Firewatch is a story about vulnerability.
Set during the summer of 1989 in the midst of Wyoming’s Shoshone National Park, aging protagonist Henry has escaped the city to take a job as a fire lookout. The deep solitude of the wilderness that surrounds him is an imposing setting, matters not helped by the distinct feeling that he’s being watched — a concern that turns out to hold water when, after scolding some drunken skinny-dippers, Henry returns to his watchtower to find it ransacked and his typewriter hurled through the window.
It’s a strong set-up for a mystery, but it is Firewatch’s prologue, however, that happens to be most effective in setting up the overarching theme. The start of the game sees you guiding Henry on his long hike from the parking lot to his station in the middle of the woods, with fragments of his trek cut up into bite-sized chunks. These chunks are punctuated by short visual novel segments, usually just a sentence or two, that take us back to 1975 to tell the story of Henry’s burgeoning romance with his eventual wife, Julia. Sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic, sometimes just mundane, these segments always feel very human and true to life.
And yet, you can’t shake the pervasive dread that surrounds the text: If Julia and Henry share a happy life together, why is Henry alone in the wilderness? You can feel that a tragedy is imminent, and it’s one that manages to hit pretty hard as its subject is rarely tackled within interactive fiction. Hard as it hits, it’s far from a cheap shot: it’s realistic, which makes the couple’s ordeal all the more frightening. You’re offered a handful of choices on how you, as Henry, choose to cope with the situation, but there’s no “good” outcome: Eventually Henry breaks from the strain, which brings us back to present day as he starts his new job as far from his former life as possible. He’s at his lowest and most vulnerable, and you’re right there with him.
Firewatch takes the form of a first-person adventure in which you guide Henry through his daily routine on lookout. Technically, Henry’s not completely alone in his new role, as his not-quite-supervisor Delilah, a friendly, if not overly forward woman, is always on the other end of his walkie-talkie to teach the ins and outs of his job. Just like Henry, Delilah’s got some issues of her own, and you’re given the opportunity to choose your tone with her via timed dialogue choices. How you interact with Delilah shapes the pair’s relationship throughout the game, and your correspondence can run the gamut from passive-aggression, to snarky friendship or perhaps even romantic interest. Of course, you may want to question whether or not Delilah can be trusted…
Although Firewatch gives the impression of being in the midst of a wide forest, in actuality the game’s environs are somewhat linear, as natural barriers and obstacles keep you on the path to-and-fro your objectives. The area eventually widens as you’re given climbing ropes, and later anchors, that allow you to rappel down cliff faces that previously limited your movement. That’s not to say there’s no room for exploration; you’re often allowed off the beaten path to hunt down a number of supply boxes which tell a subplot about some of the lookouts who came before Henry, or you can wander to just take in the sights.
And the sights are quite beautiful indeed; Firewatch’s graphics feature a unique minimal aesthetic that, combined with the game’s vivid color palettes, give off a low-poly feel that oozes style. Henry’s tower (and the game’s promotional art) contain a number of 1970s-style low-detail/high-contrast PSA posters about woodland safety, and it’s a nice touch that Firewatch’s world looks like one of these posters come to life. The game’s soundtrack is effectively moody using deep synth pads, but licensed artist Cheap Talk steals the show with their song “Push Play,” an intensely listenable faux-italo disco track that sounds convincingly like a lost Bobby Orlando project. The credits are accompanied by blues legend Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which was a nice note to go out on.
Navigating Firewatch’s stretch of the Shoshone is an enjoyable and immersive experience due to the game’s lack of HUD (head’s-up display). No mini-map or navigation icons here: Henry’s equipped with a paper map and compass to find his way around. It’s a very nice stylistic touch that heightens the immersion, and although your map has a marker that shows your current position, this can be turned off in the options menu if you prefer the feeling of really roughing it. It’s a simple twist on a game map and one that, outside of Far Cry 2, is painfully underutilized within the medium.
The interplay between Delilah and Henry, played expertly by Cissy Jones and Rich Sommer respectively, is Firewatch’s greatest triumph. Jones and Sommer have excellent rapport and their back-and-forth is flawlessly directed, with some dialogue sounding so natural that it appears ad-libbed. Firewatch boasts some of the best voice-acting in the video game industry, and Campo Santo deserve a pat on the back for just how effectively they pulled it off. It’s truly surprising just how many variations on dialogue there are in the game; I finished the game twice with different choices, and although the final outcome was the same, each playthrough’s script was largely unique. Another thing I loved was how Henry’s just an everyday schlub in his mid-40s; overweight, bearded and a bit exasperated with life. It’s precisely his everydayness that makes him an atypical video game protagonist, and Delilah’s sarcastic and teasing nature makes her a perfect foil.
Some people have complained that the PS4 version of Firewatch suffers from technical issues, and while there is the occasional framerate hiccup here and there, I had very few problems and I’ve seen much worse performance from some of its contemporaries. Obviously, if you have a high-end PC that’s probably the best way to go, but PS4 users are in for a solid experience.
Henry and Delilah’s journey to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding them is a compelling ride filled with intrigue and paranoia, so it’s unfortunate that Firewatch doesn’t quite stick the ending. Various plot threads tie up a little too quickly, ending with a whimper instead of a bang. The ending’s not that bad, just a little plain, and subsequent playthroughs are still enjoyable as they cast certain pieces of evidence in a new light. Each playthrough takes around 4-5 hours, and the wide variety of dialogue choices mean it’s possible to have a very different experience the second or even third time through. It’s often the journey that matters more than the destination, and Firewatch’s journey is one worth taking.