Very few games are bona fide stumpers from a criticism standpoint, but Firewatch is the best example we’ve come across in quite some time. Whenever games toy around with player expectations, it automatically shifts the way you look at the entire package. Make no mistake, Firewatch is not a game that will toy with you in the way Undertale or The Witness will. The closest comparison for how Campo Santo has managed to build its mysterious Wyoming solitude simulator would be the way in which Fullbright teased at horror in Gone Home. If you’ve come to Firewatch looking for a game that will absolutely blow your mind, then you’re probably going to walk away disappointed. With that said, Firewatch is nowhere near a disappointment. From its memorable, shockingly human story to its powerful examination into escapism and the idea of being lost, this is one first person experience that you should absolutely indulge in.
There’s one thing that must be addressed before diving into what ultimately makes Firewatch a successful game. If you’re someone who is inherently against narrative-driven first-person experience games (AKA walking simulators), then this is definitely not the game for you. Even though the player character, Henry, can interact with objects in the environment, rappel and use equipment, there is no fast-paced action to speak of. Those who found titles like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture to be less than palatable probably won’t have a great time here. Ordinarily, this is something that goes without saying. After all, if you’re not a fan of shooters or Japanese role-playing games, you probably won’t enjoy shooters or Japanese role-playing games. There’s something divisive about these first-person, narrative-heavy exploration games, and though it’s totally okay to enjoy whatever you like, some really fantastic games are being brushed aside by gamers around the world because of earlier genre entries. Oh, and make no bones about it, Firewatch is absolutely, 100% a video game, and it’s sad to think about this blatant fact being a future point of contention. Of course, we can’t forget that the opposite side of the argument is very quick to christen every first-person experience as the best video game of all time, so both ends of the spectrum have some issues in regards to these games.
With the obligatory grandiose statement on genre debates out of the way, let’s dive into this absolutely rock-solid title. Also, yes, that absolutely was a geology pun, and for good reason. Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a conflicted middle-aged Boulder, Colorado native escaping a horrifying situation by taking a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forrest. Video games have trained us to expect downright ridiculous things about narratives, so the previous sentence might have seemed like a hint at some insane twist. The truth to Henry’s life is actually a tougher pill to swallow, as Firewatch’s earliest moments use brilliantly crafted dialogue options to illustrate how his wife’s life was shattered by Early-onset Alzheimers. You’ll have the ability to influence the path Henry’s life takes through this opening text-based segment, but the destination is always the same. One of the biggest problem with a number of first-person experiences is they remove all sense of humanity from the player. It’s why the aforementioned Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feels like you’re taking the role of a slow-moving camera operator. Firewatch places you right in the mind of a man on the run from an impossibly heartbreaking situation, and this immediately ropes you in and makes you a believer in its tale.
In case you were wondering, that was totally another outdoorsy joke. You know, with the rappelling and all.
Firewatch has three basic hooks to its credit. We’ll dive into its carefully crafted thematic elements and how gorgeous it looks later on, after diving into its bread and butter: the story. Because Firewatch takes place in the middle of a largely empty sect of Wyoming wildnerness, there has to be a strong narrative at play to prevent players from dying of boredom. Sure, on top of everything else it has to offer, this setting is a fantastic change of pace from what we usually see in video games. The thing is, there’s a reason why there aren’t gamers wandering around our National Parks. Because Firewatch features a decidedly human story that constantly hints at something bigger, its setting’s majesty largely plays second fiddle. Much like the most famous second fiddle of all time, Scottie Pippen, Shoshone thrives as a backdrop that’s equal parts beautiful and harrowing. Why is this so important? Well, considering that the entire extent of Henry’s interactions take place over a handheld radio with his supervisor Delilah, herself a fire lookout whose station overlooks our main character’s Two Forks tower.
Firewatch is as appropriate a title for the game as any, considering Henry is tasked with sitting in Two Forks tower and waiting for smoke to appear for the duration of the summer. Being that Firewatch is somewhere around four hours long (though my second playthrough lasted half as long), you’re clearly not going to be playing out three in-game months here. The first and second day are filled with moments for Henry and Delilah to get to know one another while the former seeks out a pair of mischievous teens. There are a number of time jumps along the way, which somewhat cleverly disguise the loading screens between chapters, with the campaign culminating on the final evacuation day. If you’ve paid attention to any of Firewatch‘s pre-release marketing, you’ll know that the entire foundation of its narrative is built around how the relationship between Henry and Delilah changes over time. All of this is accomplished through the use of constant dialogue options, be it for information on the Shoshone, stories of days past or acknowledgement at the strange things that start to happen about halfway through the campaign. Depending on whether you’re receptive to or dismissive of Delilah’s attempts at friendship (and occasionally something more), you’ll receive warmer or colder responses. This is done subtly through alterations in tone, which respects the player’s intelligence far more than flashing messages stating “Delilah will remember that.”
