It is not very often that video games are completely grounded in reality. Rarely are we presented with games that do not feature unrealistic violence, magic and science fiction, or an ass-kicking protagonist. Campo Santo‘s Firewatch is quite the contrary, grounded completely in humble reality. It is a refreshing change of pace and a prime example of how video games can be valuable storytelling devices. Building off the “first-person exploration” foundations of games like Gone Home, Firewatch succeeds in delivering a strong narrative in a fascinating open world.
Henry is a man who has taken a summer job as a fire lookout in the lonely Wyoming forest. His reasons for doing so are explained within the first 10 minutes through a series of “choose your own adventure” style text. The opening is quite possibly the strongest and most compelling I’ve seen in a video game within the last five years. Alternating between text and gameplay scenes of Henry preparing for his trip, everything you need to know about Henry’s life is explained. In those short minutes before arriving at the forest park, you already have a crystal clear idea of what kind of guy Henry is, what he is feeling, and why he decides to take this crazy job.
With a strong emotional understanding of Henry already established, the events of the game are that much more meaningful. Seeing the world through his eyes truly helps to understand him as a character and will have a great influence your decisions. I began to make choices based on what I think Henry would do rather than what I wanted as the player. In my 4 or 5 hours playing Firewatch, I felt like I got to know him very well. This was further reinforced by the game’s excellent dialogue system.
Where Bioware and Telltale games have introduced deep dialogue trees, games like Oxenfree and Firewatch have begun to polish these mechanics. Henry is isolated during his time in the wilderness, but he does have communication with Delilah, his supervisor, via a walkie talkie. Her firewatch tower can be seen in the distance, but it’s many miles away and the two do not cross paths. When you’re alone and bored in the middle of the woods, you get to know your only other human companion very well, even if it is only through a walkie talkie.
Their conversations are very natural and realistic which is sold through superb voice acting. Communicating with the walkie talkie feels very natural. You won’t feel “locked into” any exchanges, as they will actively continue on while you are walking around and exploring. Henry and Delilah will talk seriously about their job and their past, but will also goof off in a sarcastic, observational manner. You’ll encounter certain landmarks which will prompt a dialogue option, if you wish to talk to Delilah about it. It’s a good way to learn more about the environment and the characters.
As with any game in this so-called “first-person exploration game” category, environmental exploration is a main focus in Firewatch. Since Henry is as rookie as they come, he really has no clue what he’s doing. Delilah gives him some instructions and his first task is to investigate a couple of teenage girls partying and having a restricted campfire. Along the way Henry and Delilah crack many jokes and express their frustrations with disrespectful people. You’ll be thrown right into the job and learn what it’s like to be a forest park authority. Once you leave Henry’s tower, it’s up to you to navigate the forest using a paper map and compass. The game expects you to find your way around on your own, but it’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s actually really fun. In this regard, you as the player know about as much as Henry does.
Spending time in an open-world can only be satisfying if the environment is stimulating to look at. Firewatch’s visuals are astounding. Its 3D world was inspired by an Olly Moss painting so every color is vibrant. The rich aesthetic is a unique blend of warm colors with an almost cartoon-like feel. It’s a very personal and beautiful art style that subtly reminds us that we are experiencing a composed reality.
With that being said, navigating through the forest always feels real. You’ll begin to pick up landmarks and develop a sense of direction. Wyoming forests aren’t exactly flat, so you’ll be required to climb over obstacles and repel down steep slopes using a rope and anchor. Physically, Henry is pretty out of shape and his climbing skills reflect that. The first person animations have a lot of personality and you’ll feel like a heavyset guy out in the woods. Remember what I said about Henry not being an ass-kicking protagonist? He may be in a little over his head.
Unfortunately, the Playstation 4 version runs very poorly and I experienced quite a bit of lag and framerate issues. In short, it was a slow buggy mess at a lot of points which was discouraging since I loved the world so much. I did my best to overlook it and continue on with Henry’s journey.
Firewatch does have a fairly linear plot, but it’s the emotional baggage of the characters that really makes the story interesting. Without going into specific details, Henry and Delilah realize that there is something very eerie going on and a mystery begins to unfold. I did not find this to be bad or uninteresting, but I would have been perfectly fine if it was just the two of them talking to each other and exploring. Henry’s outlook on life and relationship with Delilah are the main focal points of this story and ultimately the best reason to get invested. There were points in the story where I begun to find myself wanting to put aside the mystery and just get back to Henry and Delilah.
While it is easy to criticize the more “thrilling” aspects of Firewatch, it is important to understand that it is largely a humble story about taking a break from the painful consequences of reality. It is about finding a coping mechanism and ultimately collecting yourself. Forming a unique friendship is as much a part of it as physical isolation is. What it leads up to may not be satisfying for those who are seeking a firmly grounded conclusion, but I don’t believe that to be the most valuable aspect of the story. I personally felt the ending to be very realistic and human. The journey is more important than the destination for sure, but it’s the experienced emotions that matter most.