Fire, watch with me.
It’s really common to see people attach a negative stigma to the idea of isolation, but sometimes it can be a cleansing experience. Sometimes, sure, you can go days without privacy, being around people you love and doing the things you enjoy. Other times, though, you just have to shut yourself in for a bit. Find your quiet space, settle in there, and center yourself.
The search for quiet space is kind of what Firewatch is about, but it’s also about more than that. Sometimes a person can just hide in their bedroom or a well-loved secret spot, but sometimes they have to run away to realms unknown. Firewatch is a story of what happens when a person tries to hide in a place that isn’t hidden at all.
Firewatch is a first-person narrative-centric game in the style of Gone Home, The Stanely Parable, and others of the like. However, it opens with a slight twist; the player starts off by learning about, and choosing certain parts of, the main character’s past. Henry is a married man whose wife has been taken back to live with her family, following a bout with mental illness. After deciding some details about how Henry and his wife met – a sequence that doesn’t really change the story of the game, but serves as a beautiful introduction to the character – it is revealed that Henry has taken a job as the lone man in a watchtower in the national parks of 1970s Wyoming, watching for wildfires to report. His only contact is Delilah, who works in another tower off in the distance.
Firewatch is another game that is unfortunately getting flack from some players for being what is often referred to as a “walking simulator.” Light on actual gameplay, Firewatch instead centers around Henry exploring his sizable square of Wyoming wilderness, talking to Delilah as he goes. The dialogue between the two characters is one of the strongest parts of Firewatch, dealing out humor, wisdom, and very human reactions to the mystery that eventually unfold in the woods. Players have the option to radio Delilah about virtually anything, from a giant burnt tree to an abandoned backpack.
Something that’s always interesting to me as a player of video games is to see the way trees are rendered in games. That may sound like an odd statement, but think about it: it’s very likely that most of the games you’ve ever played have trees somewhere in their landscapes, from realistic oaks and pines to cartoony or pixelated ones. Trees – along with rocks and hills – are the main set dressings of Firewatch, and are all absolutely beautiful in presentation. Everything is bright and colorful in a way that manages to feel completely organic. Even Henry’s arms and legs (yes, a first-person character with legs, thank goodness), are sculpted in a way that made me imagine him as the protagonist of a Pixar movie.
The lighting and shadowplay at work in Firewatch are coupled by the fact that most parts of the game, its narrative stretched across months, take place during morning or evening hours, which means the light effects get to have their fun. The one presentational drawback here, though, is what I will go ahead and call the most asinine complaint I have ever written in a review: the shadows are too low-res. This sounds like an insane complaint, but there are a couple parts of Firewatch that take place when the sun is hanging pretty low in the sky, stretching out shadows enough that every time Henry moves his arm into camera, it looks like he has a full sleeve of retro gaming tattoos. This isn’t anywhere in the forest of being a deal breaker, but it’s disappointing considering the visual quality and polish at work everywhere else.
There’s a line I really like during Henry’s first couple days on the job. While making his way back towards his tower after a small investigation in the woods, he encounters something seemingly out-of-place and reports it to Delilah. Delilah’s response, as sarcastic as is typical of her character throughout the game, is “Henry, I forgot to tell you this, but…we’re outside. This whole place, it’s all outside.” The line is meant as a joke, reminding Henry that what he has seen isn’t unusual out in the middle of the woods. The line is more than that, though; it actually serves as a metaphor for the themes of the game itself. Firewatch is about a man who is more isolated than he has ever been; an extrovert forced to live like an introvert, basically. The tension of being out in the wilderness, where anything could happen and any sound could be coming from any number of sources, is a beautifully-rendered part of the woodland atmosphere.
Firewatch starts out strangely, but calmly. Its narrative hops around throughout the course of the entire summer Henry spends, sitting in his tower and exploring the surrounding lands. Evidence keeps showing up of something else living in the woods and canyons around Henry’s tower, and Henry and Delilah get gradually more invested in finding out what. In the meantime, there’s plenty of exploring to do and discussion to be had.
Those looking for the same amount of free-form exploration Gone Home gave players may be disappointed, but not in a way that impairs what Firewatch actually succeeds in being. Each story beat will invite Henry to go down a specific trail in his area of the woods. There are some things to find in these places; lockboxes containing interesting items, and vistas to take shots of with the instant camera found early in the game. But Firewatch isn’t about exploration so much as it is about narrative.
The exploration the player gets to do comes not in an environmental form, but a conversational one. Henry and Delilah’s story moves in the same general direction, but their relationship as characters can flow down a number of different possible paths depending on how the player talks to her, and what they choose to say- or not say at all. Henry’s conflicted feelings about not being with his wife, and his need to escape, bloom into a really compelling force. Something that always impresses in a narrative-driven game is the point where the player starts making choices based not on what they would do, but rather on what the character would do. Firewatch pulls that off more quickly than most games of its type. Henry and Delilah’s story can go a few ways when it comes to the way the two characters see and view each other, but it always leads to the same conclusion; one that isn’t mind-blowing, nor boring, but most certainly not what was expected. There is a slight bit of letdown upon the game’s ending, yes, but one that feels very deliberate. Sometimes a letdown is the proper response.
Firewatch is a blaze against a starry night sky. The game uses the Wyoming forest as a backdrop to a story of isolation, mystery, and personal discovery that comes off as surprising, self-contained, and final. It’s a game about building a relationship however the player pleases, and watching that relationship get tested as time goes on. There’s something profound going on in Firewatch; something being left unsaid. I think that adds more kindling to its blaze. Funny, smart, and flickering bright, Firewatch burns on.
Final verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: Panic ; Developer: Campo Santo ; Players: 1; Released: February 9, 2016; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on a digital download of the game purchased through the Playstation store.