Firewatch serves as a prime example of simplicity yielding outstanding results in immersive video games and mature storytelling. It is not an experience of vast interactive gameplay or high-octane action, but instead, delivers an unparalleled narrative touching on themes of friendship, loneliness, paranoia, and self-discovery. It is primarily focused on a lonely man in the midwest as he tries to run from his problems, but instead, experiences something that brings the answers he seeks front and center.
Settling in during the late 1980s in Wyoming after the events of the Yellowstone fires, Henry takes a job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest, after his wife develops early-onset dementia, and is assigned to his own watchtower. Henry’s only means of communcation is a walkie-talkie connecting him to his supervisor, for all intents and purposes, Delilah. As Henry explores the surrounding areas on assignments from his boss, he uncovers clues about mysterious occurrences in the forest that are related to missing persons, vandalism to his watchtower, and a concerning figure watching him in the distance.
Firewatch is made up of essentially a three-part formula: exploration, dialogue choice, and light interactivity. As the story progresses, more areas become available as Henry locates useful equipment to aid in his navigation of the premises, and is able to interact with objects in the game, both integral to the narrative and also seemingly unrelated objects as well. Henry’s communications are primarily with Delilah and a majority of their conversations involve dialogue choice, which will change the development of their relationship as the story carries on.
Within the Shoshone National Forest, there are several different areas to explore, each containing caches to unlock and discover the contents within, most of which contributing to an underlining, secondary story between two former park lookouts, as well as another former fire lookout and his son. The setting of Firewatch is absolutely gorgeous and is a unique art style by developer Campo Santo’s art director, Olly Moss. Inspired by the iconic style of 1960s National Park posters, Firewatch earned critical acclaim for Moss’s graphic style of color and lighting, translating from originally 2D artwork to the game’s 3D environment. It is somewhat reminiscent of the art style in Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange, but remarkably unique in its own right. As Henry navigates the forest with nothing more than a traditional map and compass, he comes across different areas ranging from earthy pines to canyon ravines, streams and ponds, to burned patches from previous wildfires.
Firewatch begins with the idea of Henry taking the watch station job to escape his problems at home, and his job is essentially to follow Delilah’s instructions. She sends Henry out to investigate fireworks in the distance which propels the narrative forward to something seemingly more dark and sinister than one would expect in a traditionally idyllic locale, as conflicts arise and mysteries become conspiracies. Henry and Delilah come to the conclusion that they are being monitored and Henry is being followed every time he sets foot outside of his watch tower. I found myself continuously looking over my shoulder and scanning every area I walked into, waiting to notice someone watching in the distance.
You initially get the illusion of an open world experience, which is somewhat true, but the experience is driven by its well-written script. While you technically have the option to explore around the forest, the events unfolding between Henry and Delilah give such a sense of urgency that you feel compelled to stick to the path set before you in fear of consequences for diverting. It also stems from a remarkable crafting of the relationship between Henry and Delilah which starts off on a memorable foot in that regard alone.
The camaraderie between the two is phenomenal and is only propelled forward by outstanding voice acting and an incredibly well-written script. Henry is immediately presented to the player in what serves as the prologue, which is nothing more than a second-person perspective introduction that asks for decision making in some interesting non-traditional ways in video games. You’re not customizing Henry’s physical appearance, but making decisions that do a bit of definition on his personality and how he reacts to situations, including caring for his sickly wife or choosing a dog to adopt into the family.
Delilah is a smart and responsible woman who initially demands the question of trustworthiness as determined by her communications with Henry. Her personality itself changes frequently; sometimes she is selfish, but then later shows compassion. There are moments of weakness where she’s lonely, but there are other moments where she seems to be doing just fine on her own. Delilah is a very likeable character from the beginning, even if her personality fluctuations cause whiplash. Henry and Delilah are two characters that are so remarkably well-written, they fit together in such a way that illustrates outstanding storytelling in a video game, as their relationship is the overarching tie keeping everything together.
Firewatch does an exceptional job at creating a well-paced story that embodies elements of intrigue that shifts into paranoia as mysteries are brought to light and evidence of borderline third-party voyeurism that creates elements of fear and suspense. Henry and Delilah are two of about five fire lookouts and are suddenly in the possibility of being monitored and followed by unknown persons. Within this seemingly idyllic summer employment in alleged seclusion, the notion of having company in that regard freaks them out and is absolutely creepy.
Campo Santo managed to create a positively magnificent experience that tells a gripping and satisfying story, demanding your consistent attention to the point where continuing on to the end feels more like a natural impulse than a choice. It illicits feelings of necessity to uncover the mysteries going on in the forest and the ending resolution to Henry and Delilah’s summer in the Shoshone National Forest. While the game manages to set a solid stage and build beautifully atop, as the narrative begins to wrap itself to the conclusion, it will no doubt inspire debate and discussion over whether it was truly anticlimactic or simply our expectations were misguided in a classic red herring. Firewatch received critical acclaim and is currently in development to become a feature film, and we expect to hear more information about that soon.
Firewatch is available digitally on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.