventure style, text-based intro, which sets the tone for Henry’s background. This opening is about Henry’s relationship with his wife – how he met her, what he said, what they called their dog and how he dealt with the challenges along the way. And then something happens and it all becomes very sad, but I won’t spoil it because it packs a punch that really ties you to Henry.
I like the way this intro is interspersed with gameplay footage of Henry on the way to Wyoming to start his job. The text interjects to give us background as flashback. These flashbacks could be what Henry is thinking about as he makes his getaway to the wilderness. It’s a moving opening, but some of the binary choices were a toss-up between douche bag and total arsehole. This left me just picking the lesser of two evils and feeling a bit shoehorned. Your choices don’t change the overall outcome for Henry and his wife, but they do change the way you think about him and how you’ll play him, going forward.
Once in the park, Delilah is your guide and gives Henry directions for things to do. It’s a long, hot summer, so any hint of fire could send the whole thing up like a tinderbox. Henry is sent out to check on rowdy, littering teenagers and campers letting off fireworks, but the real action happens between Henry and Delilah.
Firewatch excels, when it comes to dialogue. The two characters have a natural rapport, with Henry the more hesitant, melancholy one of the two, whilst Delilah is the funny, carefree and confident one. Crucially the voice acting is some of the very best I’ve heard in a game, with Rich Sommer (Mad Men) and Cissy Jones (Life is Strange) delivering natural, effortless banter all the way through.
During conversations, you can choose Henry’s responses or whether you want to start a conversation about something in particular. Often, it’s what’s not said that’s important and this adds to the tension, which permeates Firewatch.
My favourite game mechanic is the walkie talkie, which appears on screen, in Henry’s hammy hand. A list of dialogue choices appear and you have to hit the bumper on your controller and then release to choose one, before the timer runs out and Delilah just responds to your silence. This probably isn’t as immersive on mouse and keyboard via PC, but using a console controller really makes you feel like you’re using a radio, which is a nice touch.
Largely, Firewatch avoids puzzles and falling into the Life is Strange trap of trying to add gameplay mechanics for the sake of it. This is an exploration game in the purest sense. There are no guns and interaction is limited to a few actions, which makes you focus on the characters and Henry’s surroundings.
Firewatch builds the tension beautifully, through dialogue and discoveries in the wilds. A tattered tent, a dark figure on the horizon, an overheard radio conversation – all moments that point to a mystery. That’s what kept me playing and made my heart race, at times. A thunderstorm in a canyon at night, had me scuttling for my tower and wondering if I could really trust Delilah. It was gripping stuff.
The setting is an integral part of the story and the gameplay. Henry has to negotiate scree slopes and sheer drops using ropes. It’s at these times that we see the chubby legs of an every guy. He’s no Bear Grylls, wilderness master and that means he’s vulnerable – out there, alone, in the woods. And developer, Campo Santo play on this fear of the wild and being alone.
That’s not to say that Firewatch is all peril and foreboding. Far from it. The artwork is gorgeous, with artist, Olly Moss ,drenching the screen in exquisite tangerine sunsets, big skies and beautiful ravines and mountains, stretching into the distance. This is one gorgeous game. The flat, almost vector graphic art style can lend an almost psychedelic feel, if you catch the sunlight through a patch of russet trees. Add to this, loving attention to detail in the form of notes, books, posters and watch tower ephemera, some of which offer clues.
Firewatch is a short game of no more than six hours. The story is played out in days and sometimes skips ahead to lead you to plot points. However, from day one, there’s a sense of menace, which twists and turns to become paranoia. Unfortunately, the tension doesn’t lead to a satisfying ending.
The story constantly hints that Henry is being watched. There are people in the woods and there’s evidence of violence and a mystery to uncover. And then there’s Delilah. We know she’s watching Henry, but are her motives entirely genuine? She likes a drink and she likes to flirt, but who is she, really?
When we do uncover the mystery, it’s all a bit of a let down. The brilliant build-up wasn’t given the ending it deserves. I feel like the resolution came too quickly and completely out of left field. And then it was the end. Really there was no mystery, which left me feeling that I’d probably missed something major and would have to play it again. But I hadn’t.
Maybe Campo Santo wanted to lead us on a mystery that wasn’t a mystery. After all, real life doesn’t really have exciting conspiracies that end in a perfect resolution, where we find out who the bad guys are. In real life, some good stuff and some bad stuff happens and people aren’t perfect and they meet and then they move on. Maybe that’s what the developers were trying to say, but it didn’t quite work for me. It’s a shame because so much of it is brilliant.
If you want to explore the brilliant dialogue, then it’s worth another play through, but it won’t change the story arc. There are lots of secrets hidden around the world, so Firewatch isn’t a game to rush through. Take it easy and enjoy the compelling story, with convincing characters, all in a beautiful setting, but don’t expect a ‘wow’ ending because it sort of fizzles out. However, Firewatch is still a game I’d highly recommend, so if you’re in any doubt, just buy it, I don’t think you’ll regret it.