There are two types of game players: those who are all about the journey, and those who are more focused on how things fit together as a whole. The first are bound to enjoy Firewatch because of how thoroughly enjoyable it manages to be right up until the end. The second are doomed to have their positive experience invalidated by the stupid story developments in the game’s final moments. Sadly, I tend to fit more into the latter group; a game is only enjoyable for me if it follows up on its initial promise, so story cop-outs (especially at the very end where resolution is expected) have a way of ruining everything that leads up to them if there isn’t some creative gameplay present to keep the ship from sinking. Firewatch lacks this, buoyed solely by ancillary elements like graphics, music, and voice acting that make it pleasant to look at and listen to, but do little to make up for the story flubs.
It doesn’t start well, but it gets better
When the game first started, I wasn’t seeing the amazing characters other people had been rambling about. Firewatch begins with a brief intro where you read text as you skip through playable character Henry’s life, making the occasional choice about which dog he adopted and how he approached the subject of children when his wife brought it up, and while this manages to successfully set up the eventual gut-punch that sends him retreating off to Wyoming alone, I found that things moved too fast to grow any real emotional attachment to Henry or his wife. In fact, the closest thing to emotion I felt in those early minutes was annoyance at his lack of spine when I chose to have him attack a would-be mugger, only to have him burst into tears immediately afterward. The early dialogue doesn’t fare much better, with the very first interaction between Henry and his supervisor-on-the-radio Delilah being the kind of quirky exchange that only works between people familiar with each other. I can’t help but think the writers forgot that the two are complete strangers at this point, and while there’s story justification for Delilah’s part in this, Henry says two or three cringeworthy things for no reason. It pulled me right out of the game and left me wondering if this was what the rest of Firewatch would be like.
And to be fair, there are a few other moments like that which rubbed me the wrong way, with the one that stands out the most being when Delilah came on to Henry out of nowhere midway through the game. While she had been a bit flirty before this point, she suddenly turned it up to 11 and ripped the knob off. This, too, can be explained away by things you discover about her over the course of the story, but it still struck me as jarring because of the game’s pacing; once you’re past the first few days which play out one after the other, the story begins to make huge leaps forward in time. This means that Henry and Delilah are becoming more familiar with each other over time, but you’re not taken along for the ride. All that having been said, the characters are easily one of the more recommendable elements in Firewatch, and you do eventually grow unusually fond of them despite those early moments that struck me as inorganic and forced. Henry plays the straight man for Delilah’s snarky brand of chaos to play off of, and she’s such a lovably sarcastic, profane character that you can’t help but revel in her playful verbal cruelty.
The story is a waste of time, though
For how enjoyable the characters end up being, the game doesn’t do a lot with them. You eventually find yourself smack dab in the middle of what appears to be some kind of large conspiracy as you play, hungry to learn more about what’s happening, and the atmosphere is one of dread despite it not actually being possible to die (you can’t even fall off of ledges or be hurt apart from one or two scripted sequences). It’s impossible to explain how the game squanders this feeling of paranoia without drifting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the ending left me with the same feeling “it was all a dream” endings typically do. It felt like everything that came before that point was meaningless filler, like the writers were making the story up as they went along and then suddenly wrapped things up as quickly as possible, abandoning the tone that made the game interesting in the first place. It bothered me that all of the weird things I discovered over the course of the game were suddenly hand-waved away, leaving me in the same state of “why should I care about any of this?” that I was at when the game first started.
On the other hand, there’s Delilah. Anyone hoping for a saccharine face-to-face meeting at the end is bound to be disappointed, but then, this was never a realistic expectation to have; from the very beginning, you’ll notice that the only character whose face you’re able to see is Henry’s, so it quickly becomes obvious that Firewatch takes pains to have its characters exist almost exclusively through backlit silhouettes and voices on the radio. This is actually something I liked because of how it forces the characters to be fleshed out through dialogue and environmental storytelling rather than allowing you to instantly recall their portrait. Much like a blind person whose senses become enhanced to compensate, I found myself paying more attention to the little details that I’d have likely missed otherwise. For example, in one exchange Delilah mentions that a certain amusing sign keeps getting stolen. At the very end, I found it in her watch tower, which gave me a good chuckle. This is the kind of thing that I can’t help but think I’d have missed if the game allowed you to meet her in person, but at the same time, things with her and Henry mirror the story in many ways, just kind of fizzling out at the end without anything having actually been accomplished or anyone growing as a character.
