Firewatch is the debut project for both its developer, Campo Santo, and its publisher, Panic. Set after the Yellowstone fires of 1988, you play as Henry, a man who takes a summer job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.
It sounds like a rather boring premise, but Campo Santo manages to turn this woodland adventure into both a chilling psychological horror, and a chance to become introspective, aided by disarming humour.
Your character Henry is going through a difficult stage of his life, as his wife and college sweetheart, Julia, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 41. After spending time attempting to care for her in their shared home, the responsibility becomes too much. From this point, you are handed the difficult task of deciding whether your wife goes to live with her parents, or goes to stay in a care home.
The entire prologue is text-based, telling you the story of Henry and Julia with a series of white sentences on a dark background. You are allowed to make certain decisions throughout, such as which type of dog you adopt together, but other times you simply press a button and continue to read the couple’s predetermined fate. This method of storytelling adds a sobriety to the tale, but it can also be difficult to stay engaged, and by the time the entire story is told, you’re itching to get to the gameplay.
Regardless of which decisions you make in the prologue, it all turns out the same: Henry escapes from his responsibilities, leaves Julia behind, and goes to live in a firewatch tower in the forest. Alone.
Well, actually, he’s not completely alone.
Using a two-way radio, Henry is able to talk to his boss for over the summer – Delilah. She gives him his first assignment: stop people from letting off fireworks in the forest. They casually exchange witty banter throughout this first adventure, and from then on she becomes a solid companion. You are given the choice to report to her whenever you find an item of interest, and you also get to choose the dialogue options.
Unlike in certain other games, where all dialogue leads to the same conclusion, or there is hardly any difference between the choices (“A: Yeah”, “B: Yes, “C: Of course”), Firewatch does an excellent job of making your choices different and interesting. There is a particularly fun part where Delilah asks you to describe yourself so she can draw you, and you are able to see the drawing later. She draws you true to your description, even if it actually looks nothing like Henry.
Small details like this make it easy to feel a real connection with Delilah, and you begin to look forward to being able to speak with her again.
However, this also means that you are entirely dependent on her, as she is the only person you are able to talk to during your stay – and you can’t even see her. This point is brought into question later, when you begin to doubt the events of the summer, and doubt who you can trust.
It appears as though someone has been watching you for the duration of your adventure, and they seem to be trying to sabotage your efforts. The casual feeling of the game takes a complete turn in the second half, and you are immersed in panic as you try to figure out the mystery of the forest, and what happened to the last lookout that lived in Henry’s tower.
Gameplay-wise, all you are really able to do whilst in control of Henry is walk, run, and pick items up. You can also press a button to climb a rope or slide down a slope. Though the controls are simple, it makes it feel realistic. You are given a map and a compass, and you have to figure out your own way across the forest, constantly checking your compass to make sure you’re travelling in the right direction. You have no real skills, no ability to fight; you’re just an ordinary man in a forest. This makes the second half even scarier.
The scenery is stunning, with wide open expanses to gaze across, starry skies at night and the sun beating down on Jonesy Lake in daytime. It gives you a feeling of longing, makes you want to travel to Wyoming and see these sights for yourself.
It’s obvious that Campo Santo is more comfortable designing scenery than characters, since you never see another human being in the game apart from in a few select photos. The lack of character interaction somewhat forces you to appreciate the view more, though.
However, for all its good points, Firewatch does have a couple of flaws, one of which could be considered pretty huge.
A main point of the game is to experience Henry’s isolation, and though it does deliver an authentic experience, it can become quite boring. There are sections of the game where you are required to walk literally across the entire map with little to no interaction. It can become frustrating, and the novelty wears off when you’re traipsing back through the same damn patch of forest for the third time because you lost track of your compass and went down the wrong path. I found myself occasionally wishing for fast travel.
The biggest drawback of this game, though, is the ending. Without spoiling anything, it has to be said that the game’s ending was incredibly disappointing. The build-up of the second half was fantastic, it had a creeping sense of dread that increased as you continued playing, and left you grasping at straws trying to figure out what was going on. With all of that tension and suspense, it wouldn’t be wrong to expect a killer ending, with all the loose ends tied, and a sense of satisfaction for completing the game and solving the mystery.
Instead, you are left feeling cold.
It is revealed that several of the mysteries from before were nothing but red herrings and attempts to throw you off, and the real answer is one that doesn’t feel big enough for the scale of the build-up from beforehand.
We leave Henry without ever really reaching a satisfying conclusion. We don’t know what happens when the adventure is over; what happens to him, what happens to the other characters?
Perhaps the aim of the game was to leave you to your own imagination: what would you, personally, do?
But it’s hard to speculate and feel satisfied with your own conclusions when you’re not even satisfied with the ones the game presents you with.
This is Firewatch’s greatest flaw.
Despite this, it is still a fun and immersive adventure game, especially considering that it’s the debut for both its parent companies. It is short and interesting enough to be replayable, and for the selling price, it goes above and beyond expectations – for the most part.
Firewatch is an excellent first-time game, and I hope to see more from its creators in the future.