System: PS4, Xbox One, PC
The year is 1989. The place: Yellowstone Park in the heart of Wyoming, a year after the great fires of 1988. If you thought this was the set-up to the next great American novel, you would be mistaken. This is Firewatch, a story-based game from upstart game developer Camp Santo, whose team includes the creative talents of ex Telltale Games staff known for their work on games such as the Walking Dead as well as renowned Graphic Artist Olly Moss.
You play Henry (Rich Sommers), a man, who we find out through an extremely effective and emotionally resonant opening, (which I won’t spoil) is escaping the realities of everyday life and trading them in for some quiet respite with a summer position as a Fire Patrol at the Shosone National Forest. Here he meets Delilah (Cissy Jones), his supervisor and fellow Patrol who is holed up in the nearby tower. She is your only connection during your time in the American Wilderness and your relationship with her is the major driving force of the game.
I should clarify, by meeting, I mean not in actual person, as their entire relationship is built around the central gameplay mechanic implemented within the game, the Walkie-Talkie. As you progress through your daily duties as fire patrol, within in this 3-4 hour adventure, you are often interrupted by Delilah and through dialog options, can decide how to respond to her. Do you humor her inquisitive nature, treat everything with snide sarcasm, or just plain ignore her? It is all up to you, as every response influences your relationship with her and therefore your connection to the characters and story. The interactions and banter between Delilah and Henry are often interesting, funny, witty and a joy to listen to. They are so well conceived and written in fact, it makes you want to play these situations over again with different dialog choices just to see how it could’ve gone differently even if it doesn’t ultimately change the outcome of the story as a whole.
What sells these well-written characters even further is the incredible voice work done here by Sommers (from Mad Men fame) and Jones, who bring life and authenticity to their respective roles as Henry and Delilah. This is a very human story with complex issues on love, loss, and human nature, and while you might not always sympathize with these two leads, you almost certainly can emphasize with them because hey, life is not always straight and narrowly cut and it often gets messy.
As we progress through the story, which takes place across over the coming months, we find out things are not what they seem. Without spoiling anything in greater detail, many revelations come to light in this incredibly well paced story and it always keep you guessing what’s coming next. Who really is Delilah and what are her intentions? Is there someone watching you? Is some great conspiracy going on? These are questions that the gamer will ask and I personally always appreciated not knowing where the story was going and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
All of this intrigue culminates in a very understated twist. So understated in fact, that by the time I reached it, I didn’t fully catch the importance of what was going on. It’s a revelation that I believe wasn’t given enough time to breath and develop like it’s story and central characters and by the time the big reveal comes, it lacks the emotional gut punch it’s trying to convey. It also undoes some of the build up that comes before it by having you questioning the logistics of previous events, which seem to be resolved with cheap convenience instead of any kind of meaningful explanation. It’s disappointing because the rest of the game is so deliberate and thoughtful that these plot devices seem rushed to propel the story to its conclusion. Rest assured the game regains some its footing with an ending that is effective and fitting, but might not satisfy all, but like I said before life is messy and in this regard, at least the game stays true to it’s themes.
Notice I have barely touched on gameplay. Those looking for a deep action experience with a complex inventory or crafting system they would expect from a game about living in the wilderness to have will be sorely disappointed. This is through and through a story first and while many might simply attach the moniker of “Walking Simulator” to it, there are some unique gameplay elements.
The game gives you a decent sized section of the park to explore at your leisure and as you progress through the story more of it opens up. Certain areas, which were once impenetrable, become accessible through the procurement of certain items you find throughout the story, giving the game the feeling of a semi open world with the trappings of something seen in a Metroidvania style title.
While the game never forces it upon the player, exploration off the beaten path can result in some interesting finds, some, which can affect and add to the story in subtle ways. There are even Easter Eggs for those that are fans of certain franchises (which I will leave for the reader to find for themselves) and there is even an option to play the game with commentary from the game’s creators.
The world itself is beautifully realized and is brought to life with Moss’ incredible artistic vision. Everything pops off the screen from the beautiful vistas, picturesque sunsets, serene lakes, densely populated forests, and foreboding caves, to even the smallest details in found in Henry’s Watchtower (or his Wreck-It Ralph like mitts he calls arms), Firewatch is easily one of the most visually striking games you will see. This coupled with an excellent original score by Chris Remo that complements the sights, sounds and story beats perfectly, this is one tight audio-visual package.
There are blemishes though as the game, which not a technical powerhouse, surprisingly comes with some visual hiccups on the PS4. Frequent framerate dips and pop-in at times did break immersion for me, but overall did not ruin the experience. Note: There is a patch for the PS4 Pro that apparently alleviates these issues but I have yet to test that out.
In a medium, which traditionally covers the spectrum of Alien Invasions to War on the modern battlefield, to Italian stereotypes dressed as plumbers, Firewatch delivers something different. It ‘s a mature and bold vision of storytelling unique to gaming that is elevated by wonderful vocal performances, an incredible art style and an ambient soundtrack whose ambitions are sadly derailed by a final act that falls flat and some annoying technical issues. It’s a shame because there is so much to love about this game that I want to whole heartily recommend it to everyone, and while I do, I know it won’t fully satisfy everyone. Those willing to give it a chance though, might find themselves with a very special and personal experience, one that will stick with you long after you’ve finished. I know it did for me and that should count for a lot.
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