2016 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for video games. There are a ton of hot anticipated titles coming out in the next few months, but the first big release, ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ has already dropped. I have yet to play it, but I hear its better than the 2013 revamp, and I really enjoyed that one, so I imagine this one will more than satisfy. ‘XCOM2’, as well as ‘Unravel’, and the latest non-mainstream Assassin’s Creed game have released as well; good for them, but ‘Firewatch’ has been on my immediate short-list ever since it’s E3 debut, so lets get to it. FYI: Spoilers ahead…
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t describe ‘Firewatch’ as a video game. It’s primary gameplay elements are largely observation and dialogue choice. In a lot of ways it reminds me of ‘Gone Home’ in that it is a glorified walking simulator wherein the player consumes the environment, interacts with the worlds many objects, and unravels the predetermined story(ies). At no point is the player in danger of dying, or missing a quick time event, or starving to death, etc, etc… ‘Firewatch’ is a visual novel, scavenger-hunt, limited-interaction, nature walk of a game, and it is damn good!
The setting is the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, 1989. You assume the role of ‘Henry’, a 30-something fire lookout who is trying to run away from a troubled marriage. The initial frames of ‘Firewatch’ setup the rest of the experience via a piano backed choose-your-own-adventure style narrative. In my play-through Henry met his wife Julia at a bar, he was drunk but made an impact on her nonetheless. They begin dating, get married, get a dog, she succumbs to Alzheimers, Henry puts her in a continuous care facility, the dog dies, and Julia eventually goes to live with her family in Australia. She’s still alive, but doesn’t remember Henry or their life together. This is the first 5 minutes…
Henry seeks a job away from people where he could collect his thoughts and attempt to deal with his emotions and the choices he’s made, and will have to make. The actual game opens with Henry hiking to his fire lookout station, greeted by a simple cot, some meager provisions, a lowly outhouse, and solitude, save for the walkie-talkie on his desk. A voice emanates from the radio, and we are introduced to the second character, Henry’s supervisor, senior lookout Delilah. Routine tasks fill Henry’s first few days as a lookout; investigate firework sightings, patrol for hooligans, etc. Shortly, things take a turn and the story really opens up. Henry and Delilah are engulfed in a game of cat-and-mouse with an unseen force that’s seemingly tapped their radios, has been listening and logging their conversations since Henry’s arrival, and may be responsible for missing people in the forest. For the sake of saving the rest of the game for you, I will stop the story description there.
Hype was high for this game, especially with regards to how it made beta-testers and early play-testers ‘feel’. Emotionally, I think ‘Firewatch’ succeeds in producing memorable events and feelings through it’s simple, yet effective soundtrack, and through the fantastic voice acting from Rich Summer (Henry) and Cissy Jones (Delilah). The interactions between Henry and Delilah feel genuine and lifelike. Players choose what to report or comment on, or to not report to Delilah at all. These choices are suppose to shape and change the characters’ relationship with each other. While this appears to work, unfortunately, ‘Firewatch’ suffers from a single ending that may seem incongruous with the interactions and dialogue experienced. It didn’t bother me so much, but after reading some Reddit posts I can understand the frustration. ‘Firewatch’ is good enough to impact players on a level that a lot of games just don’t reach. The story ramps up fast towards the middle of the game, and then runs screaming towards the end. The finale is abrupt in comparison to the slow, methodical, exploration that preceded it.
Visually, I’ll let the screenshots speak for themselves; however, I will highlight a few things. At one point in the ‘Firewatch’ you find a disposable camera. It isn’t made apparent, but the pictures you take in-game are uploaded to firewatch.camera . After completing the game you receive a link to order your pictures in real life. For $15 you can actually have your pictures developed. This is one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen, and I intend on making use of it during my second playthrough. ‘Firewatch’ runs on the Unity Engine. Call me crazy, but it seems like a lot of games are using Unity (Ori and the Blind Forest, Grow Home, Cuphead, KSP, Cities Skylines). I think it is impressive that the engine can be so accommodating to present each games’ visual theme so well. Hats off to the Unity Team!
‘Firewatch’ is a good, albeit short experience. I clocked a little over 5 hours on my first play-through, and I’m pretty sure I experienced +90% of all that could be. Normally a 5-hour game would infuriate me, and I’d ask for my money back, but this game isn’t a $50-$60 game; its ~$18. For that, I believe I got my money’s worth. I hope ‘Firewatch’ doesn’t get beaten down by negative comments regarding a weak (late-game) story or abrupt, single ending. For their first release, Campo Santo has done extremely well in my book. Look for ‘Firewatch’ on Steam, and on PS4; it’s out now!