After the first ten minutes of Firewatch, I knew this would be one of my favorite games of the year. In those first few minutes, you live through about 20 years of Henry’s life, and since he’s the guy you’ll play as, it’s one of the most successful ways a game has made me bond with the character I’m playing as. Doing nothing more than reading his story, along with some choosing some dialogue options, I was able to learn exactly who this character is. I was able to become him. Within those first ten minutes, I felt joy, humor, grief, and confusion. I felt like I was in for the ride of my life.
By the time the credits rolled, I knew I was wrong. Firewatch isn’t the ride I expected and didn’t leave as lasting an impression on me as that moving intro did. Firewatch isn’t a bad game. It’s a perfectly good game that stumbles around a bit too much.
The game begins on Henry’s first day as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. It’s clear that he needs to get away from the world and what better way to do that than take a summer job in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but wilderness? Little does Henry know that his stay in the forest will be filled with mystery, tension, and drama. Luckily, he’s not alone thanks to Delilah, his boss that communicates with him through their walkie-talkies. Confined to her own lookout job in another area of the forest, Delilah is only represented through her voice found on the radio the two use to communicate.
This is where Firewatch shines. Henry and Delilah are two phenomenal characters that are not only voiced and acted out perfectly, but the way their relationship changes and evolves is absolutely my favorite part of the game. Throughout your time in the park, the two will constantly chat back and forth and you’re given plenty of options of what to say or not to say to Delilah. Though your choices won’t effect the turnout of the main plot there’s so much nuance and meaning to each choice (okay, maybe not every choice) that as a player, you become closer to both Henry and Delilah. Despite my overall feelings of the game, I actually want to jump back in for another playthrough just to be with these two some more. They feel real. So many games try to make their characters feel real, but when they are surrounded by fantastical situations, sometimes they become not so relatable . Not Henry and Delilah, though; they crack jokes like your best friends, they argue, and they hold things back that leave you only guessing at what’s really going on in their heads. Seriously, bravo Campo Santo on creating these two.
Outside of their interactions, though, the game begins to stumble. Each day you play basically equates to a chapter with their own goals that usually involve going to one spot in the forest, finding something, and then going to another part of the forest. On paper, it’s really simple, but your conversations with Delilah keep things entertaining and once the mystery around what’s happening in the forest gets going, there are definitely some tense moments that keep things from getting completely stale. But ultimately, it does get a bit stale and that’s my biggest problem with Firewatch.
Though Henry takes this job to get away, he literally comes into contact with teenagers on his very first day. Though the scene is actually pretty funny, I felt like the game completely destroys the notion of being alone in the woods. You have no time to feel alone in that respect because no more than Henry gets to his tower, he has Delilah on the line and she’s telling him to chase down some kids. This leads you to begin navigating through the wilderness, if you want to call it that.
The Shoshone National Park is the tidiest park I’ve ever seen. Trails are all over the place and lead you straight to your destination in most cases. Feel like wandering off the beaten path a bit? There’s really no reason to. You won’t find shortcuts, or unique environments, or even wildlife. I noticed in some other people’s playthroughs they found what looked like a raccoon, but I never saw it. I found a turtle though and got to name him. That was pretty awesome. But besides that turtle, the Shoshone National Park just doesn’t feel alive at all. It’s an obstacle to get to the next checkpoint. Yes, there are some beautiful vistas and areas but the majority of the game looks the same and considering you’ll end up walking through certain sections quite a bit, they lose their luster quickly.
I just wanted Firewatch to let me be a part of that world and the game constantly takes that sensation away in order to drive the narrative forward. One perfect example is about halfway through the game. Without spoiling too much, Henry is on his way to go fishing in a lake. You walk towards your destination with fishing pole in hand. Once you get to the lake, though, you can’t fish. You can throw your pole on the ground without any way of picking it back up. So, you know, that’s cool. Why can’t you fish? Well because the game wants you to do something else. I wanted to fish though. I wanted to be alone in the woods with my thoughts and fish. Firewatch doesn’t give you that downtime and some people may like that it drives the narrative forward so quickly, but I feel like it takes away from the experience a bit. Henry, the character we play as, comes to this park to escape but most likely spends a lot of his time reflecting on not only what’s happening in the forest, but in his life. We, as the player, don’t really get that same time to reflect and I think it makes the entire plot feel a bit rushed by the time it’s over.
Henry and Delilah make Firewatch, not the mystery they encounter, and not the navigation through the forest. As you make your way through the simple trails of the Shoshone, you’ll build a relationship with these two the same way they build one with each other. You’ll question their lives and their choices. If you’re like me, that will make you take a look at your own life. That’s what Firewatch is all about. It’s great at that. I just wish it was a bit more fun to play.