Few things have left me lying awake in my bed. The night I finished Firewatch, clutching the controller through to three o’clock in the morning, I climbed into bed, exhausted, hoping to get a decent night’s sleep before needing to wake up early in the morning. Then I didn’t. Instead I stared at the ceiling of my room, pondering and lost in the amalgamation of feelings Firewatch left with me. It’s both beautiful and poignant, and much like the first person adventure games that have come before it (see: Gone Home) it gives you an experience that may stick with you forever. From its opening moments to it’s final seconds, Firewatch steps up what we see as storytelling in video games.
Your story of your average Joe getting a job as a lookout in the Rockies over the summer of 1989 may seem surface-level and uninteresting, but without giving too much away, Firewatch actually plays into what makes that situation and world fascinating. It’s you, your tower, and the woods around you. The world of Firewatch is a sprawling quadrant of Shoshone National Forest, with your watch tower hovering at its center. Sure, for the most part your job description has you sitting in your tower, talking to Delilah, from the tower up the way, and all around your senior when it comes to forest knowhow; but diving into that isolation is where Firewatch may surprise you.
Henry, your character, has his own motivations for wanting to be in the middle of nowhere, where he can finally get away from it all. That, along with the total isolation within nature makes Firewatch almost meditative in its quieter moments. The forest is beautiful, held back only by some serious frame rate issues on PS4, but that still can’t take anything away from the solitary and slow experience of Firewatch’s world.
In a game with very light “video game mechanics”, such as a map and compass to help you navigate the world, and a few buttons that let you make your dialogue choices, Firewatch is more about its immersion and characters than anything else. The core “mechanic” of the game is talking to Delilah, your radio friend who is only ever a stranger’s voice in your ear. But that is where the true beauty of Firewatch lies. Really, that exchange, over the course of the dozens of days that Campo Santo’s story takes place, is Firewatch. It is the experience, it is absolutely everything. And it’s perfect.
Never before these exchanges, these moments of picking out dialogue as Henry, has a conversation in a video game ever felt like just that, a conversation. It’s the driving mechanism of the game, but past that, it’s so human and real that it feels real. It’s important to note that feeling, not just the execution or delivery of a mechanic. And the dialogue options you share over your walkie are subverted and changed in pretty subtle ways that have tons of different responses and permutations. It’s natural, and fun, and sad, and every complex emotion that you may feel as you get closer and closer to someone who is very close, but feels impossibly far away. The complexity of feelings that Henry and his situation hold were so human and easy for me to fall into, that being that character and taking the reins of his story felt as natural as the dialogue itself.
The core of the story told here is that relationship between Henry and Delilah, and I think the twists and turns that come with that will definitely have a massive effect on most people that pick up Firewatch. It’s even better not to know what to expect here, and the surprises in this game are absolutely what make it something that will last with me. Whether you’re frustrated with the characters, the story, or the turns it takes, I can almost guarantee that Firewatch will make you feel something. And that in itself is something special.
I don’t even want to say anymore. Firewatch is about five or so hours, and every second is executed so well that its absolutely worth picking up and playing just to experience. Just like Gone Home before it, I think the story here is so painfully human that it’s worth seeing even if it hurts. Aside from those technical shortcomings, Firewatch is maybe one of the best experiences, past just video games, I’ve ever had the pleasure of going through.