Release date: February 9, 2016
Developed by: Campo Santo
If you haven’t heard of Firewatch yet, you must be living in the Wyoming wilderness that the game takes place in. Having floated around developer conferences for the past few years, developer Campo Santo’s debut title has already sold over 500,000 copies in its first month of release, selling enough on its first day to break even. Lasting about five-hours (six if you slow down to take in the game’s hallmarked vistas), Firewatch is an evocative and slow-paced venture into Yellowstone circa 1989. It moves along at its own pace and knows exactly what it wants to be, with little interest in catering to a trigger-happy player’s idea of a “good” game. No, it’s not a perfect game, but despite certain issues with pacing and mechanics, Firewatch manages to avoid enough potential pitfalls to present itself as a competent and beautiful game with surprisingly complex characters.
Some describe Firewatch as an interactive mystery. Others say it’s more of an adventure-exploration title. I heard one anguished player describe it as a “glorified walking simulator.” Whatever it is, Firewatch is entirely unpreoccupied with defining itself. If your idea of an ideal game involves non-stop stimulation, there’s a good chance Firewatch will bore you to pieces. But if you can slow yourself down a pace and (literally) stop to take in the scenery, you might be surprised by how much you can enjoy from a game whose most exciting mechanic is deciding what to say into a walkie talkie.
The game opens to a deep purple screen with soft electronic music floating in the background. It’s a sleepy, almost dreamlike environment, and here is where we meet the game’s protagonist and the character we will assume control of: Henry (voiced by Rich Sommer). We’re asked to make a few seemingly harmless decisions for Henry— what kind of dog he’ll get, how he responds to a snarky comment made by his wife one lazy summer evening. One of Firewatch’s unique elements is the way small decisions affect the larger unfolding of the story. I actually played through the entire game twice to see what effect these choices would have on the plot’s development. The differences were subtle but significant. Adopt one dog and Henry fondly recounts walking it with his wife; adopt the other and he recalls the same memory more distantly, then suddenly withdraws into himself. Our decisions affect who Henry is intrinsically. Every response we give adds to the development of him as a character.
Eventually Henry decides to take a job as a fire lookout for Yellowstone. He’s given a map and a compass, and a rickety tower called Two Forks serves as a place to sleep. Here is where he is given his walkie talkie, and here is where we meet fellow ranger Delilah (Cissy Jones). Sommer and Jones deserve special commendation for the unique richness they add to their characters. For lack of interesting game mechanics, Firewatch had the potential to fall flat on its face without compelling characters. Fortunately for Campo Santo, Sommer and Jones reach beyond the recording booth to elevate their characters. We make decisions for Henry, but still get the sense that he’s his own character, as much touched by Delilah’s ever-ready quips as we are. Surrounded by the hollow whistling of wind through the trees, Henry’s walkie talkie is the only thing we have to grasp onto. Many times I hesitated before answering Delilah, worrying that I’d upset her and lose that one connection. When Delilah suddenly wasn’t answering her radio one day, Henry wasn’t the only one between us who was worried.
…And that’s really the jist of Firewatch. You’re a guy in cargo shorts, talking to a disembodied voice on your radio, making sure the forest doesn’t burn to ash. The concept is so simple, it’s actually difficult to like. And yet it’s impossible to ignore. Stranded among the pine and lichen, Henry and Delilah use their walkie talkies like neighbor kids staying up past their bedtimes on hot summer nights. (What is lichen, you ask? “Wouldn’t you lichen to know,” Delilah answers.) While it’s the game’s striking visuals that draw us into its world, it’s the compelling characters that keep us there.
Unfortunately, I have to address that the graphics of Firewatch, despite being one of the game’s major selling point, became a source of major irritation for me. Even after turning the resolution as low as it could go, my Mac desktop still stuttered if I played for more than an hour at a time. This was quite frustrating, and took away from the beauty of the game. If you are considering playing this game, I recommend you make sure you have the proper processing power to handle it before you subject yourself to a lot of exasperation.
Nonetheless, Firewatch still addresses an interesting question. Over the past decade or so, as the quality of graphics in games has increased exponentially, there has been debate over whether video games should be considered their own art form. Firewatch reaches the culmination of this long-running argument and answers it softly: Yes, video games have emerged as their own art form, but not every game is going to be a masterpiece. There’s a hypnotic beauty to the mountain top vistas of Firewatch. At first glance, most scenes from the game could be mistaken for photos someone took on their last hike. But is beauty enough to merit a game?
Firewatch suffers from a lot of narrative troubles that it never quite overcomes. There are large gaps of low energy between key scenes of story. The ending feels rushed, predictable, and, most sinfully, disappointing. The credits roll before every loose end is tied. And the poor graphic performance is inexcusable for a game that touts its graphics as one of its selling points. But the charming and strikingly relatable friendship that Henry and Delilah develop creates two of the most realistic characters that gaming has yet seen. They build their own world, and for the game’s brief runtime, we become a part of it.
After the hype dies down, Firewatch is destined to be an eternal Steam sale game. Its striking sceneries and well-developed characters will draw you in for the length of its story, but it never escapes the feeling that its development was stunted by lack of funding. If you can find it for less than twelve dollars it’s worth every penny. Otherwise, there are cheaper modes of escapism in the world. When people say that big companies can learn a thing or two from indie developers, Firewatch is the kind of game they’re talking about. Hopefully the success of Firewatch means we’ll see characters as rich as Henry and Delilah in future games.