Video games come in many different shapes, and “Firewatch” challenges exactly what a game can be defined as. The rookie effort by developer Campo Santo sets its feet deeply into the interactive storytelling camp. The player is merely a vehicle to drive the story forward, and despite some minor unraveling near the end, it is one hell of an experience.
Set in the 1980’s, “Firewatch” does not hold back when introducing you to it’s heart wrenching story. The first few minutes touches on Henry and Julia’s story, a normal couple that grow deeper in love as they build a life together. However, a set of unforeseen circumstances throws a wrench into their plans. As Henry loses control of the situation, he decides to take a job as a forest fire watcher in Wyoming for the summer. The opening is akin to “UP” in how hard it hits the player and how emotionally vulnerable it leaves them. It works perfectly to set the tone for the rest of the story.
As Henry settles in to his new gig, he starts talking to his new boss, Delilah, who is stationed in a neighboring tower a few miles away. The only exposure you get to Delilah is through a small, handheld radio as she gives you different tasks to do with your day. These will often involve searching out troublesome teens who keep lighting bonfires and setting off fireworks, or fixing fallen communication wires after a storm. Things get a whole lot more interesting, though, as a more sinister plot opens up the deeper you go into the woods.
The story is masterfully acted with Henry being portrayed by Rich Sommer of “Mad Men” fame and Delilah being brought to life by veteran video game voice actress Cissy Jones. The amount of emotion put through on just the radio conversations is simply astounding and as the plot thickens their relationship sees some serious development. Their relationship takes center stage, and it grows in a very natural way. Delilah acts as the backbone to your exploration, giving further context to the environment around you. Their conversations sound incredibly fluid and never felt forced, something that is getting harder to find in video games.
Unfortunately, the ending left me wanting a bit more. Maybe the incredible lead up to the big twist was just so good that the actual reveal fell a bit flat, but I was really hoping the game would toss a few more surprises my way. Considering it clocks in at a mere three hours also hurts its case. The story is very well written, I just wish there was more of it.
With such a carefully crafted tale, developer Campo Santo has to be very particular about where it gave players the freedom to make their own choices. There is not much to do in the forest aside from a few scripted actions that happen in order to progress the plot. Despite the seemingly large environment hinted at throughout the game, there is no exploration required. The only real challenge comes from getting your bearings using only a map and a compass. You will traverse across the varied environment, hoping over fallen logs and climbing rocks with minimal input. When you do interact with people it is very brief, but it does help sell the semi-isolationist focus of the tale. Henry is here to get away from life, and any intrusion into this acts as a stark reminder of what he left behind.
The true meat of the game lies in the conversation system. What you want to reveal to Delilah about your past is completely up to you as the game lets your chose from a few conversation options whenever she asks a question of you. You can also engage with her and ask her about objects around you or places you are visiting. Everything is optional, however. If a conversation is getting on your nerves you can simply stop talking about it, or if you want to pry a bit deeper you can keep following up. In the end, all the big plot points about your life or hers will be revealed before the end so the freedom you have only comes from when you tell her certain things. If you talk about Julia early on, she will offer you advise and open up about her past a bit more. If you don’t mention her, she will still find out, but she might be more inclined to flirt you if she senses you want to move on from your wife. It’s a very well used mechanic that makes sure the plot remains intact no matter the playthrough you employ.
Aside from the disappointing ending, “Firewatch” is an incredible journey. Campo Santo has proven that gameplay can be used as a tool to carry a story and not the other way around. The choices the player makes serve to expand upon the exquisite story and will force a full emotional commitment in order to really understand where these characters are coming from. It is the definition of a “walking simulator” but it is arguably one of the strongest candidates to what the future of video game story telling might hold. A game where player choice is merely a suggestion and the true authorship of the developer can come into play. A true work of art.
- A beautifully acted, emotional story.
- Unique conversation mechanics.
- Focused, and imaginative storytelling.
- The ending fell a bit flat.
- Most of the gameplay is scripted.
- Very short.