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Firewatch - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Navigating with a map and compass
  • Map is fairly open and explorable
  • Establishes an atmosphere of paranoia
  • Thematically resonant story
  • Exceptionally-written dialogue and voice performances
  • Colorful, vibrant visuals

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Persistent freezes and crashes
  • Sudden hard-cuts between days can be jarring
  • Over a little too soon

Overall Impression :B
A beautiful, introspective nature walk

Firewatch - cover

Developer:
Campo Santo

Publisher:
Panic inc.

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam), Mac, Linux,
PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download),
Nintendo Switch
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $19.99 USD

Original release date:
9 February 2016

Genre:
Walking simulator, thriller

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Suggestive Themes, Nudity,
Drug and Alcohol Reference, Strong Language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.firewatchgame.com/

I made it through the big winter game releases, my play-time with Civilization VI's first expansion has slowed down, and the lackluster Green Cities expansion means that I'm not sinking tons of time into Cities: Skylines anymore. This has left me free to finally dive into my Steam back-log once again and try to finally cross off some of the games that have been sitting there for a year or longer. Oh, sure, I have some big games that I'm still playing off and on, like Monster Hunter: World and the 2.0 update of Stellaris, and those reviews will come in time.

Firewatch was released in February 2016, and has been sitting in my Steam library since the summer sale of that same year. I was actually surprised that it had only been two years. I was half afraid that I'd find the game had been sitting around since like 2012 or something like that. Two years isn't that bad, right? I'm not too late to this party, am I?

Firewatch is a summer job to just ... get away from it all.

The life you left behind

Basically, the game is about a middle-aged man dealing with a mid-life crisis. Except that it isn't the stereotypical "mid-life crisis" in which a 40-year-old man goes out and buys a sports car to feel young and "cool" again. In this case, Henry takes a job as a fire look-out at a national park in order to escape the very real life crisis of dealing with his wife suffering from early-onset Alzheimers. He's trying to escape from the very real trauma of losing his wife, Julia. Julia is actually still alive, but the illness means that she isn't the same person, and Henry is struggling with whether he can even stand to visit her anymore.

Not only is he losing his wife, but he's also dealing with the guilt and grief of not ever having really given her the life that she wanted. His own selfish desires and apathy meant that they kept putting off having kids, Julia never got to live where she wanted to live and have the job that she wanted to have, and so forth. And now Henry and Julia are suddenly out of time. Not only can he not have the life with Julia that they both want, but he's not young enough to really start over either. He's stuck with the life choices that he's made, and he doesn't want to have to face that.

There won't always be a "later"...

I'm in my early 30's (a good decade younger than Henry), but I'm starting to get to the age when this sort of thing really hits me hard as well. I'm not 20 years old anymore. I'm becoming very much aware of the ticking clock as well. The pressure to have children soon or accept that we never will weighs on my girlfriend an I. Fortunately, she has a child from a previous relationship, so we did both have the opportunity to raise at least one child together.

My 7-year-old proxy daughter, by the way, asked me who my character in the game is and what he looks like. I told her that he's a "kind of pudgy, balding, middle-aged man named Henry." To which she responded, "like you?". Sigh. Yes, sweetie, just like me.

In some ways, I wonder if the two-year delay in playing the game might actually have made it more resonant for me. I still would have been 30 had I played it when it released, but I certainly feel a lot older in these last two years than the two years themselves would seem to suggest.

Nature walk

Firewatch also resonates with me in another way: its core gameplay and setting. As I mentioned in my Final Fantasy XV review, my dad used to take the family on annual road trips to national parks around the country when I was a kid. I have vivid and fond memories of camping and hiking with my family, and I've always had a fondness and reverence for nature and national parks. It's something that I would very much like to do with my new family, if we could find the time to do it some year. Firewatch, therefore, is like a nostalgic virtual vacation, and it's absolutely delightful to find games like Final Fantasy XV and Firewatch that put such tremendous effort into representing these activities that were a foundational pillar of my childhood. It really takes me back!

You navigate with a map, compass, and trail markers.

While Firewatch falls firmly into the often-maligned genre of "walking simulator", I do feel that Firewatch provides a much more substantive gameplay experience than something like Gone Home (which I quite love) or Dear Esther or A Machine for Pigs. Gone Home (and many other walking simulators), force the player down linear corridors and rooms and provide you with virtually no decisions or challenges of any kind. Firewatch, however, has a much more open map and leaves the player mostly free to wander off in whichever direction you desire.

