Firewatch. Where to begin? Firewatch is a game I’ve been eagerly waiting for since around E3 2015. When the game dropped a few days ago I had been getting dangerously close to emailing Campo Santo, the developers, and asking if there had been any news surrounding the game’s delayed release. With the game scheduled to drop in late 2015 and proceeding to do the exact opposite, I had been getting worried. Long story short; I woke up the other day, booted Steam, saw Firewatch on the store page and then proceeded to jump from my desk chair and squeal a bit. I’m a sucker for interactive fiction. I like proper books as much as anyone but narrative-focussed games just hit me right. Perhaps it’s the way that my choices affect the story that speak to my innate narcissism. Perhaps that’s an article for another time.
LOOK AT IT! LOOK HOW PRETTY IT IS! LOOK AT THE COLOURS! THIS GAME HAS COLOURS!
This game in question, however, is exactly one of these “interactive fiction“-em-ups. The story goes: Henry, the main character, takes a job as a fire watch man is there a proper job title for that? I imagine there is. His job description basically boils down to “sit down and watch out for forest fires“ and that’s just what he intends to do as he wrestles with his demons in a lookout tower in the middle of nowhere. As he carries out his duties, however, he finds himself stuck in the middle of a mystery dating back to long before he showed up on the job. As the story unfolds, the player must track down a mysterious figure and find out what exactly is going on in the dense forest. If my use of the word “mystery“ hasn’t set off alarm bells yet: It is a mystery story at its core. Not only that, but it’s a good one. It’s refreshing to see a mystery based narrative explored in a game that doesn’t end in a bloody shoot out, ya know? Looking at you, LA Noire. No, this game follows the indie trend of being short, sweet and to the point. At a little over 3 hours long, the game does exactly what it needs to in order to tell its story and then it goes home. It felt a lot more like experiencing a book than it did playing a game, which is by no means a bad thing. The beauty of focussing solely on the narrative is that you don’t have to add extra things in to the game to pad it out. There’s no distractions. It’s just you, the characters and the ride. If this is the kind of game you think you’d enjoy: stop reading now. I’m going to try not to spoil the game too much in this article but I do feel that games like this are best experienced when you have absolutely no idea what you’re going in to.
Are you ready to rock?! Because... because there's a lot of rocks...
Right, now that they’re gone we can discuss the narrative itself. I personally felt that just before the middle, the story’s pacing got a bit strange. That section where we jump about a fortnight in about 10 seconds felt a bit off to me. In film, quick cuts make the blood pump and get the adrenaline flowing and in this case, the quick cuts kind of disconnected me from the flow of the piece. It could be argued, however, that if my opening statement is that then I must be scraping the bottom of the criticism barrel and I would agree. Overall: this game was brilliant. The only major thing that I felt left me wanting was the very end of the tale. I knew what I wanted the characters to do and they didn’t do it and that sucked but hey, it’s not my choice. It could have been, sure, but it wasn’t. The developers have said that there aren’t any massively varying multiple endings and from what I saw, they’re exactly right. As satisfying as it would have been to have true multiple endings, I feel that having the story end the way it did serves this particular game better than the alternative. Campo Santo seem really defensive over their want to serve the story and the characters within it over anything else and I say more power to them. This is their story and aside from the elusive “secret ending“, whatever they decide is the canon is canon. If anything, the fact that I was annoyed and upset at my lack of emotional contentment is far better than handing me my desires on a silver plate. It’s relatively easy to make a player feel joy or satisfaction at the end of a game, but making a player feel something like anger or sorrow is far harder. Anyone can tell a joke and get a laugh, but few can tell a story and get tears. Now, whilst the ending to Firewatch doesn’t quite command such extreme emotions as those, I think the fact that I felt as I did by the end speaks volumes about the impact the story had on me as a whole. The way that the story deals with grief, fear and mental illness is, in a similar vein to “Three Fourths Home“, very human and very touching.
The gameplay itself is solid, if only for its simplicity. I’ve always felt that the only thing that separates “walking simulator“ from true “interactive fiction“ is the quality of the writing, but this doesn’t stop the walking being the basic core mechanic. True, there are puzzle elements here and there and the game follows a subtle “Metroid-Vania“ structure, but all in all: you can’t mess up with walking and the walking works just fine here. That’s pretty much all I have to say on that front. I will say that the Metroid-Vania feels really well done and organic in the game. It wasn’t until I was about two thirds the way in and found the fire axe that I noticed it at all and when I did, it made me smile. As a casual player of both Metroid and Castlevania, I do like it when other games follow similar paths. Progression by backtracking. This structure really helps Campo Santo get a lot of mileage out of what is a relatively small open world, too. Two Forks may be a small area of forest, but the going back and forth through different paths really makes the place feel bigger than it is. The more surprising thing is that at no point did the environment feel repetitive. There were times when I thought that the environment was closed off for ridiculous reasons, but you gotta herd the player forward somehow I guess. How a guy whose job involves rigorous amounts of hiking can’t climb over a pebble sometimes is beyond me, but what can you do? There’s a narrative that needs forwarding and sometimes, invisible walls are inevitable. I’d say: hide them a bit better next time.
On your right, you'll see a ledge you can't climb. On your left, you'll see a ledge that allows you to get over it just fine. For the purposes of the story, you just gotta go in the other direction. Whoop.
Now, this is a video game. As much as I can rave about the writing quality and the brilliant design, I did run in to a few glaring issues. Get ready for the bug report. I don’t usually bring bugs up in reviews but these two were game breaking and, I hope, should be fixed. The first bug happened pretty much on launch where I found myself spinning round and round in an elevator. No, I wasn’t plummeting to my death; my DS3 controller was plugged in. Firewatch doesn’t like DS3 controllers. If you use one, you’re gonna have to disable it in the hardware section of your PC’s settings menu. Once I’d got that sorted, I played the game for a few hours, saved and went to bed. Upon waking the next morning, I booted the game to find myself falling through an endless void every time I loaded the save. Time to start the game from the beginning, it seems. Outside of that, there’s a few bits of terrain that clip awkwardly and some trees that float off the ground but unless you’re exploring a bit and looking for stuff, you’ll probably never see them. If I were to mark a game down for a few bits of dodgy terrain then I don’t think I’d be able to have Skyrim in my top 5 anymore, so I’ll let it slide.
Tranquil. Serene. Constant risk of burning to death in a forest fire. I'll just go to Butlins, thanks.
All things considered, Firewatch may be my new favourite piece of interactive fiction. It’s not quite up there with the genre-defining greats but it’s certainly something you don’t want to miss. Say you’re in a book shop. You skim the authors and find someone you’ve never heard of. You skim read a chapter and buy the book. You come home, start reading and the book is far better than you could have ever expected. You want to see more from the author. That’s what Campo Santo’s done with Firewatch. An unexpected find that helped shape my perspective on what interactive fiction could and should be. To continue drawing from my metaphor: I can’t wait to see what this “small but scrappy video game studio in San Fransisco“ can come up with next.