What is Firewatch. That’s the funny joke right, have I done it well? In all seriousness though, Firewatch was, and still is, a kind of difficult game to pin down. It’s not a video game in the same sense Super Mario is a very video game ass video game. Rather, it’s a story, one in which the player participates. Like the new Telltale brand of adventure game, player input really really negligible to what is a very pretty and interesting narrative experience.
Firewatch is a self described adult game full of adult situations. That’s not because it’s full of raunchy scenes or bloody violence. Rather, Firewatch is a game about a real person reacting poorly to something very real that happens to people in real life. It’s about how a person could just as easily run away from their problems rather than deal with them, because they’re not emotionally strong enough to deal with them. The story is one of Henry, a man whose wife has been diagnosed with dementia at only 40 and his total inability to deal with it. Resulting in him taking a summer job as a fire watchman in the middle of nowhere. Henry isn’t a hero, he’s just a guy, some would call him a coward.
The narrative is the real strength pushing this game along, and the vast majority of the narrative comes across in the dialogue between the game’s two main characters: Henry and his supervisor, Deliah, who is his sole contact over the radio during his summer in the forest. Henry is pretty much isolated in his little corner of the national park, his only outlet for social interaction is the quirky wit of Deliah. Player agency comes into player in choosing how Henry interacts with Deliah, and how their relationship pans out, like many games of this kind though, choices cause the story to deviate only slightly and things ultimately end up panning out the same way regardless.
Players can choose how much they open up to Deliah throughout the game, whether they share their problems with her or keep them off the table. It’s the volume of different lines that choices can result in that makes the game interesting. Things you do or don’t way on day one can come back to alter lines days down the line, the game tracks what is said pretty solidly and make multiple play throughs out of curiosity as to how deep they went very enticing. It’s not just the variance in dialogue, but the quality of it also. The performances from the two voice actors is not only a highlight of this game, but of voice acting in video games in general.
Despite being two voice actors playing parts, the dialogue is some of the most natural and believable I’ve heard in a video game. It’s not just that though, it’s the sheer variations of what they can say based on each player choice that all carry this same level of familiarity and believability as two people just having friendly banter. The writing being really witty and clever on top of all of this would make Firewatch a really good stage let alone a video game. But then we wouldn’t get the benefit of one of the game’s other strong points.
Exploration is the one thing, aside from the story that you’ll probably have heard people talk about when they speak about this game. Dismissively deemed a “Walking Simulator” by some, Firewatch allows players free reign of their patch of the park to explore, take pictures of and report for even more dialogue with Deliah. The environments in the game are beautiful, going for a more stylised approach than photo realistic, the landscapes are a real sight to behold, especially with the loving attention that went into the lighting for this game that makes the world even more beautiful. It’s deceptive in scale though, while the map does seem pretty huge on viewing it for the first time as you fill in the trails as you discover them, you’ll come to realise you get railroaded around pretty hard when you try to really explore.
I can’t count the times I wanted to climb some rocks, push through some shrubs or hop down a ledge and the game all but threw up an invisible “back the fuck up son” sign that made me realise I wasn’t going to be able to deviate much from the beaten path. While there is some benefit to revisiting the areas from the early days later, I didn’t feel a need to. Especially when the game was giving me instructions to follow that dissuaded me from exploration at that moment in time, say, when everything was on fire for example.
While the game looked stunning, and I can see why they give players a camera to take their own images and share them with friends, it seemed to feel like a much more constrained experience in terms of real exploration than it seemed to promise on a first opening of that map or when looking out at the world from your watch tower, which is a bummer. In fact, as the story goes on, the game feels less and less broad in terms of its explorable space and its story.
Okay, now I am going to get into pretty explicit spoilers about the ending of the game now, and considering it’s a shorter than 4 hours experience, if you want to play it without being spoiled, I’d stop reading now.
The area where the game really fell down for me was the aspect for the story that revolves around a mystery or grand conspiracy seemingly centred on Henry. As the days go on some strnage events begin to occur. Henry finds someone has broken into his tower and turned the place upside down, then some campers are seemingly attacked by an unknown assailant. As Henry starts to feel paranoid he finds transcripts of his conversations with Deliah, which freaks them both out. This leads to them finding a fenced off, shady government type shit, area of the wood that neither of them knew about before. The mystery deepens as Henry continues to look into events and it seems like someone is conducting some kind of experiment on him and Deliah in secret.
This was all great, it was enticing and made me was to press on to discover what was happening at the expense of exploration. that was, until it stopped being great and enticing very abruptly. If you have heard anything about this game’s ending already, chances are you’ve heard it is somewhat disappointing. That is because the big set-up and conspiracy the player thinks they’re at the centre of comes crashing down around them and ending up having an incredibly mundane (by video game standards) resolution. After some time, and knowing what I do about the developers from listening to their podcast, I feel this was probably an intentional gambit to aid in their storytelling. To give the actual story and themes of the game some more weight in hindsight.
As I said before, this is a game about a man and his inability to deal with some personal shit. The whole plot of Henry thinking he was at the centre of some strange conspiracy was, in the end, all in his head. An invented narrative by him that seemed somehow more interesting than swelling on his sick wife, a sub plot that is never forgotten through the story thanks to some fantastic subtle storytelling. Henry would rather daydream himself into a dangerous situation than actually think about his more serious real life problems. It’s almost an allegory to video games, but that’s going into another topic of discussion altogether.
The game ends with the player talking to Deliah, just as they are about to leave and being posed the question what they intent to do next. Even then, the player can chose, will they continue running or will they own up and go back to their real life and responsibility now the experience is over. It’s ultimately up to the player how the story ends, but after the events of the two hours leading up to this finale, it can come as somewhat of an anticlimax. Firewatch is a smart game, much smarter than people are giving it credit for, but there is no doubt that that ending can leave a sour taste in your mouth right after finishing it.
It’s after some time away that I really did come to appreciate it for what it was. I’m not going to go back and play it again, I had my experience with it and going back now would just sour it. I do recommend Firewatch as a nice little story, punctuated with some fantastic visual design, but it’s an experience, not really a game. I don’t regret my 3.9 hours with it at all.