by Jake Doolin
This review is based off the Mac and PS4 versions
Is there any concept more American than moving out to the woods and building a life for yourself? That very idealistic view that you could escape from the world and just exists among the plants and animals. It’s ridiculous of course, and yet as far removed from the wilderness as I am (mostly due to gaming) I can say that thought has crossed my mind at least once or twice.
Maybe I’d grow a beard, or more accurately a patchy mustache, and I’d be able to leave behind all the issues in my life. That’s where Henry, the protagonist of Campo Santo’s humorous and often brilliant game Firewatch, finds himself. At the cusp of one of the biggest decisions of his life he runs into a job that gives him that opportunity to escape. But as Henry and the player learn throughout the game, the wilderness takes as just as much as it gives.
In the weak last gasps of the evening’s dying light
Opening with a scene that reminded me of Pixar’s Up in both it’s scope and emotional venerability, the player is introduced to Henry (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) and his wife Julia. Jumping between snapshots of the biggest moments of their lives together the player begins to see the cracks in their relationship form slowly until an emotional gut punch leads to Henry taking the job in the woods as a fire lookout.
There he meets Delilah (Cissy Jones), his supervisor and only emotional connection to the outside world during his time in Wyoming wilderness. It’s the relationship between these two that makes up the crux of Firewatch’s narrative and the excellent writing from Sean Vanaman (Walking Dead: Season One) manages to capture the budding friendship between the two quite well.
The day-in-day-out experience of being a fire lookout offers up plenty of time for Henry and Delilah to talk about subjects ranging from marriage and pets to an awful pun or two. There is no signpost moments in their exchanges that signal the player to feel one way or the other, instead the game smartly allows their relationship to ebb and flow to a point where their friendship becomes one of the most believable I’ve seen in a game. Sommer and Jones give it their all throughout the game, both shining when the script asks them to lay their lives bare for the other to comment on.
There is a bigger story that starts to come in around the halfway point of the game, the duo begins to suspect there are being watched, but Firewatch never loses its focus on the core bond between Henry and Delilah. The big moments at the end of the game hit harder because of this, instead of thinking about how something would affect a specific character I kept thinking how it would affect their relationship with the other.
All of this comes together in an ending as fine as I have seen in a game in sometime. Connecting all the strands of mystery in a conversation that speaks to the core themes of the game. When the credits rolled, I wondered where Henry and Delilah would be now, how they might have been changed by the events of the game and how much impact they had on one another. Maybe, to a greater extent, how much they had an impact on me.
From the highways to the hills
The Wyoming woods where Firewatch is based offer up their own unique feelings that add to the games narrative. Artists Olly Moss and Jane Ng create a feeling of warmth and mystery through their designs of the surrounding woods. Players will get the pleasure of seeing the sunset over the mountains while also dreading what maybe lurking behind the trees once the night sets in.
This is helped also by the level design, which takes players to caves, lakes and burnt out sections of forest. As the narrative shifts so does the environment. Starting off as welcoming and warm it soon shifts to ashy and chilling as the bigger story comes into play.
There is also a detailed level of care in the environmental story telling. The claw marks on trees and scattered beer cans strewn about make the world feel lived in, which makes some of the later sections of the game feel even more mysterious. All of these elements come together to give the game a very comfortable feeling that lends itself well to the frequent walks on the trail the game puts you through.
Both the Mac and PS4 versions of the game look beautiful, with the Mac version working slightly better and with less framerate drops compared to the PS4. No matter what version you pick though your eyes will be in for a treat.
Firewatch is a game that cares about its characters and its world. Both feel real, offering up sights that stun and words that sting. It’s a story about people who can’t keep running from the issues in their lives, and the way they chose to deal with them will either engulf them or make them anew.
+ Fantastic relationship between characters
+ The finale
– Framerate issues on PS4
Originally posted on February 8, 2016