Disclosure ‐ We'd like to thank Campo Santo for providing us with not one but two pre-release copies (PC & PS4) of Firewatch. This review will also aim to be free of as many story spoilers as possible.
“A summer of scorching heat, endless pines and untold mystery await the lovelorn Henry”.
Growing up in the late 90’s and early 00’s in the cultural black hole that is Australia, I was raised primarily on American films and television which ingrained in me a nostalgic fondness for all things classic Americana. When I think of America, some of the strongest imagery that comes to mind is the lush, sprawling pine forests that inhabit many of its states. Twin Peaks, Homeward Bound, The Blair Witch Project, Alan Wake.. many classic pieces of media have embraced this setting in a number of ways; it’s become a staple of genres ranging from mystery and thriller all the way to comedy and romance. And there’s a good reason why — it’s the type of setting and atmosphere that can go from breathtakingly serene one moment to dauntingly chilling in a heartbeat. Firewatch is all of that and more.
This is the debut title of newly-formed studio Campo Santo and published by Panic Inc. While still new, Campo Santo is comprised of some mighty-fine talent that you may be familiar with already. Written and directed by Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin respectively (Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1), with art design by Olly Moss (Mark of the Ninja) who all founded the studio together. The game also features music composed by Chris Remo (Gone Home) and the voice acting talent of Rich Sommer (Mad Men) and Cissy Jones (Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1, Fallout 4, Life Is Strange) in her most prominent role to date.
In Firewatch you play the role of Henry (Sommer), who has taken up the role of a volunteer fire lookout in the wilds of the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. It is there that he first meets his new boss and fellow lookout, Delilah (Jones), who resides in the adjacent tower some miles away on the horizon. The year is 1989, one year after the devastating Yellowstone fires of 1988.
“It’s the type of setting and atmosphere that can go from breathtakingly serene one moment to dauntingly chilling in a heartbeat.”.
It is a first-person mystery adventure game with a heavy focus on narrative and building your relationship with Delilah using the walkie-talkie radio that has been issued to you. Throughout your time spent hiking through the untamed rocky mountains and canyons of The Shosone, you soon learn more about the voice on the other end of the radio and your only means of companionship in this isolated part of the world. Using a number of dialogue choices presented to you, you’re given a choice as to how the overall tone of your relationship with Delilah plays out. Will you be upfront as possible about Henry’s history, spilling every detail of his life back at home? Or will you act guarded, remaining insusceptible to Delilah’s inquisitive personality? Perhaps you’ll even ignore her altogether by choosing not to respond at all, the choice is yours.
Being within this relationship and helping it unfold is truly one of the most enjoyable experiences of Firewatch. I don’t think I’ve experienced dialogue of this quality ever in a video game, at least not that I can remember. It feels natural and believable in a way that few games can pull off, almost palpable. The chemistry between the two characters envelops you in such a way that I found myself caring deeply about every detail of their relationship. The performances of both Sommer and Jones are the cornerstones that bring Firewatch to life. While both characters are considerably older than myself, it’s so easy to empathise and relate to not just Henry but Delilah also. Thankfully they don’t feel like two-dimensional caricatures of a generation, they feel like real people. You’re forced to look at every situation not just from your own point of view but from someone else’s as well. How will this person feel if I choose this option? How would they respond? I faced many difficult choices to say the least.
“You’re forced to look at every situation not just from your own point of view but from someone else’s as well. How will this person feel if I choose this option? How would they respond?”
That’s not to mention the writing when it comes to the story itself. As Henry barely has time to settle into his new home for summer, trouble begins to stir and strange events begin to occur. It is these events that act as the vehicle for Henry and Delilah’s story and relationship; not everything is under your control as you’ll soon discover. Alone and cut off from the rest of the world, Henry is faced with a number of mysteries and is often pushed out of his comfort zone with Delilah in tow.
The story of Firewatch is admittedly linear, this could either be a positive or a negative thing for you depending on your tastes. It’s clear that much like other developers, such as Naughty Dog and TellTale, Campo Santo have a very specific story they wish to tell. Rarely, if ever, are you even given the illusion of choice when it comes to the game’s most pivotal moments; it’s important to remember that sometimes it’s more about the journey rather than the destination. A more linear story allows for a narrative to unfold in a very specific away; the player is not at risk of missing a crucial element to the story or making the ‘wrong’ choice. Such is the case with Firewatch; with little leeway given to the player, the story’s pacing and structure is delivered in such a way that encapsulates all the makings of a good mystery thriller. Its themes weave intricately between the many facets of life’s struggles. Themes of loss, empathy, trust, loyalty, privacy and mental illness all make up its story that at its core is very human. There’s no reliance on tired tropes or Shyamalan-esque twists.
One of the things Firewatch does exceptionally well is its use of (often cheesy) humour between its more sentimental moments. One minute you can be laughing along with these character’s inside jokes and the next you’re left with goosebumps and a feeling of paranoia. Its darker and more poignant moments are handled with a level of delicacy and gravitas that feels rare to gaming as a medium. Never does it feel pretentious or convoluted; it’s masterfully done in a way that avoids feeling like an emotionally-draining roller coaster. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some intense “Oh sh-” moments also.
