RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 21st: Firewatch

Where we are, it’s cold outside right now. So cold that we’re all huddled around the fire, unwilling to explore the winter world. Our Advent Calendar celebrates the best games of 2016 and behind the 21st door you’ll find…

It’s the best use of nature in a game…Firewatch [official site]!

Pip: Apart from Subnautica, I think Firewatch might be my most screenshotted game of 2016. It’s utterly gorgeous. I mean, I got real life photos developed from that game. Not just the ones you can order via the game but my own holiday snaps. I’m working on a new set which I will also get printed out as a result of the free roam mode.

I love being in the world of Firewatch so much that when I finished it the first time I immediately played it through again. It’s a game which gives you breathtaking vistas, sure, but it’s also a game with smaller or more subtle things I would suddenly become aware of.

One such moment which stuck with me is how the colour palette and lighting at one point managed to convey that exact time of day and time of year where a morning starts off clear and cold but you know it’s going to heat up soon and all of that morning chill will be burned away. I remembered wondering whether my character would have decided to put on a jumper to be shed into a backpack later, or whether he was the sort of man to persevere through the chill so as not to need to carry an extra thing later.

The story was a harder thing for me to love – that’s partly because the game kind of revolves around an understandable but not particularly lovable decision. But I liked having a more awkward relationship with the protagonist, in turn making him prickly and awkward towards his radio colleague. His interest in solitude and in escape felt appropriate and I think that his awkwardness and his rough edges actually made me more inclined to try and role play his story.

Brendan: I’m going to be the grump on this one. After reaching the end of Firewatch, I found the whole thing underwhelming. I’m happy that games as a medium are in a place where they can tell a story that is more downbeat than “troubled man with gun gets annoyed”. In that sense, Firewatch and its first-person-story kin like Gone Home are a huge forward step in terms of storytelling for games. But I still think they get too much of a free pass simply for being different.

On its own, the story of Henry as a person didn’t grab me and the ongoing mystery and red herrings of plot began to feel contrived long before the lead character started to pointlessly wonder if “any of this is real”. Everything was a bit jumbled. I loved the setting, the visual style was excellent, and the voice acting was very good. But as far as I could see, it didn’t have a clear message, purpose or theme. It was too busy leading you down one path of thinking, one possible plot, then deciding “no, that’s not the kind of story this is” and sending you down another pathway. Which, far from being some clever reference to being lost in the wilderness, I mostly found to be an aimless and dithering way to tell what ought to have been a simpler tale: “Man goes to the forest to escape personal troubles.” Not: “Man goes to the forest and gets embroiled in what may be a murder mystery or a government conspiracy or his own failing mind or I dunno I guess some story about a kid.”

Graham: But I wanted to be the grump.

OK, fine. Firewatch has some big flaws for, mainly in the unreasonable conclusions its protagonist seems too eager and quick to jump to, but I thought it should be included in the calendar anyway because it does a lot well. Sure, it’s a story game with a story I agree was jumbled, but its pleasures lie elsewhere.

I loved the setting, which is as beautiful as Pip describes. I loved the voice acting, which brought its characters to life even when the script stretched credulity, and I’d happily spend another few hours with your supervisor, Delilah. I also really enjoyed the way the story was delivered, such as the little structural advances over Gone Home, including a talking protagonist and dialogue trees in which silence is an option. Firewatch doesn’t get a free pass for its story, but it does a lot well and a little great.

Alec: Firewatch tried to do far too much, given that all it needed to do was promised in the earliest trailers: a lonely man in a beautiful place, trying to figure stuff out and flirting or not-flirting with an unseen dreamgirl. The murder mystery is needless, the climatic flames’n’choppers finale is a bit rich, but the existence was perfect.

Just being Henry in that place, talking to a woman who may or may not be real (I wish she were not real), making his problems my own, making my problems his.

The essential message of Firewatch, underneath the unnecessary melodrama, is that escape is also avoidance, that running away to live a dream life is a fantasy, not a real possibility. I felt that hammer blow.

To be given this wonderful place, the kind of place that I have dreamed of really escaping to, perhaps even the kind of companion that I have dreamed of having, and to gradually realise that it was not my truth, that it was not going to solve any of my problems – it hurt.

