Campo Santo has done something special with Firewatch. The first and obvious comparisons will be to games like Gone Home which are in the first person but feature little to no interactivity in terms of action. These games are more so aesthetically and narrative driven, a very coloring or storybook genre, akin to the more action-packed and decision based Telltale episodic games. The main difference between Firewatch and Gone Home however lies in the amount of leeway players are given, or given the illusion of having. Both experiences are very much linear ones, do not make the mistake of thinking Firewatch is set in a lush sandbox by any means just because it looks that way. Surrounded though you are by woods on all sides, it is not only a linear experience but one that has minimal action as well. The main draw lies in the narrative.
Campo Santo’s first adventure gives the illusion that there is both an open world surrounding you and that some of the gameplay is action oriented. Now, these “action-packed” moments are little more than scripted occurrences, but they still get the blood pumping and progressive the narrative at the same time as they keep a hand to the pulse of the gameplay to keep things from growing stale or going cold. It’s the moments like this and the simple trappings of nature that surround you when you pause for a moment and just gaze around that bring this game to life, not to mention the mysterious circumstances that slowly build throughout the fateful summertime exploits of Henry the fire watcher.
Just like Gone Home, Henry’s backstory is an important detail in Firewatch and does not disappoint or lack attention to detail in its simplicity. He’s escaping a marriage quickly stagnating and taking up residence in the backwoods of Wyoming, serving as a fire watcher for the driest part of the year. Although the better part of the game’s narrative progression is sparked by walkie talkie conversations between Henry and his supervisor Delilah as well as through notes and papers scattered about, there is still a rich story to be found if you pay close attention to the environments and interactions both up close and from afar.
The whole game seems like it should be something of a mundane, potentially even boring experience, but I can assure you though it lacks action it is anything but. It is far from perfect and it may not even be superb or great, but for its eerie and mysterious moments I can only give fairly deserved praise. There are simple moments where you can just look around and observe, and then there are tense moments where you’re trying to figure out just what is going on, whether there’s some sort of conspiracy to uncover, a disappearance, or some other foul behavior or characters of ill repute on the prowl. Firewatch does a good job of keeping players guessing, and I must say it unravels rather like an onion- layer by layer, not eagerly showing its full hand and even leaving some questions at the end.
Ironically, Henry is looking for some measure of peace in his duties as a fire watcher and I’m sure he’s very disappointed to learn that this is not in fact what he stumbles upon. Instead, he experiences fear, paranoia, and constant scrutiny for the duration of the game and throughout specific events that will test his resolve and wits. It’s not as cerebral an experience as Gone Home is known to be, rather more of a deceptive at times and downright eerie one at others. Firewatch seems to be about relationships more than anything else- how they can be built up or torn down. Not just between Henry and Delilah or others the player will interact with through some form or another, but between other characters you learn about as well.
A curious little thing called interactive dialogue keeps the game exciting when it needs to be and even adds a little player choice to the concoction, meaning it isn’t just a point, click, and discover adventure like Gone Home largely was. I guess this will also in some ways add to the replayability of the title, but not in any large way. Most situations are going to play out entirely the same regardless of the way the conversation leads up to them. While that may sound disappointing, don’t be too down because what is there is already pretty enjoyable. Delilah is a welcome source of both narrative exposition over the radio and knowledge about local lore and the surroundings themselves. Feel free to radio her at pretty much any moment throughout the game for interesting conversations and observations.
Not only is Firewatch set in the wilds of Wyoming, but it is also set thirty years or so in the past in an age of Reaganomics and nationalism. The backdrops already seem somewhat surreal in the way they blend and blur the lines between realistic natural settings and graphically designed and moisturized postmarks. The setting itself adds to the narrative in subtler ways than most games that take place in the past, but it is well-handled and a welcome change of pace from other titles that overuse famous figures and landmarks. Exploring around the national forest will occasionally open up new and intriguing finds for collection or documentation, of which players should take note in terms of how it will subtly craft and mold the story over time.
The scripted sequences that progress the narrative and the interactions through relationship building and dialogue are the finer points of the game and make the experience one that I would say is entirely worth it even though the second and third acts gradually slack off and leave a sour taste in the mouth. What starts as a mystery I would love to uncover gradually morphs into something that even X-Files would shudder at in terms of just how much it seems to retcon earlier information and make liberal use of “video game logic.” What is at first an entirely believable and enjoyably realistic experience seems to hoodwink even the player themselves and end with a less than stellar thought.
Concept: Explore the wilderness and a potential cover up and other intriguing events in the backwoods of Wyoming over the course of a summer with your fellow fire watchers.
Graphics: It certainly has its own unique look and reminds me more of graphics or posters sometimes than a realistic or cartoon style of visuals in games.
Sound: Although characters never meet face to face per se, the voice work is well done and showcases an incredible level of detail and emotion in the way it conveys the words from script to realization.
Playability: It is quite literally a stroll through the woods and an enjoyable experience lacking difficulty but not lacking for substance.
Entertainment: Games in this genre are slow going but if you can get into the story then you’ll be right at home for at least seventy percent of the game or so.
Replay Value: Low.
Overall Score: 7.0