A conflicted flame with a roaring heart
The daytime paints a blissfully blue sky. It stares, plastered above the tranquil solitude of what will soon come to be Firewatch's pivotal base. It's a scene of reflective Utopia; here I am perched above canopies of Blue Spruce and Cottonwood, lapsed in the peace-and-quiet, but how long can Utopia last, and is alone time all that it seems?
In the wake of Dear Esther and the acclaimed Gone Home, Firewatch balances a contemplative storyline and exploratory immersion, with gameplay taking a back seat, and no real puzzles to speak of. But although its objectives can feel drawn out and narrative loopholes make a decided appearance, Campo Santo beckon with a riveting experience that can be equally as inviting as it can onimous.
The kindling for Firewatch's story forms rather unexpectedly. The parasitic gamer I am, I was expecting to be propelled headlong into the body of my in-game host right away. What I got instead was comparable more to the opening of a text-based adventure game, and I'm ultimately glad I did. The protagonist's backstory remains very much in word-form, offering a brusque, harrowing empathy that unravels within the player's imagination. There's an initial innocence to the game's Disney-like art style, but amongst its mature themes and plentifully coarse language, Firewatch's superficial fluffiness underscores the creeping notion that all is not what it seems within this increasingly enigmatic world.
Your time with Firewatch is spent in the blister-bunged boots of Henry, a middle-aged man who - in attempt to escape his stressful personal life - takes a summer job as a fire lookout in the Shoshone National Forest. Whilst the concept of isolation remains essential to Henry's story, Firewatch's real strengths shine through his relationship with his employer, Delilah. Shacked up in separate towers and deprived of each other's physical presence, their relationship rests upon a series of radio conversations, influenced by various dialogue options.
Despite The Walking Dead's Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman's creative leadership in Firewatch, it's clear early on that determining player choices aren't the main concern. Henry and Delilah's relationship is instead one of slowburning introspection, developing through use of Firewatch's most notable feature. The radio mechanic is immersively acquainted by the Dualshock's trigger buttons; holding the left will open up dialogue options, and the right allows you to highlight your choice, before releasing the left trigger to finalize your choice. It strikes as unnatural at first, but with little else to flesh out Firewatch's control scheme, it's easily adapted to.
The duo's habitual sparring is hauntingly funny amidst the desperate seclusion, but beneath its persistence, it's inherently fragile. If you're evasive around Delilah's questions, she'll remember it later on. Annoy her, and you might be talking into thin air for the next period of time. Whichever path you choose, you'll learn about Deliliah's character. Granted, not much, for there aren't many soap-operas veiled beneath these telecom exchanges. But you'll uncover more about how the two express themselves, and how they grow to comprehend their past experiences together; a crucial element in what makes Firewatch so enchanting in its study of trust and separation. What's more important is that all exchanges are intensely sympathetic. Subtlely voiced, the budding friendship of Henry and Delilah truly flourishes at its most helpless moments. Delilah can be mocking and crotchety, but equally timid and lost, whilst Henry's joky, laidback demeanour makes his self doubt all the more heartbreaking.
The panoramic Wyoming wilderness appears authentically choking, despite the game's still quite palpable boundaries. There are clear-cut paths Henry can take, but despite its exploratory limits, Firewatch invokes an atmosphere that is ominous, hypnotic and above all impressive. You'll find no markers announcing your goal, lending immersively to Firewatch's orienteering elements. There's a little freedom to stray off-the-beaten path, though; whether you choose to adhere to your map's routes or traipse according to your own, there's assuredly much beauty to be observed. Each nook and cranny feels original, and whilst you won't be rewarded with treasures or additional quests for exploring, there's enough spirit emanating from Firewatch's various alcoves to make you feel like a bonafide adventurer. Or at the very least, a terrific Scout Master.
But rustic burrows and babbling brooks can be pointy. For all its spectacular scenery, there's a natural silence overlaying Firewatch that becomes truly maddening. I found myself relieved when music started to accompany my lone exploits, and began to eagerly await each of Delilah's wisecracking check-ins. But of course, all segments came to an end, and as the once-pleasant birdsong and The Rockies' heavy sighs billowed back around me, I felt desperately alone. It's scarcities like these in Firewatch that really work. When the action is allowed to breathe and you're left fearing the final click of the walkie talkie as your only human contact steps away. Perhaps it's these suspended moments of agonizing loneliness that make the game's narrative swerves so enthralling. Things get weird in Firewatch, and quickly. You're plunged into a world you barely know at all, and with the 1980's radio stirring doubt of who and what you're listening to, there's nowhere left to hide when the story takes a dark turn. There are times that are genuinely unnerving. At points I found myself anxious to turn corners - even glimpse over my shoulder for fear of what I might find on my odyssey to discovery.
It's an odyssey that is inextricably tied to its blemishes, however. Taking around three hours to complete (closer to five if you opt for a more leisurely pace), Firewatch's story sees a muddled conclusion, and as the characters revelled in their apparent 'a-ha' moment without me, I was left feeling somewhat out of the loop. Make no mistake, Firewatch is a game about journey. It's about the situation two people are placed in, and how they deal with the stresses of isolation as that situation unfolds. But as a player, if all you've experienced during your adventure is void of a satisfying payoff, no matter how long the journey is, you're ultimately left wondering if all the effort was really worth it.
The PS4 version's affliction with glitches, bugs and frame-rate drops can also mar the immersion. Technical mishaps can throw any game's pacing out of whack, and it's generally something that needs to be minded ten-fold in profoundly story-oriented styles. Almost laughably explicit to pivotal moments, I experienced freezing glitches and found myself stuck on the scenery - on one occasion irreversibly. Whilst recovering progress is usually straight forward (due to Firewatch's abundant autosaving), having to reboot the game shattered what could have otherwise been incredibly tense happenings. A large part of what Firewatch does so well is suspending those moments; when that's interrupted, it can feel markedly cheapened.
Firewatch strives to succeed as a thriller, and there are glimpses of an engrossing mystery within its mystifying environment. But its ending can feel muddled, with events not quite adding up, and it's interesting to wonder how the game might've faired if the enigma hadn't been scripted. This being said, Firewatch overlooks a relationship between two isolated, conflicted and uncertain people with a remarkable authenticity. Henry and Delilah's correspondence is heartfelt and real, and it's during their most trivial exchanges that Firewatch is at its best. It's a game about fear. It's a game about being alone. And it's at its most unnerving when those two concepts collide.