“I came out here for a breath of fresh air and some adventure.”
Ever since Firewatch burst onto the scene back in 2014, it seemed everyone had become totally fixated over just what type of game and indeed the experience it was aiming to be. To amplify this growing mystery, the promotional campaign for Firewatch was deliciously cryptic, refusing to confirm whether the game was carefully hiding a supernatural angle, or other such theories generated by the community. It turns out that Campo Santo’s debut game is much more concerned with human interaction, how people bond in light of past trauma and crippling loneliness. The spooky mystery still drives the narrative forward, yet the game is much more engrossing when it breathes and gently explores these prickly themes without even a whiff of suffocating pretension.
The writing throughout is top class, backed up by sparkling voice acting from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, the artistic design orchestrated by renowned artist Olly Moss is achingly beautiful, and the level design is immersive. So damn is it such a shame that Firewatch has some pretty significant flaws that hold it back from being essential. For one, the technical performance on PS4 is horrendous, I played the game on the first patch Campo Santo put out and it didn’t seem to do anything worthwhile. The frame-rate must drop to nearly single digits on some scenes and the amount of slowdown you encounter when merely manipulating the camera to look around is absurd. Moreover, there’s a big issue to be found in terms of Firewatch’s big plot reveal, it didn’t land with any real emotional impact, and I was frustrated by other far more intriguing plot threads acted in the end as little more than red herrings.
But anyway let’s get into Firewatch properly shall we?
The year is 1989 and you play as Henry a 40-something year old who decides to take up a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness in a particularly hot, dry summer. Assigned with the task for keeping watch for potential wildfires, he works in almost total isolation. Almost.
His only contact is fellow firewatcher Delilah, who he speaks to over the handheld radio. A bond is forged between the pair almost instantly, and their relationship is moulded by the player’s chosen dialogue responses over the course of the game. Her presence is vital to the development of the game, she exists at first primarily as a simple mission-giver, be it ordering Henry to check out a nearby pylon or stop partying kids from causing a fire. However, over time the dialogue becomes a lot more personal with both parties becoming increasingly candid to each other in the face of such acute isolation. For instance, if Henry tells her of the reasons why he took up the position, Delilah will respond with her own personal demons to relay. It’s not all serious though and what makes Firewatch shine is how fluidly the conversations go when the characters talk about something absolutely trivial, like Henry making fun of the forest’s mascot or getting himself stung by a bee. They act like real people, saying stupid things to pass the time and finding fun in the most mundane activities.
To expand on the dialogue, it constructs both the relationship with Delilah, but also the player’s vision of Henry as a person. Nowhere is this more impactful than in Firewatch’s beautifully understated opening, where the player can sketch in the finer details of Henry’s backstory. When you respond to Delilah you choose whether Henry is sarcastic, witty, friendly or just a bit of an arsehole, and this won’t go unnoticed by her either.
The voice acting is absolutely stellar thanks to the performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, Sommer from Mad Men fame is especially good, nailing the bumbling nature of Henry with aplomb. It can’t really be understated how significant it is that these performances are so strong, Firewatch lives on the relationship between these characters, they are the very essence of the game.
But if you’re expecting big sweeping choices to make, or a variety of endings to experience, you’re going to be disappointed, Firewatch does not possess that kind of narrative and that’s ok. It’s focus instead is on self-reflection and facing up to reality, not saving the world or choosing who lives and dies. Additionally, the ending may prove to be deeply unsatisfying for anyone looking for a big pay-off; for me personally though the ending was just fine, at the risk of sounding unbearably pretentious it captured life. How messy and disordered it can be, and how things just sometimes aren’t resolved, you have to get on with what you’re given instead.
That’s not to say everything about the story is perfect, far from it. The reveal of the big mystery ties into a secondary backstory, yet it was never really treated with much significance and the plot thread references are nowhere near as fleshed out as they should’ve been to make this work in my opinion. The final act doesn’t add up the way you’d hope it to do sadly.
Firewatch is devoid of gameplay in the traditional action sense, entering the genre of dubbed ‘walking simulators’ like recent titles such as Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. Firewatch however skilfully avoids the trap of player input being lifeless through it’s interactive dialogue and tiny environmental discoveries, like adopting a turtle in your tower and naming him ‘Turt Reynolds’. There are no puzzles, quick-time events or any combat of any kind, instead the onus is on your personal investment with the characters to drive the game forward.
The game’s other great strength meanwhile is the haunting quality of the park itself, an intense atmosphere envelops the game throughout. The narrative shifts accentuate this stifling sensation of deep paranoia and panic; for example as Henry and Delilah get the feeling they’re being watched even the most subtle changes in environmental colour and lighting induces dread. The game is at its absolute peak when it’s caught up in these moments, a perpetual sense of vulnerability burns and spreads, akin to the fire you’ve been assigned to watch over.
This feeds into the stripped-back structure of the game too as it’s clear the developers wanted to capture the sense of being completely cut off from the world. You have to manually bring up a compass and a map, which Henry automatically scribbles on places of interest as you discover them. There’s no traditional UI, or a directional arrow to pinpoint your next objective, the player has to study the map and pick the right trail to get to where you need to go. However, the environment is linear and opportunities to explore are mostly limited, Campo Santo have done their best to conceal these edges though, and the wilderness doesn’t lose any of it’s magic despite the game funnelling you along.
A major reason why is because of Firewatch’s gorgeous art direction, masterminded by famed artist Olly Moss. The environment is bathed in luscious, bright pastels and everywhere you look is imbued with a comforting warmth; the wilderness is utterly captivating and Firewatch would be a far lesser game without this vivid art design to go off.
Firewatch succeeds in a lot of ways, the world is captivating, the characters are exceedingly well-written and the voice acting performances are among the best in gaming. Hence, it’s regrettable that it doesn’t hit the heights it really should, and that’s down to the erratic performance on PS4 and the central mystery just not being that impactful when revealed. In the end then plot can’t match the quality of the characters, and I fear that could be a major turn-off for those players who are going into Firewatch expecting a certain kind of mystery, the red herrings that crop up may only compound that disappointment.
Still though, Campo Santo’s debut adventure is well worth playing if you’re a fan of the genre.
+ Exemplary voice acting performances
+ Outstanding character writing
+ Gorgeous artistic direction
+ Immersive atmosphere
-Mystery conclusion is unfulfilling
– Plot threads waved away
-Severe technical issues on PS4