Start Date: May 2, 2016
End Date: May 9, 2016
Firewatch opens with a brief text-based narrative segment which introduces us to our main character Henry. Henry’s wife has developed early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and eventually moves to Australia to be taken care of by her family. Distraught and in need of isolation, Henry takes a job as a fire lookout in a national park in Wyoming. That’s where our story begins.
Henry’s homebase is his lookout tower, which is chock full of interesting tidbits which provide details about Henry’s personal life, as well as the remote forest that is now his home.
Firewatch‘s narrative takes place over the span of an entire summer season, and Henry’s only connection to the rest of humanity during this time is Delilah, a ranger at another, distant lookout tower, with whom he communicates via walkie-talkie. Delilah acts as both a Navi-esque tutorial character for the player, as well as a means by which we can learn more about Henry, as they get to know each other. And though the characters have never actually met, their relationship quickly becomes familiar, flirtatious and pretty damn intimate.
At first your missions involve the normal duties of a firewatch ranger. You are tasked with checking on downed power lines, extinguishing neglected campfires, that sort of thing. As you perform these tasks, you begin to learn your way around the game’s forest setting, which is both beautiful and intimidating.
Intimidating because Firewatch lacks the typical hand-holding devices that can usually be found in video games. If you’re looking for a big on-screen arrow directing you towards your destination, you’re out of luck. The only navigational tools at your disposal are a compass and a map, both of which have to be actively held up and looked at.
This is a great system, just complicated enough to appropriately emulate the feel of a city slicker roaming around the woods for the first time. And while the initial areas in close proximity to your lookout tower quickly become old hat, as your missions eventually take you deeper and deeper into the woods, that feeling of disorientation never quite disappears completely. Nor should it.
After a period of performing mundane tasks, eventually Henry starts experiencing strange occurrences, and a larger mystery emerges. Mysteries require investigation, of course, and sleuthing this shit out becomes the crux of gameplay.
Firewatch is primarily a story-driven exploration game, with no combat of any kind, and very little in the way of puzzles. In fact that one time the game makes an attempt at a clever puzzle, it totally fucks it up. Delilah wants you to visit a certain location, but for fear of eavesdroppers, she doesn’t want to say that location out loud. So she gives you a little hint regarding a chart on the wall…
…and a spot on the map which corresponds with one of the trees listed on the chart. It’s an extremely simple little puzzle, but I still thought it was clever and felt a bit of satisfaction figuring it out. However, as soon as you pull away from the poster, a prompt appears on the screen reading “GO TO (THE LOCATION)” and completely spelling it out for you. In a game which usually gives the player a lot of leeway in figuring shit out for themselves, this was an annoying little misstep.
At the end of the game, there are two plot threads which need to be wrapped up: the mysteriously mysterious mystery that’s been going on, as well as the long-distance relationship between Henry and Delilah. I’m sorry to say that the way the former concludes is pretty damn lame. Listen, I wouldn’t have minded a mundane, every-day explanation for this mystery – it would fall in line with Firewatch‘s grounded storytelling style. I also wouldn’t have minded an insane last-minute twist that came completely out of left field. But the revelation here somehow manages to be both boring and completely implausible It should be one or the other, guys! One or the other!
On the other hand, I loved the conclusion to the personal story between Henry and Delilah. I won’t give anything away but, in my opinion, it wrapped up just the way it should have.
Overall, Firewatch was a very pleasant, almost serene experience. The emotional personal story was very effective and the mystery was intriguing up until the doofy ending. I understand that not everyone has the tolerance for these kinds of slow-paced, actionless “walking simulators,” but if you’re into them, you probably can’t do much better than this.