Another week, another review beckons. In keeping with the nature theme from last week I’ve decided to review another title set in the great outdoors. It doesn’t get more ‘great outdoors’ than the graphically gorgeous and picturesque Firewatch.
Firewatch is the debut title from independent American developer Campo Santo, and is set in the Shoshone National Park in Wyoming during the 1980s. I remember it coming out in 2016, and in trying to find out a little more about it I checked out some teaser stills to get a sense of the environment. Something about the art style struck me as rather familiar; a little more digging and I find that it bears a quite striking resemblance to the old-school US National Park advertisements from the 1920s/30s. No idea if this was intentional or not on the part of the developers but either way, it works. Evokes those clichéd images of simpler times, boy scouts and fences coated with fine, lead-based paint.
Anyway, enough nostalgia. The story centres on new fire lookout Henry, who has taken this isolated position in the wild to get some breathing space from his complicated personal life back home. His only human interaction is via walkie-talkie with his boss, Delilah. As he goes about his duties however, he begins to realize that something sinister is occurring in the wilderness around him…
The game starts off with a series of text-based choices which serves to help shape a little of Henry’s backstory. These choices are interspersed with snippets of his journey towards his new job/home in the Shoshone forest. It’s a nice mechanism; past and present meshed together in one tidy opening sequence. The backstory can be reasonably defined as follows: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy marries girl, life is great for boy and girl, life sours a little for boy and girl, girl’s health deteriorates, boy screws up, girl’s parents take girl away, boy needs to escape to the country. Yes, you can influence the events marginally through your choices but the paths more or less run parallel, and end in the same place. That’s absolutely fine though, it’s less about carving out your own personal history and more about trying to draw you into the story. In this, I think it succeeds spectacularly. By the time the game’s title screen rolls up, I feel completely invested in the story.
The next thing I notice (it’s pretty hard not to) is the art quality. The environment is gorgeous. From the texture of leaves and grass, the magnificent views from my tower and across canyons, as well as the sound of the wind rushing its way through trees, you soak in everything and feel completely immersed in your surroundings. Like tasting wine, you appreciate the subtle complexities: dancing shadows, the erratic paths of random flying insects, and the motes of dust dancing in the breeze.
I love the logistics behind using the radio. True to the mechanics of using an actual radio, you have to hold down your key input/controller button to talk (or in this case, choose a dialogue option). I think this is a wonderful touch from the developers, it’s very easy to imagine you’re using a real radio which just adds to the immersion factor.
From the moment I pick up the radio and start talking to the boss, Delilah, it becomes very clear very quickly that these two are going to have quite a jokey, affable relationship. It doesn’t take long for the banter to start, and they establish a witty back-and-forth. The dialogue is brilliantly written, and on reflecting back on the game, I think this is Firewatch’s greatest strength.
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead – Skip to Final Thoughts to avoid]
The story has me gripped from Day 1. The first task is to deal with a pair of teenage girls who thought it was a good idea to let off fireworks in the middle of a forest during the hottest part of the year, when the risk of fire is higher than a marijuana advocate on April 20th. Making my way back to my tower at twilight (whilst telling myself “Screw those girls, I know I’m not a pervert”) I come across a creepy figure in the half-darkness, who shines a light in my face and disappears. Slight unease turns to mild panic when it transpires that someone has visited the lookout tower. The music becomes suspenseful as I make my way up the stairs to find the place trashed by person(s) unknown. Something ominous is going down.
From there on, everything serves to build an accumulating sense of mystery and intrigue. We soon stumble across the belongings of the former fire watcher, Ned, and his young son Brian. Through conversations with Delilah, Ned was apparently a bit of a douche, but Delilah got on well with Brian, though she had to keep his presence in the Park a secret as watchers were not supposed to bring their family members. For whatever reason, they left suddenly and Delilah never heard from them again.
The proverbial excrement now really starts to hit the fan. The firework girls are reported missing, and wanting protect Henry (we were the last person to see them), Delilah falsifies reports and says neither she nor Henry saw them. A deep sense of foreboding clings to me like a second skin. This is going to look so bad if it comes out. But I think the most spine-tingling moment in the entire game is when I come across a clipboard with transcripts of conversations between me and Delilah. Moments later, I get knocked out unexpectedly, and when I come to, the clipboard is gone. I feel a litany of emotions: fear, panic, outrage, but most importantly: burning curiosity. Who the hell has been listening to us?! And why?! Next, there’s a secret government research area which Delilah somehow knew nothing about. When it goes up in smoke and sets off a huge forest fire, incriminating evidence implicating Henry is left on the lookout door. Every new revelation keeps driving the mystery harder and harder into my psyche; it plays like a thriller novel you have to read in one sitting.
In the interest of keeping this review readable in under a day, I’m going to fast forward to the end. Turns out Ned is behind all these shenanigans. His son, Brian, died in a climbing accident in one of the caves, and Ned wanted to scare Henry away so he never found out. Coming across Brian’s diminutive, mummified corpse was honestly pretty heartbreaking, stirring childhood memories of Mufasa and the mothers of Bambi and Littlefoot (no childhood trauma there whatsoever). In the end, the fire at the research station has spread to the point where the fire watchers need to leave. The last sequence, where I’m finding my way through the vast, dense cloud of smoke to the evacuation point at Delilah’s lookout is powerful and poignant. But the last emotion I feel when boarding the rescue helicopter is confusion as to why Delilah decided to leave on the previous transport, rather than wait for me. This is Henry’s 79th day as a fire watcher, about 2½ months. In all that time, Henry and Delilah have never met face-to-face, it’s all been radio. And these guys bonded, they went through some crap together. Why would she not want to finally see the guy she’d been talking to all that time? This is the part that really baffles me.
Throughout 95% of the game, the building tension is executed masterfully, only to fall slightly short at the end. I’m not sure I understand Ned’s motivations for staying behind in the forest his son died in, intimidating and warding off people close to discovering the truth. He could have just moved on and nobody would be any the wiser. I also really, really don’t understand Delilah at the end. There was no reason not to wait for Henry and leave together. It stirs up the tiny little conspiracy theorist in me. I’m half tempted to think the whole thing is a psychological experiment in which Henry is the test subject, with the aim of discovering the effects of extreme isolation and stress on the human mind. You never see another face throughout the entire game, and there’s that research station, which ostensibly is just for wildlife observation, but who knows. I don’t mind if a game finishes with more questions than answers, but the answers have to be a bit more fulfilling.
There’s lots to love about Firewatch. The unique art style is slicker than three coats of paint on a 1971 Mustang Mach 1, and some of the views of the Park are breathtaking, especially at night. The building intrigue is addictive and thoroughly gripping. The dialogue between Henry and Delilah is superbly written, made all the more impressive by some fantastic voice acting performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. I just wish there was a slightly more credible ending. It’s hard to accept the choices Ned and Delilah made, given what we discovered about them during the course of the game. It was like watching Colonel Sanders advertising fried chicken for years, then finding out he’s actually more of a taco guy. That’s the sense I got.
At £14.99 on the Steam store, it feels a little pricey for the 4-6 hours (depending on play style) you expect to gain from it. But value for money increased dramatically when the developer introduced ‘Thorofare Free Roam’ mode, where you can just walk and explore the wilderness with no storyline or goals to distract you from the stunning beauty of your surroundings. I tried it, it’s pretty sweet. Stick the game in your wishlist, wait for it to go on sale, and reap the rewards for your patience.
Letter Grade: B-
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