Lately, it seems like everyone has been talking about indie darling, Firewatch. Well, if you expected for me not to, sorry to burst your bubble. I’m joining the masses here. I’d heard a lot of praise for Firewatch, but I’d managed to avoid basically all the spoilers! Go me! As such, I really wasn’t sure what to expect other than it was supposed to be O-M-G AMAZEBALLS!, how-dare-you! sad, and so short that some jerkwads decided the cool thing to do would be race through the game so that they could beat it and get a refund on Steam. I wasn’t disappointed.
Gameplay & Visuals
This is one of my favorite types of games to play – one with little to no learning curve. You walk around, you push some action buttons, voila! Things happen! If I had to be nitpicky about something, I’d say it’s the limited time to respond to your in-game boss, and only human interaction in the whole game, Delilah. I didn’t realize at first that I only had a finite amount of time to answer her, and as such missed out on the first opportunity to answer one of her questions. The game is unforgiving in this, too. It doesn’t care if you’re opening a cache or climbing some rocks when she talks to you. If you don’t answer before the tiny time bar runs out, you’re out of luck. I feel like this resulted in picking some answers that I didn’t feel 100% committed to, but I’ve heard the argument made that this lends to the realism of the game. Okay, sure, I could see that. And anyway, it isn’t a deal breaker for me. A little annoying at times, sure, but in the grand scheme, it’s no big deal.
Every review I’ve ever read of this game tells you to play with the function that shows you where you are on the map turned off. Yeah, okay, that lends further to the realism, but seriously? Yeah, I didn’t do that, nor am I likely to in future replays (unless I just get that damn good). My sense of direction is bad enough that even with that turned off, I still spent plenty of time lost as hell. I get lost in real life with my GPS on, and you expect me to navigate some fictional wilderness? Ha! That’s cute! However, the option does exist for those of you who are more directionally competent than I (read: about 98% of the rest of the world).
The game is beautiful, in it’s own right. It is by no means crafted to look realistic, but instead sort of cartoon-y (or as I heard one person describe it, sort of like a Pixar film). None of that detracts from how apparent it is that a lot of love and hard work went into crafting this. Looking back on the screenshots I took from my game, I’m struck again by just how pretty it actually is. There were moments when I would just stop walking in game and pan the camera around so that I could take in all the details. The game completely plays into this, as well, by providing you with an in-game camera for you to shoot some pictures of your trip into the wilds. If you get the PC version, you can even get those pictures developed in real life. I’m actually fairly sad that I didn’t take advantage of this game mechanic more. It’s clever and fits right in with the feel of the game. Alas, just as I do in real life, I was far too busy actually doing to take the time to stop and take a picture until the thought came too late.
For the most part, the game was pretty seamless. I never ran into any super glitchy moments. No screen tears, no freezing, no jumping. However, whenever I’d open a cache that had a letter in it, when I closed the cache back up, that letter would just be floating in the air. It’s a small complaint in an otherwise flawlessly executed design, but it still irked me enough to mention.
Story, Characters, & Atmosphere
I’m going to actually go ahead and say I find this story ingenious. The player gets a hand in shaping Henry’s backstory, which, I think, makes the end result even sadder. You basically get to decide how attached he is to certain things, and how those things affect him. And then there’s Delilah. I love Delilah in the way I love all characters who have complex layers and leave you guessing up until the very end. I was never quite sure if she was on my side or not. I wanted to trust her, but there was always that voice in the back of my mind whispering caution.
The isolation you feel in the game is astounding. With Delilah as your only real point of human interaction (barring some drunk buttholes towards the start of the game), it’s easy to fall into the feeling of slowly losing your mind. Isolation of the kind Henry experiences in Firewatch can drive people insane, and I spent a fair portion of the game wondering if that was just what was happening.
It was so insanely easy to become completely immersed in this game. It had moments that made me laugh, made me cry, and utterly creeped me out. At one point, the happenings of the game had me so on edge that when nature sounds started coming from outside my window, I started looking around suspiciously like shit was actually going to happen in real life. I promptly rolled my eyes at myself, of course, but the point remains that this game completely drew me in. Every feeling Henry felt, I felt, as well. I absolutely had to find out what was happening, and I had no want to put the game down. Which, I actually didn’t. I beat it all in one sitting, and it took about 4.5 hours. At no point have I ever felt like that was too short or a waste of my money or like I got cheated out of something. The game is as long as it needs to be, and I think it flawlessly executes exactly what it set out to say.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this game. However, I was at first kind of selective in who I recommended it to. It seemed like something special and delicate that I was sure not everyone would get. Honestly, I still feel that way. If story driven games without much action are by no means an interest to you, feel free to skip this. You’re missing out on an amazing story if you do, but some people feel no remorse over that and that’s fine. I’ll also be honest and say that the absolute love took probably thirty minutes to set in.
Upon reaching the end of the game, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I just kind of sat there. I felt sucker punched for sure. Sad. Maybe even a little let down. Ultimately, I felt lost. All of that, the tension, the feelings, the journey, it culminated in that? It was too realistic, hit too close to home. What was even the meaning of it all? (What was the meaning of life?) Slowly, that feeling morphed into such utter sadness over the events I had uncovered. I had to actually sit down. Yep, I had caught all the feelings.
Once the sadness finally abated, it registered that I absolutely loved this game! Even a week later, I can’t get this game or it’s story and characters out of my head. This is a game that mirrors the trials and tribulations of real life, if maybe in a bit of an exaggerated scenario. But all the pitfalls we face as people? All the paranoia and avoidance and thirst for adventure? It’s all there. Ultimately, I believe this game is a character study, and it’s a damn enjoyable one!
Now that all my emotions about my playthrough have finally settled some, I do look forward to playing again. While the outcome won’t change, the style in which I play the game can, and I find that exciting. I played Henry as rational and kind, maybe it’s time to be a total d-bag!
I tip my metaphorical hat to you, Campo Santo. This is one of those stories that will stick with me for a very, very long time, of that, I am sure.