Firewatch Review

Turns out all you have to do is ask…

So remember when I listed a bunch of games that I missed this year? Well, Jennifer wasn’t kidding. Firewatch was on sale for the holidays on the Xbox One and PC, so I downloaded a copy to enjoy on my day off/sick day.

Campo Santo, the developer that created Firewatch as the first release, made a relatively small walking-simulator into an already crowded market of similar games. But does it earn the moniker of walking-simulator, or does it strike out on a path of its own?

GAMEPLAY

Firewatch D20.png
Sorry folks, no D&D in Firewatch

Controlling the character Henry is simple to say the least. As you know however, I don’t leave anything at simple, so read on. Gameplay consists of activities similar to the ones found in games like Gone Home, where your primary means of interaction involves mundane things like walking around and picking things up to examine them.

I could stop there and move on, but I’m not going to. The reason why? Because Firewatch doesn’t.

Where the majority of your gameplay is going to be derived from is the dozens of conversations that you’ll have with Henry’s boss, Delilah. Delilah provides exposition about locations in the wilderness, events that take place, and conversational bits that help develop the characters.

Any game can spew exposition at the player however. Where Firewatch differs is in the way that you learn things. The beginning plays out similarly to a choose-your-own-adventure story giving a little background into the world of Henry. I won’t spoil any of it for those that haven’t played it yet, but I will say that it’s remarkably effective.

The main part of Firewatch’s gameplay revolves around choosing how to respond to Delilah, which can alter the path of the story. Sometimes the stakes of what you say are lower, like how you respond to a joke of hers, or whether you respond at all. Other times you’ll be making a decision about how to proceed. What I find interesting is that Campo Santo didn’t explicitly state which situations are which, and each response only leaves a moment or two to respond before the awkward silence kills the conversation.

Further good news is that once you finish the game, you can play through Firewatch with commentary from the developers or simply explore the Shoshone National Forest on your own schedule.

PRESENTATION

Firewatch Old Tree.png
Ain’t it a pretty, old, dead tree?

Like The Long DarkFirewatch sports a bit of a minimalist design that makes everything look like it’s part of a painting. A wide range of color palettes are used to craft the environment, ensuring that a great deal of variety is seen. Firewatch is visually appealing in it’s own way, avoiding the use of realistic textures like Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture.

Also similar to The Long Dark is the ambient noise of the wilderness. The trees, wildlife, and suspicious noises all come together to give you a sense of being in Henry’s shoes. All of this is coupled with some beautifully crafted music that comes in only when necessary, instead of simply attempting to fill the silence.

That said, I did run into one occasion where I fell through the map because it didn’t properly load and the game suffers from big framerate dips, and while it is frustrating to experience these problems, they didn’t affect my enjoyment at all.

ORIGINALITY

Firewatch Old Granola.png
What other game lets you carry around years-old granola bars?

I think where Firewatch displays its originality is in both the excellently written dialog and the unique gameplay. Many games have derived part (or all) of their story from the exposition of characters to the player, but here it just feels… human. The repartee between Henry and Delilah sounds like what two people talking to each other would.

For instance: Delilah’s warning to not eat granola bars that are several years old, Henry’s variance between acting genial and sounding emotionally wounded, and Delilah’s advice about how to proceed with a dangerous situation all feel realistic. It needs to be noted that Campo Santo had some damn excellent writing for Firewatch and it makes me hope that they carry this talent of theirs into future projects.

STORY

Firewatch Stolen Boombox.png
Firewatch, a game about stealing boomboxes… Not really.

It’s difficult to comment on the story in this case without ruining anything about the game, since the main draw of Firewatch is the story, or rather the manner in which it is told.

What needs to be said however is that while the story has its dips and crescendos, Firewatch shows how a mundane storyline can be made interesting. Firewatch also takes you to some sad places, confronting the player with some tough to consider ideas in life. Furthermore, the path of the story expands into something greater, and the stakes can feel much higher as the narrative progresses.

Also, despite the fact that many criticized the ending, I felt that it finished on the correct note. While some might have felt the ending to be anticlimactic, I felt it was appropriate given the aim to create meaningful and realistic interaction between Henry and Delilah.

WILDCARD: INTO THE WILDS

Firewatch Vista.png

I suppose what struck me the most about Firewatch was the aptitude that Campo Santo wielded for both storytelling and interesting environments. They easily could have dumped the player into a giant wilderness sandbox and let Delilah’s character narrate. Instead, they chose to craft an experience that inspires real emotion in an empathetic player and included conversational elements that feel genuine.

Interestingly enough, they created a captivating environment that feels wild while not actually being dangerous in any way. Time isn’t much of a concern and there are no health bars or hunger metrics to track. Instead, players are free to explore at their own volition, held back only by the tools that they have at their disposal.

Revelations

Firewatch is a bit of a surprise for me. I knew I’d likely enjoy the experience, but I didn’t think it would be this impactful. In a day and age where walking-simulators have become a competitive genre in the gaming community, Firewatch sets itself above the others.

Very few games have made me genuinely laugh in a way that I would in a conversation with someone and even less have inspired emotion in the way that Firewatch did. Even though it’s a relatively short experience, it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

For those interested in narratively focused games, or ones with genuinely excellent writing and interesting characters, look no further than Firewatch.

Firewatch Captures

I’ve decided that I’d start including the screenshots that I capture from the games I play, since the number of screenshots I take outnumber the ones that I actually include in these reviews. I will be updating some of my older posts as well to show off too.

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8 thoughts on “Firewatch Review

  1. God, I absolutely related with Firewatch (for reasons I explain, with probably TMI, on my own blog). And, yes, I thought the ending was perfect because the game wasn’t really about Delilah or the fire. It was about an important decision Henry had to make about his own life and it was that decision that the ending pivoted on. The game was over when you made it and I can’t begin to describe the emotional impact that had on me, given how beautifully it was all set up. It was the best game this year for me, and I played some terrific games. (Great review, BTW!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s one thing I can really appreciate about the ending of the game. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I do want to say that I think they did a fantastic job of hitting the correct notes with where the story was going, and remaining focused throughout.

      This is going to sound weird, but I’m really glad that they didn’t make it into too much of a videogame either. They easily could’ve gone a completely different route, but they held back and delivered a human-sized story.

      Thank you for reading my review by the way. I’m glad you liked it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review!

    I entirely agree with what you said about the ending. I thought it was really effective. It’s sad, though, that some people felt let down by it. Can’t win everybody over, I suppose.

    I’m really happy that we have reached a point where games like this, or Gone Home, can become so popular and resonate with so many. Story focused, interaction heavy exploration + striking art direction/music = my kind of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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