Since Dear Esther I have to admit I can be partial to a well-done Walking Simulator. The Stanley Parable, for instance is a personal favourite and remains an incredibly smart and amusing game. However, these days far too many games which fall into this category rely too much on the same tricks Dear Esther did. Primarily relying on pretty graphics and a vague, “you-decide-what-it-all-means” story to try and carry themselves to critical acclaim. Personally I feel these things are often in danger of being overly pretentious and actually just not very interesting.
Luckily while Firewatch, by Campo Santo, is a walking simulator (of that there is no doubt) it seems far more deserving of the acclaim it did receive, even if in the end for me it falls short of the high praise which has been heaped on it. In fact it comes pretty close to getting a complete recommendation but just slipped and fell at a few important hurdles.
As is always the case with these sorts of games, a large emphasis is placed on the story and so trying to review it without also spoiling it can be a bit tricky, however I shall do my best.
Not to completely buck the trend with walking simulators, Firewatch is a very beautiful game. It uses an almost cartoon-y aesthetic of bright, vibrant colours and sharp contrasts, combined with wonderful lighting and semi-realistic design. It’s certainly true that many games like this are just sightseeing tours but even so this is one that is at least truly a pleasure to wander around.
The game is set in a national park in the States in the height of summer. You are a RUGGED man named Henry, who is running from a difficult life and impossible issues to become one of several people in the remote park who keep an eye out for forest fires. Presumably there is a name for that… Some sort of watch for fire…
Thus the game is set in the bright sunshine and deep sunsets/sunrises of a hilly and lush woodland park which still has that “right on the edge of bursting into flames” look and feel that one would recognise if you had visited any parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite. In short, it’s pretty spot on.
The method of exploration is also quite fun in that you are provided a map and a compass and are almost told to work it out yourself. Of course it is pretty easy to do, but looking at your map and figuring out where you have to go based on landmarks and your position is actually pretty good clean fun.
The backdrop of the game though is rather more sombre. Through a series of small, text-based choices during a short introductory story you learn that Henry got married to the love of his life who now has some form of neurodegenerative disorder. And rather than deal with her being unable to remember him or their lives together he quite literally runs for the hills and away from reality.
The first act of the game is by far and away the best one. Henry goes about mostly doing ordinary chores and tasks that one might expect of his position, all the while under the direction of Delilah, his immediate supervisor who speaks to him over the walkie-talkie he carries.
You can interact with Delilah over just about everything you come across and the discussion between her and Henry are the absolute best part of the game as they slowly let their guards down and get to know each other, gradually becoming friends as they reveal their respective troubled pasts.
The banter between the two shifts from light-hearted banter about Henry reporting just about every leaf he comes across to far more melancholy topics as they both reveal their genuinely realistically difficult issues. The dialogue between Henry and Delilah is beyond fantastic and is utterly compelling, at the right moments it can be depressing, concerning or absolutely hilarious. They have a real rapport and chemistry which develops very naturally. Admittedly, I would occasionally have some frustration with the dialogue in that the choices you were given did not seem to quite match what Henry said. As well as this there were a few times when you would have two opposing sets of dialogue occurring at once, an issue caused by two simultaneous triggers for the different sets. This would then be compounded by the time limit to select a choice for each discussion and so you could miss certain conversations (or worse have two totally different ones start blending together) because of having perhaps progressed a little too quickly or in the wrong direction.
Despite those frustrations though, it was truly brilliant just how real the interaction between Delilah and Henry was. It did not feel like it was written, instead it just flowed and felt completely and totally natural. A fair portion of this credit is probably owed to the voice actors of both characters, as both of them are also fantastic, but it’s clear from the outset just how great the writing of the dialogue between the two is.
While the choices you make in dialogue probably do not cause any dramatic changes to the game it still is interesting to imagine the various possible avenues for conversation that can occur. Particularly there may be differences with how Delilah would interact with Henry, and how open she might act, given that you can choose how much to reveal about your wife and past.
The other aspect the game absolutely nailed was the changes in tone and atmosphere. The credit for which I believe largely belongs to the musical score and to the lighting (albeit to a lesser degree).
As the game progresses you start encountering strange and mysterious occurrences, things which start to make it clear that, for all the idyllic setting, not everything is quite as it seems. There is something afoot beyond even Henry’s struggles to deal with his life.
When encountering some of these things, the change in tone can be sudden and extremely dramatic. Carefree or morose one moment and swinging suddenly into tense and full of intrigue. While the sharp changes would potentially have been jarring elsewhere, here they actually seemed to be done perfectly, tension suddenly spiking and wiping out the relaxed feelings of moments before, leaving you on the edge of your seat.
For all that the atmosphere is great and the dialogue is stellar, where things start falling to pieces a little is in the overarching plot.
The thing is that the game is at its best when it is about the relationship between Henry and Delilah and when it is trying to make a point about running away from your problems. Rather conversely to what one might expect, the underlying mystery then actually eventually starts to detract from the rest of the experience.
It actually almost feels a bit condescending in a way, like we couldn’t have the story exploring Henry’s past and relationships without having some kind of murder mystery going on, because gamers just don’t have the patience for that kind of shit.
Worse, the conclusion was extremely unsatisfying. While it did more or less wrap up the story, it just felt so completely out of place. After the slow and careful couple of hours of build-up it felt like the ending was hurriedly spat out in a few quick sentences.
