Although it may, at first, appear to be a game about a man named Henry, a woman named Delilah and the Two Forks lookout in Shoshone National Park, Firewatch is actually a game about morality, isolation and the fragility of human emotions – how easily they are constructed, and how easily they fall. Firewatch was on a lot of ‘Most Anticipated Games’ lists prior to release, and its stunning visual polish, first-rate voice-acting, and intriguing narrative co-operate to prove that the wait was worth it. Firewatch is a beautiful game which provides a level of immersion I simply was not expecting to encounter. I had anticipated a beautiful, exploratory adventure, but I was not prepared for Firewatch to affect me psychologically. It left me ponderings the game’s mysteries for a long time following completion.
Despite this praise, Firewatch does have few technical shortcomings, and the narrative may, for some players, feel like it offers no real closure. More on that later. First, I would like to warn you: I am going to try not to directly spoil any of the main plot points of Firewatch during this review. However, I am going to talk about my reaction to the narrative. Firewatch is very much a narrative-driven game, so it’s likely that what I’m about to say will skew your experience with the title. If you’re planning on playing it (which I highly, highly recommend) the best advice I can give is to stop reading and go play it.
You have been warned!!
REVIEW – Spoiler-Free
Firewatch is a first-person, exploratory adventure game which takes place in the summer of 1989. You are Henry, a man approaching middle-age who has recently suffered the kind of heartbreaking loss that we all pray will rarely occur during our lifetime. After spending two days hiking to the Two Forks lookout, you establish communications with your supervisor, Delilah, and begin your new job as a volunteer fire watcher. Everything you are told to do, and everything you learn about the Two Forks area is through either exploration or communication with Delilah – a vivacious and talkative woman with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humour. Gameplay is driven by the various tasks Delilah issues you with, all of which involve exploring the Two Forks area of the Shoshone. Gameplay is split up into days, however of the 2-3 months Henry spends as a fire lookout, you only experience a handful.
Your scope of actions is on par with those of a point-and-click adventure game; you can walk, run, and interact. Instead of a HUD mini-map, Henry pulls out a ‘physical’ map and compass for you to examine – a thoughtful touch which works to increase your sense of immersion. Initially, the map automatically pinpoints your location (like most video games) however, if you are hoping for a more immersive experience, it is possible to turn this assist feature off and navigate the Shoshone using your skills alone.
If there is one thing everyone agrees on when it comes to Firewatch, it is that the visuals are fantastic. The game’s environments are splendid – a vibrant range of colours moulded into a believable and immersive version of the Shoshone. Light bounds artfully through trees, crests hills and rocks, breaking over lakes, meadows and forests to create stunning sunsets, dancing shadows and vistas of incredible beauty. This is one pretty game – I won’t harp on. What I will make a point of mentioning is the quality of the assets. Firewatch is populated with beautifully designed, interesting items – many of which are peripheral to the game’s core progression. However, if you do find them, you are often provided information to help strengthen the narrative – a new conversation with Delilah or additional information which allows you to make new connections or observations. Simply put, the environments in Firewatch – both the non-interactive backdrops and the interactive items – are both clever and beautiful.
ANALYSIS – Here Be Spoilers!
I downloaded Firewatch the day it was released, and finished it in two sittings. I had intended to get my views on this much-anticipated title out as quickly as possible – but I just could not. Playing Firewatch has been thought-provoking like no game in recent memory. Perhaps it was because I was expecting nothing but calm exploration from the title that I was so startled by the questions it provoked. This is a game that made me sweat – I felt nervous, elated, excited, wary, suspicious, enamoured, paranoid, awed and scared while playing it. The tension Firewatch creates feels just as palpable as that of any thriller or horror film I’ve seen. Creating that kind of heart-pounding, palm-sweating tension is as much about what is not shown as what is. Campo Santo achieved this balance in Firewatch with artful finesse. An especially impressive feat given Firewatch is the studio’s first title; though the collective game credits of the small team are gut-punch impressive. While perusing the long list of experience the team comes from, I felt as though I could see how the influence from many previous titles came together in Firewatch – a huge nod to the team’s ability to collaborate.
