Imagine that all of those hopelessly depressed characters from Love Actually replaced the four kids from Stand By Me, and you would have a pretty good idea of what is in store for you in Firewatch. Let me clarify that this is a compliment. I was quite surprised to find such a drama hiding behind what I thought would be a thrilling mystery, but the combination of every day adventure and every day sorrow is made fantastic by some top notch writing.
Game Name: Firewatch
Platform(s): PS4, PC, Mac, Linux
Developer(s): Campo Santo
Release Date: 2/9/16
Price: $19.99 (USD)
The first game to come from Campo Santo, a newer developer formed by some veterans of the indie scene and Telltale Games, Firewatch is a “mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness”. I used the developers own words, of course, but this is really a way of not saying that the game is what has come to be known as an “interactive experience” or a “walking simulator”. The focus here is on narrative, and Firewatch has quite a story to tell.
This is not to say that the player doesn’t have much control, as the game does allow for quite a bit of exploration. Much of what you see can be picked up and examined as well, or used in some fashion to further explore the terrain. But it all ties back to the story and the game’s most important mechanic, as usually picking something up will trigger a new conversation with your trusty companion. You play as Henry, a man with a troubled life who has taken a summer job watching for forest fires as a means of escape. Of course, as you’ll find out, he isn’t as alone in the forest as he thought. His boss, a fellow lookout named Delilah, is his sole contact throughout the summer, and the radio you have to talk with her is your greatest tool for solving the mystery at hand and is also the heart of Firewatch.
Conversations with Delilah are player driven, and will occur at scripted points or naturally when you choose to report certain findings. You can choose from the options given as to how to respond, or you might choose not to respond at all. Your choices will have an impact on not only the story, but your relationship with Delilah. For example, early on I managed to piss the woman off to the point where she refused to answer her radio until the story mandated it. Full disclosure, however, that like the classic Telltale formula, your choices in Firewatch never really make drastic changes when it comes to how the narrative ends. This is Campo Santo’s story.
It’s a damn good thing, then, that Campo Santo has some of the best writers in the business behind this tale. Much like Pixar’s Up, the game surprises you with a punch to the gut from the get to and keeps you enthralled with the characters. I keep using the theatrical references because, quite frankly, there are few games out there currently on the same level as Firewatch in terms of its writing. While the interplay of drama and thriller is entertaining, it is the dialogue that truly shines, and allows these characters to become fully realized. I laughed out loud, a rarity for me, when the game wanted me to laugh, and I felt sorry when these characters were tested. That is called empathy, and should be the ultimate goal of any writer.
It helps that player choices will often let you define your character in minor yet personal ways-what kind of dog you have, for example. These things are subtle and, ultimately, won’t change much in the grand scheme of things, but it helps to make Henry’s journey your journey as well, investing the player in the proceedings.
Fortunately, navigating the Wyoming wilderness is fairly intuitive. The radio is used with the left trigger, allowing for ease of use while on the move. This gives everything a very natural feel, and helps keep it all moving at a good pace. Some might take issue with the fact that the only map is an item that must be taken out with a compass, but for me it was easy enough (and even immersive, to a degree). Either way, the geography becomes easily recognizable in the latter half of the game to the point where I never needed to check my position. While a Metroidvania this certainly is not, I also appreciated the sense of progress that came along with certain items you obtain along the way, like rope and spikes, that open new paths and connect the map. Some even open inaccessible areas, though it is usually story-driven. It helps give more meaning to what you are doing in between conversations. That all being said, silence is the bane of this game, and I found myself frantically trying to find something to talk to Delilah about when I had walked around too long without a conversation to keep me occupied. Thankfully, the game rarely let this happen.
I am also thankful for the gorgeous world Firewatch presents. The aesthetic literally feels pulled from a Pixar movie, which feels at odds with the material, yet natural all the same. The use of color is equally breathtaking, as the same area can change from an inspiring to a hellish nightmare as the sun begins to set. Unfortunately, as myself and others found on the PS4, performance issues can dampen the impact of all of this beautiful art work. There is pop-in, stuttering, and at certain times the character model will simply go through geography during certain animations, such as when Henry is rappelling. There are also loading issues, which once caused my game to freeze and forced me to restart my console. While issues have been seen on the PC as well, they have been less severe. While a patch is forthcoming already, this is nonetheless disappointing given that the game’s scope is not that large.
Fortunately, performance issues have not crippled the music or the voice acting, all of which is superb. Each of the game’s cast, from the leads down to side characters with one or two lines, hits it out of the park. I found myself laughing at a scene in which Delilah is drinking tequila while they talk not because any joke was made, but because she sounded so believably drunk. Fear, anger and sarcasm are all delivered perfectly: discernible from one another, yet not so overdone as to be perceived as mockery.
In this regard, and many others, Firewatch is perhaps the most theatrical game I’ve ever played. But that theatricality also means brevity. Campo Santo has written a story that does a great job of maintaining tension and a brisk pace, but it will only last most players about 4-6 hours. In my opinion, this running time fit perfectly, and the conclusion hit right when I felt it should, without me having become bored at any point. Some might be disappointed, especially as there are no real “alternate endings” to give incentive for additional playthroughs. However, I would rather have a game that tells its story in the proper manner than one that tries to stretch and pad to create a perception of value.
If Love Actually Took Place In The Wilderness (Awesome)
I’ve tried to stay fairly vague with this review because, like a movie, watching the tale unfold and feeling the emotions in the moment is half of the fun. The other half will be talking with your friends about those moments and your choices, like that one part where I stole a girl’s radio and hiked all the way back to the post with it while Delilah made fun of the music that was playing. If “walking simulators” aren’t your thing, this may not be a fit for you. I wasn’t a fan of the genre before playing Firewatch, so maybe it might change your mind as well. It is hard to make the call as a critic, because the experience can be pretty personal at times. But what I can say definitively was that I was surprised. I had expected a scary thriller, maybe even something a bit run-of-the-mill. Firewatch definitely has some of that, but it takes a back seat to a character study that successfully moved me in ways few games do.
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