Set in the Wyoming National Forest, a new lookout and his supervisor investigate mysteries.
Release Date: February 9, 2016
Platform: PS4, PC, Mac
I went into Firewatch knowing almost nothing about it. I sort of remembered that it would be a game with dialogue choices, which was enough to get me excited about it. I wasn’t disappointed.
The first thing that I noticed about Firewatch was that it was more adult than a lot of games I’ve played. I don’t mean that it was filled with sex and violence and gore right off the bat—rather that the story it was telling was one that a kid really wouldn’t be interested in. Your protagonist is in his forties, for one thing, and he’s married, and he’s not particularly cool. He’s got a pretty significant belly, which you see in sketch form only—a picture his wife had drawn of him. The sketch is fully nude, sort of cartoony, and you can tell they were having fun when it was drawn.
Within the first ten minutes of the game, it becomes apparent that Henry’s wife is ill. She has severe early-onset dementia. Henry is running away from the situation-though it had gone beyond his control long before—by taking a job with the fire service.
Delilah is the only other major character in the game, and we never see her face. Not in a sketch, not in a photograph. She’s just a voice on the radio. The first thing she asks Henry is “so what’s wrong with you?” The idea being that nobody joins the fire service unless something is amiss.
After playing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, SOMA, and Until Dawn this year, it’s hard not to compare those games with Firewatch. SOMA, because the format is similar: a woman over the intercom, a relationship being developed. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture because you’re spending a lot of time wandering around in the gorgeous wilderness, looking for interesting things. Until Dawn because, again, gorgeous wilderness and mysteries. Gone Home, of course, also comes to mind.
Firewatch isn’t as lonely as those other games, though. It isn’t as intense and horrifying as SOMA, and it isn’t as mysterious and tragic as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Until Dawn prepped me for atrocities around every corner, but in Firewatch when you have to go tell some teenagers to stop setting off fireworks…that’s it. That’s the “quest.” Even Gone Home, which ostensibly also takes place in an everyday setting, lacks the camaraderie and humor that I found in Firewatch. (I should note that I adore all four of these games-I’m not saying that Firewatch is better. Just similar in a new way.)
You never see another soul while you’re wandering the Wyoming National Forest, but Delilah is always right there with you. If Henry finds something interesting, you can call her and ask what it is. She jokes with Henry, flirts with him, pesters him. She can be genuinely annoying sometimes, and just as genuinely entertaining. The two aren’t speaking because the world is ending-they’re chatting because they’re bored and lonely. There’s something very real about that dynamic, and I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced it in a game before.
If it sounds like I’m highlighting how mundane Firewatch is, know that the story is just as captivating as the other games I’ve mentioned. It’s because it feels so real that the tension is maintained. Those teenagers setting off fireworks? Sure, Geralt or the Inquisitor or Lara Croft wouldn’t have any trouble with them. But Henry is just a normal guy out in the middle of nowhere. And teenagers can be scary.
Which is not to say that scaring away teens is all you’re doing, of course. The story does ramp up as the days in the watchtower fly by. There are mysteries to unravel, and questions that remain unanswered. You’re also trying to balance Henry’s relationship with Delilah with what’s going on, and she doesn’t always make it easy. She can make bad choices, too. But if Henry loses her trust or friendship…you know you’ll be utterly alone.
And then there are the fires.
Firewatch’s graphics are pretty low-key, but it has a gorgeous color palette and atmosphere. I appreciated that we never had any awkward CGI interactions with uncanny valley characters. It would have been unnecessary. I sort of wish there had been more wildlife to investigate, but that might’ve been a conscious decision on the developers’ part to add to the sense of isolation. And the music, while sparse, was beautiful when it did come in.
In summary, I loved this game. I don’t usually consider replaying something the minute I put it down, but I’d like to spend more time with Firewatch. It’s worth every minute.