I’m going to spoil some Firewatch stuff here, so be warned.
Firewatch is not for me.
That’s not to suggest I didn’t like it, because I did. But I mean I’m not its target audience.
Firewatch is perhaps the only game I’ve played since Silent Hill 2 (or to a slightly lesser degree, The Walking Dead Season 1) that requires a generous amount of life experience in order for the story to grip you in the way it wants.
I reckon this game is targeted at men in their 40s or beyond who are either in the middle of a mid-life crisis or have already passed it. If you’re married — better. Have kids — even better. Divorced or having rough spots in your marriage — we’re hitting the sweet spot now.
I am none of those things, and that’s OK. The story still impacted me here and there, but I don’t think I’m mature enough for it to really get to me.
In Firewatch you play as a gentleman named Henry. He accepts a summer-long job as a firewatch in a Colorado national park. His boss Delilah serves as the communicator linking all the firewatchers together, and she’s in constant communication with Henry via walkie talkie. Most of the game is spent exploring the forest and solving problems, such as drunk kids setting off fireworks. Later in the game, Delilah and Henry believe they might be under surveillance by an unknown party and the bulk problem involves them solving the mystery.
The first 15 minutes of the game is presented as text backstory. The game injects some “game-y-ness” into it by letting you select outcomes of situations for Henry. For example, one of the first prompts explains you’re in a bar and see a beautiful woman named Julia. When the text says you walk up to her, you select to either tell her you’re drunk or try out a smoother move and casually ask her what her major is. Keep in mind this happens all via text on the screen. There are no cutscenes or animations that let you see this play out.
However, the 15 minutes of text spans a large portion of Henry’s life. It starts with him meeting Julia in a bar in college and end with them separating (for reasons I won’t divulge) decades later. Along the way you make text choices on things here and there — what kind of dog do you get, are you ready for kids — until the eventual separation.
All in all the games dumps decades of exposition on you in a short time span. It’s effective at setting the scene and letting you know who Henry is, but it also has some problems.
First of all it breaks one of the biggest rules in entertainment because it tells instead of shows. The intro is not dissimilar to the memorable and heartbreaking intro sequence of The Last of Us except the The Last of Us’ intro is all in-game and mostly player-controlled. It’s far more effective at getting its mechanics and emotions across because we can see the characters, we can hear them, we know who they are rather than simply reading about them. Given that Firewatch is a new game by a new developer that doesn’t have the bajillion dollars Naughty Dog had to develop The Last of Us, I get it. Not every developer can afford to build a strong opening and give us deep characters in-game. That stuff takes time and money and Campo Santo might not have had the resources for it. However some of the emotional punch is lost due it being an all-text intro.
The second problem Firewatch’s intro has is it both has everything and nothing to do with the current affairs going on in the story. Details we learn in the intro lead up to the reason why Henry takes a summer-long job secluded in a national park’s watch tower, but have negligible impact on how the mystery story plays out between him and Delilah.
It serves as a backdrop among many red herrings — two possibly missing teens, a mysterious man, a fenced off area in the park — yet never resolves itself. I’m not saying I expect every story’s end to have a neat and tidy conclusion that ties back to the beginning, but if you’re going to make me read through an entire well-thought-out intro backstory for 15 minutes, do something with that in the actual game.
The relationship between Delilah and Henry is organic, realistic and I found myself able to reflect my own responses to Delilah’s conversations well through dialogue options given to Henry as responses. These are two believable characters saying and doing believable things for most of the game.
My favorite thing about Firewatch is how Henry and Delilah’s conversations often feel like the opening stages of a potentially flirty relationship. Because they only speak over walkie talkies for the entire game, dialogue is often cat-and-mouse-y, sarcastic and romantic, much like early text exchanges are for a potential new lover. I also love that when Delilah says something to Henry he can often choose not to respond to her if none of the 1-4 given responses seem appropriate for the player. They feel real and you understand them and shape Henry’s motivations in response to hers within the situation around them.
We’re entering pretty spoilery territory next:
My least favorite thing is which plot thread rides to the conclusion of the game. Firewatch is great at pulling out possible leads for what could or couldn’t be the concluding events of the story, as well as a psychological theme that questions Henry’s own sanity. We have the thread about the two teenage girls who might be missing, the fenced off area that reveals high-tech communication equipment, the possibility that Delilah is not quite who she says she is, the suspicion that Henry might be crazy or the story Delilah tells Henry about the father and son firewatchers from years ago.
The father and son thread is the weakest because, once again, Firewatch tells you about them instead of showing. Every other thread is one Henry experiences firsthand, which gives him a personal stake in. The father-son thread is one only Delilah experienced and recalls to Henry, which makes it far less important to the player, yet Firewatch decides to tie up the plot with that weak thread. Any of the other plot threads could’ve produced a more high-stakes, personal conclusion for Henry due to them being more current, mysterious and urgent. However, Firewatch ultimately fizzles out at the end.
I suspect Firewatch could’ve (and maybe meant to) developed a better, more impactful story using a different road than the one it takes, but was cut short to due timing, budget or a hundred other reasons. Firewatch is anything but a bad game. However, despite the fire that blazes about toward the end of the game, elements of this story, which is most of what fuels the game, feel undercooked.