We are all Henry, looking for an answer, lost in the woods. Enjoy the sunset, but sooner or later we all have to come home.

John: Wow what a bunch of whingy-faces you all are. Firewatch is absolutely my goatee, a completely beautiful and wonderful experience from start to finish.

I find it very interesting that the game’s playing with expectations has upset everyone else so much, as if your expectations are untouchable and not to be played with. Firewatch is definitely cheeky with its implications of government conspiracies and even supernatural possibilities, but if anything this speaks equally of Henry’s desire to escape a life of sadness and mundanity as it does of the player’s assumption that a game world can only exist if it’s to provide something spectacular.

I think what Firewatch does better than anything else – better even than its wonderful aesthetic that Pip so excellently celebrates – is have you play as someone else. Sure, games let you be a muscle-clad lady from Mars Station VII, but in the end it’s a power fantasy simulacrum of you. Firewatch has you play as Henry, a middle-aged man married to a woman with early-onset dementia. A man who, before you even start playing, has made a decision with which you might feel incredibly uncomfortable: to leave her for a number of months (either with relatives or in care) and escape to the solitude of the Wyoming wilderness. That’s who you’re playing, and you have to adjust to that, rather than wrestle him into being an avatar for you.

Henry’s notional aural relationship with Delilah may seem abhorrent to you, because you want your character to be an ideal, someone who’d never consider cheating on their ailing wife, but you’re not Henry – Henry is Henry, and he’s someone in that most horrifying of situations where the woman he loved and is married to no longer recognises him. He deals with this how Henry deals with it. I cannot think of a game that so powerfully defines its central character against the whim of the player.

Then take on board that it has better acting than, well, any game ever, wonderfully smart and whimsical dialogue, a bold use of the forward progress of time, lovely emergent moments, and that it’s so bloody beautiful (the screenshots are still my desktop backgrounds, only beaten by Proteus for longevity in John’s Desktop History), and wow, you’ve got one heck of a game. I’ve adored many games this year, but Firewatch is an all-time sort of favourite. It remains the only game for which I’ve ever bought a t-shirt.

Adam: I’m arriving into this entry like a commando behind enemy lines. Shots have been fired but the defense has rallied and cleared the battleground to stand tall. And now I strike from the shadows.

There have been times in my life when I’ve wanted to run away from it all, and ‘it all’ has ranged from abuse, misery and grief to a tedious office job, but I’ve never successfully isolated myself in the way that Henry does, out on his tower in the park. We often write about the escapist element of games, letting us do things that are at odds with our everyday existence, and there’s something of that in every GTA joyride. Escapism printed onto the everyday feels very different to me than big space battles and fantasy worlds – there’s a sense of transgression when doing unacceptable things in recognisable spaces.

Firewatch takes place in a part of the world I’ve never visited but it’s real. I could go there, one day, I just haven’t yet. Henry’s story is unfamiliar to me but that need to escape from it all is at the heart of it, and that part I recognise.

Getting to know the characters was my favourite part of the game and at its best, it’s a game with time for contemplation and reflection. My favourite moments involved looking out across the park from on high, feeling at once cut off from and connected to everything around me, both the natural world and Delilah. The performances are fantastic and the park is a wonderful place to inhabit for a while.

Where it lost me a little – and only a little, but enough that I don’t think of it as fondly as John does – is in the mysteries. For me, they didn’t add to Henry’s restlessness or need to find distraction. They seemed to be created out of an anxiety about the kind of game Firewatch is – a mystery, a romance, a drama, a tragedy, a walking simulator? I think it’s all of those things to an extent and some aspects worked incredibly well for me, while others fell flat. I accepted and enjoyed exploring Henry’s relationships with his wife, with himself and with Delilah, but his sudden – and it did seem sudden, no matter what the time skips were saying – paranoia and belief that he might be the target of a conspiracy. Or at least its new focal point.

