Firewatch: a Restrospective

The indie darling Firewatch (by the studio Campos Santos) has been out now for a little over a year. While that’s fairly late for a game review I thought this game was still worth a look, because despite receiving several critical accolades it still seems like many people are on the fence about the title (or haven’t heard of it at all). I consider that a tragedy – Firewatch definitely isn’t for everyone, but I personally found its art style compelling, its setting novel, and above all its story provocative and a refreshing subversion of certain video game tropes. I really liked it, is what I’m saying.

SPOILER ALERT!!! One of the most important parts of Firewatch is its story. That is why, even though I’m going to do my best to spoil as little as possible, it’s impossible to talk about this game without giving away plot details. You have been warned.

Let’s start with the basics: Firewatch puts you in the shoes of Henry, an average guy who just took a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest. The life of a fire lookout is an isolated one, and the only sustained human contact you have is with your supervisor Delilah, whom you only speak to over your handheld radio. Despite this separation, you quickly bond with Delilah, and your decisions in regards to how you interact with her shape a big chunk of the emotional basis of the game (more on that in a moment). She’s also your only companion as mysterious things begin to happen in your little section of the park.

More about that park: your game environment is a decently sized open-world national park rendered in an absolutely stunning semi-cartoonish art style (for reference, the art style had an almost Team Fortress 2 feel to it). You’ll be able to explore several environments such as dark caves, dazzling lakefronts, and intensely lush forest. Though the graphics are simple on a technical level I can not overstate how incredibly beautiful every frame of this game is.

Here’s a short gameplay “sample” of what you can expect from Firewatch.

That beauty is somewhat juxtaposed by Firewatch’s tone. While everything is serene at the beginning a foreboding, paranoid feel settles in as the story progresses and you realize that things aren’t quite what they seem (or are they?). Even Delilah, your one and only confidant, proves to be unreliable.

While the main plot builds up this much suspense, deeper ideas start to show themselves. If I could sum up the overall theme of Firewatch with one word it would be “escapism”. Without going in to details: Every major character in the game (including Henry, the player character) is there because they’re trying to escape a deeper problem in their lives. The key word there is “trying”, because in the end it turns out that just as in real life, you can only escape for so long.

This is where most of Firewatch’s detractors criticize the game, and this is why I said at the beginning that it wasn’t for everyone. In short: Firewatch goes about making its point by deliberately using common gaming and storytelling tropes to build up your expectations and get you thoroughly engrossed in the world, and then drops it all on the ground like yesterday’s news. It is the clearest example of an anti-climax that I’ve ever seen in any fictional media. While I personally think the developers used this to masterful effect, there’s no getting around the fact that it will leave a bad taste in a lot of gamers’ mouths.

That being said, I’m still a tremendous fan of this game and recommend that anyone who’s even remotely curious check it out. It’s a beautiful game, and relatively short – only 4-6 hours – so I highly recommend playing the entire story in one sitting. After all, everyone needs to escape life now and then, right?

(Firewatch by Campos Santos is available on Windows, Linux, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One)