Do you ever have those days where you just want to throw in the towel and get away from it all? You think maybe a change in scenery and some fresh air would do you some good, help you clear your head, and maybe you can return to the shit show you left behind a little less defeated and a little more prepared to handle what comes your way. Or…maybe it’s more than a change of scenery that you need. Maybe you just need to get away, for good.
Firewatch, developed by the indie studio Campo Santo, is a first-person adventure game set in the wilderness of Wyoming. The year is 1989 and you play as Henry, a man who needed to get away from a life that took an unexpected turn. The game opens on a purple ambient background with the sounds of restaurant chatter underneath as the words “You see Julia” slowly fade onto the screen. Told only through written word is the history of Henry’s relationship with his wife Julia; everything from how they met at a bar in 1975, to adopting a puppy, to getting engaged, to facing hardships. Intercut with these short passages is present day sequences of Henry grabbing his backpack and driving off to the wilderness. It is within these first ten minutes of the game that players learn why Henry felt like he had to leave home for the summer and become a fire lookout in the middle of nowhere. Without spoiling details I will just tell you… it’s a real gut punch.
Upon entering the lookout tower, and Henry’s new home for the next few months, you pick up a handheld radio and the voice of your supervisor Delilah is heard on the other end. She immediately puts you on blast for taking the job, claiming only people with issues would venture out this far. Not a great first impression of your boss but it passes and Delilah becomes your main source of communication. Over the course of the game it is your conversations with Delilah over the radio that reveal more about Henry’s past and current state of mind. Players are given choices on how to respond to Delilah. Depending on the choices players make Henry can be open and laid back or stern and tight-lipped. Cut off from the rest of society, the choices players make can build or destroy your only relationship and connection with someone while being miles from home.
Henry’s first day on the job starts off more exciting than he anticipated. Fireworks are seen in the distance, an obvious fire hazard that needs to be addressed. Delilah tells Henry to go find out who is responsible and to get them to stop. Venturing into the unknown players must use a map and compass to navigate the area and locate the source of the fireworks. Yes you read that correctly - an actual map and compass. There is no navigation key in the corner of the screen showing you what path to follow. It takes an extra minute to keep pulling out the map and compass to make sure you’re on track but I assure you it adds to the authenticity of how it feels to navigate the woods.
Supply cache boxes can be found around the trails and contain useful items like rope or a flashlight. They even provide additional narrative with notes written between two rangers. I also must point out that if you played Gone Home you will find an Easter egg in one of those cache boxes. After getting the supplies he needs Henry finds the source of the fireworks; a pair of teenage girls skinny dipping in a lake. Players are offered choices on how to handle the situation but it’s after the uncomfortable interaction between Henry and the girls that the story really picks up speed, and takes a mysterious turn.
On his way back to his tower Henry comes across a man on a ledge looking down at him. Normally that wouldn’t be too weird – it is the forest after all so he’s bound to run into campers. But when he arrives back at his tower he discovers his typewriter has been thrown out the window and his place is trashed. At first you assume it was the girls at the lake or maybe the guy you saw on the ledge.
But even the one relationship you've formed with someone gets called into question. Delilah starts acting shifty. She accidentally broadcasts a conversation with someone else on your handheld radio…a conversation that sounds like she’s talking about you, and not in a positive manner. Things get even weirder when Henry finds out the girls he saw at the lake have gone missing… and he is the last one to have reportedly seen them. To add on to that dilemma, Henry then stumbles across the abandoned backpack that once belonged to Brian Goodwin – a boy who was stationed in the area with his father a few summers prior. But the weirdest finding Henry comes across is a notepad where someone has recorded his private conversations between he and Delilah over the radio. Who else could have been listening in on their communication over the radio? After discovering the notepad and notifying Delilah, Henry is hit in the head from behind and passes out. The rest is up to you to unfold; a mystery surrounds these woods and it is sure to send you on an exhilarating ride in just a few short hours of gameplay.
Between its stunning sunsets and picturesque peaks Firewatch has somehow captured the most beautiful aspects of the wilderness just shy of the smell of its crisp fresh air. The game takes place over the course of a summer and each day acts as a chapter within the game. The days will jump ahead so don’t worry about having to deal with 90 chapters. Overall it does well to maintain an exciting pace and just when it’s about to feel stale a new event will take place to draw you back in.
Players can rappel down cliffs, climb over ledges, and venture into dark caves, just as you would if you were exploring the woods. The first-person perspective effortlessly encapsulates the realism of feeling alone in the wild. You are just as lost out there looking through Henry’s eyes as you are at home looking out to the foreign landscape on your screen. But if the perspective doesn’t convince you that you’re alone, the deafening silence will. Unless you’re talking to Delilah on the radio or a music track is cued you could be walking around for a while with only the sound of birds chirping and the grass crunching beneath your feet. At first it’s actually quite lovely, but once the story took a dark and puzzling turn I was scared to ever turn around. Just keep going forward because if I can’t see whoever is out there then that means they can’t see me…right?!
Firewatch is gorgeous, captivating and will send you on a journey filled with twists and turns beyond the trails. But despite all of its triumphs the one place I felt the game lost its footing was the ending. The storytelling did a superb job building towards something only to rush through the end causing me to feel frustrated and initially unsatisfied. After letting it settle in for a bit though, I’ve come to realize that not everything is going to end the way we want, packaged neatly and wrapped with a bow. If I was led to believe that the setting and events in Firewatch were real then I need to accept the fact that while it’s not the ending I wanted, it might have been the ending the game deserved.
Firewatch is available on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and starting next week it will be available on Nintendo Switch.
Check out the trailer below: