Firewatch review: Essential for story fans
Published 11/02/2016 | 12:13
Firewatch is a new game from the minds behind The Walking Dead and presents gorgeous graphics and incredible storytelling in Wyoming 1989
Firewatch is a gorgeous gaming achievement, and a must play for story fans.
Wyoming, 1989. Henry has fled from his life after a personal tragedy and takes on the job of a fire lookout in the wilderness of Shoshone National Forest. Drawn by the enforced isolation, his only human contact is with the disembodied voice of his supervisor Delilah.
A brief few lines of text give us some context to Henry’s life at the start of the game in a beautifully understated way but otherwise that’s the entire set. You’ll man a tower with incredible views of the park and be sent out to check on potential hazards, collect supplies and marvel at the natural beauty.
Otherwise it’s just you, your walkie talkie and Delilah, and that’s more than enough for new developers Campo Santo to fill a few hours with huge amounts of character, depth and emotion.
Most of the game is choosing different dialogue options or selecting items in the world to chat about. But the quality of the voice acting and the writing brings it to life in ways that are both startling and realistic. These two sound like actual human beings– not cardboard cut out stereotypes but grown up people with thoughts and feelings and a whole mess of insecurities.
It’s also a surprisingly open conversation, giving you the choice of whether to discuss your past or keep things light. There are certain required exchanges – which can sometimes feel a bit arbitrary – but for the most part it feels like two people with a lot of time on their hands chatting.
There’s a little more going on in terms of the story, with a mystery that needs to be solved. This is probably necessary to keep the momentum and leads to some interesting twists but ultimately takes the game in a more generic direction.
Firewatch is at its best when it’s building that personal relationship and also crafting a unique and evocative atmosphere. The stylized visuals are impressive for such a small team, based on original concept art by poster paragon Olly Moss. The natural vistas and moody lighting are often stunning, and it’s all the more involving for featuring almost no human characters. And those which do appear are a little rough around the edges.
The natural world is just as much a character as the leads, introduced by a joyous jaunt to a lush lakeside. You can relax and drink in the vistas whenever you like (there’s even a disposable camera for snaps) with many moments of magic hour. But the game also uses the environment in clever ways, with isolation becoming more sinister over time as paranoia seeps in and you’re many miles from aid.
I won’t go into any plot spoilers here but the finale takes things in a different direction that’s both emotional and a little unsatisfying. A few extra scenes could have fleshed this aspect out in a more well rounded way, a feeling that’s shared with the final moments of the tale.
But everything that has come before is impressive enough to (mostly) forgive these final moments, especially the voice performances by Rich Sommers and Cissy Jones which are warm and rich and flirty and angry. And let’s not forget the peerless writing by former Telltale guy Sean Vanaman – who keeps things naturalistic, funny and memorable.
The mechanics are also robust if not downright delightful – I especially love the trigger and release set up for selecting dialogue options on the walkie talkie. And there’s just enough extra exploration and discovery stuff to make you want to stay out in the park long after you’ve exhausted the main quests. Check out the small details too, like the handwritten notes which layer up on your map, or the way your desk becomes filled with mementos from your adventure.
Firewatch is definitely a short game, I finished it in around 4 hours, but it’s also guaranteed to be one of the best of the year. And while the price point may seem high at €20 it’s roughly the length and cost of two movies, and a lot more entertaining, involving and beautifully made than most of the features you’ll see this year. Highly recommended.