Hey, do you like solitude? No? What if it was the summer of ’89? What if you got to walk around in a gorgeous environment? What if your life was falling apart and you were at a loss for what to do? What if there were suspicious things happening and your only connection to the outside was a woman called Delilah? Convinced yet? Welcome to Shoshone National Forest. This is Firewatch.
Story is traditionally a peripheral aspect of video games, but never has that been less true than in Firewatch. The story IS the game, and has been carefully crafted to feel more genuine than the writing you’re likely to find almost anywhere else. Firewatch is the story of Henry, an average guy hailing from Wisconsin. The story begins unexpectedly with a text only introduction that is stupendously effective. Henry’s life is condensed into a few hundred words that carry real weight, juxtaposed with short visual sections. It’s brilliantly done, and made sure that my attention was solely focused on the game.
I’ll stay as spoiler-free as I can here, but suffice to say that Henry is in a rough spot. His life is collapsing in a way a lot of people will be able to empathize with, and he needs to do something to feel alive. That something is spending the summer as a fire lookout in the middle of nowhere. I really love the implied metaphor – Henry is a fire lookout, but what he’s really looking for is himself. Henry’s primary contact with the world is Delilah, a veteran lookout who works out of a nearby station. She’s mysterious and enticing, and the game does an admirable job of engaging the player’s curiosity. There are several sequences where Delilah’s tower is visible, and the compelling dialogue between characters makes it natural to want to stare in her direction while they talk.
“Henry is a fire lookout, but what he’s really looking for is himself”
Firewatch is a journey of exploration, and you’ll want to look at everything. Seriously, the soft and vibrant watercolour art is some of the most beautiful in recent memory. Besides being gorgeous, some of the most meaningful and entertaining dialogue is related to objects scattered throughout the environment – my personal favourite is a turtle. When picked up, the game riffs on the recent Call of Duty ‘press x to feel feelings’ debacle by having a press B to adopt prompt. ‘Turt Reynolds’ hung out in my tower for most of the game. However, the story is basically the story. Dialogue options guide the narrative in some slight ways, but do little to affect the destination.
This brings me to the tough part. Firewatch’s ending is unfulfilling. The game builds exponentially in tension and mystery but ends up explaining everything bluntly, very much at odds with the presentation up until the final act. I understand why it had to be this way from a practical standpoint, as well as creatively, but I still felt let down.
*If you’re confused about why Campo Santo took the creative direction they did with the ending, consider this: Firewatch is about Henry’s perception of his life and reality as a whole. That should get your mind churning. If not, hit me up on Twitter – I love discussing stuff like this!*
Fortunately, that sliver of experience didn’t sour the whole meal. Henry and Delilah’s relationship is perhaps the most engaging and natural I’ve seen in a game, and that can be placed squarely on the writing and voice acting. Both are stellar, fitting the era, setting, and tone of the game fantastically well. It’s a mature story, told with finesse and passion, brilliantly brought to life by two voice actors with undeniable chemistry. Kudos.
Firewatch is a curious experience, and one that has continued to shift my perception of what a game is. In this case, it’s walking through a stunning forest while chatting frankly with a character you’ve never really met. And that was more than enough for me to feel fulfilled. Go on; spend an afternoon with Firewatch. It has a few unsightly spots, but it’s still a tremendous and thought provoking experience for anyone who loves a good adventure.
*Reviewed on PC with a code purchased from Steam*
- Fantastic environment
- Engaging storyline
- Excellent script and acting
- The last 10%