“Ol’ Shoshone, where the sky is blue and the teens are nude.” The dulcet tones of Delilah ring over the radio as Henry treks through Shoshone National Forest. It’s 1989, and Henry is running away. Delilah is Henry’s boss, your sole source of human contact for the summer and even then, only over a small handheld radio.
The game actually begins in a prologue way back in 1975 where you’re told the story of Henry’s past through text-based ‘slides’. Each slide gives a brief glance into Henry’s life leading up to ‘present day’. Starting out in a bar – just as Henry did – you’ll meet his now-wife Julia, and as with most slides, you’ll get to make a decision. In this case, you get to choose which words you drunkenly slur in her general direction. “It’s a good job you’re cute, Henry.” Julia drives Henry nuts, they date for a while, drink beer together, and when Julia wants a dog, you get to choose which lovable mutt you take home. A beautiful piano piece plays over the introduction as you plot your path, your relationship with Julia. It’s an uplifting start that falls away, things go wrong between the two and Henry ends up taking the isolated job of Firewatch.
Initially, I was put off a little bit by the text introduction. I think I have this hangover from reading about a gazillion books – I’ve formed this preconception that prologues can be lazy, I’d much rather have details revealed to me, intertwined throughout the story. However, upon reflection, I think the introduction – especially with the decisions and how they play out in the narrative later – will find a special place in my heart. It’s actually very well written, and you soon forget you’re just reading text as you learn more about Henry and Julia. And while I’ve left behind any problems I may have initially had, the scope of an indie project probably played a big part of how the prologue was approached which is understandable.
During the prologue, you’re introduced to the impossibly beautiful world of Firewatch, a world illustrated by Olly Moss. There’s a cartoonish, hand-drawn quality to Firewatch which we rarely see in video games, you’re basically walking through an Olly Moss painting and with the magnificent use of lighting and shadows, you’re looking at one of the most beautiful games released this year. As the game progresses, you experience the outdoors in all sorts of different manners. Sunset bathes Shoshone in an orange glow, night time scenes are lit by a bright moon whilst wildfire will show the forest in yet another beautiful light. Ol’ Shoshone is a truly stunning place to run away.
There’s so much that we love about Firewatch but what stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest is the quality of the writing, Firewatch feels like a benchmark in story-telling. Video games have come an awful long way in that respect but Firewatch kicks it up a notch thanks to the relationship of Henry and Delilah. Backed by terrific voice-acting, both characters are deeply flawed yet relatable and, perhaps most importantly, believable. There’s much hidden in Delilah’s past and you’ll uncover some of her history but – and this is a common theme in Firewatch – you won’t be given all of the answers. Firewatch drip-feeds information your way but ultimately, leaves you hanging. There are simply somethings that you’ll never know and it’s not only in these situations where Firewatch steps away from mainstream gaming tropes. Nothing is given to you on a plate, even down to traversing the lush forest.
Henry is given a compass and a map right from the off, there’s no fast travel here and that compass will quickly become your best friend (well, after Delilah, maybe). It’s a lite hiking-simulator, you won’t be counting your steps but reading the map and making use of the compass is important if you don’t want to end up heading down the wrong path. Throughout the game you’ll find supply chaches, most hold a map of the immediate area inside. It’s a clever way to help you extend your map and figure out what is where. There’s nothing particularly difficult about doing all of this but what we liked most is that it felt like a more grown up way to handle navigation. It’s also largely through this method that you’ll be encouraged to explore the forest. There isn’t tons to do in Firewatch but every area has it’s own items of interest which open up more mysteries and dialogue options with Delilah. It’s through these moments that you’ll figure out how much you missed out on. Whilst talking to Liam, we both had plenty of different stories and moments that the other hadn’t experienced. This discovery of other dialogue that has yet to be experienced, is something that will make me go back and try other areas of the dialogue trees.
But at it’s heart Firewatch is a mystery, and as the plot unfolds, you’ll realise that you’re not quite as isolated as you feel. An early run in with two fun-loving teenagers sets a small fire at the base of the story that gradually grows as you run into a mysterious figure stood watching you on a nearby rock. Henry and Delilah really made the game for us but what kept us hooked was the very mystery surrounding you. In a relatively short game such as Firewatch, and with such a story, pacing is oh-so important. And crucially, Firewatch never feels slow, never rushed, never over dramatic, Campo Santo have perfected the art of video-game story-telling.
That’s not all. Humour is such a hard thing to get right but Campo Santo hit a sweet spot. The witty and sarcastic nature of both Henry and Delilah is relentless but it works. The game is full of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments which never feel forced. It put me in the mind of Tales from the Borderlands, relentless with the jokes but for the most part, they hit the right note. Firewatch takes it up another level, it’s execution sublime.
We also found beauty in the details – sometimes it’s the little things that stand out. Whether you’re treading on a Metallica reference, finding a picture of yourself based on what you’ve told Delilah, a sign falling down after banging on a gate angrily, or a map diagram of magnetic declination, Firewatch is packed full of them.
Early on in the game, you’ll also find a disposable camera with a neat little tie-in (if you’re playing on a PC). The camera gives you 18 shots which you can take at any point in the game. We’d been given the heads-up about this feature which allows you to get a set of 6×4 photos printed and sent to you in a fancy Firewatch envelope. And because we’d been given the heads-up, I was initially a little hesitant to use up my shots, you know, just in case something beautiful happened and I’d run out. 18? Yeah, it’s enough. I’ll be ending up with 7 slightly different shots of the same forest because of my penurious ways. Rabble, rabble, rabble!
Firewatch isn’t entirely without it’s problems. What I mentioned as a strength above, namely the fact that you aren’t told all of the answers, is also in some cases, a negative. Without delving too deep in to the story, there are some things that don’t quite add up. A couple of things in the plot have been weighing on Liam’s mind especially, a couple of things that we can’t quite join up – although this is one we’ll be playing again so there may be answers that we’ve glossed over. Beyond these issues, Liam ran into a few issues on the PS4 – a few frame rate drops and general graphical glitches but nothing to get upset about. On the PC, I noticed some blocky shadows that only render when you get really up-close-and-personal. We’re scraping the barrel here.
On another note, Firewatch is driven by it’s narrative and outside of it, there really isn’t much to do. If it takes your fancy, you’ll explore the forest and find those small details we talked about, maybe learn a bit more about both Henry and Delilah but that’s about it. From our perspective, the game doesn’t suffer much from this but some gamers may find disappointment in it.
Firewatch is a beautifully executed story of isolation, friendship, and finding oneself. A game, nay, a story, that treats you like an adult whilst dealing with serious issues. A benchmark in video-game story-telling, Firewatch will remain with us for some time.