It gave the feeling of a writer who had this excellent premise and beginning of a story but really just had no idea how to finish it and so basically hedged something, anything, so that they could end the game.
Frustratingly, there were also numerous instances of things which seemed not to even make sense with the narrative presented by Campo Santo. A few odd bits and bobs which seemed like they were never answered and a few confusing choices by characters that seemed to make absolutely no sense come the end.
The vast majority of these concerns and questions are answered by the developers in interviews, but I’d argue the fact that you have to look for interviews to find these answers is a big black mark for the game.
Maybe it’s deliberate, maybe you aren’t supposed to have all the answers, just like in real life where things are often messy and untidy. But that doesn’t stop it being completely frustrating that a story you are being told at times feels incomplete or, worse, nonsensical.
It really is such a shame that it was the ending which was the worst part of the game because it sort of feels like it spoils the early hours of it, even though they were genuinely very intriguing and quite excellent. At the end of the day though the story left me unsatisfied because of its shift in focus towards the “mystery” and then because the outcome of the mystery was disappointing at best.
I’m making a big deal about this as well because Firewatch does share other similarities with other walking simulators in that there really is no “gameplay” mechanics at any stage. Beyond chatting to Delilah about shrubberies and rocks and his morning poop whilst walking to your next objective, there is really nothing else Henry does in the game. So, if the story cannot carry everything else on its shoulders then it is, unfortunately, just not worth the time.
Another aspect of Firewatch is that it feels like it doesn’t deliver on promises it makes early on. You are introduced to a few things outside of talking with Delilah which feel more like actual gameplay mechanics, things which seem to like they could be important and carry weight in the story. Clearing up trash for instance and a camera for taking pictures are both brought up fairly early but neither end up playing any role or change any outcome of the game whatsoever. The camera in particular has a limited number of photos and as things progress there are a few elements of the story where it feels like you are encouraged to take pictures as evidence. However, this is done for absolutely no pay-off and so ends up feeling utterly pointless. Like with the ending, it actually feels like there was a genuine mechanic or outcome planned for this but then they had to rush it and so scrapped whatever said outcome of it was going to be.
There is another single instance which feels very much different from the rest of the game where you have the opportunity to actually influence dialogue somewhat by throwing a radio into a lake and breaking it. It seems to suggest a set-up for a game in which there will be the occasional act you can do which will influence other aspects of the story and game, things and decisions which may not even seem remotely obvious at first (the idea of throwing the radio in, for instance, is a completely blue-sky thought). However there isn’t another single instance of an action like this and it ends up not paying off anyway, leaving one feeling once again like the game could have been more but then just wasn’t.
In the end it feels very much like you have to accept a trade-off with Firewatch. The initial set up and few hours are exceptional and had they continued as they were I would have thrown a stamp of recommendation at this without thought. As it is, given that the ending could potentially spoil much of that for you it feels difficult to make a call whether or not it’s truly worth it.
|· Dialogue and character-building some of the best examples I’ve experienced
· Extremely emotional and emotive and impressive in the way it deals with both
· Beautiful graphics and excellent soundtrack provide a compelling atmosphere for a compelling story
· Top-notch voice acting
|· See below
· Set up of early mechanics seem to promise a game with a broader scope than it actually has
· Ending feels rushed and anticlimactic, giving the story an unfinished feeling
· Intense story focus means that flaws in the overarching plot and the ending almost ruin a lot of what the game does in a the early phases
So, unfortunately, there is another aspect to Firewatch which affects my overall recommendation of whether you should buy the game or not. Strap in boys and girls because it’s about to get political!
Now, it’s worth mentioning I absolutely stand by all of what I said in my review and that the final score of the game is not affected by any of this. The actual game itself is not changed by this, just my recommendation that you should not buy it.
You may be aware of the big “scandal” involving Pewdiepie dropping the N-bomb on a livestream. Now, regardless of where you stand on that issue (and for the record while I am lenient towards him about it, it was a pretty inexcusable thing), there was an aspect to the story that ought to be uniting folks.
Essentially: Sean Vanaman, co-director of Firewatch, issued a DMCA take-down of Pewdiepie’s Firewatch video following the whole scandal stating that he did not want Campo Santo or Firewatch to be “complicit” with the “racism” Pewdiepie displayed.
Now, I’ll say this at least: it is a defensible point to not want your stuff to be associated with any kind of hatred or even certain points of view. What is NOT acceptable though is this “after the fact” DMCA claim.
Campo Santo stated very, VERY, clearly that people were allowed to make videos on Firewatch and monetise them. Regardless of what Pewdiepie said, the fact that they would issue the DMCA claim despite having made this promise, is indicative of a much larger problem.
This is a practice that, while defensible here, leads down the path of developers filing DMCA claims against any video/Youtuber publishing content that they disagree with. This could be anything from a political opinion to perhaps even simply stating a negative opinion of the game. As soon as someone is allowed to file a copyright claim based on an opinion or something said in the video then that sets an extremely dangerous precedent which absolutely must not be encouraged.
For that reason I would very much recommend that, even if my review made you think you might want to buy the game, that you vote with your wallet here and make it absolutely clear that this practice is unacceptable and that you will NOT be buying Firewatch because of the practices of the developer.