By providing a trail for him to follow, and some possible-corpses, actual-corpses and listening stations that gesture toward park backstories and moments of discovery, Firewatch stopped being about a man isolating himself from the world and his previous life, and became, for a portion of its running time, about the ways he can fix the new world he is discovering. Maybe the intent is to have another kind of escapism rolled into the initial escapism, showing Henry’s dissatisfaction with the park and the situation he apparently craved, and the ending supports that. He takes himself away from people and then fixes himself to a voice in the wilderness.

Whatever the case, the park’s former caretakers and their troubles took me away from the character study I’d been enjoying so much. I remember Henry and Delilah, and cared about them, but they were the only characters I wanted to know more about, and to hear more from.

It’s a splendid game, and one of my favourites of the year, but when the fire finally came and made me feel so small, I scrubbed a great deal of the build-up out of my mind, and have no interest in revisiting those parts ever again.

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31 Comments

  1. Hex says:

    Are the RPS Advent Calendar results always this internally contentious?

    It makes for some good reading, either way.

    • Scripten says:

      Yeah, I’ve got to say that I agree and, furthermore, rather wish that it was reasonable to assign reviews to multiple writers at once and have them bounce said reviews off of each other. It gives a clearer picture of the game as a whole rather than a single PoV.

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        subdog says:

        You mean like the RPS Verdict, which is done very frequently for important titles?

        • Scripten says:

          Yep, pretty much, though they tend to be more interview/podcast-esque in setup so they bounce around a bit more than this article did.

  2. yogibbear says:

    I have to say this is about fair on this one. I’d align myself more with the grumps in this article, as the game does a lot wrong as a game, but as an experience it was compelling while I was in it for the first 2 hrs. Just goes to a really lame place and stays there. It was also overpriced on release for the duration of the experience, but you know it’s hard to quantify that and a lot of people will disagree. So yeah I’m perfectly fine if people enjoyed this, I’d just steer people away unless they knew it wasn’t what it looked like it was gonna be. Obviously the problems comes down to the difference between pre-release marketing & promotions versus post-release availability of actual gamers opinions which would mean if you decide to buy it now you have the actual relevant information to make a purchase or not.

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    The Almighty Moo says:

    Firewatch and games like it are important to me becuase they directly challenge the call of “keep politics / sex / gender / news / the mundanity of life out of my games/ websites / films / etc” and the unwritten followup ” because I demand and need to maintain total escapism from the real world when I am doing it.” It’s early days, but this year, for all its challenges, has seen me play a load of games that raise my hopes and expectations for the future of the medium as a vehicle for interesting narrative exploration at a time when I could be becoming jaded and worn. It’s early days, but I have faith.

  4. Scripten says:

    I don’t necessarily agree with the Firewatch detractors (I haven’t finished the game yet, either!) but I can definitely see where the arguments are coming from. To me, though, the writing and general feel of the environment was plenty enough to keep the game coherent. A good example of where this same trope is played to ludicrous levels is The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I still can’t get over how incredibly self-aggrandizing that plot ended up being.

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    subdog says:

    I’m glad Brendan was added as a full-timer but holy hell did he whiff it on this one. That glib story summary at the end of his blurb is maybe the most egregious missing of the point I’ve read on RPS since the New Vegas review so many years ago.

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      Quinns Was Right.

      I’ve got ^ that on a t-shirt.

    • Jeremy says:

      It’s always interesting to me that we want our critics to be authentic voices, but as soon as they disagree with a popular opinion(New Vegas), or our opinion, we criticize them as missing the point. I’m mostly convinced that we just prefer to hear our own opinions, just worded differently, or in a different voice.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        Disagreement it a two-way affair is it not?

        • Jeremy says:

          Oh yeah, absolutely. Disagreement is one of my favorite things about this site, as we rarely see a unified front from the writers. However, this was “your words are wrong because you obviously didn’t understand the game.” That’s not disagreement, that’s discrediting.

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        subdog says:

        I mean it’s the best written Fallout game ever made, but Quinns had a problem with the post-apocalyptic corn farms looking too crappy.

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    caff says:

    Great game, sure the linear paths can be kind of irritating, but sometimes is nice not to have to think.

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      phuzz says:

      It’s a linear series of events, but you get a lot of freedom in how you react to them.
      You can choose not to say much to Delilah, and even not bother telling her about finding the tape at the end that explains what’s been going on.
      If you want, you can even hang around for too long at the end and the chopper will leave without you.

