By Leif Conti-Groome / February 24th, 2016
|Release Date||February 9, 2016|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Mature|
From the moment Campo Santo announced their first title, Firewatch, I was drawn to the game. There was an air of mystery around it that was hard to explain; it wasn’t hidden under a veil of secrecy like The Witness. Early previews showed different sections of the game being played, but these were always mundane tasks like checking on downed power lines or cleaning up beer cans. It was like watching the beginning of a horror movie and seeing the perfect family living their perfect lives. I knew that something big and bad was going to happen. And, in the case of Firewatch, I wanted to know what that something was.
I want to say that ‘this game defies expectations’ and ‘this game is nearly impossible to review without spoiling everything.’ Firewatch is both predictable and unpredictable. It’s complex and simple. It’s lonely yet chatty. It’s a contradiction of a game.
In Firewatch you play as Henry, a man looking to escape life. So, for the summer of 1989, he works as a fire lookout at Yellowstone National Park. This exciting career path has Henry hanging out in his lookout tower and watching out for fires. If he sees any smoke or anything suspicious, he has to radio it over to his boss, Delilah, who has a tower in the next region of the park. Over the three months of Henry’s tenure, a strong friendship develops between the two, and it’s their back and forth over the radio that really drives the game forward.
The writing is the crowning achievement of Firewatch. Both Sean Vanaman and Patrick Ewing have crafted one of the best stories I’ve played through in some time, which is even more impressive since there are branching conversations. You have the ability to choose up to three dialogue options (not including the option to just stay silent) when you talk with Delilah. Some of these options lead to hilarious responses while others lead to dramatic moments. A number of the dialogue choices have lasting effects and change the conversation in later parts of the game. Here’s a sample of the multiple responses you can give Delilah on why she works in the middle of nowhere:
“You’ve killed three husbands. You’re a black widow. You’re just out here until the heat dies down and then you’ll kill again.”
“You’re probably rebelling against a mom who wishes you had given her grandkids, by the sound of your voice, at least fifteen years ago? You come out here and it really grinds her gears and you love it.”
“You’re probably out here because nobody back home can stand you. Which, after this brief introduction, isn’t a big shock.”
That’s Rich Sommer (of Mad Men fame) as Henry. He does an excellent job portraying the weariness and turbulence the character embodies. Cissy Jones (The Walking Dead – The Game) is the perfect match with her blunt but playful rendition of Delilah as seen in her reaction to Henry’s third response.
“Ouch. I’ll chalk that up to you being tired and grumpy… Now it’s my turn… I say you got fired from your job and have finally decided to write your novel. That’s the sort of bullshit reason you’ll find a man out in the woods.”
I can only give vague hints about the story since the mysteries of Yellowstone National Park are such an important part of the experience. I can say that it has a lot to do with isolation (given the unique setting, it’s not that surprising) and the idea that you can be incredibly close to someone yet they can be miles away, both figuratively and literally. And while that’s obvious for Henry and Delilah’s friendship, there are other, subtler examples of this found throughout Firewatch.
With loneliness comes paranoia which is another strong theme in the game. The player also starts to see patterns and creating their own conspiracy theories. Is there some kind of supernatural force at work? What’s the deal with that strange medicine circle southwest of my cabin? Where are these fires coming from? Why am I finding missing persons posters in different areas? Answering these questions is part of the fun of Firewatch.
It’s not surprising that, in a game that features a lot of dialogue, that the sound design is a lot more restrained than other titles. Many of the noises that you come across in the forest are ambient sounds of leaves brushing against your body or water splashing underneath. This minimalist approach really serves to heighten the grandeur of Yellowstone; it honestly feels like you’re alone with nothing but nature around you (and your walkie-talkie). The music is used even more sparingly as small instrumental tracks slide in as you trek through small forests. Many of these pieces by Chris Remo are quiet guitar pieces that conjure up images of campfires and peaceful hikes. But this doesn’t mean that the music won’t turn on you during those tension-filled sprints across the wilderness. Beware the droning and slightly discordant chords of the guitar at these points.
The graphics team, especially Jane Ng, deserves special praise for the way they brought the lush environments to life. You’d think that, in a game with trees everywhere, the scenery would get repetitive after a while. There’s a lot of variety among the leaves with abandoned campsites, scorched forests, broken down outhouses and serene waterfalls. Traversing through the same areas can feel completely different due to small touches like day/night cycles (the sun setting through the trees is gorgeous) or leaves slowly dropping to the ground or the threat of a storm overhead.
Firewatch is, unfortunately, not without some hiccups. I played through the PS4 version 1.01. The game has an autosave feature which had a tendency to make the frame rate choppy for a second or two. This apparently isn’t an issue for the PC version of the game, and Campo Santo have stated that they’re working ‘around the clock’ to fix the choppiness for the console version. I also had one instance of a lockup where I lost about 15 minutes of progress; the game froze as the autosave came on for a new area.
The gameplay and game length are the most divisive parts of Firewatch. It’s basically a novel you get to experience firsthand through the beautiful sights and the incredible dialogue. Another, less polite way of saying this is ‘walking simulator.’ It’s not that far off the mark as you do walk all over the park, backtracking at some points, conversing with Delilah and solving rudimentary puzzles. It’s also a short game; I was able to beat it in just under four hours and I was taking my sweet time (gotta take in the sights).
There is some replayability with the dialogue; it’s a game that you need to play a bunch of times to hear all the banter. The core experience doesn’t really change, though, and since the achievements are all connected to story progression, there’s not much incentive to find Easter eggs scattered throughout. For instance, you can follow the budding bromance between two ex-lookouts in note form or try to read all the backs of the pulpy novels of Richard Sturgeon. Some creative players have also made their own challenges like playing through the game and only choosing the silent options for the dialogue trees.
While I respect that there are those out there that think spending $20 on a three hour long game with limited replay value is outrageous, I am not part of that camp. I found the experience quite fulfilling (and yes, I paid for my copy) and the themes brought up in the narrative are still with me a few days after completing it. Maybe I’m alone with this stance; one man lost in the video game wilderness looking for a reason to run away and play. Who else wants to be stranded with a sadness that doesn’t leave you once the story is done and Henry and Delilah are gone? Why would anyone want to play an isolation simulator that teases you with an honest connection between two people? I don’t know the answers to these contradictions, but I do hope that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
This review was based on the PS4 version and was self purchased.
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