By default, the in-game map will show a bright red dot to indicate your exact position, but this can be disabled in the game's settings, and I highly recommend that you do that. With the location indicator enabled, the game really does boil down to just walking to a destination while two people talk over a radio. With that indicator disabled, however, you are suddenly left having to navigate with only the map itself, a handy compass, and whatever visual landmarks you can spy with your own eyes. This really should have been the default option.

There's lots of pretty scenery to look at.

Disabling the location indicator introduces a certain element of navigational puzzle-solving that kind of reminds me of Shadow of the Colossus. This map is nowhere near that big, but the time spent navigating the environment of Firewatch gives the player the time to contemplate the situation and story as its unfolding, and it really helps the player to learn these trails. The map is still fairly limited in scope, and there are some very distinct paths that you are forced into following. You'll never get hopelessly lost and stranded in the dark like you might in, say, Miasmata, but having to actually navigate an environment definitely gives Firewatch a much more active feeling of play than a game like Gone Home or Dear Esther.

It certainly helps that the environment is bright, vivid, and detailed. Thoroughfare trails is a gorgeous setting to look at and wander through.

Intrigue, paranoia, and disappointment

The interactions that you'll have with your superior officer, Delilah, also provide a greater sense of engagement than other walking simulators. Instead of simply picking up notes (which you do also do in Firewatch), Henry and Delilah engage in dialogue, and the player has choices for how Henry responds. You're still stuck with the characterization of Henry, but you do have some slight influence over how he grows as a character, and how his relationship with Delilah develops.

Both characters are exceptionally well-written and well-acted.

Delilah herself always feels like her own independent agent, which does kind of play around with the player's sense of agency and control over the game world. Things will just happen, whether you want them to or not. You might think that this is a game in which your decisions change how Delilah will behave, but that isn't really the case. She'll be nicer or meaner to you depending on how you treat her, but she will still be making decisions for herself, regardless of what you tell her to do.

Both characters are really well-written and the voice-acting is superb. Delilah is charming, and I have a hard time believing that she will not have ingratiated herself to you by mid-way through the game.

A mysterious figure seems to be watching you throughout the game.

Over the course of walking around the park and talking with Delilah, a delightful sense of intrigue will slowly grow as the game starts to veer off in an X-Files or Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks kind of direction. People go missing, there's a mysterious research station, a sealed-off cave with missing key, and some nefarious individual may be eavesdropping on your conversations. It all builds a very uneasy sense of paranoia that may have you looking over your shoulder as you explore the park in the middle of the game. Maybe Henry is imagining it all? Maybe he's imagining Delilah? Maybe he's sinking into dementia just like his wife?

Learning the truth becomes very engaging as the game goes into its second half, but it all kind of peters out toward the end. The unsatisfying, mundane ending is kind of the whole point, and the ride to get there is certainly intriguing and worthwhile. Coping with disappointment and unhappy [unsatisfying] endings, and realizing that you can't run away from your problems, is pretty much the running theme of the entire game, and the ending does certainly hit that nail pretty solidly on the head with its subversion and willful disregard of typical storytelling rules and methods.

Paranoia will set in as people go missing and Henry feels he's being watched by a mysterious research station.

Real-life isn't a sensationalized drama. Very rarely are there dramatic climaxes to life events, even the life-changing ones. They just sort of happen and fizzle out, and it isn't until later that you even realize that life changed at all.

What are you loading?

The biggest and most persistent obstacle to my total enjoyment of the game wasn't the anti-climax of an ending; it was the frequent technical problems. I have a pretty top-of-the-line ASUS Republic of Gamers laptop. It's the same laptop that I use to play all my games, including Total War, Civilization, Cities: Skylines, and Doom (2016). This machine should have handled Firewatch pretty easily at the highest graphical settings, but some reason, the game was still marred with frequent technical and perfomance issues.

Turning around would frequently result in the game locking up in the middle of the turning motion-blur effect, sometimes for as long as 30 seconds. Most of the game's loading screens for the new day also froze and crashed after 30 seconds or a minute, forcing me to have to exit the game, reboot it, reload it, and play through the last couple minutes of gameplay again, hoping that I'd make it through the loading screen this time.

Numerous performance issues and crashes hindered my playthrough.

