Firewatch (2016, PC)

By JR / May 15, 2017

A great premise, fantastic voice acting and a beautiful setting. Sounds like the perfect game, right? Wrong.
   Firewatch is a "single-player first-person mystery" otherwise known as a walking simulator with dialogue. You play as Henry, a middle-aged man who has volunteered to be a lookout in the Shoshone National Park, Wyoming during one summer in the late '80s. The beginning of the game sets up his story in the form of a "text adventure" in which the game describes a few key events which you’ll need to know to understand Henry. Once you get to the Shoshone part of the game you begin speaking to your supervisor, Delilah, who talks you through your summer job as well as chatting to you about a few things. You’re usually given three dialogue options when talking to Delilah which will change the path of the conversation (though not the game as far as I can tell), though sometimes you’ll only get one option, usually if you’re reporting something. Having been excited about Firewatch since the first trailers of it were released I was incredibly happy to get my hands on it but unfortunately I’ve been left rather disappointed.
   Please note: The game took me three hours to beat, any game time further than that has either been spent getting the trading card drops or going back to unlock the first two achievements which were broken when I started the game.
   Firewatch has two main strong points, its aesthetics and its voice acting. First up, aesthetics. Firewatch looks good, even on low settings as I played it on. While it’s not a unique aesthetic, as some have said it looks a tad similar to The Long Dark, it fits the game well and when there’s something like a sunset it can be quite beautiful.
   Like I said, the voice acting is also fantastic. The actors who played Henry and Delilah did a great job at making two believable characters and a lot of their dialogue feels real. There were a couple of bits here and there which were a bit weaker but nothing major enough to take away from how good it was.

   Moving on, we have mechanics, or in Firewatch's case, lack thereof. It is, as has been said by others, pretty much just a walking simulator and if you’re a fan of walking simulators then that’s great, sadly I’m not. There are a couple of things to do other than walking, for example there are certain places where you need to rappel down steep slopes, but the vast majority of the game is taken up by just walking around. This is made worse by the fact that there are a few points in the game where you have to backtrack or walk through an area you’ve already been through, which just makes walking through said areas even less interesting. While the bigger areas are pretty dull, especially the familiar ones, there are some areas in the game which are pretty cool and actually enjoyable to explore (they’re all tied to the story so don’t worry about missing them). Admittedly I’m not sure how they could have added any real mechanics to the game but I do think that Firewatch would have been more suited to a different format, e.g. a novel. The interactions between Henry and Delilah are definitely the best parts of the game, the longer interactions anyway, but these interactions are usually on either side of a chunk of walking in silence, which is as boring as it sounds.
   Firewatch’s story starts out strong, and for the most part it’s very well-written, made even better by the voice actors. Even the little text adventure at the beginning is good, as it sets up the character of Henry very well. The story carries on strong as Henry eases into his summer job with some simple tasks given to him by Delilah. Sadly things take a turn for the worse when Henry discovers something he probably wishes he hadn’t and he and Delilah are catapulted into a rather worrying situation. The story actually remains pretty strong until you get to the end of the game at which point I found myself presented with one of the most disappointing endings I’ve encountered in story-driven games. There’s simply no pay-off for beating the game, I honestly think I would have enjoyed myself a lot more if they’d just cut the last 20 or 30 minutes from what is already a disappointingly short game. Without any plot spoilers I’ll explain why I don’t like the ending a little more: the problem with the ending is that it feels forced, like the devs ran out of time so they just threw something in there to tie it up. Except, it doesn’t tie it up, it ends with so many unanswered questions that even the characters, who have just gone through this pretty alarming experience, don't care about. In the final interaction between the two before the credits roll they act like nothing has happened at all and it made the three hours I spent playing the game feel pointless. I didn’t get the sense of closure I want from story-driven games.

   Yes, I get the metaphor of the tower/escapism/reality vs. hopes and dreams/etc. etc. I already understood that from watching trailers of the game. Having said that...
   I have mixed feelings. I don't the mind the short length of the game, as I understood going in that it was a narrative focused experience. The problem is that experience did not pay off in the end. I'm able to tolerate cliffhangers of all kinds (I have read all of George R. R. Martin's books without having multiple strokes). But, this game, as beautiful as the visuals were, took little advantage of the possibilities the story had and completely fell flat at the end. I literally sighed and thought "surely there is more" even as the credits rolled.
   Considering the raging fire at the end, and the "tying up" of the father/son story bit, the ending took little to no advantage of these circumstances. There were so many great climactic possibilities there but instead... they just ended it with a sort of "Well, that's life" message. No kidding, I'm fully aware that life can suck, hence the use of videogames like this to escape it.
   It's really a shame that so many are hailing this as "deep" and "insightful" when in reality, if this were the narrative of any novel in a bookstore, it wouldn't sell 1000 copies. The story was building and building and building, only to end with no payoff.
   Visually, it's stunning, and I kept thinking how great it would be to have an open world, multiplayer game in such a beautifully crafted world. The light shafts through the trees, the color schemes and contrasts were amazing. In fact, the visuals are about the only reason I don't feel completely cheated with this purchase.
   What story purpose did the camera serve? Why did I board up the windows after the break-in? Why did I explore the child's fort? Why collect any of the notes and letters? On and on there were experiences that felt like they'd build into something. Instead, they were just "rest stops" in a story going nowhere.
   The voice acting was great, but again, the story didn't live up to the talent those voice actors gave it.
   If you like a beautiful walking simulator then purchase it. If you are hoping for a real story, you won't find it here, no matter how many fanboys tell you so. There are three-four different major plot lines in this game, and none of them come to any real closure.