Picture this: it’s 1989, you’re alone in the wilds of the Shoshone National Forest watching a brush fire burn and hoping that it doesn’t come your way, but knowing if it starts to shift no one can put it out. It’s hot, it’s quiet and it’s lonely, if you get in trouble it’ll be days before anyone can get help to you. And there’s someone out there… someone who’s watching you. This is Firewatch, welcome to isolation.
Henry is not a happy man, he’s applied for the job of manning a watch tower in a national park to escape his life. All he wants to do is be left alone and drink the summer away, with your help controlling him. Delilah is his boss, or as much of a boss as you can be 7 miles away with only a walkie talkie to communicate. Together this pair provide the outline of a mystery story that you’ll solve as you traverse the picturesque landscape – hiking, climbing and rappelling your way across the varied terrain. The inhabited world is open for you to roam and investigate at your leisure with no time constraints or fear of death, Firewatch is about the journey of the story and lets you unfold it at your own pace.
It’s a hard game to pigeonhole because in some respects it’s similar to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in the first person exploration stakes; but then it’s more interactive as Henry is a “real” person with proper motivation for his actions, and you feel more active in the park than you do in Yaughton. The core mechanic is the walkie talkie that keeps Henry and Delilah discovering more about each other, with a branching conversation structure that allows you to choose how much you want Henry to reveal about himself, and in turn how Delilah behaves with you. More so than most other games I can think of, Firewatch really lets you inhabit the psyche of Henry – you’re the one that sets up his reasons for being there, in effect you mould him around yourself – so you feel more engaged with the dialogue and backstory of the main characters than most other titles.
Pulling you deeper into the setting and time period are items scattered around the place. Some provide clues to who’s been there and what life is like for campers and wardens; some are strangely out of place; and some only become relevant as you progress further with the story. Firewatch doesn’t spoon feed you with the history for everything, but it does create a purposeful existance through these items. Most things can be picked up and examined, and in the case of books each has a full synopsis on the back cover, but look beyond the interactive items and you find impressive details elsewhere. For instance, there are cache boxes scattered around where you’ll pick up useful supplies. Stuck to the lid of a large number of them are notes between two people that give depth and gravitas to the world… and they’re easily missed if you don’t use the “zoom” function to view them. There’s also a partially used camera found early on that lets you take snaps of the scenery, and if you’re on PC this opens up an additional option once the game’s over, and Nick Case tried this out on the Steam version:
If you’re playing on PC, Campo Santo have truly gone the extra mile with the implementation of Firewatch’s disposable camera. If you’re like me, you’ll spend quite a bit of time scouting out stunning vistas and lining up the perfect shots. In the console version, the only way to see your snaps is at the end of the game; for PC players however, you have the option to upload your snaps to a website which emails you a link, and from there you can view, download, and even order actual prints of your pictures (which I’ve done). While not a massive feature, it’s a lovely touch which makes the experience feel even more unique and personal.
With the level of conversational response choice and interaction with the objects around the forest, you’d hope for a tailored adventure where certain selected snippets and details flow through to later parts, and I saw this on a couple of occasions, though without a full second playthrough making deliberately different decisions I’m not sure how much of the outcome would be changed. It’s an interesting point to mull over because if the details of the story (but not the overarching tale) are specific to your wants and needs for opening up to a stranger as a form of therapy, then we should all end up with a unique perspective on the events that transpire. Heavy Rain explored this in a slightly different way, and as with that, I’m loathe to go back through and change my story. I crafted the original one and was happy with it, why would I want to change it? That said, nothing might change at all. It all feels a bit Schrodinger’s Cat: it’s either my story, or not, and I won’t know unless I open up the game again.
Keeping an eye on the wilderness of North American a park in 1989 is an unlikely source of material for an adventure game, but Firewatch goes there, and it manages to build intrigue and adventure into what some may call “a walking simulator“. With a distinctive art style, cast of really only two characters and a small section of Wyoming forest to explore, it’s surprising how drawn into the world of Henry and Delilah you become, and in no small part this is down to the superb voice actors. The sense of despair, depression and foreboding that’s built in the opening moments of the game is extremely well done and sets up the premise of the wider tale being told. However, it doesn’t quite manage to keep that level going through the rest of the game, and the ending, whilst not anti-climactic, isn’t quite as punchy as the beginning. Maybe that’s just the fact that once the mystery is solved it removes all the fanciful musings I’d had whilst wandering through the trees and gives me the truth: a really good telling of a simple human story without the need to twist, turn and be clever.
It has some graphical flaws on PS4 with shadows and textures (and even objects at times) popping in late, jerky movement as saving/element loading is happening, and it crashed to the XMB a couple of times whilst left on pause. These things don’t impact the game though because Firewatch delivers an emotive experience in its fairly short runtime, and is wholly recommended if you’re in possession of any feelings whatsoever.
A PS4 and Steam review copy of Firewatch from the Campo Santo PR team was provided, and the game is released on PC, PS4 and Linux on 9th February (US) and 10th February (EU) for $19.99/£15.99 respectively (special launch discounts will apply to Steam and PS Plus).