Camp Santo’s Firewatch was released last year to relatively high acclaim. It garnered a strong following for an indie release and it won two BAFTA Games Awards last week. And it’s a relatively simple premise. One that I am admittedly late to — but one that I am still compelled to share my thoughts about.
Firewatch is a first-person adventure, gravitating around a fire-lookout working in a Shoshone National Park. Prefaced by a troubled family life — the everyman ‘Henry’ moves to escape his past — only to find things are not as they seem.
Throughout the game, the player interacts with the forest in the classic point-and-click format and reports his findings to his faceless supervisor, Delilah, via a ham-radio. But as paranoia blossoms, the player invariably finds themselves caught amongst something of a conspiracy. Suddenly, perusing this lush and inviting environment becomes increasingly tense and puzzling. And with only Delilah on the radio for company, the player is bound to isolation.
The game itself opens with a interactive text segment — allowing the player choose minor details to their backstory. Whilst this is not representative of the main drift, the gameplay is defined by its simplicity. It has more akin with those forms of text puzzles, that add weight and consequence to decisions, rather than anything technologically complex. In fact, the gameplay itself borrows a lot from other titles. It has the context-less meandering of Myst — where the player interacts with items and tries to make sense of their surroundings off the back of this. Players can unlock supply caches and stumble upon the remnants of previous Rangers. These photographs, notes and memos add more tangibility to the world than anything particularly rewarding. They are not used, for example, in the Far Cry or Tomb Raider sense to unlock greater prizes, but rather they offer humorous, non-essential supplements.
But as the story unravelles, this method works increasingly well. The heart of Firewatch is precisely this nonchalant attitude. That it defies certain conventions because it’s striving for something a little more human. Threats are introduced with a confused back-and-forth with Delilah rather than a dramatic cinematic. Supply caches are locked under the same ‘1-2-3-4’ code because, naturally, look-outs always forget the sequence. There are even items — namely books — that have absolutely no hidden meaning or relevance to the game. They add a normality to proceedings that is strangely refreshing. All those years of Broken Sword had me looking for secret keys in pinecones that were literally just part of the foliage. Whether or not this is fun, is a little more contentious. But the dialogue exchanges with Delilah typifies this well. It’s certainly the game’s strength: adding a wonderful humorous facet that offsets the lonelier or more tedious objectives. Backtracking across the forest is more palatable with her small talk and quirky jabs. And as the game gets increasingly darker; as does our relationship with Delilah. Making our trust part of the emerging struggle.
Of course, for such a narrative heavy title, there is some overarching expectation regarding its pay off. With a well paced but short running time, the extent Firewatch makes for a satisfying ride its a little less clear. Indeed, the game opens with some rather heavy, personal topics — but it does little to tie up the loose ends of both Henry and what he finds in the forest. And there is a fair but of misleading throughout the middle that some may find underwhelming. But on reflection, Firewatch isn’t really about the conspiracy within the National Park. It’s not really about Henry or Delilah’s past, either. It’s about their cynicism. How this experience and bonding changes their outlook on life. To some extent, it’s also about how the player can learn from that. Even the central mystery of the game — the nerdy Brian Goodwin and his militaristic father — injects some sweet overtones about personality, youth and what constitutes for good character. I actually found the experience immensely bitter-sweet. The photographs during the end credits were especially striking; blending player expression with linearity. (No spoilers!)
All the same, Firewatch is wrapped up in a charming art-style that really lends to its premise. It marries this character driven adventure with a simplistic, oversaturated design. Although I found an underwhelming graphical performance on the Xbox One — as always — with considerable frame-rate lag when sprinting — it served its purpose perfectly. This design brings a timeless to this adventure along with some rather memorable views, too. Its soundtrack is equally as understated –– with bass guitar segments driving tension over soothing piano chords. It solidifies both the thematic tones of this ‘tranquil paranoia’ along with its modest production values.
Ultimately, Firewatch is a touching experience. It’s a game about people and how people can be. Good, bad and that murky middle ground. It plays on memory, love and loss but it’s surprisingly funny, too. And for a title that I had no real expectation for –– it captivated me immeasurably. It stayed on my mind in between play sessions and I expect it will continue to do so, for time to come.