Stand By Me
You do a lot of walking in Firewatch. Like, a lot. You’ll walk from your outpost, you’ll walk to the lake, you’ll walk to clear bushes, you’ll climb down some ropes, and you’ll climb up some ropes (very slowly). But to label Firewatch as just “another walking simulator” would be entirely disingenuous to what the crew at Campo Santo have created.
To keep things intentionally vague, you play as Henry, a newly appointed member of the Wyoming park service. He’s turned to the wilderness as a way to clear his mind and come to terms with some personal problems. With the help of his boss via radio contact, Henry sets out to conduct various tasks throughout the Wyoming forest such as chasing away teenagers, clearing brush, and making friends with turtles. He also has the preternatural ability to zoom in without the aid of binoculars, which would be a handy ability to have in real life.
The connection with his boss, Delilah, is really the heart of the experience. They confide in each other, try to make sense of the weird tragedies of the world, and reflect on past mistakes. In this regard, Firewatch is very much an adult coming of age story, akin to something like Stand By Me. Becoming an adult means realizing that sometimes bad things happen for no reason, completely out of our control, and it’s how we handle our emotions that defines us.
Sometimes those emotions are best worked out by taking some alone time. This feeling of isolation and personal reflection comes to life through the art style, which is just downright gorgeous. The streaming of light through the trees, the distant mountains obscured by haze, and the rugged cliffs you climb are all rendered beautifully, giving Firewatch a very strong atmosphere. The game accurately recreates the feeling of getting lost in the woods yourself, with all the self discovery and exploration that comes along with it.
Rest assured, there is a layer of intrigue and mystery to the Wyoming wilderness that reveals itself as the summer wanes on. The story is bolstered by strong writing and fantastic voice acting, which makes Henry and Delilah’s relationship feel real and believable. The game places an emphasis on how you can respond to her, which runs the typical gamut from “go ahead and advance the plot,” to “be mean and bitter for no reason.” The problem is that none of your choices matter to the larger story, and things will play out the same regardless. This is disappointing considering how short the game is.
The ending is also likely to rub some the wrong way, but for the sake of spoilers, please don’t discuss it here. I will say that I felt the ending came swiftly and felt a bit hasty, but the events themselves accurately reflect the themes Campo Santo was going for. That said, the game starts out with a very strong emotional hook that definitely wanes by the time the ending comes around, which was certainly off putting.
Even though the wilderness seems vast and boundless, the game can also feel linear, which ruins some of the immersion. For example, despite Henry clearly having the ability to hike through rugged forest and wield an assortment of climbing tools, he still doesn’t know how to step up on any rock that isn’t marked with white paint. Sometimes I wanted to strike off in a direction to explore, only to find that the boundaries were fairly limiting. Other times they would introduce a mechanic that I thought would let me find new paths to take, only to discover they had a one-time function.
I have to be honest though, it was pretty refreshing to be given a map and compass to find my own way around. It was a nice change from being lead from one part of the map to the other via waypoint. It makes you take in your surroundings and become familiar with the area, even if you can find the boundaries and marked trails pretty easily. Even the occasional backtracking was a pleasure thanks to the astounding art style.
If you enjoy walking in the woods or using walkie talkies, it’s pretty easy to recommend Firewatch. Otherwise, if you’re a fan of other experiments in isolated world exploration such as Journey and Dear Esther, you’ll definitely find something to enjoy here. Its $20 price tag is a pretty safe figure for what you get, just know what to expect.
Firewatch is a fairly simple experience, one that I wished, at times, was expanded on more, but it’s a fine game to slip between gigantic AAA titles. Taking the time to clear your mind and wander through the woods is important, and this is what Firewatch does so well. Relax, take a picture or two, and remind yourself that some things will always be out of your control.
Steve didn’t know his collar was tucked in on his video review. Tell him about it on Twitter.