Goodness me, what a wonderful post-game feeling. Firewatch is a simply beautiful game: beautiful in its presentation, in its sadness, in its pace.
Firewatch is a tale in a way so few games are. It’s a story you’re being told, but one in which you’ll feel heavily involved. In many ways it is the evolutionary step forward from the conceit behind many of Telltale’s adventures, where that sense of disconnect, of being an observer, is almost entirely shed. It’s something very special indeed.
Things begin in 1975, where you – Henry – first meet your future wife, Julia. In a series of text-led vignettes, you learn how they get together, marry, and start to develop problems. These are interspersed by Henry’s arrival in the wilderness of Wyoming, 1989, hiking from his truck to a distant look-out tower where he plans to spend his Summer.
Immediately it’s apparent that this is going to be a very pretty game – its gorgeous cartoon style boasting rich colours, a bulky, bold design, and wonderful vistas of trees, boulders and ravines stretching into the distance. And as you click through the micro-text adventure of the previous decade and a half you make decisions, subtle choices about the kind of person Henry is. Not ones that will enormously influence the plot of the game, but enormously influence how you interpret the man you’re playing.
Once you've arrived at your cosy cabin above the trees, the game proper begins, with the sardonic voice of Delilah at the other end of a little yellow walkie-talkie. Delilah is your boss, a coordinator in a distant tower who gives you tasks, natters away to you as you hike around the game’s sprawling hinterlands, and responds to your queries as you radio in things you find.
The radio is really the keystone of the game, the primary means by which you interact with the world. As you investigate the source of some fireworks being let off nearby, for instance, you’ll encounter discarded litter, abandoned clothing, and smouldering campfires. While you can directly interact with all of these, pick them up and examine them in your hand, tidy them away, carefully stamp them out, it’s by hitting Shift and speaking to Delilah about them that you discover the vocabulary of the game. Whether to get straight information, teasingly banter with each other, or let loose impressive torrents of swear-filled rants, it’s in this dialogue that the game is given life. And what life.
Delilah is a magical combination of witty and curmudgeonly, quickly calculating how best to skewer Henry’s sincerity, and bringing out the best in him in response. The two spar throughout, in the best double-act in gaming since Gordon and Alyx, except this time both get to shine. Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones provide performances that are easily among the best in gaming history, instantly creating believable, smart and engagingly splendid characters, utterly acing the timing and pathos of a simply fantastic script. I’m struggling to think of any other game without “Valve” on the box that has such expert and faultless voice work.
Why Henry is there, away from his wife, is explained in the opening minutes of the game, and yet I cannot bring myself to reveal it. I didn’t know, and so why on Earth should I take that away from you for when you play it? As for where the story goes, indeed what the story is even about, it would be ludicrous to touch on it. Firewatch accomplishes that same sense of leaving you completely unsure as to where this might be going, even what genre it might be, that Gone Home achieved – but takes it to a new level. (Another similarity there is the time period – it becomes apparent that the ‘80s setting is vital to restrict available technology that would have broken the story being told.)
The other immediate point of comparison, despite the games being astronomically different, is The Walking Dead. That’s unsurprisingly a huge part to do with Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin being leads on both games, and their influence is clear. While, thank goodness, you won’t be reading, “Delilah will remember that,” there are certainly similarities in the way conversations work. As you chat, you’re given not only choices of which topic to prioritise in a given moment (and therefore sometimes what doesn’t get discussed), but then further choices of which way to take the conversation, including the option to remain silent. In this sense, it’s very similar to The Walking Dead’s conversational structure, if on quite strikingly different matters.
But Firewatch feels distinct from both comparisons, and indeed most others. Despite such a strong narrative thread, there’s an impressive amount of freedom, and the moderate open land is frequently available for you to freely explore. While at most times you know where you should be headed, the game doesn’t feel compelled to drag you there, or worry if you’re exploring somewhere else. In fact, it accommodates your wandering off the temporary path with extra material recorded for visiting an area before it’s relevant to the plot, or having the two characters just chatter away as you pootle about.
You navigate the place using a map and compass, held in Henry’s hands in front of you when needed, attempting to negotiate routes around unfriendly terrain. There are points where you cannot climb until you have the right equipment, or paths blocked by overgrowth that you cannot clear, but they feel natural, and in attempting to find another way around you generally stumble on something else interesting instead.
There is perhaps a little too much traipsing at times. However, in a game that lasts around five or six hours, that’s certainly relative. Henry can jog at a sensible pace, and there are frequently smart cuts when you're faced with a long return journey. (It also very heavily flags up when early complete freedom will become restricted by the story, complete with a second chance if you change your mind.)
The only other flaw I could find was a moment in the story where Delilah slightly contradicts herself from an early conversation, which could just as easily be put down to her panicking. That’s the sort of nitpicking I’m resorting to here to find fault.
A surprise detail in the game that was not mentioned at all in advance is the photography. At a certain point you find a disposable cardboard camera with most of its film still available, and are encouraged by Delilah to take some snaps of anything you find interesting. And it’s worth doing so, because as well as a nice little surprise toward the end, once you’ve filled your film a menu option becomes available to have them processed and delivered to your real-world house as glossy photographs. It’s about $20, via a website to which the game’s menu will link. (It also allows you to download the photos, and you could print them out yourself if you’ve such a set up with your own printer.) It’s a daft and lovely idea, letting you have an album of memories (good and bad) of your Summer in Wyoming.
Brevity might be the thing that puts off some, but the pacing of Firewatch is utterly exceptional. It manages to feel so overwhelmingly calm, so gently delivered, while still presenting moments of peril, even high drama. And crucially, it never feels slow, it never crawls along while you drum your fingers on the mouse. Its sedate carriage is beguiling, reduces your metabolism to its own, and encourages quiescent moments.
A game about characters in their 40s is rare enough. To be about despondent, struggling people, without resorting to cartoonish crap about mid-life crises or outlandish unrealism, is a truly special thing. Henry’s specific situation is something with which almost no one in the game’s audience will immediately sympathise, but surely all will quickly empathise. That’s a huge part of the achievement here – to not aim to create a sympathetic analogue for the player, but like most great fiction, to allow the player to experience someone else’s life distinct from their own.
Firewatch is a rare and beautiful creation, that expands the possibilities for how a narrative game can be presented, without bombast or gimmick. It’s delicate, lovely, melancholy and wistful. And very, very funny. A masterful and entrancing experience.
Firewatch is available from tomorrow on Steam for £15.