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Firewatch is a beautiful slice of life title that expertly blends together exploration, light role-playing, and mystery. You have free roam of a forest and mountainside, a ‘choose your own conversation’ radio chat, and a harrowing cave barred by a padlocked gate with a missing key, all of the makings of a great experience.
Despite all it has going for it, Firewatch is unfairly lumped into the burgeoning genre of games known (with a negative connotation) as walking simulators. Gone Home served as a harbinger of these style of games and since its debut in 2013 they have thoroughly penetrated the gaming community. While opinions about them and their relevance are divisive, Firewatch is a shining example of what interactive storytelling can aspire to and what ‘walking simulators’ can hope to be.
The story of Firewatch is about Henry, a middle-aged volunteer fire lookout, as he keeps watch at the Shoshone National Forest. It follows his complex relationship with his supervisor (and walkie-talkie buddy), Delilah, and their ‘investigation’ into possible disappearances in the forest. A few teenage girls pestering Henry have now gone missing, a shadowy figure has been spotted observing Henry, and a bizarre chain-link fence shrouds an uncharted region of the forest, all with the backdrop of tremendous forest fires. The pacing is superb and the way that you experience it draws you in deep.
The gameplay is what many would expect from a walking simulator. You do indeed experience simulated walking, you find a disposable camera, and do some mountaineering up and down ropes which makes for involving exploration and intelligent shortcuts. But picking dialogue for radio chats with Delilah is the true core of the game. Your dialogue options generally range from flirty to curt, and the chats are always engaging. The characters feel alive, the talks are spontaneous and flowing and it is almost voyeuristic choosing how Henry will respond to Delilah’s questions. The experience becomes about choosing who Henry will be and less about picking a single line of dialogue. The gameplay, whether talking or exploring, feels very natural and organic, nothing feels clunky or out of place, it is truly well done.
The setting is what this game is about. The trees and lake are breathtaking, the mountain views are glorious, and even the burn paths are like nothing you’ve ever seen. All throughout is an atmosphere of solitude, but rarely loneliness. Much of your exploration is assisted by a map and compass, which just add so much. It feels authentic to the point that I have trouble believing Shoshone National Forest was not exactly recreated down to the last pine-cone.
The ending left something to be desired and the game has a rather low replay value. The dialogue choices can be very meaningful in the moment, but on a second playthrough it becomes apparent that the conversations are ‘on rails’. While that may be true, it in no way detracts from the first time playing and short of playing the game again the very next day, I doubt anyone could really notice. Similar to a good book or film, let this story have an impact and maybe don’t expect to pick it up again for a long time.
There is an aspect of Firewatch that I never appreciated until reading around on forums and watching interviews, it was that people were able to find their own fun with it. There are books scattered all over the game and many players collected them and arranged them on shelves. There are numerous hats that you can wear, though the game is first person so you can never really appreciate Henry exploring in a ‘Nam hat. It brings this richness to the experience that even details so small can bring so much joy. I loved my hat collection, and I kept a mental note of book titles hoping I could piece together the mystery through clues, but not until it was over did they all feel significant.
Firewatch is a lovingly crafted experience, and I would highly recommend treating yourself to it. With its lush scenery, mysterious caves, and witty radio banter, I came away feeling like I had just been to Shoshone on vacation. The game is simultaneously somber and comforting, and has a feeling of familiarity throughout. I think it was just shy of perfect.
*This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.