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Sometimes the first 20 minutes of a game impress you so much you can’t wait to play more. You forget about getting up, instead you sink deeper into your chair and get lost in a new world. Firewatch is one of those games. The way it opens, it oozes with style. From it’s gorgeous menus and art style, to the use of hard cuts, Firewatch is a game that stuck with me long after I finished it.
But it’s not just the visuals and style that hooked me, it’s the entire premise that had me excited. You play as Henry, a middle aged man who has been through some rough times. He decides to escape his life and takes a job as firewatch lookout. The job entails sitting in a tall wooden tower and watching for fire. All summer, alone in a small elevated cabin. But right as you arrive at your tower you get a call on the radio. Delilah, your boss, introduces herself to you and pretty quickly she begins prying at your private life. I was annoyed, as was Henry.
Hours later I would find myself in love with Delilah, worried about her safety and worried about what I would tell my wife.
I’m not going to spoil the story, because that is the big draw of Firewatch. The game looks gorgeous and exploring the forest is amazing. But the real thing that kept me going, kept me sitting in my chair glued to my TV, was the story and the way Firewatch tells that story.
Few games are able to do dialogue driven narratives well. So I was nervous when Firewatch was first described as a dialogue heavy game. Would that work? The answer is, yes. Yes it does work. The trick is Firewatch is always giving you options and it feels like it cares. Early on you make a lot of decisions as throughout the game you and Delilah remark on those choices. One of the first things you do in Firewatch is handle some trouble makers firing off fireworks. How you handle that and what you do afterwards is something that affects the story hours later.
And unlike The Walking Dead or Life Is Strange, Firewatch never visually indicates a choice you just made was “important” or “meaningful.” Instead everything could be important or just bullshit. It’s up to you to decide.
It also helps that the voice acting and writing are superb and believable. Delilah reminds me of actual people I’ve met and Henry seems like an average guy trying to figure out how to move on in life. Or if he even should. The relationship between Delilah and Henry is the core of this game. Yes, there is a mystery that slowly builds, but at the end of Firewatch it’s a conversation between Delilah and Henry that is the real ending. Not the reveal of the mystery.
And there is a mystery in Firewatch. There are moments of intrigue and you might begin to build a theory of what is happening. But what Firewatch does with that mystery and how it resolves it reminds you that life isn’t always complex. Sometimes life is just brutal and sad.
The mystery in Firewatch is so less important than the characters, that when you finally “figure it out,” the game gives you the option to walk away and finish the game. You can end Firewatch not knowing about why this happened or how it happened. You’ll know most of it, but the little details, the things that fill up a wiki, those details are optional. And I loved the fact that Firewatch lets you choose. Are the answers really that important? Do you care more about questions or people? Is tragedy easier to understand if you have more evidence and answers?
It’s weird to get this far into a review and not talk about how the game felt to play or other gameplay elements like that. But in all honesty, I don’t think you play Firewatch for that. I will say that moving around the world and interacting with objects feels good. The way you use the triggers for most of your actions is smart. The walkie talkie interface is really easy to use and smooth. I hope more games take note of how Firewatch presents dialogue and objectives.
Exploring the forest is fantastic. You start off feeling lost. But over time the game has you returning to locations or passing through places you’ve been before and you start to build a map in your head. By the end of Firewatch I was able to navigate the forest without using the compass or map. This gives the forest a real sense of place. Locations are varied and diverse enough that I never felt lost or bored. You explore caves, forests, valleys, rivers, lakes and more. They all look and sound different and visiting the same location at a different time of day is a great way to see how much the lighting can affect the world.
The story and gameplay of Firewatch work perfectly together. This a story that can’t be told in a movie. It needed to be a game. Sadly, like many games, Firewatch has some technical issues. Playing on PS4 I ran into framerate issues. Some of these dips were really bad and I hope developers Campo Santo can fix some of this in a future patch. Still, even with some performance issues I was blown away by Firewatch. The gameplay feels solid and the story is great.
I won’t spoil the story or the mystery as these things deserved to be experienced without any prior knowledge. But by the end of Firewatch I was sitting in my chair quietly watching the credits roll. And I was thinking. Thinking about what I would have of done. Thinking about what will happen to Henry and Delilah. I’m still thinking these things.
I’m still thinking about Firewatch.