In practice, this makes a second playthrough more enticing. Easily the most confounding aspect of Firewatch‘s story is how it seems like something much larger is afoot at all times, despite the actual content of the story proving otherwise. Obviously there won’t be any direct ending spoilers here, but Firewatch opens up a debate as to why staggeringly human stories are so unexpected in this medium. Campo Santo developed a game that is loaded with tension, despite your character really not encountering another human for what amounts to the entire campaign. That tension, which is inherently caused by the unknown, pulls at you, leading your mind to attempt to make sense of what’s happening in far less realistic ways. Playing through Firewatch a second time showed that there is a really strong, deeply personal story at play that touches on just how scary the unknown is. Sure, some might find the ending a bit disappointing because it doesn’t necessarily have a “Would you kindly?” moment, but Firewatch delivers a gut punch that hits you even harder when you take some time to think about it.
What separates Campo Santo’s first title from so many other games in its genre is how authentic its thematic elements feel. In retrospect, everyone has run away from something they probably shouldn’t have. This is the type of thing we brush aside in our minds, hoping to forget the time where we cast doubt upon the notion of bravery. Firewatch prompts you to think about how scary it is to simultaneously be physically and emotionally lost. Not only will players find themselves wandering around the open Shoshone clutching their maps and compasses hoping for clues (which, in a brilliant design decision, occasionally come from Delilah), but they’ll experience life as a man whose personal life is in shambles. To some Henry is a coward, and that wouldn’t be that ridiculous of an assessment, though that isn’t what’s important here. Firewatch asks us to overcome cowardice in a situation where it often seems like nobody is on your side. Fair warning to all introverts: this game is going to hit particularly hard for you.
On top of all of that wonderful goodness that is Firewatch‘s take on loneliness and escapism, a great deal of the campaign plays around with the idea of trust. Because Delilah changes her tone and responses based on what you decide to make Henry say, the entire course of the campaign can change based on your trust in a faceless voice. While there are not multiple endings that players will have the chance to unlock, your journey towards the ultimate destination changes based on your choices. All of the big story beats remain in place, but Delilah might think a bit different of you if you ignore her, act rash or generally speak coldly. During my first playthrough, my Henry was far more trusting of the mysterious stranger on the other end of the radio, and the result was a heartwarming friendship that blossomed despite zero in-person interaction. The second time through, Firewatch felt like a story about a man who has shut his heart off from the world, which completely shifted the entire mood of the experience. Video games have taught us to expect very binary choices (think Cole vs. Evil Cole in Infamous and Infamous 2), so it’s extremely refreshing to see a game that uses its choices to influence its thematic effect rather than the outcome of the entire story. If games like The Witcher 3 have taught us, choices in this medium are far more powerful when they reside in a morally grey area.
Yes, Firewatch is an emotional game, and a great deal of any review should touch on its impact, but there are also some neat technical aspects to discuss. First and foremost, it’s absolutely drop-dead beautiful. By adding minor cel-shading and some of gaming’s best lighting to a gorgeous rendering of a naturally wondrous area of the world, Campo Santo has created a visual masterpiece. Being able to wander around and interact with an environment that feels this jaw-dropping is nothing short of a treat. The advice here would be to experience Firewatch with a keyboard and mouse, if only so that you can sit closer to your screen and immerse yourself in one of the best looking games in some time. If all of this sounds like an exaggeration, scroll back up and take a look at those screenshots throughout the article one more time. Campo Santo has booked its nomination for dozens of end of the year awards for Firewatch‘s art design, baring the entire gaming world suddenly going blind.
While it doesn’t really move the needle in terms of how good of a game it is, Firewatch has a pretty cool optional feature. About an hour into the campaign, Henry stumbles upon a disposable camera with the majority of its pictures still available. At any point throughout a playthrough, players can snap photos of literally anything they see on screen. After getting to see every photo taken during the credit sequence, PC players have the opportunity to type in their email address in order to upload their photos to Firewatch.camera. By doing this, players will be able to order a package of 4″x 6″ glossy, disposable camera style prints of their in-game photos (like the one below) for an extra $15. Yes, this could be classified as a microtransaction by the truly cynical, but being able to take your experience in-game and post it all over your walls is pretty awesome in the grand scheme of things.
Firewatch is one of those games that you need to take a step back and think about after it’s over. This tense four-hour adventure might lead you to believe it’s going places it never goes, and while some might wish for a grander tale loaded with conspiracy, what’s actually there stands on its own as wonderful. A touching human story sprinkled with player agency, Firewatch succeeds in causing players to consider what it truly means to be alone. Its open-ended exploration and gorgeous visuals force players to get lost and really contemplate how along they really are, despite the voice on the other side of that radio. It’s a bit sad to think that some might be disappointed with how authentically human Firewatch is, perhaps instead hoping for a western thriller that goes all in on conspiracy. This would be, quite literally, missing the forest for the trees, as Firewatch is a joy in and of itself.