It’s hard to talk about Firewatch without getting into some philosophical discussion of what a game is. You’ve probably seen the trailers and before you’ve read this review, you’ve already decided if Firewatch is “game” enough for you. Fine. But let me inform, or remind you, that this game was written by the guys who wrote Telltale’s The Walking Dead. And if you have any positive vibes after playing that game (or non-game), then I’m happy to report back that Firewatch brings similar vibes. It’s gripping and, at times, emotionally distressful.
Watch this fire burn.
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You play as Henry, a regular guy who deals with real-life circumstances. There’s no zombie apocalypse and the world isn’t collapsing under the weight of politics and war. Henry’s wife is sick. So sick that it breaks the fabric of his marriage. In response, he gets a job at a Wyoming National Forest as a fire lookout.
But Henry is you. The familiar dialogue style makes a return and as soon as the game starts, you’re making decisions as Henry. So it’s your wife that’s sick. What would you do with her? Do you fight for your marriage? Do you leave? The foundation of the game is your personal investment and just like financial investments, the greater your investment, the greater your return.
Once you’re employed at the Shoshone National Forest, your only contact with humanity is the voice of your foul-mouthed but friendly boss, Delilah. She’s in another watch tower, so you communicate with her through a radio comm. Campo Santo made it so easy to invest yourself in the game because the dialogue and choices are so relatable. I could count on one hand how many choices felt contrived. Otherwise, there was a choice that resonated with me and my perspectives, but you could also be the insensitive version of you or the goofy version of you. At the end of the day you can be you.
Firewatch is just plain beautiful
Your job as a fire lookout is to watch for fires and report suspicious activity. The game’s timeline is marked by days and from day one there’s activity, which you’ll find is creepier than expected in a quiet national forest. For example, two girls go missing, but you don’t go to the ends of the earth to save them because this is a realistic game. Real people call it in to authorities.
Things do start to go off the rails, eventually. Someone breaks into your watchtower. But you’re not catapulted into “find evildoer mode.” Nope. Instead you must tell your boss and call it in to the authorities. It’s over time where the suspense picks up and you don’t know who you can trust, which is the suspenseful part because you’re only talking to one person the entire game.
Walking around the forest made my heart beat hard sometimes. There’s so many instances where I felt a jump scare would come or something would pop out of the bushes. It’s the same feeling you would have if you were walking through a forest and you didn’t know what activities were happening or if someone was following you. And that sense is heightened by the very good sound design.
I also wasn’t sure if my dialogue choices were affecting my future. That’s the biggest difference between The Walking Dead and this game. Choices aren’t colored differently and there’s no screen saying which choices will go into the next day. Just like life, what you said is what you said and it’s not until hindsight where you realize that a choice from a few hours back may have led to the situation you are in.
Welcome to your new job
I think it’s an innovation on dialogue choices, but it’s a double-edged sword. One of the paragraphs from Campo Santo’s website describing Firewatch says “…you’ll explore a wild and unknown environment, facing questions and making interpersonal choices that can build or destroy the only meaningful relationship you have.” But you never know if your choices actually have an impact on the outcome of the game.
You also make decisions that have immediate negative effect but many of them end up having little consequence. One time I pissed off Delilah and she walked away from her radio, but nothing happened to me during that time. On one hand I was relieved, which is a testament too Campo Santo; on the other hand, I wanted to see how far Camp Santo was going to take moments like that, and I think they could have taken situations further.
With that said, even if your choices ultimately don’t affect the outcome, the way Campo Santo makes you feel throughout is a demonstration that choices that don’t have an impact on the overall story can still grip the player and carry them to the end. What’s clear is that once people finish the game, I can imagine a lot of discussion on how everything comes together and what it ultimately means. That’s the sign of a good story.
I'll let you figure out why there's toilet paper in a supply box miles from your tower
Firewatch looks absolutely gorgeous as well. Light rays shine magnificently through trees; in the right light, grass looks real, and shadows drape over the land just as it should. My mid-tier machine struggled with maintaining 60 FPS on all Ultra settings, but still maintained a healthy 45 FPS. With a few custom tweaks, the game ran at an extremely solid 60 FPS without sacrificing much of the gorgeous details. Any time it dropped below 60 FPS it seemed like it happened while the game was loading a portion of the map.
There’s not much to complain about in Firewatch. The dialogue is so relatable and the great voice acting makes it feel natural. It’s absolutely gorgeous and performs smoothly. I would understand if you questioned the significance of the dialogue, but in order to question it, you have to play the game. And you absolutely should.
Firewatch kept me engaged from beginning to end. The dialogue and the voice acting were believable and relatable, and I felt like the choices I made were ones I might make in real life. I wish Campo Santo added greater ramifications to some choices but it didn’t diminish the emotional effect they had on me. The ending will be a point of contention for some, but it all comes down to a perspective and regardless of that, you should play this game.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Oddly, it was getting lost. The world is beautiful.