Some games can get away with including an underwhelming story by pairing it with entertaining gameplay. Firewatch doesn’t, sadly. Mostly, you just walk around as per Delilah’s instructions, clicking on things to pick them up, with most of the items littering the game world proving completely superfluous. Occasionally you’ll need to click to clear brush or cut down a tree, but that’s about it as far as interactivity goes. Other than that, you mostly spend the game asking Delilah about things you see by looking at them and calling her on the radio, which is usually just an avenue for her to mess with you in various amusing ways. There are also supply boxes you’ll periodically need to open, but all but one of these have the same password. This struck me as a missed opportunity that could have added some interesting gameplay. Imagine if the passwords weren’t all the same, but were instead related to the dozens of inconsequential books lying around. Not only would these books suddenly have a reason for being present, but if done well, it could have added some welcome detective-like gameplay to the whole shebang. As it stands, I can’t help but wonder why there are locks on the supply boxes at all.
Invisible walls and overlong animations
I don’t know how I feel about Firewatch’s invisible walls. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and ensure that you use the paths rather than trying to come up with shortcuts. On the other hand, just about every game includes invisible walls somewhere or other, and you can explore quite a bit of Firewatch’s world so long as you keep to the aforementioned paths. I can’t help but think that they wouldn’t be a problem at all if Henry had the ability to jump anywhere (rather than just over fallen trees) to give you a feeling of freedom when it comes to movement; the more I played, the more I realized just how limited my movements were, and the invisible walls really only became annoying when I found myself blocked by small rocks, or as in the video above, nothing at all. The game’s other issues are much less noticeable since there are no twitch elements to contend with and you can play at your own pace, but it’s still worth mentioning that some of the animations proved a bit too long for my tastes. I can only spend 5-10 seconds rappelling down a shale cliff or climbing up rocks so many times before it starts to test my patience.
I have no sense of direction
Of course, the longer animations are very possibly a “me” problem because I went through them more often than most will. This is because I have zero sense of direction and could become lost in a mall food court. Since the wilderness areas often look similar at a passing glance (spoiler alert: there are a lot of trees in this game), I often found myself getting turned around, rappelling and climbing the wrong way and having to go through the animations all over again once I finally headed back in the correct direction. Not helping at all was the map, which requires zooming in on to actually see where you are in the world, blocking your view of nearby landmarks. You’re also not able to run while your map is out, so I found myself pulling the map out a lot, only to put it away, get lost again, and have to pull it back out. This contributed to my playthrough of the game lasting something like 4-5 hours where most gamers seem to be able to finish in 3. I would be legitimately surprised if any notable number of gamers share my incompetence when it comes to navigation, though, so bear in mind that things like the animation length had far more opportunities to get under my skin than they will for the average gamer.
Great graphics and music and VA
The graphics are the most immediately appealing part of Firewatch, with the characters and environments striking me like a mix between Bioshock Infinite and a colorful Pixar movie. The lighting is also fantastic and does a great job of creating atmosphere throughout the game. I have absolutely no complaints about the graphics, and the music is equally great, with guitar (I want to say a lot of the guitar was from an acoustic-electric, but I could be wrong) and Rhodes piano creating an incredibly relaxed vibe for most of the game before some more synthy stuff comes in and kicks the tension up a notch. I will say that I found myself wishing there was more music in the game, with there being several periods where you walk around without any music playing, but I suppose the argument could be made that these periods of relative silence make the times when the music starts playing that much more effective. The voice acting also deserves a mention, and while I don’t usually delve into VA, I have to say that Delilah’s voice acting in particular is the glue that holds everything else together, which is quite the impressive feat. It speaks volumes about the quality of the graphics, music, and voice acting that they manage to mask the story and gameplay deficiencies as much as they do.