Investigate strange happenings in the woods around your lookout tower.
PC Release: February 9, 2016
By Ian Coppock
But soft; what light through yonder barrage of triple-A games breaks? The delay of Watch Dogs 2‘s PC release has brought an unexpected reprieve. A chance to recover from the relentless assault of buggy, so-so titles that together comprise one heck of a holiday collage. It’s difficult to find video games this November that offer a quality value proposition, and that’s without hyperbole. With no sign of Watch Dogs 2, and no time to review some other new game, a rare opportunity to review something else entirely has presented itself. A chance to look back at all the games that came out this year that went un-reviewed. Of all those games, the one that most deserves a spotlight is Firewatch.
Firewatch is a first-person mystery game and the debut title of Campo Santo, a small indie studio. Firewatch received a great deal of media attention following its initial tease, and the game sold half a million copies on opening day. Why? Because it espoused a colorful world, meaningful dialogue, and an intoxicating atmosphere. The degree to which the game accomplished all three of these things is still being debated, but the fact that they’re still being debated since Firewatch‘s February release mean that the game has had a wide impact.
Firewatch takes place in the summer of 1989 and casts players as Henry, a newly arrived fire lookout in the employ of the forestry service. An early-40’s gent from Colorado, Henry had a pretty nice life until his wife Julia came down with early-onset dementia, as detailed in Firewatch‘s heartbreaking prologue. After Julia is sent away to live with her parents, Henry seeks any opportunity he can to escape his pain and just leave things behind for a while. That opportunity? A job as a summer fire lookout in the remotest corner of Wyoming.
Upon arrival to his new digs, Henry is greeted by Delilah, a snarky, delightfully witty senior lookout and Henry’s direct boss. The two can only communicate by walkie-talkie, as Delilah is in the next region over, but she tells Henry that she’ll be his boss, overseer, and perennial crossword buddy until the fall arrives and the fire danger passes. Henry, happy enough to be away from his marriage and other issues, gets ready to settle in for a long summer of looking outside.
But, as we all know, video game protagonists never just “settle in” for their occupation or mission, do they? Henry arrives to his tower thinking that he’ll just sit in a splintery old chair for three months, until he spots a shadowy figure walking around in the woods outside. Henry starts off thinking little of it, but when he returns from a routine patrol to find his tower vandalized and most of his stuff stolen, the woods outside begin to look a little scarier. Perhaps forest fires aren’t his biggest worry after all.
Firewatch is played from a first-person perspective and incorporates deep, meaningful dialogue into its design. The game has been unfavorably compared to a walking simulator, and though Henry spends much of his time walking, Firewatch is much more of an adventure game. As Henry, players will spend most of their time completing tasks out in the woods, either as part of their fire lookout duties or in search of whomever vandalized the tower. The game is set in a small but robust open world which affords for plenty of exploration opportunities as Henry goes about his job.
More than the adventuring around Wyoming, Firewatch emphasizes believable, choice-based conversations with Henry’s boss, Delilah. Though she doesn’t appear in the game physically, Delilah is available via walkie-talkie. How Henry shapes his relationship with Deliah is up to the player, with Mass Effect-style conversation trees that allow players to be anywhere from amicable to a complete dick, as the player’s mood warrants. The player can also decide how much information to share with Delilah, as well as if she’s worth trusting. Just as Henry has discretion over how much he can share, so too does Delilah.
For anything else that can be said about Firewatch, it has some of the most authentically written and delivered dialogue of any video game. Having a casual conversation is a surprisingly difficult challenge for voice actors to take on, but Rich Sommer (Henry) and Cissy Jones (Delilah) took to it with gusto. The result is a game with compelling writing and the best video game voice acting of the decade. All of this is a great boon to Firewatch‘s mysterious atmosphere, but it also allows for some deep character development. Henry and Delilah undergo many twists and turns as human beings, chosen and not, shaping their personalities and their relationship.
It’s rare to find a video game that can drive players forward solely on dialogue. Firewatch has much more than that, but players will be propelled as much by the characters’ chats as they will be by the game’s central mystery. Both Henry and Delilah are funny, feisty, horribly flawed human beings, but that’s what makes them so relatable. They’re just two people in a strange situation, packed with a lot of believable anecdotes. A lot of game writing will attempt to incorporate realistic-sounding chitchat that ends up falling flat, but Firewatch‘s writing and voice acting combine to produce dialogue that sounds much more organic, more spontaneous. It is an absolute pleasure to play through.
