Based on several strong word-of-mouth recommendations, this past weekend I picked up Firewatch ($20) from Steam and played through it start-to-finish. I only knew some of the most cursory details about it, but liked the art style and the thought of experiencing a really strong story. Some people are downright raving about this game.
So what is Firewatch?
Firewatch is probably best categorized as an interactive novel of sorts, with shades of the adventure and exploration genre. Unlike Life is Strange and Telltale’s games, there’s very little choice here and most of it is cosmetic. Instead, the player experiences a tale in the first person and is led through a story over the course of a summer.
The story here — and I’ll try hard not to spoil too much — is that the player is taking on the role of Henry, a somewhat overweight (yet physically competent) 40-something who is filling the role of a firewatcher for a Wyoming national park during a dry summer. Firewatch begins with a minimalistic text/hyperlink intro, guiding the player through Henry’s life to date, in particular his relationship with his wife and her descent into illness. While she’s not dead, Henry’s wife has gone to live with her parents and he’s taking up this position as a way to deal with what’s going on (or avoid it).
After the first ten or fifteen minutes, you arrive at the Firewatch tower — your home base — and start to engage with one of the very few other human characters in this game, Delilah. Delilah is the coordinator for all of the towers, and she and Henry start talking frequently over radio. The game, such as it is, is mostly the conversations that these two have while Henry is sent to do various tasks around the park (investigating fireworks, finding an old Boy Scout camp, etc.). As I said, it’s very linear, although players have to figure out how to navigate the park and orient themselves with a map and compass. I don’t think there are any fail states, however, and I only got slightly stuck once while trying to figure out how to cross a ravine.
As events start to unfold, mysteries pop up and Henry and Delilah’s relationship deepens. It is, depending on what dialogue choices you select, a strange friendship or a romantic one or one in which two damaged people are supporting each other through a type of therapy. The game does skip forward in days to touch on certain events or conversations, so it’s much less about scavenging, crafting, and living in this tower (as I was originally led to believe) and more about hitting those story beats.
So what’s the good here?
Overall, I found Firewatch fairly engaging. The story is touching and uses this interactive medium as a way to experience it in a more personal way than would come out in some others. The lion’s share of the narrative burden is with the two voice actors here, and for the most part they do a great job. Henry is sarcastic, decent, and not always together; Delilah is funny, thoughtful, and not always together. Hearing their back-and-forth as Henry goes about his business kept me focused on finding the next object or site that would trigger a conversation.
The visuals are lovely, kind of a cell-shading thing, and I liked the feeling of isolation that runs at the core here. Henry is very much alone, physically; in the whole of the game, the only people he sees are either from afar or are obscured (even in photographs). I noticed that aside from an elk in the beginning and a couple of butterflies and birds, he doesn’t even encounter wildlife (which is strange for a park). There are mentions of a bear, but at least I never saw it.
The story certainly kept me going. Thrust into the role of Henry and his apparent abandonment of his wife, I found myself both sympathetic and ashamed of this character. I definitely wanted to see what happened next, particularly as mysteries started to arise, and found myself at times enchanted by the wilderness and even a bit afraid of it. Afraid for Henry, at least.
Without giving too much away of the story, I’ll say that one of the themes is the intimacy that can come about through communication, the honesty that bubbles to the surface, and how putting words to something can bring out the truth in a way that we didn’t even realize before.
So what doesn’t work?
It seems that the most controversial aspect of Firewatch is its ending, but before grappling with that, I wanted to say that the game is really too short. At times it felt like the game was scooting me along, pushing me faster through the latter third without letting me absorb what was going on and having more freedom to explore. There is also very little challenge here, particularly once you get to know the layout of the park (although kudos to the devs for making a map that can be explored multiple ways without making it too dull).
The ending. Again, I don’t want to spoil, but I will say that this ending is highly divisive in the game’s community. Some felt like it was the logical end to two people’s story and that it tied up the themes nicely. Others felt betrayed by it.
I’ll say that I think that the devs fumbled the concept. I think they started to write themselves into a corner by raising mysteries and threads without quite knowing how to resolve them — and then took the easiest, simplest way out. Firewatch made us expect one type of story and game, and then when it switched it up toward the end, it didn’t feel like it “earned” that ending. It felt like a childish bait-and-switch that’s supposed to make the player feel like they were fools while in fact they were operating exactly on the information that the game was giving them. I didn’t hate the ending but I sure as heck didn’t like it that much. If it was a novel and I was an editor, I’d send it back to the author for another pass at a resolution.
Do I recommend it?
If you like exploration games that use settings to tell a story about people, like Gone Home, then sure, Firewatch is definitely worth a playthrough. I don’t know if its short run time and lack of replayability is worth $20, but it definitely tried to do something a little different and will stick in my mind for months to come as a result.