Firewatch

Firewatch is the debut game from upstart Campo Santo, which is a new game studio formed by industry veterans Chris Remo and Jake Rodkins who are primarily known for their more recent work on Season 1 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game that was released in 2012. This new effort from the team follows a 40-something year old man named Henry as he spends a summer away from home working as a remote fire watchman in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Without spoiling much of the story, Henry takes a remote job in the forest to take stock of the crossroads he finds his life in after a series of unexpected events that have transformed his life into something he didn’t expect.

So, what is Firewatch?

According to it’s description on Steam, it’s a single-player first-person mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness. Also:

…a video game about adults having adult conversations about adult things.

Both of the descriptions sum up nearly the entirety of the 4-6 hours you’ll spend playing through the game.  Firewatch is a narrative-driven exploration game that, in a very realistic way, explores the various ways and reasons people seek isolation.  Throughout Henry’s summer in Wyoming, he develops a relationship with a fire watch in a nearby tower, Delilah through conversations had on a walkie-talkie. The nature of this relationship can be shaped by your responses to Delilah’s various inquiries, be it affectionate, distanced, or even overtly hostile.  The voice acting is some of the best I’ve experienced in a video game; Henry & Delilah’s conversations have excellent flow and tone that goes a long ways towards cementing the idea of these two characters being real people.

Bold Story Choices

Perhaps most interestingly, the game does not give you limitless freedom in how you can choose to present Henry. A brave choice in a time where the concept of freedom and choice in video games is to allow you to mold your character into a saint or a demon, Firewatch limits player choice to things that fit within the context of the core identity of the character.  This deliberate decision connected me to Henry in a way few blank slate characters can.  While I didn’t always appreciate my choices, they always made sense. Henry is somewhat selfish. Henry has a temper. Henry’s character limits the range of responses he can have to various situations. Conversely, Delilah–whose character is slowly revealed to the player throughout the course of the game–always behaves within the context of her identity. This notion of giving non-playable characters agency while limiting the choice of the player character is a bold choice in today’s industry, but one that pays off in the end.  The tension that builds between Henry & Delilah as a mystery unfolds throughout the summer is believable and well-acted, and the reality of each of their lives is driven home in the denouement. The story in Firewatch is one of the most grounded and mature stories I’ve seen in gaming.  While it’s not perfect, it’s a huge step forward for the medium and unlike pretty much every other story-driven game I’ve played, I will be returning to experience the story of Firewatch again.

While some have criticized the ending of the story, I found it quite refreshing. Without spoiling anything, the game never betrays its character’s roots. The ending could come off as anti-climactic for some, much like life itself, but upon reflection it suits the game perfectly and leaves plenty to think about.

A Visual Treat

Firewatch's Jonsey Lake
Firewatch’s visual palate is stunning.

Technically, Firewatch is not the most impressive game out there. What it does have, however, is better visual direction than 99% of games out there.  Embracing a somewhat cartoon-like style–think Pixar–game artist Olly Moss has created a world that never ceases to impress with cohesive visual themes, strong palates, and impressive use of color grading to tonally transform environments.

Throughout the course of the game, I eventually began to feel like I was in Shoshone National Forest as the visual design tapped into my own personal experiences in the mountains and with forest fires.  The strong visual language presented by the game allows it to transcend it’s surface appearance and transport you into its world. I really can’t praise the game enough for how smartly it applies visual design to it’s graphical presentation. It’s one of my favourite-looking games of all-time.

Audio Where It Counts

Aurally, Firewatch adopts a sparse soundscape. Much of the game is played with nothing but the sounds of the forest playing; fortunately, these have been captured very well and sound very good. Otherwise, most of the game is spent talking to Delilah via Henry’s walkie-talkie. There is a musical soundtrack to accompany the game, and it’s infrequency makes the musical choices even more important.  Thankfully, Chris Remo has delivered a tonally excellent soundtrack that offers a sense of relaxation and appreciation for nature at times while being able to effectively ratchet up the tension as mysterious things begin happening. After hearing a few tracks, I decided to pick up the soundtrack and am quite glad I did.  There aren’t a lot of melodically strong entries, but the music as a whole is incredibly atmospheric and helps create the sense of place that Shoshone has.

Firewatch: Not Perfect, But Well Worth It

Firewatch is a game that I can easily see the flaws in. I chose not to mention them here simply because the things the game does well are done well than almost every video game before it.  Firewatch has shifted how I view character interaction in video games and proven that the medium is capable of telling deeply human stories.  Between the excellent writing, voice acting and incredible artistry in its visuals, Firewatch is something that will leave its mark on all who play it.

Recommended! You can purchase Firewatch on Steam.

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