It can be hard to write about things that you love. When a game is obviously busted, or just plain mediocre, it’s easy to find holes in the experience, pick them apart, and be every bit as critical as the situation calls for. Yet there’s always a nagging tick in the back of my mind when I have to write about something great – begging the question, is this game really as good as I think it is, or does it just happen to push all my personal buttons, in a way that it won’t for most others?
To be honest, where it concerns Firewatch, I’m still not entirely sure that I know what the answer is. It’s a game that’s already proving to be quite divisive amongst the gaming community, and within a few minutes of booting it up, it’s pretty easy to see why. Firewatch is a first-person, narrative-based game, wherein you take on the role of Henry. Henry’s wife Julia has moved to be with her family in Australia, following the onset of early-aged dementia, and Henry, unable to cope, has escaped to the forests of Colorado for the summer, to stand guard at Two Forks Tower, and watch for fire. Henry’s only point of contact for the summer is Delilah, the head of the operation, with whom Henry converses through entirely via radio.
It’s a simple game, one that could be derisively termed a “walking simulator”, but get past the snide remarks of those throwing the label around, and you’ll find an experience that’s much more involved than contemporaries like Gone Home or The Beginner’s Guide. Exploration is the core of Firewatch’s gameplay, as you hike around the wilderness, looking for clues, fire, and drunk teens. Sure, it’s impossible to die, and the game is surprisingly linear, given that you more or less have to stick to the park’s pre-ordained trails, but it still feels like there’s a lot more to things than simply walking up to an object and pressing A to advance things.
Most of this feeling comes from your interactions with Delilah – and it’s these interactions that give the game real heart and soul. Dialogue is brilliantly written, and it feels like your relationship with Delilah advances naturally according to which options for reply you pick. Even more impressive are the performances of the game’s leads, Rich Sommer of Mad Men fame, and Cissy Jones, who together form one of the naturalistic and believable duos we’ve yet seen in games. Honestly, I can’t praise the dialogue and delivery in the game any more, it’s simply wonderful, and it’s something that other developers should be looking at as a new standard.
The game looks and sounds gorgeous too. The vistas and trails you hike through are filled with warm, deep, earthy colours draped over a wonderfully soft yet still vibrant aesthetic, the kind that makes you wish those long summer evenings were here already. Seeing the sky painted red as the sun sets over the leafy hilltops is something to behold, and the subtle, gentle, airy soundtrack adds beautifully to the atmosphere. There’s also some surprisingly detailed animation on offer for a first person game, and watching Henry stoop down to clear the stairs on his descent from the tower is always oddly satisfying – it hits your brain in the exact right way to make you feel like you’re in his shoes, and it’s a wonderful touch.
Like I said earlier though, Firewatch isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. There are a few moments when you have to examine every object possible in an area to advance the story, and if you’re somehow not a fan of the banter between Henry and Delilah, those sections will be a chore – although I personally found myself wanting to hear every single line of dialogue possible – and I can’t imagine the game converting too many people into fans of the genre either. It’s really a shame, too, because, I mean, c’mon. It’s great!
The one sour note I will concede on though, is Firewatch’s ending. It comes together fairly abruptly, just as you feel like you’re on the verge of a major breakthrough discovery, although given the reasons the story presents as to why it’s ending, it sort of makes sense. That doesn’t mean I have to be in love with the ending though, and unfortunately, I’m not. It comes across as being anticlimactic, and it’s a disappointing way to close the book on what would have otherwise been an easy five star review.
Firewatch is a pretty short game to boot – it only took me around three and a half hours to get through it all, and that includes taking a fair amount of time to explore as much as I could, read every note that I could find, and exhaust every line of dialogue from Delilah and Hank. I don’t regret it, though, and I certainly feel like I got more than my money’s worth for a game that stands out amidst the glut of games that have come out the first six weeks of the year.
I love Firewatch. I can’t help it, really. It’s about as aimed at people like me as games can get, and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t find any other way in my mind to approach it from. It grabbed my hand and led me on a memorable, serene, touching journey from start to (almost) finish, and I’m sure that I’ll still be thinking about it for a long while to come. Firewatch is my kinda game, and while it maybe not be yours, I hope it is.
Burn Baby, Burn
Firewatch is a wonderfully atmospheric experience, but is sullied by a sudden and anticlimactic ending.