A review of the indie game, Firewatch

Campo Santo’s debut game is immersive, but falters in the end

Like other entries in the so-called “walking simulator” genre, Firewatch is a game that’s more about story and characterization than actual gameplay. Featuring a pair of strong, well-developed characters and a stunning wilderness setting, Firewatch creates an atmosphere that’s just as immersive as those found in previous titles in the genre such as Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and Gone Home, albeit this one features just a bit more interactivity than its predecessors. With such a strong environment and set of characters, it’s a shame that Firewatch’s story fails to hold up so well and falls flat by the game’s conclusion.

Set in the remote Wyoming wilderness in 1989, players take control of Henry, a man from Boulder, Colorado who takes a job as a fire lookout for the summer in an effort to escape from his troubles back home. Upon arriving at his own watchtower in the Shoshone National Forest, Henry is contacted via walkie-talkie by another lookout named Delilah, and the two develop a close friendship as the story unfolds.

As the summer progresses and Henry becomes more familiar with his surroundings, he and Delilah begin to uncover clues about mysterious occurrences happening in the area, such as the ransacking of Henry’s tower while he’s out and a shadowy figure who appears to be stalking Henry and Delilah and monitoring their radio conversations. As the summer wears on, the mysterious events continue to become more ominous in nature and Henry and Delilah become increasingly frantic as they attempt to find out who is terrorizing them and why.

Firewatch’s greatest strength lies in its main characters, who may be some of the most well-developed and memorable characters in recent gaming history. Both Rich Sommer (Mad Men, The Devil Wears Prada) and Cissy Jones deliver fantastic performances as Henry and Delilah, respectively, and their interactions never feel forced or fake. It’s a testament to the skill of both the writers and the voice actors that they can create such interesting and complex characters in a game that only clocks in at around five or six hours in length.

As far as story goes, Firewatch’s is one that would be best described as a mystery. While Henry and Delilah attempt to figure out what exactly is going on, their situation becomes ever more tense as their stalker continues to terrorize and harass them with increasingly dark and ominous actions, such as leaving a recording of a potentially incriminating conversation between Henry and Delilah out in the open for them to find.

For the first two thirds of the game, Firewatch does a great job of building up the tension surrounding its mystery, only for it to fizzle out in the last act. When Henry and Delilah finally uncover the truth behind everything that’s been happening, it turns out to be almost painfully obvious and the ending becomes incredibly predictable in the final twenty minutes or so. The building relationship between Henry and Delilah is also never resolved in any kind of satisfying manner, and the characters ultimately just go their separate ways, leaving the ending lackluster and a downright disappointment. It almost feels as if the writers ran out of ideas in the final act and had to scramble to wrap things up in a logical manner. While the rest of Firewatch’s story is engaging and gripping when things get tense, the less-than-satisfying ending and lack of resolution between Henry and Delilah made me question whether the game was worth the time and energy I’d invested in its story and characters, and I’m still not entirely sure whether I really care to ever do a full playthrough of the game again.

Ultimately, Firewatch offers an engaging yet flawed narrative experience that falls just short of the kind of quality offered by its predecessors like the highly acclaimed Gone Home or The Stanley Parable. While it’s questionable as to whether the story or characters of Firewatch are worth the emotional investment they attempt to draw from the player, the game as a whole is certainly worth the $20 price tag and is worth checking out, at least for a single playthrough.

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Scarygami

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