Beautiful and breathtaking, witty and poignant; Firewatch is an absolute joy to play. But more than this, it’s a banner title for the graphic adventure genre; one that validates this often overlooked style of game. To be honest, my only real criticism of Firewatch – released worldwide February 2016 for PS4 and PC and developed by Campo Santo – is, simply, it’s over too soon.
Set in the idyllic Shoshone national park, Wyoming, during the summer of 1989, the roughly 5-hour story puts the player in the shoes of jaded 40-year-old Henry, who’s recently taken a job as a fire lookout in one of the many isolated towers dotted throughout Shoshone’s unspoilt wilderness. After a short, semi-interactive opening sequence detailing the events that led to the weary protagonist’s current vocation, we’re introduced to Delilah; Henry’s boss and sole point of contact during the long season ahead, a person he can only reach via a pair of walkie-talkies (remember them?). Sadly for Henry – though fortunately for us – his quiet solitude is interrupted almost immediately by a series of seemingly unrelated mysteries which force him and Delilah as the only people present at the time to try and discover the cause of these strange events. From start to finish the story is relentlessly intriguing, causing the player and Henry himself to question everything that takes place throughout the course of Firewatch’s narrative. This sense of confusion is exacerbated by Henry’s utter isolation and inability to discuss his experiences with anyone except Delilah; a woman he’s never actually met face-to-face; a woman he barely knows. These two features, so effectively utilised throughout, perfectly display the both brilliance of Campo Santo’s choice of setting and skill as storytellers.
As engaging as the plot is, however, the relationship between Henry and Delilah is the real highlight in a game overflowing with class. The exceptionally written dialogue elicits a vast array of emotions from the player and is performed with aplomb by Rich Sommer (Henry) and, especially, Cissy Jones (Delilah). Alongside the glib remarks and the genuinely amusing back-and-forth exchanges between the two protagonists, the game is more than able to deal with serious concepts such as self-image in a considered and thought-provoking manner which is even more impressive given the brevity of the narrative. Of course, like all such point-and-click adventures, the player has a certain level of freedom to alter the nature of the relationship between Henry and Delilah and thus, to a certain extent, the course of the narrative itself through the use of its primary game mechanic: dialogue trees. This mutability provides Firewatch with a degree of replayability, so often absent in many more linear, action-orientated titles and results in two of the most authentic, compelling and fully-fleshed characters in recent gaming history.
From a gameplay perspective, despite its lack of combat, RPG-esque character development or even basic puzzles which story-driven games these days often incorporate to attract a wider audience of players, it’s important to remember Firewatch is a game. As well as the familiar, reactive dialogue trees mentioned earlier, there’s an added level of depth unique to this title that should please all but the most demanding of graphic adventure fans. Specifically, this manifests itself in the player’s freedom to report to Delilah only what seems salient to the mysteries at hand; for instance, should you feel a particular piece of information is irrelevant or you distrust her opinion on a particular matter, it’s entirely up to you how to use this knowledge. Granted, it doesn’t revolutionise the graphic adventure paradigm, nonetheless, it is a pleasing mechanic that increases the player’s ability to fine-tune Henry and Delilah’s relationship and experiment with the narrative in numerous ways. In keeping with the minimalistic gameplay, Firewatch utilises a simple, easy-to-use control scheme, favouring simple navigation that allows you to orientate Henry on the fly, using the directional pad to seamlessly bring forth a paper map and compass, preserving the truly immersive nature of the experience. Outside of the, for want of a better term, main campaign, a surprising amount of freedom is given to the player to explore the topography surrounding Henry’s watch tower; though that’s not to say the park is anywhere near as immense as a standard open world game; nor should it be. As well as discovering various shortcuts that simplifies traversal, it’s possible to adopt a pet tortoise and even take photographs with an in-game disposable camera; pictures that can be printed off via Steam, if you’d like a physical, real-world copy as a memento of your time in Shoshone. All things considered, while Firewatch certainly won’t get your pulse racing, it nevertheless possesses more than enough interactive elements to keep fans of the genre happy and, more importantly, provides a much-needed alternative to the surfeit of first-person shooters and open-world epics that pervade the industry today.
At this point, though I am extremely fond of Firewatch (my unequivocally positive ramblings hitherto should have made this as clear as Channing Tatum’s lack of acting ability) I have to return to my initial criticism of the game: its brevity. Just as you begin to finally understand Henry, Delilah and Shoshone’s history, it seems the end credits start to role, leaving in its wake an acute sense of dissatisfaction and sadness to be so suddenly ejected from the story. I for one would like to have seen Campo Santo expand on key aspects of the narrative or include a few additional short sections of content that delve deeper into the history of some of the park’s previous inhabitants; something as interesting as the rest of the game that would enable me to spend another hour or two with Henry and Delilah. For this reason, I feel Firewatch falls just short of TellTales’ The Walking Dead series 1 or Square-Enix’s Life is Strange in terms of quality.
Notwithstanding this flaw, it would be almost impossible to criticise the art-direction unless you possess a sense of wonder as stunted as Victor Meldrew’s. Designed by artist Olly Moss, the setting faultlessly captures the evocative beauty of America’s national parks and the majesty of such pristine wilderness in general. It’s colourful and bursting with life, yet maintains the sense of isolation which is so fundamental to the experience. Indeed, though heavily stylised in appearance, you’ll never tire of the ceaseless parade of breath-taking vistas, if anything, you’ll regularly find yourself resisting the urge to channel your inner Attenborough and soliloquise on the gorgeous scenery. Elsewhere, the sound design is handled with impressive subtly, with a raft of natural sound effects used intelligently to emphasise Henry’s solitude and the peaceful nature of his surroundings as the situation demands, whilst the sporadic use of music is used to similarly great effect as well as capturing the late 80’s/early 90’s period.
Whether you adore or abhor ‘walking sims’ (as they’re derisively called by some) Firewatch should be experienced by all PS4 and PC gamers who yearn for variety. Though arguably too brief to be considered great, this exceptionally told story with its deep, three-dimensional characters and sublime graphics, produces a game of rare narrative quality that many a AAA title fails to match. Besides, it only costs £14.99 – cheaper than the average nightclub beer and far more memorable.