I seem to be lately drawn to video games that allow me to create a unique experienced based on the social interactions I choose; games like Until Dawn and Oxenfree, for example. I wasn’t expecting that in Firewatch, the debut release from San Francisco-based indie developer Campo Santo, but I was pleasantly surprised by the level of control we’re given over our character, and witnessing how real-to-life the situation felt, down to deliberating for a second too long about which response to make, and, in turn, answering with silence. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but Firewatch sucked me in from the get-go.
The last couple games I’ve played and loved — Until Dawn and Oxenfree – both had towers in them. What does Firewatch have? A tower. ‘Nuff said.
The first three things you should know are: Firewatch is a single-player, first-person exploration game, where you play as Henry, a man in self-imposed exile in the Wyoming wilderness after taking a summer job as a fire lookout. Firewatch is the first game from Campo Santo, a studio founded by Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, the creative leads from Telltale Games’ award-winning The Walking Dead, as well as Nels Anderson of Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja and graphic designer Olly Moss of these awesome gaming prints. And finally, Firewatch more than lives up to the promise of all this combined talent with gorgeous visuals, flawless voice acting and a gripping story.
The beginning of Firewatch reminded me a lot of Pixar’s Up; It starts with a very novel-esque approach, the game’s backstory unfolding on the screen through text, as is seen above. When the words are red, it means you can choose a response that shapes the story. As I clicked through my decisions, and more and more terrible things began to happen, my heart sunk deeper. I wasn’t expecting such a beginning to a game centered around isolation. Consider me hooked, and more emotional than I’d like to admit. Okay, I just admitted it.
Throughout this beginning story, we help Henry meet and fall in love. Many times, only one decision was offered, but in those moments where two–or heaven forbid, more–options were available, I hesitated. Do you pick the helpless beagle your fiancé wants, or convince her the tough, but lovable, larger dog is better? And how does that change their future together?
With each decision, I couldn’t help but wonder, was I ruining this once blossoming relationship, sending it spiraling out of control? And I am still left wondering, because those beginning scenes – even if they were just words on a screen set to musical instrumentals – took me on an emotional rollercoaster. I’ll have to play through again to see if my decisions change the outcome, but the genius behind this segment is, it becomes the reason why you’ve chosen to take a job in a remote forest, living in isolation in a fire lookout tower in middle of Shoshone National Forest.
As far as gameplay mechanics go, it bore many similarities to Gone Home: you can pick up objects, inspect them, sometimes even interact with them (I kept that bottle of whiskey for myself). Some objects, sights or sounds will trigger dialogue options. You also have a map and compass to guide you through the park which, though not large still manages to be dense. I’ll admit, I got lost one too many times. This forced me to re-learn how to use a compass to navigate through unknown territory.
Given Firewatch required a lot of walking – and backtracking as the mystery unfolds – I do wish there was a little more flexibility in where you could navigate to. Sure, you have an open national park to explore, but being unable to walk through even the sparsest of shrubbery frustrated me. I want open world to be open world! But I understand the limitations, and that’s why this didn’t ruin the beauty of Firewatch for me.
The most appealing, terrifying and beautiful part of the gameplay, though, was the walkie-talkie, connecting you to Delilah, your supervisor and fellow Forest Service lookout who guides you though the game. Delilah becomes your one lifeline while playing, and her sailor-esque vocabulary and dry sense of humor do help at times. But, somehow, her voice crackling over the radio makes those eery moments just a little tenser, a little scarier.
I wouldn’t classify Firewatch as a horror or thriller game, but there are some genuinely scary moments, rooted in the realism that, yes, this could happen; and, yes, I would be utterly terrified if it happened to me. I had to stop playing in the dead of night when I stumbled upon the vandalism of my lookout tower—my home—and I no longer felt safe.
No more spoilers from my end regarding the plot, because I think it’s especially important in these types of games to know as little as possible before playing. They have that cinematic-feel, and no one likes when the ending to their favorite movie is spoiled. Speaking of, Bruce Willis is a ghost. Just saying.
Firewatch sits solidly in the mystery genre, an unexpected gem amongst that transforms into something I’ve never experienced before in one of these social interaction games. I’m excited to see more and more developers jumping on this fantastic bandwagon to create games like this for us. And that’s not to say I don’t like games like Far Cry 4, Bloodborne, or even the now ancient Skyrim. It’s just nice to see a change. And Firewatch is a very good change, indeed.
Firewatch is currently available on Steam and Playstation 4 and I’ve heard it may come to Xbox One, so cross your fingers.
A 2016 Favorite
Gameplay - 8.5/10
Design - 10/10
Controls - 8/10
Even though it's only February, I can say with confidence that it'll take a lot for a game to dethrone Firewatch as my favorite of the year. If you're a fan of the titles I mentioned, do yourself a favor and add Firewatch to your PS4 or Steam library. #JustDoIt