Firewatch is a beautiful game, not because of those vivid graphics, but because of the story it tells. The game, more of a walking sim meets interactive narrative, kicks off with on-screen text – and so begins the tale of you and Julia.
Anyone who’s ever read a choose-your-own-adventure book will be comfortable here, as you make a series of choices that determine how your life together evolves: Compliment Julia or decline, choose a beagle or a German Shepherd, have kids or hold off… These choices allow you to emotionally connect with characters and story, and feel as if this relationship is your relationship; you are Henry and you’ve always loved Julia. The language used is simple and effective – much like the striking art style, with its bold colours and thick shadows (art so good, even Ford ripped it off to advertise cars).
But there’s trouble in paradise, and when Julia gets a job out of state, and begins suffering from early onset dementia, you know you’re heading down a darker path than that sun-soaked art design might imply. Once this prologue ends, you’ll be in familiar gameplay territory, as you hike through Wyoming’s gorgeous Shoshone National Forest on your way to your firewatch lookout post. As Delilah, your ranger boss who communicates with you entirely over the radio, says: People only take this job if they’re running away from something.
Now you’re going to uncover what that ‘something’ is.
Here’s where Firewatch seriously rivals other interactive stories such as Virginia. Rather than playing out like a movie in which the gamer is almost entirely passive, the game expertly uses the platform to its advantage; rather than challenging the limitations of the format as Virginia did, Firewatch embraces them. In short, a video game is the perfect medium to tell Firewatch‘s tale. Because choice defines a video game, and choice forms a large part of the game’s mechanics. In that sense, the game plays like an RPG, as you completely inhabit your role, deciding how to respond in various conversations and situations. And it feels natural, like a first-person Telltale game, that allows you to take apparently total control over your life. Or Henry’s life. Same thing, really.
The game’s missions begin in typical fetch-quest fashion. You’re a ranger keeping the wilderness safe from fires during a sticky, hot summer, so you’ll be hunting down campers with fireworks, rappelling down the rocky landscape to check on downed power-lines, cleaning up after drunken visitors and searching cache boxes, it’s that sort of wild life for you. And that’s all dandy, until you realise you’re being watched by a mysterious figure – it starts subtly enough, but just like every mystery in Firewatch, it’s a slow burner (forgive the pun), a drip-feed that slowly ratchets up to the sucker-punch.
Elsewhere, as you progress, you’ll spend a whole lot of time exploring new areas with your trusty map and compass. It may not be a GTA-style mega-sized world, but still the stunningly tranquil national park is a playground that somehow feels so much bigger than it really is, or has any right to be. The game doesn’t exactly hold your hand here, either, and if you take a wrong turn, that’s your problem, pal – and that’s pretty freeing too, the ‘choice’ theme defining even this aspect.
Don’t get us wrong – Firewatch isn’t flawless. Occasionally, when interacting with items, your crosshairs need to be in precisely the right spot for it to work, but it happened rarely and isn’t too frustrating. We picked up a photo of Henry and Julia, examined it, and as we tried to put it back down on the desk, Henry uncharacteristically ended up hurling it onto the floor. When we tried to climb a rope, it took us several attempts before the button-press registered. That dead-aim precision isn’t the only issue either, as we experienced surprisingly long load times and choppy frame-rates, and occasional freezing during the second act.
But not even those faults can prevent a game like Firewatch from charming you and intriguing you. Take music, for instance. In the main, Firewatch has no ambient music – the dialogue and the visuals do the talking. That makes its use that much more powerful when it does kick in, from the haunting instrumentals when you return to your tower to find it mysteriously ransacked to the soothing plink of guitars as you cross the rocky forest on a beautiful sunny day.
This is a game that lives or dies by its writing. Our reference to Telltale Games wasn’t accidental; Firewatch was written by Sean Vanaman, who also penned The Walking Dead game. That’s a mark of quality, as characters and relationships develop, and the forest’s mysteries, as well as your own past, unfold. Henry, Delilah, Julia, they’re all real and recognisable; they react as you’d react, not macho 2D cut-outs but ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Because everything in Firewatch is designed to create maximum emotional reaction. On that score, it achieves everything, offering not just a slice of real life drama, but a genuinely disturbing mystery to solve. Alone in that forest, you feel vulnerable and relieved to hear Delilah’s voice at the other end of the radio, until the next peculiar incident occurs.
For those left wanting more, you can also play through the game with developer’s commentary, and after completion, you’ll unlock free-roam mode, although given how barren the environment is, we’re not sure how many people will actually choose this. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s your choice, just like everything else in Firewatch.
Firewatch is available now from the Store, priced £15.99.
A slow-burner of a mystery.
Pros: A story that hooks you and barely lets go. Freedom to choose, becoming almost RPG-like in its ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book approach. A devastatingly stunning visual style that threatens to become iconic at any minute.
Cons: Fiddly controls require way too much precision. Frame-rates and freezing can irritate after a while. And if you’re not into talkies, this ain’t the game for you.