Gaming: Firewatch Review

Justin Wicker weighs in with his review of Firewatch. 

Henry's home away from home!
Are you feeling happy? On top of the world? Just can’t shake that good mood you’ve been having? Well then I have a game for you! Firewatch is a game about humanity, isolation, cowardice, and what happens to people when they reach their breaking points. At times, it will make you smile, and bring up starry-eyed memories of the days of yore. At other times, it will remind you of things you wanted to forget, or make you feel like you are going insane. Firewatch is an intense and poignant mystery story that is emotionally devastating in a way like no other game I have ever played. And for that, despite its flaws, I have a lot of respect for it.

Firewatch puts you in control of Henry, a man like many of us, who is trying to find an escape from the real world. And what better way to escape from the hustle and bustle of personal relationships and technology than taking a job in a firewatch tower, deep in woods of a Wyoming national forest. At the beginning of the game you are introduced to Henry’s backstory in a “choose your own adventure!” book or Twine game fashion, and it does a phenomenal job of telling a deep and emotional story in a short time through very limited mechanics. It sets up perfectly the idea of Henry being the ‘Everyman’ with a storied past, and makes for a cleverly constructed jump-off point for the beginning of the rest of the game.

The majority of the game is told from a first-person perspective, controlling Henry through the mundanity of his new employment. Mechanically, this felt a lot like traditional adventure games or an even more apt comparison would be to a game like Gone Home. You venture out into world, picking up and inspecting objects, exploring areas of the map, and taking in the sights and sounds of the organic world around you. The environments are absolutely beautiful, despite not being full of high-res textures or picture-perfect design. Firewatch’s art design was led by Olly Moss, creator of game art, movie posters, and book-covers alike, and the environments are just bleeding with style and wonder. I am not typically one for stop and smell the roses moments in games for a number of reasons, but I found myself often forgetting my objective and just wandering aimlessly observing the gorgeous environment.

While Henry does take solace in solitude, he is not completely alone out there in the wilderness. When you reach the tower you are greeted via radio by Delilah, your new boss. Delilah gives you ‘orders’ and communicates with you throughout the game, and is the center of direction for what the player should do. More importantly, the communication and relationship building with Delilah seems to be the true focus of the game. The radio is the central tool for basically everything you do. Delilah will talk about items you pick up, experiences you have, and even ask questions about Henry and his personal life. This functions in the form of branching dialog trees that let you decide how you want the relationship to develop, and how open or distant you want Henry to be about his life and problems. In this way more than anything in the game I felt like I was allowed to make Henry more like a facsimile of me as the player. You can answer the questions however you like, but I chose to answer them the way I thought I would given I was in his position, and to me it made this experience that had already completely grabbed me even more immersive.

The map and manual compass for
extra immersion!
The dialog between Henry and Delilah is very fluid and natural. While their sarcasm and quips may get a little stale, the conversations themselves don’t have the stiffness or ‘out of a can’ feel I have come to expect after years of poor dialog in video games. The voice actors they chose, Rich Sommer of Mad Men fame, and Cissy Jones, best known from her work on Telltale’s The Walking Dead adventure games, both knock it out of the park and their real-world conversational chemistry does not go unnoticed. The dialog develops and changes as the player builds a relationship with Delilah, and it is through this dialog and the exploratory findings of Henry that Firewatch’s mystery story unfolds.

The aforementioned mystery is not necessarily something that's new to games, but the level of tension it puts the player through is impressive considering its scale. It follows a lot of structure of a mystery film or novel, complete with all the red herrings and tropes you can imagine. Despite these concepts being central to mystery stories, this is actually one of my gripes with the game. The player is rewarded for exploration by more dialog and more story developments via finding objects, but sometimes that reward can be irrelevant in the grand scheme of the game. The red herrings are frequent, and when you mix that with the resolution of the mystery story itself feeling disappointing, I left the game with a sour taste in my mouth from a narrative standpoint.

Firewatch was not free of its technical problems either. I had a frustrating amount of technical issues when playing the game. There were some of the simple issues like framerate drops during  masked background loads, and the occasional long load screen. Albeit annoying, these particular issues are far from unforgivable. The real problems I had with Firewatch were hard crashes and freezes. Several times throughout my experience, keeping in mind this game is only around 4-6 hours, the game just totally froze up.  It didn't show the ‘blue screen of death’ or kick me back to the home screen, the game just froze and I had to kill the application. And, during several of these times I did not have a recent save and and to re-do some content, which never feels nice. I realize the game was created on the Unity engine which currently has some issues running on consoles, so I sympathize, but it's important to note issues like this and not become complacent with their prevalence.

I would love to talk more about Firewatch and gush about how it make me feel, and the story points, but really you should just give it a shot. Spoiling any of the story really does a disservice to the player since the narrative really is the emphasis. If you like games that give you feels, are looking to expand your gaming horizons, or you  just want a good mystery story give it a try, but don't be surprised if you feel like you need a stiff drink when you are done.

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Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Panic
Platforms: Playstation 4, PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date: February 9th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PS4

-Justin Wicker