Outside of conversing with Delilah, most of Firewatch‘s gameplay comprises simple exploration. The world of Firewatch is not the biggest open world ever, but it hides a lot of secrets. Players can expect to find clues from fire lookouts past, maybe even a cabin or two hiding out in the underbrush. Playing the game doesn’t require any sort of expertise, per say, but it does reward keen attention to detail. Players can ping Delilah with whatever they’ve found to get her (usually sarcastic) take on it. There are several layers of history hidden out in the woods. Some of it has to do with Firewatch‘s main narrative, and sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless of its purpose, Henry can usually find it by checking his map.
The narrative of Firewatch is what the voice acting and gameplay combine to inform, as well as a series of low acoustic tracks and eerie sound effects. Firewatch is one of the most suspenseful games released this year, combining elements of mystery with writing right out of a thriller novel. Despite what this assessment might imply, Firewatch is not a horror game, but it does bring that same narrative tension that many horror games are famous for. As Henry delves deeper into the mystery behind his tower getting trashed, he becomes embroiled in a deadly game out in the trees. Someone, or a group of someones, doesn’t want Henry out here, and players need to take care while creeping through the pines in pursuit of this shadowy adversary. Henry only has his wits, after all. Sure, Delilah’s on the radio, but she can’t come and save him from whomever’s out in the forest.
Firewatch‘s problems are few, but they’re not without substance. The biggest issue with the game’s narrative is how severely it collapses upon itself in the final act. To put it vaguely, Firewatch‘s ending is profoundly anticlimactic. The game keeps the mystery percolating up until the very end, only to employ deus ex machina and end the story abruptly. The use of a sudden plot device to upend the narrative at the very end is usually the result of lazy writing, and unfortunately, this feels like the case with Firewatch. Henry and Delilah are basically given the last piece of the puzzle, and then it cuts to black. Much like Mass Effect 3, Firewatch is excellent until the last five minutes of the game.
Luckily for Firewatch, this ending doesn’t stop the rest of the game from being enjoyable, and it has little effect on the quality of Henry and Delilah’s chats. The game is also saved by the fact that it’s virtually bug-free and runs well on machines both new and not-so-new. Indie games seem to be the only ones interested in going without bugs these days, and for any problems Firewatch‘s story might have, at least it runs okay.
As can be gleaned from these screenshots, the world of Firewatch is quite beautiful. Campo Santo built a wilderness on bright colors and fluffy graphics, complete with some gorgeous skyboxes. The game’s aesthetic looks like a Pixar film combined with a 1950’s national park poster. The result is a wildly colorful world that produces no shortage of spectacle, contrasting easily between fiery red sunsets and deep blue midnight interludes. Despite the pastel quality of the in-game objects, each one is painstakingly detailed. Animals move and make noise just like their real-world counterparts, and all of the effects from water to shadows are gorgeously rendered.
The other nice thing about Firewatch‘s world is its sound effects. The game’s wilderness is overloaded with the sounds of nature to accompany its, well, sights of nature. From animal calls to the wind rippling through trees, from the flow of water to gales hitting rock faces, Firewatch has a vibrant audio-sphere to accompany its visuals. Its sound design is also a key component of the game’s suspenseful atmosphere; every snapped twig, every flight into the underbrush, is well-implemented to keep players on their toes. The game’s soundtrack is nothing too unique, but its series of acoustic guitar solos is quite relaxing.
Despite its narrative’s rather abrupt ending, Firewatch has some of the best video game writing and voice acting of the past 10 years. Its organic conversations and believable characterizations are a welcome companion to the game’s suspenseful atmosphere. The gameplay is crafted well in-tune with thriller novels and films, leaving players feeling vulnerable and wondering what the next mystery might be.
A few players have complained that the game comes up too short for its $20 price, but length is not the only guarantor of a good game. Firewatch has much better dialogue than games ten times its length. For a game that tries to present a compelling story with believable characters, it’s worth the money. Heck, it’s one of the best games released this year.
You can buy Firewatch here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.