Hands On: Firewatch

If you’ve already seen the Firewatch [official site] footage Alec posted last week, then you’ve seen what I’ve played. (Sort of. It’s hard to imagine how someone could have played it quite so weirdly, missing out almost all of the best lines, ignoring lots of the things to do). Of course, watching and playing are rarely the same experience. And this is already something pretty special to play.

Henry is a middle aged man, his marriage coming to an end, his life not where he wants it to be. Deciding to get away to the wilderness of Wyoming for a few months, he takes a job as a fire lookout for the park ranger. He’s certainly an atypical game character, his chubby cartoon hands still sporting his wedding ring, his movement calm and sober.

The demo picks up about 45 minutes into the game, with Henry sent off by his boss, Delilah, to investigate who is setting off fireworks in the park. And as you may have seen, he discovers not just an open fire, empty beer cans, and a bottle of whiskey, but also two sets of underwear. There are some teenagers skinny dipping, and Henry is already uncomfortable.

What becomes immediately apparent is that Firewatch is really, in the truest sense, an adventure game. It’s reason to exist is to tell you a story, but to go to great lengths to ensure that your experience of that story is your own. There’s no doubt this is a project led by the writer of the original series of Telltale’s The Walking Dead adventures. However, it’s also a first-person game, with running, climbing, exploring. As the game progresses (set over the course of a few months, jumping forward in chunks of time at various key points), the area you’re able to explore grows larger. In fact, the developers draw comparisons with Metroidvania formats, deliberately showing you areas you cannot yet reach, then later equipping you with what you need to get there. Except here its not morphball modes, but rather some strong rope, or a missing key to a caged section in a cave, that allows expansion.

What struck me most, as I was immediately absorbed into the wonderful banter between the two leads, was that my primary method of interaction was the radio. Rather than “looking” at objects to learn about them, here Henry radios Delilah to report them. Find the beer bottles and you can call in to discuss them. Spot a pair of discarded undies and it can lead to a gloriously uncomfortable conversation about Henry’s use of the word “panties”. Or it can not. You can not report things, walk past, keep quiet.

This extends to conversations too. When you’re given a choice of dialogue, you’re always also given the choice to keep quiet. And that has as much of a narrative impact on how you experience your relationship with your boss as anything else. Staying quiet sends a message.

In fact, you can even walk straight past narrative points. The two skinny dipping girls – if you wanted, you could walk Henry right past them, ignoring their drunken naughtiness, and getting on with finding your way back to your lookout tower. The game will notice, the girls will react to some odd chap in the distance, walking away. Or you can be extremely nice to them, pathetically nice. Or, as I imagine most will be tempted to, pick up their stereo and throw it in the lake. That sure gets a reaction.

The reason so many options exist is because Campo Santo are spending a lot of time putting the unfinished game in front of people, and watching how they play. People kept throwing the stereo in the lake, so now that’s a thing. But others think Henry is far more likely to politely place it back on the rock, and calmly scold the distant figures. I did both, after a rather fortunate bug in this early build allowed me a chance to restart and behave far more how I thought Henry might. In fact, you apparently could even pick up their litter, bring it down to the lake, and just start throwing it toward them. There’s a reaction for that too.

That’s a lot of work for something they’re happy to let you just walk past. That’s splendid. It’ll be very interesting to see how far reaching such freedom becomes in the full game.

Campo Santo weren’t quite clear on how much impact these choices will have on the narrative arc. There’s certainly no doubt they’re intending to tell their story, and how you experience it isn’t going to open up fourteen different endings, etc. But it’s still not clear how much your relationship with Delilah, say, is impacted by your tone throughout. Of course, let’s all remember to look in the mirror and remind ourselves: how we experience each micro-moment of a story, based on how we play it, is our variation on a narrative, no matter how linear the arcing script might be. Our own reactions and feelings are our unique experience. It’s a long mantra, but it’s always worth repeating.

The art is clearly superb, the thick, bold cartoon style presenting a timeless prettiness. And it’s outshone by the voice acting, which is as natural and smart as anything I can remember in anything I’ve played. I’m not exaggerating. This is as good as I’ve ever heard voice acting, the banter feeling spontaneous and genuine, personality so exquisitely exposed in minimal lines and tone. If the script can keep it up, can keep delivering as much pathos and humour as in this half hour demo, then my goodness, what a thing this could be.

We shall find out, I’m told, this year. They’re cagey on exactly when this year, but hopefully before it turns cold again. It was agonising when the demo ended – I desperately wanted to play more. I wanted to know what happens next! Despite the fact that, looking back, what had happened so far was so relatively mundane. It was the strength of the characters, and the wonderful sense of place, that made me not want to have to leave.

