Firewatch is a very lonely video game that’s all about people.
Set in 1989, you play as Henry, aka Hank, a guy who has had a pretty shitty time of things lately, and who decides that a Summer job in a Wyoming national park is just the thing he needs to take his mind off things.
Turns out it’s not. I won’t go into any details here, since what happens once you get there is the entire point of the experience, but let’s just say that things don’t exactly go according to plan.
What follows is a short first-person experience that—unsurprisingly, given some of Campo Santo’s background on The Walking Dead—often feels like a smoother, prettier version of a Telltale adventure game. Only without the quicktime events.
Firewatch is a game that leans heavily on its story. Forget what you may have assumed from the game’s early marketing: this is not a survival sim, a deadly wilderness action game, or a gripping thriller. This is a game where you basically walk around the woods, occasionally climb something, and do a lot of talking over a radio.
You do all of this in first-person, and there’s a real joy to Firewatch’s sense of just...being. The game’s movement has a tremendous heft to it, an unbreakable dedication to the perspective that could only come from a bunch of people who love Far Cry 2 getting together and deciding to make a video game. You’re not some disembodied camera floating around the landscape; you are Hank, constantly seeing your own body, swaying with Hank’s weight and just generally walking a mile (or a hundred) in Hank’s boots.
Note also that there’s no HUD. No health meter. No waypoint marker. No inventory. It’s just you and a compass/map combination that gets pulled out in real-time. As you peer over the map in first-person, you navigate through the park’s various areas in order to reach objectives.
If you want to strip it back, all you really do in Firewatch is run around the woods. You talk, and sometimes you’ll need to climb up or down something, and very occasionally there’ll be a door to open or a tree to cut down, but for 95% of your time interacting with a controller or mouse in Firewatch, you’re doing nothing but moving through an empty landscape.
Which sounds terrible! And yet, your movement in Firewatch is simply a means of giving the story space to play out. Aside from a few very brief (and distant) confrontations you are entirely alone throughout Firewatch. It’s just you, your fat fingers and the Great American Wilderness. That isolation is only physical, though, because you’ve always got a walkie-talkie with you, which is used to communicate with Delilah, the woman in the watch tower next to yours. And you do that a lot.
Ah, Delilah. Delilah and Hank. For a game where you rarely see anyone’s face, Firewatch is dripping with character. The relationship between the two is as raw and real as their voice acting is fantastic (Hank is played by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, while Delilah is voiced by veteran games actor Cissy Jones).
Taking another page out of Telltale’s book, Firewatch makes conversation a little more involved than the usual, not only giving you speech options to make and a countdown timer to push you along, but a wonderfully “real” walkie-talkie action on a control pad to select them, making the player squeeze and release triggers to select and send your selections (you can see it in action in the video above). Rarely in a video game has something so simple and rudimentary, something we normally take for granted and get past with a simple click, felt so involved, so much fun.
It’s a shame, then, that Firewatch’s story can’t last the distance. For a game that’s all about a great mystery and how you get caught up in it, things fall pretty flat by the time you get to the finale. Firewatch spends much of its latter half building towards what you assume is a big finish, before taking a turn and leaving much of the best material from the opening behind. (To Campo Santo’s credit in this regard, there’s a little extra punch delivered during the game’s closing credits).
Also a little disappointing is the game world itself. Olly Moss’ art design (born from some early promo work) has been transformed into a varied and often beautiful 3D landscape by Jane Ng. And I mean beautiful. Just...look at this nonsense.
All of that is in-game. Ridiculous.
Pity it’s all a bit superficial, then. The setting of a vast national park and the fact you’ve got a map and compass might suggest a place that you can really explore and get lost in, but in truth Firewatch is little more than a series of corridors pointing towards objectives and areas of interest, each one frustratingly walled in by rocks and devoid of any real sense of openness or space.
You’ve got a run button to make things go by a little faster. The game is divided into “days” which open and close to hit certain story beats, and, smartly, a lot of missions are automatically cut short by the game to save you going everywhere in real-time. The constant travel becomes a bit of a drag, though, even with the conversations going on to divert you from the trudge.
This takes a bit of the wind out Firewatch once the beauty and gimmicks wear off, making you feel more like a set of eyeballs being herded through a (gorgeous) animated comic book than a player in control of an experience where your movement and actions around such a seemingly vast space actually count for anything.
I finished Firewatch in around four hours. That was by running most places, exploring the more obvious “secret” locations for story stuff and making sure I picked up every empty beer can I came across. Someone rushing straight through the main story could probably wind it all up in around three hours, while someone obsessed with finding all of the game’s secrets—and there are many—might double my playtime, if only because they can’t fast travel around the map.
None of that was enough to derail my Firewatch experience, though. This is a very cool video game, which if nothing else shows the power and potential in making a game that dedicates itself so wholly to the first-person perspective. Its art design is wonderful. I fell in love with Hank (and Delilah). And, if there’s any justice, the walkie-talkie thing will become the new gold standard in video game communications.