Twin to the tension is the depth of isolation created in Firewatch. The sparse soundscape contrasts starkly with Delilah’s friendly, familiar voice and despite the fact that I experienced only a few hours of Henry’s summer in the Shoshone, playing Firewatch gave me a pretty good idea of what it would feel like to spend a few months in isolation. During my first session with the game, I had the distinct impression that I would not be seeing any human faces throughout the summer – but I was constantly looking. The ever-shifting shadows of the trees and bushes trick you into thinking you can see things – particularly human forms – when you cannot. Strange, how quickly the human eye starts searching for faces in things that are clearly not human.
Firewatch is a startlingly intimate portrayal of human connection and isolation. You are confronted with these things in the game’s opening moments, when prompted to make a small number of (what feel like) choose-your-adventure style decisions. At first, I found the small scope of what I could choose to do limiting, but I quickly realised that Firewatch is not a choose-your-adventure game; it’s a choose-Henry’s-adventure game. Some may lament this limited spectrum of choice. Particularly, the complaint might be made that this equates to the game suffering from having only ‘the illusion of choice’ – but do not fear. The narrow scope of these options do not equate to a game without consequence; the choices you make as Henry do matter. Every decision in Firewatch feels to have weight behind it – you just don’t get to decide Henry’s personality aspects. Instead, you choose which of his flaws and traits dominate during his time at the Two Forks lookout. Playing as Henry isn’t limiting. On the contrary, this set up makes for a richer experience than players might have had with a fully customisable character.
Firewatch is compellingly written, but it is the voice-acting which sets it apart from the pack – tying the experience into something so intimate and real that it feels almost tangible. The humour, poignancy, fear and subtlety of the script is brought brilliantly to life by Rich Sommer as Henry and Cissy Jones as Delilah. I was particularly taken with Jones’ work – despite the relatively short length of Firewatch her talent made Delilah feel like one of my oldest friends; so quickly is she able to endear herself to you.
During the first few in-game days of Firewatch, the game felt very dense – full of locations brimming with mysteries to unravel. Once I had finished the game, it felt like much of that density evaporated into thin air – as though it had never been there at all. While I never expected every loose end of Firewatch to tie up (a story that leaves you asking questions is always better than one which explicitly exposes all of its secrets) I did feel a little like Firewatch had not tapped its full potential. Firewatch would have benefitted from a few more days and scenes to dig into some of its other mysteries. That being said, I have found almost as much joy in exploring the various interpretations of Firewatch that are circulating online as I did playing it. It’s not the ambiguity of the ending that I have a problem with – it’s the lack of flesh that some of the mysteries suffer from.
I love what Firewatch does – it’s a stunning achievement; but not a perfect one. My two technical gripes with the game are the lack of logic in the player’s ability to navigate the environment and occasional poor signalling. The plainest way to explain this first problem is that the game features many invisible barriers and there was often no distinction made as to what terrain Henry could or couldn’t navigate. During the hike to the Two Forks lookout and the first day spent on the job, we see that Henry is an above-average hiker and spelunker. He can climb up rock-faces, make 1-2 metre drops unaided and rappel down shale-slides. So what I don’t understand is why a man as adept as Henry would not be able to step up onto a shin-high rock. It is obviously ludicrous to demand that a small team like Campo Santo build a fully explorable open-world game. However, there were a few instances where invisible collision barriers made navigating areas frustrating and illogical.
The game also suffers from a few instances of poor signalling – meaning that the game might tell you to do something but not make it clear how urgent or important the task is. The side effect of this was that I skipped over sections of the game that I later realised were opportunities to explore – making the game feel much shorter than it otherwise would have. Henry spends over two months as a firewatch at Two Forks, the first few days of which you play from morning to evening. After this, the game skips ahead to various times deemed important. You might play out a single scene of a day, or sometimes the whole day. I have no issues with this format and was not expecting to play every single day of Henry’s summer – but I wasn’t expecting to play so few of them either. The pacing of the narrative felt a little rushed, and I think both better signalling and a few more playable days, or even just scenes, here and there would have helped. On the other hand, I can understand why things were kept so tight – too much exploration time may have made for an emptier, less punchy game.
Firewatch is the beautiful game of calm exploration we were all expecting and so much more. I loved the experience of playing it, and it left me craving more of its kind. It has left me more contemplative than any game in recent memory and the narrative, visuals and soundscape of the game are all excellent. Any game that can prompt as much discussion as Firewatch is clearly something special. However, Firewatch felt like a taste of something much bigger. It was tantalising, but not filling.
A beautiful game that I know I will play again and again, but one I cannot help but wish was just a bit longer.