  7. cannedpeaches says:

    Firewatch made me ask a question I’ve asked a number of time in walking simulators: “Does a game need a central mystery/problem to maintain a story?” It’s a problem games don’t seem to have solved yet.

    Counterexample: Rich Sommer, who plays Henry, also plays Mad Men‘s Harry Crane, and that show is perfectly happy to spend an episode not moving the story forward by any substantial measure and just to let you spend time with its characters and themes for a while, and it succeeds despite or because of that.

    But Firewatch doesn’t feel confident enough in itself to do that – in its absence, it chose to include a ginned-up mystery to generate problems to solve – and I wonder if that tells us that there’s an intractable problem at the center of narratives in gaming. Would Quantum Break, for instance, have chosen to be a mediocre shooter if it didn’t have to be? Would the Fallen London games have chosen to include the ship-to-ship combat? I get the impression that at some point in its design doc, Firewatch was much more quiet and less confused than it now is, but they ran out of things for you to do, so they turned to the J.J. Abrams school of mystery narratives.

    That said, a truly excellent game that shows exactly what good writing and setting in game can do, and I actually found the reveal at the end to be – while a bit anticlimactic considering what came before it – pretty heartbreaking.

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    shevek says:

    Henry leaving his wife in someone else’s care didn’t bother me particularly. Henry in notionally happier days refusing to move when she got a job in another state put me right out of sympathy with him before the game even started. Different things bother different people, I guess.

    It is a lovely environment, though. I keep the Firewatch theme on my PlayStation even though I didn’t really like the game.

  9. PikaBot says:

    I apparently had a very different experience playing the game than…all of you? I loved the unfolding mystery. I love stories that teeter between the mundane and the fantastic like that, and the game did a great job of revving up the ‘what is HAPPENING’ engine.

    I’m a lot more ambivalent about how it concluded. Not because of the anticlimax itself – that would be totally valid. But because that anticlimax seemed completely implausible in the face of all the shit that had happened so far.

    Still, a very solid game with great environments and atmosphere, and definitely worth the price of admission.

    • Urthman says:

      That was my experience with the story too. When Henry first runs into stuff about the weird listening station, I was kind of disappointed, “I thought this was going to be a more realistic story and not some dumb government conspiracy cliche.” When it turned out that all the stuff that seemed unrealistic was in fact not real, I found that really satisfying.

      I felt like that would be a very plausible experience to have living all alone in the middle of nowhere. I think my imagination might run wild now and then when I see or hear something odd, stuff that in the light of day would turn out to be harmless and mundane. Delilah’s reaction when you report seeing a guy with a flashlight is this great sarcastic “I should have told you, Henry…sometimes you see PEOPLE out here!” She tells you up front that just because there’s something that would be spooky and significant in a video game, doesn’t mean it’s gonna be like that here.

      Also I enjoyed that it’s a straight-up Scooby-Doo plot – dude tries to create a weird and spooky hoax to scare people away from evidence of mundane wrongdoing and would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling Henry.

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    teije says:

    A great experience that has stayed with me months later, even though the seams holding it together were a little too visible and some of the events felt a little overwrought. So happy I played it.

  11. draglikepull says:

    I think I’m pretty much in agreement with much of what’s been said so far. There are things about the game I really like, and Pip’s right that it’s a gorgeous game to look at and I took so many pretty screenshots. But the weird detour into murder/conspiracy thriller territory really ruined a lot of what I thought was good about it. Like Brendan, I would have liked it more if it had stuck to the original premise rather than veering off.

  12. Laurentius says:

    After being huge grumps about John’s WIT I actually gave it a fair shak a couple weeks ago. And in my opinion this game is not very good. The idea behind is really cool and novel and I actually like it very much. I like the begining but as th game progressd things didn’t click with me at all. Especially writing and voice acting is imo all over the place. I really do think that if someone just edited Firewatch into radio drama, most listeners would found it underwhelming in these deeartments. For example Henry acts very strange at times but game does not indicate why. So Henry is just walking in this serene woods and all of sudden starts acting in very jerk way towards Delilah for no reason, even if I’ve chosen most mellow option. So I can imagine that with everything that going on Henry probably have a lot frustration in him so he may want to vent up, but since it fps game should gave us clues about his state, I don’t know he could kick rocks angrily as he walks or something.

