Review: Engrossing ‘Firewatch’ Tells a Slow-Burning Tale

Image: Campo Santo

If I asked you to summarize the story points of the last movie you saw, you could probably handle it. But what if I asked you to summarize the story points of the last game you played? That’s tougher. Games have the luxury — and the curse — of dozens of hours to slowly drip-feed you their characters and worlds. That makes for plenty of entertainment, but stories often fall by the wayside as players spend most of their time attending to the business of shooting and jumping.

The cinematic mindset is slowly starting to creep into games, however, and it’s having a huge impact. From big-budget blockbusters like The Last of Us to indies like Gone Home and Oxenfree, more and more game makers are refocusing their efforts to tell a great story.

Firewatch, the stellar debut effort from indie outfit Campo Santo, does exactly that. 

It begins with a brief, text-based, choose-your-own-adventure prologue to bring you up to speed on Henry, the game’s protagonist. Fair warning: It’s monumentally depressing, but the information gleaned during this brief intro proves essential when trying to understand why Henry would choose to isolate himself in a fire tower in the middle of the wilderness for three months.

After the prologue you’re introduced to the core gameplay of Firewatch. Played from a first-person perspective, you’re given nearly free rein over the large national park surrounding your tower. Your only companionship comes in the form of the voice of your boss, Delilah, who is stationed in a distant tower and provides important instructions and casual chitchat via a walkie-talkie.

Firewatch’s developers spent time working at Telltale Games (Tales From the Borderlands, Minecraft Story Mode, plenty of others) and it shows. You can respond to Delilah in a variety of ways, some of which will change the way the overall story plays out. You can tell her the real reasons that you took the isolated gig or keep that to yourself. You can plainly reveal past romances or play it coy. If she keeps pushing you about it, you can blow up or just grumble and move on.

Your relationship with Delilah forms the backbone of Firewatch, and a strong backbone it is. The conversational tone feels wonderfully organic and natural, thanks in large part to some spot-on writing and excellent voice work by Rich Sommer (Mad Men) and Cissy Jones (Telltale’s The Walking Dead), who quickly develop the rhythm of an old married couple. Their chemistry is fantastic, drawing you deeply into the lead character’s psyche. It’s impressive.

Given that your job, technically, is to wait for a fire to start in the middle of the woods, it’d be easy to assume that Firewatch is also boring. But by the end of the first chapter, there’s clearly something more going on here. There’s a grand element of mystery at play; unexplained events have been happening around the park, and a foreboding score indicates when things are starting to go pear-shaped. Occasionally scary but never absurd, the mystery propelled me through Firewatch. I found it nearly impossible to put down the controller until I discovered just what the hell was going on.

Even a simple walk in the woods is entrancing in Firewatch. It’s a gorgeous game, a painterly reimagining of the Shoshone National Forest, complete with red canyons and tree-lined streams. Early on you gain access to a disposable camera, and I found myself making use of the remaining shots to capture the world’s natural beauty. There’s no reward system for taking pics; I did it because I felt that same urge that I feel when I’m out hiking in the real world. You see something pretty, you take a picture.

Image: Campo Santo

Unfortunately, Firewatch’s scenic views are marred by some glaring technical hitches. While the PC version fares a bit better than the PS4 version, both are frequently stymied by slowdown and visual pop-ups. It’s far from unplayable, but a smoother experience would have made the world much more inviting.

And though the overarching mystery of the game plays out well, the actual ending feels abrupt and odd, as if it was building to something that never arrived. It’s difficult to go into specifics without spoiling, and certainly preferences may vary from player to player, but the ending didn’t stick the landing for me. In a game about relationships and escape and discovering yourself in the woods, I needed more closure.

That said, Firewatch is a fine way to spend a weekend. It’s one of those rare games that can be enjoyed with a friend or loved one simply spectating; it’s marathoning a few episodes of Lost. Terrific writing and voice work along with a gorgeous world outshine the game’s flaws and make for a game that sticks with you long after you’ve watched its closing credits. 

: Fantastic voice acting; masterful writing; a gorgeous world to explore

: Numerous technical issues; abrupt, unsatisfying ending

Platform reviewed: PS4

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