Firewatch (Xbox One Review)
Well, it’s taken a while, but between the release of Jonathan Blow’s The Witness and Campo Santo’s Firewatch, September has finally presented Xbox One owners with the opportunity to experience two of the more talked-about games from the first half of the year. You can read Rhys Thom’s excellent review of Blow’s latest mind-bender here, but I’m looking at Campo Santo’s contemplative take on the “walking simulator”. And what a take it is.
You play Henry, a middle-aged man who takes a summer job as a National Forest fire lookout to escape a complicated domestic situation. The single constant Henry has in the job is his relationship – conducted purely through walkie-talkie communication – with Delilah, a veteran lookout who provides counsel and friendship, as he comes to terms with the job, some strange incidents within the forest, and major decisions in his life at home.
Firewatch is essentially a first-person exploration game. Set in 1989, there’s no GPS, no Google Maps, so navigation relies on a paper map and a compass, Miasmata-style. Throughout the park are supply caches with maps that allow you to mark new routes and points of interest, and traversal of some of these areas will rely on the uses of ropes to rappel down or climb up steep inclines.
Having to travel around in this way – no fast travel available here, folks – is made infinitely more pleasant by just how lovely the environments Campo Santo have created are. More often than not tinged by the ochre glow of sunset or sunrise, Shoshone National Forest’s locales add to the sense of solitude and melancholia the game looks to create, supported ably by a fairly stark, minimalist soundtrack. In some cases, this even lends a game a hint of creepiness and discomfort, the kind you’d normally associate with the likes of Slender and Amnesia, even though it’s not that kind of game. (Worth noting – this version of Firewatch also contains a newly-added free roam mode, allowing you to explore the park at your own leisure. A nice wee bonus.)
However, the backbone of Firewatch, and what makes it such a standout title, is the exceptional dialogue, written by Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin (they of TellTale’s The Walking Dead fame), Chris Remo and Olly Moss. The problem in many games with branching dialogue trees is that it often feels stilted. There is no such issue with Firewatch, which approaches Stanley Parable-esque levels of making you feel like every single conversational possibility is catered for, but doing so in a way that feels utterly natural.
As a result, your relationship with Delilah plays off the way you’d expect a real relationship with a real human being to develop. Act coldly or even harshly towards her, and she’ll reciprocate in kind. Likewise, if you open up to her on your home issues, and she’ll tell you of her failed relationships. This, in turn affects your interactions later in the game, when things start to take a turn for the worse as the underlying story begins to reveal itself.
As for that story? Well, let’s put it this way. Never before has a game’s major story reveal made me say “oh, f*** off” through genuine emotion. It delivered genuine gut punches on more than one occasion and in ways that the Modern Warfare trilogy could only have dreamed of nailing. I’ll say no more, because you really should experience it for yourself with a fresh pair of eyes, but I defy you not to feel something…anything.
I knew within five minutes that Firewatch was special. And, whilst the game itself isn’t mechanically perfect, it didn’t have to be. By the end of it, it had emotionally affected me in a way that perhaps no other game has. I felt sorrow, guilt, hope, apprehension, connection, anger and just about everything in-between. When a game still has you contemplating exactly what it meant to you, several days after you’ve finished it, then it has done the most important thing correctly. I implore you to play this game.
Editor’s note: This post was written by none other than Andy Manson, you can find his work on various sites ranging from Playboy to InsertDisc. If you want to pester him about his choices or show your support for his work, you can find him on Twitter under @PsychTyson.