Firewatch begins with an emotional journey through the life of Henry after he meets his wife-to-be Julia. In the first 20 minutes or so, Henry’s backstory is told through text with questions that players are left to answer. The questions start off simple enough, like choosing a name for your new dog, and become exceeding harder to answer as Henry’s life begins to fall apart. The opening is so impactful that I was emotionally moved, having to stop and really think about the choices I was making as life takes an unexpected turn, and the relationship between Henry and Julia is strained. It reminded of the powerful opening of Pixar’s Up.
After his emotional rollercoaster Henry takes a job as a fire watchman in the Wyoming wilderness. Hoping to get away from his life, Henry decides to spend the summer in solitude, but his peace is quickly interrupted by his supervisor Delilah who sends him off to stop a rowdy group of campers setting off fireworks. It’s here that things start to go wrong for Henry. Firewatch begins to weave a tale with plenty surprises and many misdirections which had me hooked to the point that I couldn’t put it down until I reached the end. The pace of how things begin to happen and the random news clippings and letters left by other watchman expand superbly on both the story and the conversations between Henry and Delilah.
The communication between both of these characters is the meat of Firewatch. The writing and voice work is excellent, and the dynamic between the pair grows throughout the game much like a real relationship would. They start off hesitant to talk about themselves but begin to open up as the story progresses. Players have the choice of how they shape the relationship between the two, and you have the option to respond to anything Delilah asks Henry. Depending on your answers, Delilah’s opinion of Henry changes and she may treat you completely differently. At one point in the game I chose to accuse Delilah of talking about me to another watchman, and she got upset and stopped talking to me for a portion of the day, leaving Henry bored and alone. Henry’s attitude also changes depending on some of the conversations. At one point Delilah decided to flirt with me so I flirted back. The next day I noticed that Henry had removed the wedding ring from his finger.
Gameplay is presented from a first-person perspective as you trek around the national park examining unexplained occurrences, reading notes from other watchman and exploring the world around you. Using a map and compass and working out a path from A to B provides little challenge from a gameplay perspective, but it’s totally engrossing—Firewatch is more about the unfolding narrative, character building and relationships then it is about providing gameplay thrills. Exploring the environment allows you to some take in some impressive landscapes and nets you extra conversations with Delilah, who you communicate with via a walkie talkie. And it’s these conversations, and interaction and dialogue choice with Delilah, that helps build up the tension and leave you wildly speculating as to what might happen next.
Firewatch doesn’t feature any collectibles to find, but reading notes left by past watchmen sheds light on the mystery and adds backstory to past happenings in the park. Campo Santo also added in a fun little side-story in the form of a crime mystery novel series, which reminds me a lot of the fake stories that play on the television screens throughout Rockstar Games Max Payne franchise.
Graphicly, Firewatch reminds me of the animated movie Open Season. The cartoony art style fits the world perfectly and when combined with the game’s excellent lighting allows it to stand out from the rest of the pack. However, I did find the lack of wildlife in a national park a bit weird. Outside of running into a racoon I never saw another animal, which somewhat broke the illusion of what you’d expect to see within such a location.
Firewatch isn’t without its problems. The game’s map is quite difficult to figure out at first, but once you get used to reading it, finding your way around becomes quite easy. It also helps when Henry encounters watchman supply boxes that contain notes of landmarks and important locations for you to check out which are then added to the map. Another issue I found is how some text is highlighted over the white text when selecting dialogue options. The bright highlighting makes it quite difficult to read the text quickly when I had a small window of time to select my dialogue options.
Firewatch throws a lot of misdirection at players, and with so many dialogue options available there’s a suggestion that there are multiple branching pathways throughout the game that may lead to different outcomes. However, whatever options you choose, the ending will be same, which means it’s unlikely to warrant a second run through. What changes are Henry’s and Delilah’s reactions and opinion about what happens based on your decisions. With so many ideas whizzing through your head as you play Firewatch, as you try and work out how this mystery will end, it’s likely that some players will expect more from its conclusion, although I thought it was a fitting ending.
Firewatch is essentially a game about relationships. What will you say in the situations that Henry and Delilah find themselves in? Campo Santo brings these decisions to the forefront in a real world setting and asks you to deal with some tough issues that can make choosing the right answer quite difficult. It may be a simple set-up in terms of gameplay, but personally I found it a breath of fresh air with the wilderness being the perfect place in which to reflect on your life. Though a few issues hinder Firewatch from being a true classic in its genre, it does more than enough to hook you in right until those final credits roll.