37 Comments

  1. Skeletor68 says:

    I can’t wait for this. Chris Remo’s launch trailer track is sweet. Looking forward to the Idle Thumbs references too.

  2. Silith321 says:

    I’m really looking forward to this one – it looks lovely! Great to hear it’ll be out sometime this year, somehow I didn’t expect it until 2016, dunno why. :)

  3. padger says:

    Pretty much expecting this to be GOTY.

    I mean I am HOPING that Witcher 3 will fill that slot, but…

    • padger says:

      Also: damn I am in love with single-player games at the moment. After years of MP focus I just feel like, well, I need time alone with my Steam library.

      • M3GA says:

        My feelings exactly mate. I’ve been playing Dying Light recently. No MP. No “Be the Zombie” mode. Just a full-on killer SP experience!

        • padger says:

          Looks like I am getting Dying Light this weekend, then.

          (And this is why RPS is the only games site I still read.)

      • Synesthesia says:

        Amen brother. Ditto on dying light. I bit the bullet and bought it at 45 dollars from gmg, can’t unglue myself from the monitor. Tried MP, hated it, continued hopping about Harram.

        Every female zombie wears a bikini though, so that’s… something.

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          Harlander says:

          Every female zombie wears a bikini though, so that’s… something.

          Forget it, man. It’s Techland…. town.

        • mattlambertson says:

          Well, thank you for your service in confirming for me that I definitely have no interest in this game ;)

  4. thedosbox says:

    Add me to the chorus of those wanting to play this.

  5. Lars Westergren says:

    Sounds fantastic. So glad I backed this.

    • elderman says:

      There was crowdfunding for Firewatch ?

      • Ross Angus says:

        Now I feel guilty. These folk need my money.

      • OctoStepdad says:

        I don’t think so?

        but anyways they have a store on the campo santo website with shirts/prints if your looking to support them.

        • Lars Westergren says:

          Doh! I must have confused them with some other project. Tjis may be an indication I have backed too many Kickstarters.

          Ok, I will be very happy to buy it when it is released then.

  6. udat says:

    I was very much interested in this after the last post, so quite pleased to hear it will be along later this year.

    The voice acting is great. does anyone know who plays Henry? It’s maddeningly familiar…

  7. gbrading says:

    High on my list of games I want to play this year. Great stuff.

  8. Morcane says:

    Oh come on, shut up and take my money.

  9. Donjo says:

    CAN’T

  10. Shazbut says:

    Tremendous. I hope it ends up being more “adventure” and less “walking simulator”. Can’t wait

  11. Synesthesia says:

    Oh yes. This one is high on my list too. Gimme gimme.

  12. Martel says:

    This looks beautiful, and will probably force me to actually rent one of those damn firewatch towers for camping at some point. Hmm….maybe I should get on the waiting lists now just in case.

  13. _fool says:

    I’m wearing my Firewatch shirt proudly!

  14. OctoStepdad says:

    This is my most anticipated game and I can’t believe its coming out this year!

  15. RagingLion says:

    I’m so confident about this turning out great and up my street that I’m going on at least partial media blackout about this now (decided not to watch that gaemplay footage past the first minute).

    I can see this being a game I point people to who hardly ever game but are curious.

  16. zapatapon says:

    I was already 100% sold on this halfway long Alec’s article. Now what does John’s article make me?

  17. Alex says:

    This year?!?! I’ve been beyond stoked to play this game for so long. I try not to get my expectations up unrealistically high, but everything about it and everything I read about it just reinforces my notion that it will be precisely my cup of tea and excellently executed.

  18. April March says:

    How strange that walking simulators seem to be the genre that best picked up the immersive sim torch.

  19. Urthman says:

    I expect this to be great for the same reason that the games of Tom Francis are great. Both Tom and the Idle Thumbs crew have been talking for a long time about what they think makes games good or bad. They are smart, insightful, and value the same sorts of things I enjoy in games. If they merely manage to avoid all the dumb things they’ve complained about in other games, their game will be at least fairly good.

    See also Big Robot and Erik Wolpaw & Chet Faliszek. I guess I’m saying that the game writers I’ve loved the best have a pretty good track record of making games I like when they try to make one.

    • robotslave says:

      Unlike Tom Francis, the Idle Thumbses (apart from Danielle, who is not involved with Firewatch) are all veteran game developers; at this late date they’re more game devs who have a podcast than journalists who are making a game.

      And while Chet and Erik have worked on some good games, I’d happily erase those games from history in exchange for ten years worth of critical writing from them.

  20. soundsofscience says:

    I thought this looked really promising until I watched the beginning of the playthrough on IGN. Something about the choice to make the female lead snarky and combative for no immediately apparent reason, combined with the awkward naked, drunk “teens” bit… but I don’t know, quick impression.