  13. Person of Interest says:

    These “Best Of” articles are really their best when all the RPS staff have played and formed opinions on the game. I get the (mistaken?) impression that it didn’t happen for many games this year, since there were only a handful of RPS Verdicts. Hopefully y’all’ll have more opportunities for group play and discussion next year!

  14. UmungoBungo says:

    I found this game immensely enjoyable, and feel that the play length should be mentioned. I was glad that it was all wrapped up in a concise package, and it never felt like a chore or a grind (obligatory imo). The other thing I’d like to point out is the sub-plot of a bear being in the woods – not sure if it does come about in a different play through but for me there were just mentions and clues that there was a bear about. When you find the beeping tracker and you hunt around trying to find the source, I felt a lot of tension, wondering if it had been strapped to the bear… There was one point that I came across some fog suddenly, which I mistook for an animal running past me… I realised just how much anticipation had been built!

  15. sege says:

    I liked Firewatch. It is nowhere near the game I hoped for after reading the very first preview about it. A game about being a firewatching person! That sounded like there could be so many bizarre and amazing possibilities.
    So I came to it late (played it a couple of weeks ago) with low expectations and found it quite enjoyable.
    I loved the story! It felt like a crazy noir and I thought it straddled a line between mystery and ridiculousness pretty well.
    My only criticisms are its brevity (but it would have been boring if longer so that’s pretty harsh) and the fact that I didn’t relate to or bond with the characters (which is no fault of the writers so is also harsh i guess!).
    I just have this lingering feeling that instead of being good and nice etc, it could have potentially been incredible, fantastic and amazing! …but I’m not sure how…
    Still one of my most memorable games for the last few years though.

  16. DefinitelyNotRob says:

    While I do enjoy the game, it’s probably my least favorite of these walking simulators (at least that I’ve played). The story is frustrating in that it never truly goes anywhere, really. By the end, nothing is actually resolved or has particularly changed, and you may as well have not played it at all.

    As a story, Firewatch has a bit too much of a reliance on anticlimax to ever truly be as interesting or as meaningful as it wants to be. As an actual walking simulator, though, it’s quite enjoyable, so eh. Not every game can be what I want it to.

  17. mukuste says:

    This article seems a bit spoilery :(

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    alison says:

    Unless I am forgetting something obvious, this is far and away my GOTY. NORTH as distant runner-up. They both kept on playing in the back of my mind for months after I completed them.

    Much like Life is Strange (my 2015 GOTY), Firewatch let me experience an honest story about a life far from my own, and did it in a thoroughly beautiful way. The escapism of wandering about in a faded American postcard is exactly what I seek in games. Pair that with a story about people I don’t share much in common with but grow to understand, care about and even identify with… That’s an artistic triumph.

    The complaint about the way the “mystery” part of the story panned out is fair, in a classic storytelling sense. It somehow felt a bit too rushed, or contrived, or something. But the overall theme and characterization of the two main characters was excellent. Reflecting on it, I wonder if the anticlimactic plot was part of what made the experience so poignant for me. Just like life – the most extraordinary moments turn out to be never quite as interesting as we hoped or imagined.

  19. Grovester says:

    Whilst I do get that many people found the story of the father and son a bit uninvolving, as the father of an autistic son it hit home quite hard.

    It’s clear that Brian (the son) is on the autistic spectrum, – his creation of a safe world for himself out in the wilderness, as well as his physical struggles. And Ned (the dad) also clearly has social impairment issues, as well as behaving in a very odd way following the death of his son.

    Personally, it took me a while to realise that my own kid wouldn’t be able to live the kind of life I’d want for him (kicking around a football in the garden is a struggle, even at 10).

  20. thedosbox says:

    I just finished the game and want to thank Alec for his “Am I a good man” piece. It summed up many of the thoughts I had while playing the game, only more eloquently.