Firewatch is a game about relationships and isolation. Have you ever been in love, convinced you were with the one, only for it to end with a patter? School friends you were sure were life long, only to grow distant after you moved on? These are the feelings that Firewatch evokes. Something of a rumination on the nature of human relationships at specific times in our life, defined by the people present and, ultimately, how lonely an experience that can be.
And it is a very good rumination on that to boot.
The game has had quite a bit of buzz around it ever since it was announced last year. Campo Santo are a new team, but have veterans in from everywhere in the industry, including key creatives from the now infamous Telltale's The Walking Dead Season One. That talent, mixed with the game's eye catching art design and concept has kept anticipationnup. You're charged with taking up the mantle of Henry, who decides to take the job of watching for forest fires after a particularly hard time in his life. He's running away. Once arrived in his new surroundings, he meets Delilah, a voice on the other side of a walkie talkie, your boss and only human contact. As you begin to get your bearings, a mystery and possible conspiracy begins to unravel in front of your eyes and your tasked with figuring out what exactly is going on.
Firewatch is an FPX, as we've come to call them, an environmental exploration where you experience a story while solving puzzles or going places to progress the narrative. What sets Firewatch apart from its peers though is its heavily involved traversal. Setting you up in the deep woods of Wyoming, unlike most FPXs, this location is open and feels incredibly vast. The gameplay is more in being able to orienteer your way around the space you've taken watch over. You're given a map, a compass and you have to figure out how to get to your next objective using them. I like to think I have an excellent sense of direction, yet, it took me quite some time to really get accustomed to the space the game gives you. From finding boxes with information, to setting up ropes to climb down, to even a little 'Metroidvania' thrown in as you open new paths as you get more equipment, this feels much more 'hands on' than most in the genre. It feels partially like the village in Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, but that game even had a sense of direction, pulling you through a fairly straight route. Firewatch just tells you a place you need to go and then you have to navigate your way over rocks, trees and shrubbery to get there. It really does have a sense of being out in an unknowable woods and having to use tools in order to be able to make your way back home. Like in real forests, it can feel like you know where you are going, only to realise you are lost. This is actually a pretty powerful bit of design, one that gives an authenticity to the experience and texture to the narrative.
That is all supported by truly exceptional art design that delights your eyes, proving to be quite lovely to look at and explore. The game is quite painterly, yet modern, with harsh, 'designy' edges. It really is one of the most striking games I've seen in a long time, and I'm sure you will find lots to enjoy as you explore these woods.
The tale that Firewatch takes you on is a rather charming exploration of Henry and Delilah's relationship, as both are dragged into a mystery that starts with a couple of drunk teenaged girls, and quickly winds into a bigger plot surrounding both. The game is defined by the relationship of these two, that you will get to explore yourself, choosing dialogue options as you go along. The dialogue is sharper than most in the genre, with great performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. Their chemistry is key to this whole story, so it's relieving that it does indeed capture the pair's complex relationship with a real air of authenticity. The central mystery that is spun is equally engaging and mysterious, and provides a wonderful context for these two's relationship to be built on.
What I am sure will prove to be contentious though is Firewatch's final act. The game has a narrative thrust which powered me through it in one sitting. There is real momentum to the central mystery and the relationship you build with Delilah However, when all is said and done, the revelations Firewatch has about both is actually pretty anti-climactic and underwhelming. But, that almost feels like the point. To go much deeper would be to spoil far too much, but this all feels deliberate, mirroring the nature of life and its relationships. If you have a problem with that in your entertainment however, and demand a neatly tied story, you could easily walk away disappointed.
Another area where people might feel a little shortchanged is in the game's run time. I beat it in about three and a half hours. I certainly wasn't exploring every nook and cranny with a fine comb, and you could easily spend another two or so hours just walking around the woods if you aren't rabidly consuming the story as it comes. However, yes. If you want to keep the pace up and explore the character's relationship as it happens and more or less straight shoot it, the amount of play you will get may leave you wanting if you care about run time.
However, personally, I've always been a quality over quantity guy and Firewatch certainly has quality. From the stellar environment work to a lightly handled relationship between two people, Firewatch touches on emotions that are rarely explored in games. How we experience our lives through the people around us and the fleeting relationships we build is the type of thing the game lovingly tries to recreate with a pretty confident level of success. It also handles the isolation of being close, but so far from those you want to be with, adding another layer with a rumination on loneliness and solitude. This is one of the most unique FPXs in a long time, and if you are a fan of the genre, and can justify the price for the short run time, I have no doubt you will be able to find a lot to love in the tale spun. Add on top of that stellar art design and a controlled light touch to proceedings, and you have a winner on its own terms.
Play it if: You want to experience one of the most involved and successful FPXs in years, with an incredibly strong central relationship and an art style that knocks it out the park.
Avoid it if: You don't like FPXs and can't justify the purchase at just a 3 and a half to 5 hour run time.