Firewatch (2016)

Firewatch is a great example of what is sometimes derisively referred to as a “walking simulator”. The focus is on experiencing its linear story from a first-person perspective, and it’s an experience well worth having.

Josho Brouwers

Firewatch is a beautiful game, developed by Campo Santo. It’s a bit hard to describe what it is exactly. It’s a first-person game, but you never hold a gun and you don’t have to kill anyone. Some have called it a “walking simulator”, based on other games that are similar to it, but I think that’s selling the game a bit short (although you do end up walking around a lot). On Steam, where you can (and should) buy the game, one of the tags that users have added to describe it include ‘adventure’, but that too is a bit unsatisfactory: you don’t really have to solve any puzzles, for example.

Over on the Quarter to Three website, Tom Chick wrote a review in which he said the game really ought to have been a movie. That’s not an unfair thing to say, since the game is a more or less linear story wrapped inside a first-person game, set inside a beautifully rendered American park. You take control of Henry, who is troubled and volunteered to be a lookout in the park, manning one of the towers there. As Henry, you strike up a friendship with Delilah, who is occupying another tower at the north end of the park.

The game would be nothing without the excellent voice acting provided by Rich Sommers (whom you may remember as Henry Crane on the television show Mad Men) and Cissy Jones. The actors’ performance is excellence and you really feel like you get to know these characters over the course of the four hours or so that it takes to play the game to its conclusion. It certainly helps that the game is well written. At the start, text fills in Henry’s backstory and you get to make a few choices along the way to shape his background a bit. It’s well written and poignant in places. The dialogue is natural, organic. The actors respond to each other without any of the obvious pauses that ruins the pacing in so many other, lesser games.

The game succeeds in building a great atmosphere, both visually and narratively.

Less obvious but equally great are the sound design and the music. The latter is subtle for the most part; you’ll probably barely notice it’s there until you’ve hit the final stages of the game, when it builds to the end. It’s a testament to the confidence of the designers that they didn’t feel the need to end the game in any obvious manner; despite what’s going on with the forest around you, the ending is understated and introverted. The sounds of nature permeate the game throughout; the rustling of leaves, the quaking of ducks, the water slowly lapping at the edge of a lake. And when there is a need to creep you out, the sound design changes subtly to make you feel like you’re being followed or watched.

Aside from the voice acting and the sound, the visuals deserve special mention. Developed by a small, independent studio, the creators wisely chose not to aim for photo realism, opting instead for a stylized look to the world. Fog effects ensure that the image on screen seems to fade into solid colours the further away objects are located in the background. There is nearly always a dominant colour on the screen, ensuring that each screenshot you take is as crisp and as well balanced as a carefully designed poster depicting a slice of American wilderness. It’s deceptively beautiful, in fact, hiding a deep, human ugliness that is at the core of the myserty that you try to unravel as you go through the game.

But I don’t want to say too much about the story for fear of spoiling it. The story is key to Firewatch. Indeed, the story is the game. You’ll walk around, climb or rappel up and down ledges and cliffs, pick up items, and so forth, but those things are hardly the point of the game. The game is really about a broken man who tries to run away from his life, seeking shelter in the wilderness and striking up friendship with a woman he’s never seen (and who, fortunately, remains unseen throughout the game). The story touches on themes such as regret, loneliness, parenthood, and more that you really have to see for yourself.

Despite the great visuals, the story is clearly the main draw in Firewatch.

Firewatch is a beautiful experience, even if it’s not much of a game. However, I disagree with Tom Chick’s assessment that it would have worked just as well as a movie. In the game, you are Henry. You listen to the radio. You respond. You climb up a ledge. You shine a light on a lost shoe. You take a picture. And in the end, you are the one who finishes the story, one way or another. You live inside Henry’s head; everything he experiences, you do too. You see the world through Henry’s eyes. That makes Firewatch a much more personal experience than a movie would have been; not necessarily better, but certainly very different. And playing through the story, in this case, seems better than merely watching things unfold.

In any case, Firewatch is a great game. It’s been getting positive reviews for the most part, and deservedly so. It looks fantastic. The voice acting and writing is great. The sound design and the music complement the experience well. It works as a video game in the sense that it provides an experience unique to the medium. I thoroughly recommend you check it out.