This even happened at the end of the game. After completing the final objective, the screen just faded to black. No final cutscene, no narration of what happened in the aftermath, not even any end credits. There wasn't even a loading screen or any indication that the game was trying to do anything. After a minute, I presumed that the game had frozen again and had to force-quit and reload. At that point, I had to replay the entire final dialogue sequence and complete the final objective again, then I got to see the credits roll after the anti-climax of an ending that I had already seen without knowing for sure if it was the end -- as if it weren't already anti-climactic enough!

Only the interesting bits

The game also doesn't quite last long enough. It can be completed in five hours or so. I don't have a problem with short games -- heck, I wish I could play more five hour games like Firewatch and Ico and fewer 50-hour grind-fests like Assassin's Creed and Final Fantasy. The problem here is that Firewatch puts a great deal of effort and time into trying to immerse you in the setting by forcing you to have to navigate the environment and by keeping you constantly aware of the passage of time.

The player isn't given quite enough time with Delilah.

The game manages to create a successful sense of urgency, even though it will never once give you a "Game Over" for failing to complete a task in a timely fashion. As far as I know, those teens lighting off fireworks will never burn down the park, no matter how long you spend wandering around the back-country. The game is also very much about the mundane elements and choices in life, and how fleeting our valuable time is. So when the game suddenly (and without warning) hard-cuts to days or weeks after a significant narrative milestone, it kind of makes some thematic sense. It's just really jarring. You can miss opportunities to explore some of the nooks and crannies of the map that you maybe wanted to see (and should have had time to do), and it often takes away the player's ability to sit and think about the implications of what might have just happened -- which, I though was supposed to be the entire point of all the time the game makes you spend wandering around.

Worse yet, the game sometimes skips over a lot of the mundane relationship-building that goes on between Henry and Delilah. It's kind of the same problem that I had with the chapter divisions of The Last of Us: completely skipping over those long, uneventful walks through the woods or along the highway meant that we miss huge chunks of the relationship dynamic between Joel and Ellie. The dynamic here works a lot better because the bulk of the gameplay is spent talking to Delilah, rather than shooting zombies while Ellie hides behind cover in the corner and has nothing at all to do with the encounter.

It isn't so much that I think the game needed to be longer, or that it needed to have more content; rather, I think it just needed to take its foot off the gas and let the player decide when it was time to pack it up for the day and move on to tomorrow. This is especially true in the second half, when the game almost feels like it fast-forwards to the conclusion before you really have time for the dread, paranoia, loneliness, and sense of isolation to sink in. Even though Henry is neck-deep in conspiracy theories, the player rarely has time to let your own mind wander before the game is pushing you on to the next plot point.

There's hardly any time for the player's imagination to wander before the game moves on to the next plot point.

Maybe Campo Santo could have added a gradual sunset period at the end of each day after the important narrative events. You'd be free during this time to wander around, but when the sun gets close to setting, Henry could comment that it's going to be dark soon, and it's time to head back to the tower for the night. Then the game could fade to black and cut to the loading screen of the next day. Or the game could give you a couple extra days in the middle act to be able to just explore. You could wake up, pick up the radio, and have the option to go out hiking. Just give the player the option to "end the day" whenever you're ready to move on. That would maintain more of the free-form elements of exploration, while also allowing the player ten minutes or so to wander, explore, and think about what the game is trying to tell you before being forced into the next scripted segment. It would also maintain that sense of the fleeting forward march of time.

A video game about real life

These minor problems aside, Firewatch is a pretty good little game with a very touching and poignant story about all the little decisions that combine to make up our lives, and our deepest regrets. It's a pretty depressing little game -- almost a Silent Hill 2 level of melancholy. Don't go into it if you're not in the mindset to be able to handle it.

As far as walking simulators go, Firewatch does a fantastic job of pulling the player in and providing just enough engagement and "gameplay" to almost transcend being a walking simulator. You can certainly lose yourself in this environment, and "get away" just like Henry does. Firewatch definitely feels like a significant step in the maturation of the walking simulator genre, and the first step towards merging walking simulators with other genres (in the ways that RPG elements have become pervasive in almost every game genre). Had Campo Santo improved the pacing a bit and fixed the freezes and crashes, then Firewatch would probably represent the ideal gold standard that every walking simulator should strive to be. It just doesn't quite reach that level.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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