Firewatch is the newest game from Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, the luminaries behind the first season of Telltales The Walking Dead. It’s a game with many fantastic components, great, innovative mechanics, and a degree of polish you rarely see nowadays.
It’s also a pretty big disappointment despite all it does right.
Firewatch puts the player in the role of Henry, a man nearing middle age who, in order to escape the grief haunting his life, takes a summer job as a fire lookout in Sashone National Park, a close neighbor of Yellowstone. The job leaves him isolated apart from the company of Delilah, a fellow lookout who he talks to regularly over a walkie- talkie.
Let’s get the good out of the first.
The game's art style is jaw droppingly gorgeous, with bright colors that really do well to characterize the vast, beautiful forests of the Pacific Northwest.
The walkie talkie may be one of the most interesting new adventure game mechanic in a long while, as it effectively redefines the whole system. In most adventure games, when the play prompts their character to examine something, the character talks aloud to themselves about their observations.
With the walkie-talkie however, Henry instead talks to Delilah, fleshing out their relationships as well as delivering information to the player. It also just feels a lot more natural in universe. Delilah, being a veteran lookout, is far more familiar with the park and it’s layout, so it makes sense that she’d be able to fill in Henry on where to find supplies, where to go etc.
There aren’t really any puzzles, but there’s a workman like feel to using various tools like a hatchet or ropes to navigate the map that feels strangely satisfying.
I’ve never before thought that an adventure game should be done in first person, but after playing Firewatch I’d love to see more it, as it does a lot for a sense of immersion and exploration. The game would be far poorer for it if it functioned like an old point and click.
The dialogue is some of the best I’ve very encountered in a game, and the voice acting backs it up perfectly, effectively and believably bringing the characters to life.
Where Firewatch falls apart however is in its overarching narrative.
Its set up like a mystery, a campfire story come to life filled with creepy stalkers, disappearances and moments where you’re not sure if what’s happening is real or not.
When you get the end though it’s revealed that what the game has been building up to over the last four hours has been….not much. Honestly, when I reached what turned out to be the finale, I thought I’d found the conclusion of a subplot, not the culmination of the entire story.
The theme of the past, and one deals with the grief and tragedy life throws at them, is one that permeates both Henry and Delilah’s characters. Their back stories and personalities revolve around this, and it’s haunting, believable, and incredibly human.
But none of that really meshes thematically with the story currently happening. The mystery unfolding in the forest around their watch towers doesn’t really have anything to do with their character arcs, in a literal or thematic sense.
Henry’s personal struggle with the past is interesting, heartfelt, and involved with ordeals that most games won’t touch with a ten foot pole, but it ultimately doesn’t have anything to do with the story.
Player choices in dialogue effect the tone of Delilah and Henry’s relationship, but they don’t shape the plot in any real way.
Firewatch has obviously had a lot of love and ingenuity poured into it, but in the end it just doesn’t amount to a lot as a complete package.
Add in the fact that it’s only four hours long for a price tag of $20, it might not be worth it for a lot of people.
It’s definitely worth playing, but maybe wait for a sale first.