Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Panic Inc.
Rating: M for Mature
Firewatch is the first title from indie studio Campo Santo, comprised of developers who have worked on smash hits Bioshock 2, The Walking Dead series, and Gone Home. While Firewatch in some ways contains many similarities and story beats that are similar to Gone Home and The Walking Dead, Campo Santo has managed to create something of a masterpiece in storytelling with some of the best acting in video games that I have experienced in years.
Firewatch tells the tragic tale of Henry, a man in his forties, who takes a job as a ranger in the Shoshone National Forest after finding out that his wife, Julia, has early onset dementia. During his stint in the forest, Henry’s only point of contact is his fellow Firewatch ranger, Delilah, the friendly, sometimes flirtatious, and often sarcastic voice on the radio. After investigating a pair of teen girls who decided to set off fireworks at the lake, Henry and Delilah become embroiled in a mystery that involves not only the two of them, but also others from their past, and gives them the nagging suspicion that they are both being watched.
This revelation tests not only Henry’s personal resolve as he races to discover the truth, but also the newly forged relationship between Henry and Delilah. Can they both overcome their own personal fears and inner demons to discover what is really going on in the forest, or will the mystery engulf them like an encroaching fire? This is the question you will ask yourself as the story slowly reveals itself through well-acted dialogue between Henry, Delilah, and a limited supporting cast.
Firewatch, while looking very beautiful and resembling an oil painting at some points, does contain its fair share of foul language, drinking, drug references. While the M for Mature description states that the game contains nudity, there is no visible nudity in the game as the only other people that Henry sees are shown as silhouettes.
While the gameplay in Firewatch consists of the standard pick up object/inspect object/make a comment on said object style of play that adventure games are built on, Campo Santo has made its environment and surrounding atmosphere a key component of gameplay as well. While exploring the forest and gathering various tools to delve deeper into the overall mystery, players will come across notes, empty beer cases, cans, and bottles, backpacks, and/or mysterious research notes lying around the forest. These discoveries create an overwhelming sense of dread as you start to realize that you may not be entirely alone in the Shoshone as the game tries its hardest to convince your that Henry is completely alone, save for Delilah’s voice on the other end of the radio. Mysterious bunkers, a locked gate in a cave, and a fenced in research camp in the middle of the forest indicate the presence of others in what is supposed to be a solitary solace for Henry. This overall sense that the main characters are being stalked throughout the game keeps you on the edge of your seat as you work to find out just what is actually going on and how it all relates to Henry’s haunting past and the life he attempted to leave behind.
To assist players in their exploration of the environment there are various supply caches scattered about the forest. These caches contain supplies such as climbing equipment, notes to other park rangers, radios, and map upgrades. Collectibles are also found in these locations and consist of pine cones, animal teeth, and animal skulls left behind by other rangers. Climbing ropes and axes can open up new paths for Henry to explore as these tools can be used to clear away bushes and break locks or to allow Henry to rock climb or rappel to previously out of reach areas.
Despite its open feel, the environment is fairly linear. Though it is easy to get lost and not know where to go next thanks to a clunky, almost non-functional map interface. Henry has both a map and a compass that he can use to navigate the environment but he cannot sprint while using both items and oftentimes there is only a red circle indicating your exact location and it can take some time to orient yourself with reading the in-game map and learning exactly which direction to go to reach your next objective. This is made all the more difficult by the lack of a fast travel system to get back to previously discovered areas quickly. This leads to alot of unnecessarily long treks back to your tower with next to nothing happening on the way, save for a few extra bits of dialogue between Henry and Delilah. While these do shed some additional light on certain plot points and add to the overall mystery, there is very little to do during these long journeys aside from dialogue trees.
Despite these lulls in gameplay, there are a few standout moments. For example, you can call Delilah on the radio to ask a question or make a comment on nearly every discovery you make in the forest. Find a turtle on a log and you can keep it as a pet. Delilah will ask you to name it and you are given a choice of several names which leads to additional dialogue between the two rangers. Later, back at your tower, the turtle will have its own little box and you can interact with it before setting out to complete your next objective. Moments like this offer a nice reprieve from the stressful mystery that you are working to unravel as you progress in Firewatch.
When you finally do solve the mystery, Firewatch reveals itself to suffer from the same problem as Gone Home, an abrupt and unsatisfying ending that seems out of place next to the tension building lead up to the conclusion. Without spoiling the story, I will say that the ending left me thinking, “There has to be something I missed. That can’t possibly be it!” It is a puzzling and nonsensical end to an otherwise gripping and tense thriller about two park rangers who stumble upon a mystery while developing a lasting friendship over the course of their summer together.
Firewatch, like Until Dawn before it, uses the game’s environment and atmosphere as an excellent tension builder that perfectly complements the adventure gameplay. A rustling in the bushes sends a chill down your spine as you soon discover it was only the wind…or was it? A mysterious figure observes you from the cliff above as you head back to your tower for the night, was this just a hiker passing by on the trail or is someone watching you? The game forces you to feel the same fear and paranoia that plagues both Henry and Delilah as every discovery you make while exploring the forest seems to indicate that someone is watching both rangers, someone who knows the forest better than the both of them do, someone who isn’t happy that they’re there. Firewatch pulls off the near impossible feat of feeling like a horror game simply by playing off of the supposed isolation of the main character and his own fear and guilt of running away from his problems. This caused me to question my own life during my playthrough and I found myself wondering if playing Firewatch was my own way of running off into the wilderness to escape my own problems.
The two leads, Henry and Delilah are believable and likable thanks to spot-on voice acting. There is no corny dialogue or cheesy ham-fisted lines to be found in the game. It becomes clear by the end of the story that both characters have grown to deeply care for one another as they got to know each other during their summer in the Shoshone. Though there are times throughout the story where you see the cracks in their bond start to form as both characters begin to question if they can trust the other. All of this is done through nothing but voice acting as we never actually see Henry and Delilah physically interact with one another, or any other character in the game beyond simple dialogue.
Firewatch is a near-perfect adventure game with an intriguing mystery that is marred by a very sudden and unrewarding revelation that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense when taken in context with the discoveries that Henry makes within the forest. Clunky navigation and long treks to and from each objective take away from what is otherwise an emotional, tense, and enthralling thriller about a troubled man, with a troubled past, who may have bitten off more than he could chew when he took a job as lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. One thing is clear though after finishing this game: Firewatch shows the true power of words and emotions and how effective they can be in telling a story.
The Bottom Line
Firewatch is a breath of fresh air in the adventure game genre. While the game is primarily dialogue based like other adventure games, gameplay is more FPS-like as you will climb cliffs, rock faces, rappel, and cross over make shift bridges as you work to solve the mystery of the Shoshone National Forest. While some navigation issues make getting around the environment difficult, the real salt in the wound is the abrupt, and illogical revelation that makes no sense in the context of the events leading up to the finale.