Firewatch (2016) Thoughts

I first heard about Firewatch about two years ago when I saw this incredible trailer. Wilderness, a beautiful art style, and a job I’ve always wondered about. Well… I spent some time on the internet looking into how to reserve a lookout tower atop a mountain.

Firewatch is gorgeous. It’s not as open-world as it looks to be, but the world the developers have modeled is an absolute joy to experience. You won’t go climbing up every rock face, or make your way up all those mountain, but every vista in every direction is a spectacle.  The lighting, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon, make the Wyoming wilderness look as sweet as candy. The cartoony, Pixar-esque look to the graphics is a huge selling point here. Ford Motors even went as far as straight- up stealing the official art for a recent promotion.

firewatch tower

Even the navigation feels immersive in the opening parts of the game. You’re given a map and a compass. No on-screen mini-map to constantly refer to. You can hold the map + compass combo, and not see anything or move quickly. You can hold just the compass, and move slowly. Or you can run, without the aid of either. Eventually, due to the amount of backtracking you’ll do, you’ll only need a quick look at the map, and a glance at the compass before heading out.

You play as Henry. The game begins with sweeping statements like these. You meet a woman in a bar in Colorado. She becomes your wife. You don’t have kids. You get a dog instead. You make a few small, cutesy decisions about the life you’ve made together. You cannot prevent your inevitable separation due to her worsening dementia.

Firewatch intro

This sequence works very well as an opening to a game. The narrative is quickly established and I found myself wrapped up in the game immediately. The game alternates between the text and short sections of arriving at the trailhead and hiking to the lookout tower. It’s a poignant introduction and explains well why Henry has taken this job in the middle of nowhere.

Many people seem to hate the “illusion of choice” presented by narratively-driven, adventure games, particularly from entries by Telltale Games. Firewatch, particularly in the introductory sequence, suffers the same problem. Campo Santo, the game’s developer, is largely made up of former game designers from Telltale and Double Fine. They choose to bypass the “illusion of choice” problem by NOT presenting the game as “tailored”. It’s a story that the player is meant to experience, not necessarily impact.

telltale splash

The characters are well-crafted, too. Henry and Delilah (his supervisor) have nicknames for each other. They share inside jokes. They tell secrets and stories. Later on, Delilah becomes a literal lifeline for Henry. The voice acting is memorable and effusive. And these two will never meet. All of their conversations happen over the radio.

But here’s where I found my first problem. Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us present main characters to whom I could relate. In The Walking Dead, Lee was tasked with protecting a little girl. The Wolf Among Us’s Bigby is a sheriff tasked with investigating a series of murders. Maybe the biggest problem is purpose; your character needs something to accomplish. Too often, Henry’s purpose isn’t a purpose. It’s a reaction. “That’s strange” or “That makes me worried.” The direction set by the intro indicates one thing (you’ve become a fire lookout) and the game dictates another (someone is stalking you).

Delilah begins as a friendly, disembodied companion, but doubts about her intentions and her personal history are disclosed very quickly. Your dialogue choices as Henry are probably best categorized as “flirty”, “friendly”, and “distanced”. I ended up picking the “distanced” option much of the time, and I don’t think that meshed well with the game. I feel like one of the themes of the game is about relationships and “being there”. Henry has distanced himself from Julia, his wife, and her dementia. Delilah has a long-term boyfriend, but the game implies she is an absentee alcoholic who sleeps around. It’s no mistake that Henry and Delilah spend the entirety of the game talking to one another and never meet.

But I wonder if constantly picking the “distanced” option wasn’t what Campo Santo intended. My Henry stayed devoted to Julia and ignored Delilah’s many flirtatious advances. She pressed on, however, and it made it creepy more than anything. Henry may need to move on with his life, but he joined the lookout to process his guilt and grief. Delilah never seemed genuinely interested in his healing.

I think the actual mystery itself didn’t pay off in any sort of significant way. I spent the first half or so intrigued, but once it became clear that the mystery was about Ned and Brian (the previous lookout and his son, my interest was lost. I get it, being alone and being monitored by someone is scary. Being attacked by an unknown assailant is scary. But there’s a damn wildfire to worry about, too. And you’re the damn fire lookout.

Firewatch is probably not a game that I’ll play again any time soon. It’s not resonating with me in any of the ways that DONTNOD’s Life Is Strange or Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us did. It’s short; only about four hours. If I do go back, it’ll likely to be PrintScreen myself some new desktop wallpaper. Firewatch is beautiful. It plays well. It deals with some heavy themes, and I don’t relate to them unfortunately. Despite all the criticism I’ve levied towards Firewatch, I’m still looking forward to Campo Santo’s next game.

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