Firewatch is a first person ‘walking simulator’ created by Campo Santo. It’s set in the wilds of Wyoming, and stylized by a set of beautiful cel-shaded visuals. Players assume of the role of Henry, who’s taken a job in the paper to isolate himself in the park and watch for wildfires. Helping him navigate the wilderness is his boss and friend Delilah. She and Henry are soon nefariously targeted by an unknown protagonist (or protagonists) with motives unknown. Firewatch gives players some insight into Henry’s life before these events take place, in the past he’s running from and the life he left behind.
It seems that Henry’s relationship with his wife becomes strained to the point that he succumbs to alcoholism and is arrested for driving under the influence. After he sobers up, he takes a long hard look at his situation. He’s lost his wife and now stands to lose himself, too. In his shame, hurt and anger, he is adrift in a sea of emotion with no land in sight. Until, that is, one day when he picks up the paper.
He sees an advert for a fire watchman. It doesn’t exactly pay well, but it offers Henry some escape from the mess his life has become. After answering the call of the wild, our protagonist heads to the mountain ranges of Wyoming. When he arrives in his lookout tower, he hears a woman’s voice calling out. Locating a walkie talkie, he presses the button meets Delilah on the other end of it.
Delilah is another lookout who has the task of initiating new recruits (like Henry) and keeping general order in the usually-peaceful wilderness. While they are getting acquainted, fireworks begin bursting over the nearby lake and it’s Henry’s job to go and find out who’s making trouble. Grabbing his pack, he’s out the door, giving players time to settle into controlling him and ticking off their first objective. Like most other walking simulators, Firewatch’s gameplay is simple. Players move around the environment, inspecting items they come across that spark conversation or insight into the world around them.
For similar titles, this suffices quite nicely. Gone Home cast the die for this formula and it works well for Firewatch, for the most part. What’s tricky about Firewatch is the clunky traversal across the open and unintuitive landscape. Contrast this expanse with the linear and compact residence of Gone Home or the office space of The Stanley Parable, and those who pick up Firewatch will soon find themselves scratching their heads and wondering where to go. Henry does have a map and a compass to give the cardinal directions. These tools, and Delilah’s clear instruction, should be enough to get Henry where he needs to go. In theory. Unfortunately, in execution, finding a path to the next objective is occasionally quite confusing. In keeping tradition with the immersive formula of the genre, these aids are displayed as physical items in Henry’s hands instead of part of a heads up display. This does a solid job of keeping the mountain range immersive, but a very poor job of giving the player their bearings until they get lost and the immersion is broken. Having to stop and look at the map every few moments breaks the gaze from the spectacle of Firewatch: its environment. In (all too common) moments such as these, I found myself longing for a simple arrow, marker, or HUD graphic indicating the most immediate objective so I didn’t have to look away from the beautiful landscape that Campo Santo has crafted.
Even without a more helpful guide, I still found myself enjoying the setting so much that the frustration of getting lost was alleviated after I got back into the flow of sightseeing. The beautiful cel-shaded forests, sunsets, creeks and rocky crags of Firewatch are a marvel to behold. So much so that Campto Santo included an exclusive camera function in the PC version of the game that allows players to snap photos of the world around them. After finishing the game, these snapshots can be ordered as 4×6 physical photographs to be mailed to players. This is a neat little touch that not only memorializes the beautiful environments of the world but gives players something to put on their fridge, should they want it. Unfortunately, for no good reason that I can think of, this feature isn’t available on PS4 or Xbox One.
When players manage to tear themselves away from staring at the wonderful landscape, and dig into the engrossing story, Firewatch really picks up. Odd occurrences and a strange history of missing fire watchmen weave an unsettling tale that would fit right into scifi/horror classics like The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. This holds grippingly true right up until the end of Henry’s journey, when players reach the narrative precipice of this title. In the end, however, Campo Santo seems to shy away from the unique and offer a rather ordinary capstone to the tale that feels a bit unsatisfying. It’s not a bad ending by any means, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the game as a whole, but it also doesn’t propel it forward into a higher narrative category than its peers. Fortunately, the emotional depth of its characters, the complexity of their lives and the relationship they form do.
Firewatch is one of the most emotionally impactful games I’ve ever played. It doesn’t just tell a story or spin a narrative, it allows the player some insight into the soul of its characters. From the flashbacks of the sentimental opening, where Henry woos his soon-to-be-wife at a local bar to the moment they fell in love and tied the knot, their relationship (like the rest of Firewatch, really) is an example of the kind of emotional maturity that is all too rare in video games. Typically, games shy away from the kind of candid sentimentality Firewatch builds its narrative upon.
Usually, when writers employ emotional digital protagonists, they are cheapened by spirited tempers and hasty action vis a vis: revenge action titles like Max Payne and God of War. Conversely, dramatized narratives such as Heavy Rain stumble into an equally detrimental yet somberly-sentimental pitfall. Heavy Rain and L.A Noire paint narrative and character motivations too heavy-handedly, and end up obscuring the empathetically-subtle drama stoking the fire of human motivation. Thankfully the team at Campo Santo takes the road less traveled and makes Firewatch a monumental dialectic achievement between the kindred spirits that are Delilah and Henry.
It’s competitors might have more convenient worlds to explore, but Firewatch is a visual accomplishment. The overarching tale weaved by others might be tighter, yet Firewatch builds its world through the rich lives of its characters. In spite of cumbersome navigation and a lackluster ending, the innovation shown in a genre that has become so quickly saturated of late is what truly sets Firewatch apart.