“Its darker and more poignant moments are handled with a level of delicacy and gravitas that feels rare to gaming as a medium”.
Firewatch was born from a single painting by Olly Moss, later adapted into a series of 3D environments that captured Moss’s unique art style. The result is something so spectacular to look at and walk around in that you’ll want to hold off from using the game’s sprint button as much as possible.
The sun-soaked forests of Wyoming that serve as the forefront of the game’s overall aesthetic are every bit as serene and atmospheric as I had hoped they would be. While my daydreams of one day being a park ranger in a national forest such as this (who am I kidding? This pampered dandy wouldn’t last a day) are unlikely to ever be fulfilled, this game could surely suffice. You come to witness some truly remarkable sights; a broad colour spectrum of fiery reds, deep oranges and cool greens engulf the forests as the days progress while still maintaining a distinctive colour palette that always fits the mood. And how could I not mention the goofy style of Henry himself? Whose large body and chunky hands are always visible in the frame as you scale cliffs and interact with objects. One piece of advice — when you find the disposable camera early on, make sure you use it whenever you think of it, trust me. Capture every moment.
“The sun-soaked forests of Wyoming that serve as the forefront of the game’s overall aesthetic are every bit as serene and atmospheric as I had hoped they would be”.
Being a narrative-driven game, gameplay mechanics take a bit of a back seat in Firewatch compared to its exploration and interaction with Delilah. For one, Henry cannot be killed or even fail an objective (no quick time events at least), it’s just not that type of game. It’s not that it holds your hand so much as that that type of gameplay simply would not fit into the experience. I imagine that falling from a cliff or being eaten by a bear would kind of be at odds with the game’s overall objective; Firewatch is not a survival horror. While I had hoped that the game would involve more in-depth mechanics relating to the job of a park ranger, that isn’t part of the job. Henry’s job is to park his backside in a chair all day while keeping a look out for fires from his tower, so he’s lucky he sees as much action as he does.
To aid you while navigating The Shosone National Forest, Henry can make use of a map and compass along with general directions and hints that are given by Delilah. While the map can display your location at any given time, players are given the choice to turn that feature off along with the display of your current objective (highly recommended if you feel like using your head a bit more and putting your navigation skills to the test). Henry’s map can also be updated with additional notes that he jots down upon discovering landmarks or finding other maps in the forest’s many supply boxes. But there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from learning the forest’s many paths and shortcuts as you progress. Towards the end of my play-through I found myself relying less and less upon my map and compass. It was a nice little unexpected feeling of progression.
The small lulls during Henry’s longer hikes are filled by the game’s scarce but masterful use of music composed by Chris Remo. The soundtrack is quiet and unintruding while still immensely enjoyable, only rearing its head when it needs to. Anyone that has played Red Dead Redemption will know what I’m talking about. But another often overlooked aspect of a game is its overall sound design. The environmental sounds of Firewatch such as the crunching of dirt beneath Henry’s feet to the creaking trees and rustling bushes constantly prompt the player to stop and admire their surroundings, or look over their shoulder to make sure they’re still alone..
My initial completed play-through of Firewatch, according to Steam, clocked in at approximately 4 hours — which was rather surprising honestly; it felt so much longer. But my guesstimate for an average playtime would have to be closer to 5 hours — given that you take your time, don’t sprint everywhere and factor in a few wrong turns here and there. While still disappointing, in time I came to appreciate the game’s short length. At no moment does the story seem to drag or rush too quickly and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It seems fair given the low price point for something of this high of a production value.
So I picked up Firewatch again to try another play-through. This time I would pick the dialogue options I wouldn’t normally choose, head the wrong direction at every chance I could and essentially do an experiential run of sorts. The results were rather impressive. I went totally against my instinct this time when filling out the game’s choose-your-own-adventure-style prologue that shape Henry’s past and observing the affect it had on Henry and Delilah’s conversations was really refreshing and even resulted in a few neat surprises. I learned that there is more than one side to each character.
I gotta admit, some of those dialogue choices during that subsequent play-through were tough. Really tough. During my first play-through of the game I stayed true to myself, I was ‘nice guy’ Henry. It was easy given Delilah’s incredibly lovable personality and irresistible charm. But this time I was a flat-out dick and it hurt to watch. Snapping at Delilah and being brutally honest to the point where she temporarily switched-off her radio? It was painful. But at the same time it was enlightening, about 60% of the dialogue this time around was completely different.
“… some of those dialogue choices during that subsequent play-through were tough. Really tough … But at the same time it was enlightening, about 60% of the dialogue this time around was completely different.”
I would deliberately head the wrong direction whenever I was given the choice and in doing so discovered things I completely missed the first time around. Better yet, the game took these decisions and made them part of the experience, it would adapt. At no point did it ever seem like I was punished for the way that I played and I think that’s a rather large accomplishment for any game.
My second completion of Firewatch was every bit as remarkably rewarding as the first. At this point I’d say it should even be mandatory. I know that I still haven’t experienced every little thing it has tucked away so I guarantee you that I’ll be picking it up again in the near future.