I will just come out and say it. Firewatch is a truly brilliant game. I have played many games that have been lauded for their story and character development, but few have managed to deliver in the same way Firewatch does in the few hours that I spent with it, and my only complaint is that I couldn’t spend a few more hours soaking up the immersive world developers Campo Santo have created.
You play as Henry, a first time fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest over the course of the Summer in 1989. Upon arrival at your firetower, you are quickly introduced to the games other main character, Delilah, who is never seen, only heard via walkie-talkie, available throughout the majority of the game by simply pressing a button. So much of the stories leg work is done this way that I would be amiss to fail to mention the games excellent voice over work – within the first hour of playing Firewatch I truly cared about Henry and the relationship that was developing between him and Delilah and how I was allowed to influence that through the course of the game. For instance, at certain points during conversations you are presented with a choice of response, which are timed in keeping with a true conversation, and rarely do I ever deliberate as often as I did here. Do I want Henry to be honest and open, or evasive and closed when Delilah asks him about his life that he has left behind?
The game establishes these characters so quickly that I had a clear idea about Henry and how I felt he would respond in the situations he finds himself in over the course of the game, and during certain key points during his interaction with Delilah I truly did care about the way the conversation went, wondering how it would impact upon the story later on.
The game plays out over the Summer as you explore your surroundings within the forest. Each section of the game takes place over a few days over the course of the summer, and I started to compare Firewatch to a good book, with each section playing out like its chapters, which felt even more apt as the story progressed. Gameplay is pretty standard navigation, walking around the park, often assigned tasks via radio from Delilah, but free to explore as you please for the majority of the story.
In the game you have in your possession a map, that can be brought up and viewed at any point, and located within your area of the park are cache boxes that Henry can open containing various items placed by previous Fire Wardens throughout their time at Shoshone (a subplot that can be explored depending on how many of these boxes you discover) and a map of the immediate vicinity, which Henry can quickly copy down any relevant notes, adding them to your map for future reference. Such a small detail, but everything here is absolutely spot on, from the whisper of paper as you pull your map out to the scratch of the pencil as you copy down the notes, you can’t help but get pulled into the world that Campo Santo have created.
Wondering off on your own can be fruitful insomuch as you get to learn the lay of the land without constant need for checking the map all the time to see where you need to go next, but the map itself, by which I mean the area in that you are allowed to explore, is so meticulously crafted that you will not get any where you aren’t supposed to too early on in the story. Deadfalls and cliffs are the main obstacle to prevent over eager exploration, but as the days tick by you find certain items that can help you circumnavigate these barriers, all the while the story ticking along in the background gathers pace. I found my focus very quickly shifted from exploring and admiring the landscape to hitting the objectives via the cache boxes as the story gathered pace.
So much of this review has been about how quickly I cared about Henry and Delilah and how immersed I became in the gameworld of Firewatch, but I have purposefully tried to omit any story details I can; my reasoning being that so much of what happens during the game is about discovery, I would hate to reveal too much in a review of what is a truly unique and poignant experience that takes anything away from anyone else playing it. Should you play Firewatch? Absolutely. Immediately after I had finished my playthrough I sat down with my girlfriend and encouraged her to pick it up and play it as a non-gamer to try and share the experience I had, in a “look – this is the reason I love video games” kind of way.
So much of what Firewatch manages to do in an incredibly quick and precise manner are so many of the reasons why I love video games as a medium to entertain, be it a story that hums along and quickly develops, to the characters whose decisions I feel I have a true impact over and truly cared for, even down to the simple and non-intrusive HUD as I explored a beautiful to look at and atmospheric world, which all serve to help you live in this little slice of the Shoshone Forest over the summer of ’89. My biggest complaint is that Firewatch leaves you wanting more, but isn’t that how all great games end?
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