Every now and then, a game comes along that divides the gaming community. Questions such as ‘what makes a game fun?’ and ‘is this even a game in the first place?’ are raised, and chances are everyone is going to have a different answer to those questions. These are the kinds of games that make us think, that push the boundaries, and that quite frankly, get me very excited. In recent times there has been an increase in the number of “walk-em-ups” or “walking simulators” or “exploration games” that sideline combat in favour of immersing the player in a narrative or environment and giving them little to do but examine their surroundings and piece together a story. Technically, Firewatch probably falls into that genre – but it has so much more to offer than meets the eye.
Put simply, Firewatch puts you into the shoes of ‘Henry’, a middle-aged, hairy, overweight man who’s going through a tough time in his life and decides to take a job as a fire lookout in the remote Wyoming wilderness. The lookout post is isolated, and soon after his arrival a voice coming from a two-way radio tells Henry that she is the only real connection he has to the outside world during his stay. Her name is Delilah, and she isn’t kidding. There’s a real sense of eeriness to just how alone you are in this forest, and though it is a truly beautiful place to be, the solitude can quickly become unsettling. As Henry navigates the forest, Delilah will comment on his surroundings, but the way in which she does this depends on how you, as the player, decide to respond to her. You can be sarcastic, standoffish, friendly, or flirty, but no matter what approach you take Delilah quickly emerges as an intriguing character in her own right. She’s your lifeline, and while it’s true that this game is about exploring the forest itself and uncovering some of the mysteries within, it’s also just about two people forming a connection – and that’s what makes it really touching.
To delve any deeper into the details from the story would be to detract from the experience that makes this game truly memorable. The gameplay itself is simple but intuitive and mostly involves you directing Henry through his daily activities, exploring the forest in search of whatever Delilah has directed you towards on any given day. Occasionally you will pick up objects relevant to the story, and when something of interest comes onto your radar you can contact Delilah using the radio to chat about it or receive instructions as to where you should be heading next. While out on ‘patrol’ you have a handy map and compass to guide you, but given these are your only way of ascertaining direction or location, you’ll need to employ some mild orienteering skills to get to where you need to go. For a brief moment, I wish I’d joined the Scouts when I was younger so that this whole thing didn’t feel so foreign – but I got used to it. It’s amazing how quickly you slip into the groove of this game, and the controls start to feel entirely natural.
What doesn’t feel entirely natural is a problem that quite a number of people have reported, and which I – having played first-person games before with no issue – definitely didn’t expect. After about an hour, Firewatch made me feel sick. Really sick. Mildly dizzying, motion-induced sickness that pulled me out of the game that I had been otherwise so immersed in and forced me to put it down until the nausea had disappeared. I soon learned that the way to fix it was to turn off the game’s in-built head bob that moves the camera every time you walk, but I’m sad to say that if I hadn’t been playing this game for review, I may not have been brave enough to go back in again and trust that turning off the head bob would fix the problem. Luckily it did, but in a game where immersion was so important, it was a frustrating problem to face.
When it wasn’t making me ill (which I will stress, it didn’t after that first hiccup) Firewatch proved that it is truly a beautiful game just to look at. A short way into the story, Henry picks up a disposable camera that allows him to take shots of this gorgeous scenery, but while I was taking screenshots like a crazy person, the camera only allows you to take a limited number of in-game shots. In perhaps the coolest ‘merchandising’ move I’ve ever seen, Campo Santo have made a service available that allows players to send these in-game shots to a company that will print them into postcards and send out physical copies that can be put up on the wall and admired forever. Sadly, this service is only available for PC users, but it’s a great idea nonetheless.
While it has a plethora of great elements, the true standout of Firewatch is the quality of both the script and the voice actors that have managed to make it work so seamlessly. Delilah is known by only her voice, but it doesn’t take long to feel like you know her better than that, and I found myself quickly putting blind faith in this stranger who had easily garnered my affection. The banter between her and Henry is the perhaps the most realistic I’ve ever come across in a game, so much so that I would forgive any flaws (of which there aren’t many) just to be able to listen to more of their conversations. The interpersonal connection plays such a big role in this game that the skills of these voice actors had the ability to make or break it – and they definitely made it.
Sure, in essence, the game is just about walking through a forest looking at objects, and occasionally that can feel like a bit of drag. Some have criticized the ending as being a bit of a let-down at the end of a truly compelling narrative, but I found it to be the logical end to a neat and well thought-out plot. Ultimately, everyone will walk away from this with their own take and the game is clearly already generating discussion, but I feel like that in itself is a sign that a game is worth playing. Atmospherically both charming and unsettling, Firewatch allows you to truly go on a journey with the protagonist, telling its story in a way that’s reminiscent of Gone Home in narrative style and Telltale in the dialogue choices, but which presents an entirely new way of exploring the power of the human connection – and it’s definitely worth experiencing.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Firewatch.