Firewatch certainly has a captivating opening. From its first moments, it uses its narrative to draw the player in. You begin learning about a couple and their relationship as it develops. It’s a scene similar to the Disney Pixar film Up’s opening.
But it’s in a game. So you make choices in a choose-your-own-adventure style that you immediately begin to see define this relationship.
These first few moments set the stage for Firewatch’s protagonist’s head space but more importantly the player’s. Choice, as it should in all games, holds value in Firewatch.
What Is Firewatch?
Firewatch is a story about a man who decides to take a post as lookout at a Wyoming national park. He develops a relationship with his supervisor and the two get entangled in a mystery away from society, alone in the wilderness.
Firewatch’s best asset is its cohesion. It is very well-executed. Its biggest draw is having a well-written, well-acted, interactive narrative within a beautiful environment that begs to be explored.
The creators have done a lot of things right. You feel like you’re alone and vulnerable as you walk through the wilderness solving a mystery.
But it didn’t really get to me. It’s a solid work, I just didn’t feel a whole lot different after putting the controller down. Firewatch didn’t move me in any particular way.
Walking And Talking
Following the aforementioned engaging as hell opening, you’re introduced to the game’s two biggest mechanics. Talking on a radio and navigating the environment. These two activities make up the bulk of the experience. You’re given instructions by your supervisor, Delilah, and you follow them as you begin forming a relationship with her. Some parts of the game are bigger on talking and some are bigger on exploring/navigating but it’s rather well paced and each are evenly distributed. Neither got in the way of the other.
I found myself navigating the environment more often than exploring it unfortunately. I am the type to check my map or phone as I walk if I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t often feel like exploring. I like to have a destination in mind. In the case of Firewatch, I had a mystery to solve. So there was a lot of map checking for me. All you have in Firewatch is a paper map and a compass and you can’t successfully walk while looking at them. So I would stop and check the map, sprint in what I thought was the right direction, stop and check map again, sprint again. It added to the feel of being helpless in the wilderness for me but some players might find the stopping and going frustrating.
Delilah and Henry, the main character, are each very well-acted and it’s a joy to listen to their interactions. I was always excited when I saw a prompt letting me chat with Delilah. Their dialogue is well-written too. These are just well-executed things though. They aren’t really revolutionary. Walking around an aesthetically pleasing environment while we learn about characters is something Portal and many other games have done for some time.
Firewatch Story; Just Not My Kind of Story
Firewatch leans on its narrative a lot and it’s a narrative that’s well put together, for the most part. It’s a simple narrative but its simplicity is meant to make it feel more real. It’s a tale about two people, their relationship with one another and their relationships with themselves. Each of these people have a past and each are very flawed. Caring about these characters is everything Firewatch has. They’re well-acted and well-written. They feel real. But they didn’t really elicit a deep emotional connection from me. I didn’t really love or care for any of the characters in Firewatch. I found myself not really caring about the decisions I made or these characters fates. I never grew attached to these people. It doesn’t help that the game’s ending feels anything but satisfying and while this dissatisfaction is in some way the point, it’s also not excusable. Firewatch is someone’s story. Maybe many people’s story. It’s just not mine.
Mystery Through Atmosphere: Delilah and The Woods
There were moments playing Firewatch where I felt frightened. The game makes superb use of its atmosphere and its setting. Henry never really sees another person and I kept hoping or expecting he would. The game knows how to use its mechanics, specifically the radio connection to Delilah, to great effect. It creates tense moments entirely through dialogue and the player’s imagination.
The environment also changes and adapts as the story progresses. The wilderness becomes more daunting and less beautiful the longer the games goes on. The aesthetic work on display in this game is simply superb. Visually, this games works. I’d say that this game’s cohesion in visual aesthetic is one of the primary reasons to play it.
Firewatch Knows How to Make Choices Count
Games are fundamentally about choice and interaction. This is the facet of games that separate them from other media. So it is very good when a game uses its interactivity well. Firewatch does this.
Firewatch gave me a moment early on with two teenage girls skinny-dipping. I’m originally sent after them because I’m told to investigate some campers who’ve been setting off fireworks. Then I see their campsite. They’ve been littering beer cans around their site and they haven’t properly set out their fire.
Finally, I find these miscreants. I see the girls out in the middle of a lake and I’m by their radio at the shore. It’s a boom box type radio thing. I’d been able to pick up and move objects before. I see I can pick up the radio. One of the girls shouts at me to not touch the radio and that it’s expensive.
Damn, will this game really recognize when I do this? I don’t even care about these girls. I don’t really want to punish them but I know what would happen in real life if I throw this radio into the lake. So I do. And it does.
The radio is useless and the girls are pissed. I’m told I’ve resolved the situation and immediately questioned about my decision. Delilah inquires how I dealt with the situation and I’m given the opportunity to confess to being a little impulsive. I do and she doesn’t seem that worried. Delilah seems the impulsive type herself though.
This is a really strong moment. It uses choice to show that actions have meaning in this world (or at the very least it makes the player feel like they do which is all any game can ever really do). But it also defines its characters in this moment.
I’ve defined Henry as a bit more impulsive through my choice but then when I confess, Henry’s very apologetic and this apologetic response is not entirely my choice. He’s in my control but also a predefined character. Delilah is also shown in this moment, and in another moment more heavily later on, that she is quite impulsive. She doesn’t really show concern and to some extent even condones the decision. This is a good moment. Easily one of the best in the game.
So Firewatch is Great, but Should You Play It?
Well yeah. You should play it. There are very few games you can’t at least learn a few things from. But Firewatch is a unique story and it tells its story while reinforcing the story with thematic unison in aesthetic visuals and mechanical feeling. This feels like the story of a couple bored fire lookouts in the wilderness trying to pass the time and escape their pasts. Firewatch may not have moved me but there are plenty of movies that didn’t move me but I can still appreciate how well they are put together.
Firewatch is actually a good place for someone who doesn’t think they are into “walking simulators” to start. It tries to have action and the story is much less philosophical then most “walking simulators”. It’s a story told well. I’d compare it most to Gone Home in terms of well-known walking simulators because it’s focused on a story not philosophy. Both even aim for atmospheres of mystery and discovery. I’d say Gone Home is more my kind of story and is more successful so start with it if you haven’t played either of these games.
Firewatch is a solid work and I definitely recommend it. It may not have moved me in any fantastic way but I still enjoyed my experience with it and it shows that “walking simulators” can be something a bit more exciting.