Built by former Telltale Games employees, including key writers of that company’s Walking Dead franchise, with art design from beloved graphic designer and painter Olly Moss, Firewatch has a rare pedigree. And it’s a fascinating story. Too bad it’s not much of a game!
Firewatch, PC, Mac, Linux and PS4
Artistic Achievement: Firewatch follows Henry, a man struggling with some deeply tragic personal circumstances who chooses to run away from everything to take a job as a lookout at a Wyoming fire station. Needless to say, he rapidly learns the hard way that running from your problems can find you running right into more of them.
Everything about this game is beautiful. Olly Moss’ design is stunning and the game is packed with gorgeous vistas and clever use of smoke and lighting effects to create an atmosphere either serene or troubling, depending on the mood. Henry himself is a real, tangible person in the game; a lot of time was spent to make you feel like you’re in his shoes, right down to being able to see yourself if you look down. The voice acting, from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, is some of the best voice work in a video game we’ve seen in a while. The score mixes creepy synths and warm acoustic guitar in a note-perfect mix. And the writing, while controversial for its ending, is top-notch; Firewatch is ultimately a story about how running from your problems isn’t the same thing as escaping them. If Firewatch were a movie, it’d be in the running for Oscars.
Innovation: Unfortunately, it’s not a movie. Much of the gameplay, to the extent there is any, is about talking to Delilah, your nominal boss, over a radio. While the controls cleverly mimic using that radio, and the dialogue options are fun, it’s basically a thin layer of interactivity over a walking tour. Any decision you make ultimately doesn’t matter to the main plot, just the dialogue you hear and how Delilah treats you. In other words, it’s pretty much a Telltale game.
Execution: That lack of gameplay really hurts Firewatch, not least because as you play the game, you quickly discover that there’s little to actually do. Despite the beautiful vistas and Shoshone forest setting, you’re limited to a handful of paths in one square mile of forest, and there’s almost nothing to do in that forest aside from chat. Even getting around is largely a matter of using the thumbstick. Despite Henry’s physically demanding job and the many natural obstacles and tools to navigate them Firewatch presents you with, there’s no real strategy or gameplay to getting around or finding new plot pieces. Orienteering is little more than looking at your map and disappointingly, all you have to do is stick to the path, not that you really have an option to do otherwise. The lack of gameplay even screws up the plot, a bit; Henry shouldn’t be stumbling over basic survival tools as plot points.
Similarly, the game is “edited” as if it were a movie, which is more or less a pacing disaster. Several “days” are little more than short vignettes that you barely need to be at the controller for, and that you can’t even wander around before the game physically yanks you to the next plot point. It’s obnoxious when any game walks you from cutscene to cutscene, and it’s a bit surprising to run into that problem here.
To its credit, there’s a lot of stuff you can find, including a few funny nods to other games. But it’s hard to feel like you should poke around when you’re being rushed to the next story beat.
Staying Power: Not helping matters is that this is a short, short game. You can knock it out in as little as three hours, or maybe a bit more if you wander to every point and make a point of collecting every note. The length isn’t the point, but again, you can’t help but feel there could have been more gameplay here.
Bullsh*t Factor: It’s hard to see how this game could have any DLC or other content tacked onto it. That said, some are frustrated with the length and the $20 price, and the PS4 version of the game has stuttering issues that can take you out of the game a bit.
Final Thoughts: Much like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch is a game with some genuine ambitions and some admirable thoughts on how video games can be more than just flashy toys. But it’s also a game that struggles to be more than its script with an engine bolted onto it, and the seams show a little too often to make it more than a curiosity.