By Max Roberts
At a distance, Firewatch is a good looking package. It has a gorgeous art style, stellar acting, an allure of mystery and intrigue. When pulling back the layers of the orange and yellow hued packaging, there is a grounded story of one man’s lot in life. Campo Santo’s debut game has stuck with me like sap on a tree; it’s careful cultivation of story, world design, and themes seep out of the digital cracks to create a deeply rooted first person experience.
Firewatch shows its heart in the dialogue of Henry (Rich Sommer), the playable character, and Delilah (Cissy Jones). Sommer and Jones have a natural ebb and flow in their dialogue. I could hear hesitation and the gentle prodding for personal information in the beginning of the relationship. Over the course of my six hours in Shoshone National Forest, I heard Henry and Delilah mature from professional acquaintances to complimentary friends.
What I found to be the most powerful and key element to this sole human interaction is not the freedom to choose how I would react, but how Henry would react. The beginning of the game establishes exactly who Henry is and where he has been. It was my call to decide how Henry will go about this job and this relationship with Delilah. Henry isn’t an avatar I create or customize: I have no one-to-one relation with him. I am simply a guide for Henry’s behavior.
Campo Santo has grasped the ability to have me play and make choices as if I were their character. Controlling Henry’s reactions and demeanor keeps the story focused and the player emotionally invested in Henry’s time as a lookout.
This method of having the player choose Henry’s reaction allows the story to be told with the player experiencing it in tandem with the game’s protagonists. The developers use the relationship and the environment to tell the story, rather than solely through the environment.
Isolation is the theme that seems to have fueled development from a core level. Shoshone is nearly void of all wild life: Only a few animals can be seen or interacted with. Henry and Delilah both use the job as an excuse to be alone. Firewatch shows the duality of hiding away from the world. There is a sense of self discovery and refreshment in the calmness of the wildlife. In the same world, loneliness, panic, and paranoia crept into the mind of both Henry and myself. I found that Henry’s hopes, fears, and concerns became my own. It is the ability to evoke empathy that sets Firewatch apart from other first person exploration games.
Matching the minimalist nature of Henry’s isolation, the soundtrack blends effortlessly into the gameplay. The songs evoke a range of emotions from melancholy to serenity to trepidation. Composer and performer Chris Remo stokes the flames of Firewatch’s tale of isolation to draw out thematic excitement within the player. The combination of piano and guitar perfectly match the tone of the forest, characters, and the story. It is easily one of my favorite soundtracks.
The forest setting is one of the most stunning game environments I have explored. Its orange, earthy hues are easy on the eyes in this Olly Moss inspired national park. Campo Santo’s dedication to a distinct art style lends itself to the imagination and storytelling. Besides being beautiful, the environment design feels real. This was a place I wanted to explore and know. I quickly learned land marks and tried to use the lay of the land as my guide, rather than the marked up map and trusty compass Henry has on hand at all times.
It’s in that vein of environmental design, the developers show clear dedication to keeping me fully immersed in their world. The absence of a HUD and a constant, magically floating arrow pointing me to my next destination lends itself to building an environment I wanted to explore and spend my time in. The navigation tools at hand, the aforementioned map and compass, have a tangible quality to them. I wouldn’t mind a “physical” map instead of a menu overlay in a few more games these days.
These key design choices pulled me deeper into the Shoshone Nation Park. Despite these efforts, it could not pull me in deep enough to ignore the technical hiccups that littered the forest’s digital landscape. Constant stuttering occurred, while I tried to progress the story. The developers have said they are working on a patch for the PS4 version of the game to solve these issues over on Reddit. The collision with some objects is wonky. Rocks or small bumps in the terrain that seem like objects Henry could walk over, stop him dead in his tracks. I have not heard of any technical issues on PC, but they may be present.
Firewatch is a recent video game that stands out as a mature title. Not mature in a hyper-violent or salacious way, but rather in a complex, sometimes raw, human manner. It respected my ability to explore and experience the story in a natural way. It’s actual gameplay may be linear and uniform, but Campo Santo’s use of dialogue trees, environmental design, and a poignant soundtrack come together in a stunning game that ranks among the best, and my personal favorite, first person experience games.