Firewatch allowed me to explore a very particular fantasy: remote wilderness hiking. As a person who writes about video games on the Internet, you might rightly assume that I’m not a very outdoorsy person. I’ve hiked a trail or three in my time, but never more than half a day away from relative civilization. I am, however (naive city slicker that I am), very much into the romanticized idea of toughing it out in the woods, sleeping under the stars and making friends with a pack of wolves or whatever the hell goes on on the outside of my apartment. Campo Santo‘s debut title allowed me a brief and comfortable look into this “outdoors”.
Firewatch: Microsoft Windows [Reviewed] , PlayStation 4, Linux, Mac OS
Developer: Campo Santo
Release Date: 9 February 2016
Price: 19,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Firewatch: Hiking Simulator
It first caught my eye a year and a half ago or so when some preview screenshots were published. Little was known about the game, except that you were to play a national park watchman in the Wyoming Rockies and that it looked amazing. I think I made the decision to play it right there and then because if there’s several surefire ways to hook me, gorgeous stylized art direction is definitely one of them. Now let’s address the elephant in the room for a moment, just so we’re clear from the start: Firewatch is a walking simulator. This phrase, “walking simulator” gets thrown around a lot and it’s more often than not used pejoratively to mock games that lack a failure state, great mechanical depth, or health bars. I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong in wanting those things. If that’s what you enjoy most in a game and hate walking around having a story happen at you you’re probably not going to get much of a kick out of Firewatch. I do, however, prefer to just use “walking simulator” as a convenient stand-in for “narratively-driven-first-person-interactive-experience” which is a bit of a mouthful. Now, if you’re still reading, let’s talk about what Firewatch does similarly and differently to the rest of his genre.
The opening sequence alternates Henry’s (the protagonist) travelling to his new job with the important events of his adult life leading up to this moment. The former is shown in the game’s visual style and is used to familiarize the player with some of the game mechanics, while the latter is told in text in a Choose-Your-Own-Tragedy style. The story takes place during the summer of 1989 and begins with Henry picking up the walkie-talkie in his tower to speak with his supervisor, Delilah.
The rest of the game plays out the following few months as Delilah gives Henry various tasks, like investigating someone using fireworks in the woods, or checking out some damaged telephone wires. During this time you are allowed to familiarize yourself with your sector of the Shoshone National Forest and it’s not long before some peculiar events start to occur aaaaaand this is where I stop giving out plot details. Over the weeks you explore the wilds with some degree of freedom, unlock new areas by acquiring new gear and gather clues to solve the mystery. You do all this in quasi solitude as Delilah’s voice keeps you company and you can talk about all things great and small, or you can choose to keep it professional. And choice is where the whole difference to a traditional walking simulator lies. While Firewatch does not branch in the same way as something like The Stanley Parable your choices in both actions and words, while not necessarily changing the outcome do play a part in exactly how the story unfolds.
Sunset Over The Rockies
I was prepared to come here and tell you all that Firewatch is a visual marvel. A gem among gems and masterpiece fit for a king. And don’t get me wrong, the game uses lighting and particles expertly in order to make the cel-shaded low polygon models look stunning. It has some of the best-looking sunsets I’ve ever seen in a video game and some of the best starry nights as well. But this only makes it more glaring when the light just falls flat on some simplistic textures or your character’s hand, or a bit of rope clips through another item or some scenery. These types of moments are very few, but I would lie if I said they weren’t distracting.
As far as the sound design goes the voice acting is definitely the belle of the ball due to some great and earnest performances by Rich Sommer (Mad Men. You know him from Mad Men) and voice acting veteran Cissy Jones. The delivery is flawless and makes the chemistry between the two main characters (which the entire story banks on) feel natural. They talk about their pasts, their jobs, their lives, they crack jokes and exchange a cutting jab or two and do an overall excellent job of filling the long, otherwise silent stretches of getting from point A to point B. The music, where present, is relaxing and composed mainly of mellow guitar strums triggered largely by storyline or environmental cues, Firewatch prefering to leave the bulk of atmosphere building up to the sounds and silence of the forest.
Gameplay-wise I would not say there’s a whole lot to do, variety-wise, but it definitely felt like enough. In hiking across the mountain trails there are ledges to climb or jump from, ropes to use to rappel, overgrown paths to clear and navigation to do. You have your map and compass to help you find your way (I chose to turn off the current position map marker) and you occasionally find supply caches where you can copy down additional map information, find useful items, or just bits and pieces of someone else’s story. There are some odd engine moments, such as when you pick up certain items and you have the choice to take them along which makes them show up in your tower later on. However, you can just pick them up each morning and take them along, as if it’s the first time you see them. How many times can I confiscate or adopt something, Firewatch? It’s always the little things that make you remember you’re playing a video game.
Of course, the most important interactions of all are dialogues with Delilah, via your radio. You can talk to her about almost everything around you and she’ll occasionally bother you with a question or seven and you can choose how to or if to answer her at all. And this is what sets Firewatch apart from other similar games: choice. Agency. You, as a player, choose what Henry talks about and when or even if at all. It lets you add your own nuances to the story as it plays out, but doesn’t quite let you change the main beats, which is a pity, because while there is content left for a subsequent playthrough there’s little reason to actually replay it. As for the main arc itself, I wish I could say it wraps everything nicely, but I found the ending to be a bit unsatisfying and it left me with a few questions and raised eyebrows where I suppose some small but noticeable plot holes were.
Firewatch is not a core gaming experience. If that puts you off, then nothing I say will convince you otherwise. However, it goes miles beyond what many “walking simulators” before it have and remembers that player choice and player interaction go a long way towards making a video game engaging. It looks and feels excellent and does its job of being a worthwhile experience despite its shortcomings. And I made it through writing this without saying the word “emotion”. It was a fine evening.