This is not a drill.
Firewatch has one of the most emotionally charged openings to a video game that I have ever played in my lifetime.
Within its first five minutes of its adventure-game styled exposition, the game manipulated my emotions. Joy, sadness, fear, desperation; it’s all quite a feat, but it also helps to introduce to the player the heart of what Firewatch is.
To even call Firewatch a “video game” is also a bit of a stretch. A better definition for what developer Campo Santo has accomplished here is more an “interactive story”, basically a novella-styled tale you can inject yourself into. Without any heavy spoilers (and trust me, you’re gonna want to play this game as fresh from the plot as possible), the game stars Henry, a flawed average Joe who decides to take up a job opportunity as a forest fire lookout in a national park in 1989 Wyoming. The reasons as to why Henry has decided to take this job are better found out on your own through the game’s heartbreaking opening moments. There he quickly befriends Delilah, another lookout via his walkie-talkie. You never actually physically get to see Delilah throughout the game’s 4-6 hour journey, but the game more than compensates for the lack of this.
In fact, the choice to not include many characters in this game (at least in a heavy physical sense) is one of the things that makes Firewatch such an impressive storytelling feat. Henry’s journey often feels like a one-man show with Delilah spectating his every move from her lookout tower in the distance miles away. The two characters often banter with one another through the use of their radio equipment and the story quickly takes their new found friendship on a journey that will both strengthen and challenge their bond during the course of this one summer.
The game deals with some pretty adult themes of love, loss, depression, loneliness, and existentialism. Henry and Delilah are both forced to embark on this journey to face their own flaws and fears as the story takes them into some thematically heavy territory which I will not spoil here. The art style headed by Ollie Moss is fantastic, often mixing in a beautiful palette of colors that bring life to the wilderness around you. In fact, the brilliance of it all is that it adds a bit of innocence to the at-times bleak narrative making it feel like an adult Pixar movie. Firewatch’s art direction is easily among the best in 2016.
A special mention has to be given to the two lead actors, Rich Sommers and Cissy Jones as they are hands-down the main attraction of the game and their voice performances are absolutely excellent, often juggling humor, sadness, anger, and desperation off of one another through their (albeit profanity filled) dialogue. The chemistry between Henry and Delilah feels real. You get the sense that these two characters are fully realized human beings with damaged backgrounds, who often console one another when they hit a depressive episode, cheer one another on when they succeed at the impossible, and even mourn with one another when they experience or reveal tragedy to one another in their own lives. I don’t think that I have ever fallen more in love with two video game characters as I have with Henry and Delilah. Their chemistry is worthy of being placed next to some of the most iconic duos in gaming.
I played Firewatch on Ultra settings on a PC and with an Xbox One controller and despite some small split-second hiccups in framerate, the performance was absolutely solid. The controls took a little getting used to but I quickly figured them out after I began to understand that the control scheme for the game has you holding down the left trigger to bring up a dialog box where you’ll usually get a few response choices ranging from serious to at times down-right and appropriately humorous quips. I did begin to enjoy the clever use of the left trigger to simulate the button on Henry’s walkie-talkie after a while, but it does take some fumbling through in the beginning stages to get used to the mechanic.
Then you have your map and compass which is basically your off-screen HUD in Firewatch. As you guide Henry through the wilderness, you’ll often have to pull up your map and compass to find your way around the lay of the land. While I was tempted to feel vexed about this feature at first (I am not very good at using maps in real life) I quickly found it to be simple and easy to use. In addition, you’ll also find signs on your path that will point you to different landmarks in the game to help guide you on your way, kind of like real-life hiking.
However, as much as I loved Firewatch’s emotionally-packed and soulful storytelling, I have to give it a bit of criticism in its gameplay department. The gameplay isn’t at all terrible, but it isn’t terribly engaging when you think about it. Due to the game’s over-reliance on a strict linear narrative, Firewatch often has the player running from story scenario to story scenario, without it really skipping a beat.
While this isn’t all terrible, it’s a shame that the vast open world that Campo Santo created here isn’t very interactive and devoid of any side distractions other than going off of the main trail to find a supply box that will sometimes contain letters and documents that will add some great exposition to the world and journey the characters are on.
The world can often feel lifeless and hollow in-between story beats. Going to point A to point B to point C and then back again through the same territories can be monotonous after a while. It can often feel like a movie with the awkward boring stuff being left in (think Indiana Jones but with all of the unnecessary 19-hour flight scenes around the world being left in-between the exciting set pieces). Although there are some great character moments that will randomly pop up at times as random optional dialog moments during your lengthy hiking treks via Henry’s walkie-talkie that may ease those qualms bit.
In the end there’s no denying that despite some repetitive formulas in between story beats due to world travelling and the lack of any meaningful side activities to give you a break and take in the fresh air of the beautifully realized national state park, Firewatch nevertheless stands on its own thanks to its excellent performances from its lead characters, a beautiful and haunting setting, and some truly engaging writing.
While some games in our modern era rely heavily on rewarding players with character upgrades, power-ups, and cosmetics, Firewatch instead rewards the player with powerful emotional experiences that will leave them invested in Henry and Delilah’s story long after they’ve put down their controller.
The Reformed Gamers rates Firewatch a 4 out of 5.