What makes a person take a job that isolates them from society for months at a time? This question is asked, rather pointedly, moments into your first taste of the melancholic and thoughtful world of Firewatch, the debut game from Campo Santo.
As the player you already know the real answer, of course. A rather beautiful opening sequence takes you through a series of key events in the life of your character, Henry, in a style reminiscent of a Twine game. It’s a brave and unusual opening, from a brave and unusual game, and remarkably effective. Almost immediately a bond is formed with Henry, as brief snippets of text fade into view, accompanied by music and appropriate ambient sound effects. It’s one of the strongest openings I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and it’s hard not to feel moved as Henry’s touching back story reveals itself.
The meat of the game concerns Henry taking a job as a fire lookout in a national park in Wyoming, an apparently real job that entails living alone in a tower and staring out of the window for 3 months looking out for fires or fire hazards. It’s lonely and quiet work, which gives the player a lot of time for wondering off on their own, exploring their surroundings and enjoying stunning views of the environment around them.
The game also gets good value out of its central conceit. It’s your first day on the job, which lets your boss handle a lot of tutorial dialogue without it seeming strange or forced. The game slowly reveals itself in a very natural and comfortable way, gradually unfurling your primary means of interaction and establishing a tone and setting that really get under your skin. The wilds of Wyoming are truly beautiful, with just enough sense of wilderness to reinforce the isolated sense of loneliness and exposure that the game delivers so well.
Of course, it goes with saying that visually this game is stunning! Many games have offered the user a camera to record their favourite moments for posterity, but Firewatch is probably the most natural home this mechanic has ever found. It’s hard to walk twenty steps in this glorious environment without something wonderful, some new vista that triggers an irresistible urge to start snapping away, and each foray out into the wilderness that the game sends you on seems to take place at a different time of day, shifting the lighting and the tone to breathe new life into familiar territory.
Also of note is some pitch perfect sound design, with sparing but beautifully placed snatches of haunting music, and a meticulously detailed soundscape that immerses the player perfectly into the world around them. Meticulous attention to detail is present at every turn, as footstep sounds match the terrain perfectly, wooden beams creak in the wind and birdsong intensifies at dawn and dusk.
Mechanically there is a passing whiff of “Metroidvania” to the core game mechanics, as the player slowly gathers up a number of new tools, some of which provide new interaction options with the world. Additionally the player’s own familiarity with their surrounding grants them greater range of movement, as they learn new cut-throughs and short-cuts to assist their navigation of what initially seems an overwhelmingly confusing and large area of land, but quickly becomes very manageable. Some of the later tools seem somewhat under-utilised, with one in particular only seeming to really be used once in the entire game, but still they provide a useful sense of progression and add to the player’s feeling of growing mastery over the world around them.
After the first few early jaunts into the surrounding landscape, that function as much as an extended tutorial as anything else, a proper narrative thread emerges, and the player is plunged into an intriguing mystery. The story is paced well, and delivered excellent through some truly stand-out writing and voice acting, but still I found myself wishing I could just have carried on as a forest ranger doing mundane tasks for a little longer. The urgency that the story adds to proceedings is wonderfully executed, and surely this sense of my paradise being shattered is part of the intention of the writer, but I still resented the way it constricted my options. It feels like the game loses some of its early freedom at this point, as the player is railroaded slightly into moving from event to event.
Nevertheless, the plot is a strong one, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering how everything was going to resolve itself. In fact, Firewatch was cruising to “classic” status in my mind right up until the final few minutes, when frustratingly all the intrigue and confusion of the central storyline just burned away to nothing. Several new locations seem to pass in a blur and the story ends abruptly in a disappointing denouement that manages to be both implausible and unsatisfyingly mundane. Several loose ends are left hanging in this finale, which after the excellent writing that characterised most of the game makes me genuinely wonder if the developers simply ran out of money and had to rush out a slightly different ending to the one they had initially planned.
However, despite this profoundly disappointing destination, the journey through Firewatch remains a pretty remarkable experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone on the fence. I would have happily just worked as a lookout for another 3 months of game time without any narrative popping up at all, just chilling out in the canyon, enjoying the back and forth banter with Delilah, stomping out the occasional campfire and picking up litter for the entire time. That’s surely a mark of how successful this game is as an example of world-building. Fittingly, like the conflagrations you are supposed to be preventing, Firewatch ends in a bit of a mess, but while it burns, it’s really rather beautiful.
Firewatch was reviewed with a download code of the PC edition, provided by Campo Santo