Platforms: PS4 (tested), PC
Developer: Campo Santo
Release Date: 9 February
Firewatch is a rare game. One that is adult without being immature, mature without warranting a blood-splattered 18-rating. There's no gratuitous violence in Campo Santo's debut, no childish notions of sex or gender – it's a game about adult relationships, responsibilities and problems.
Henry's marriage is falling apart, due to forces within and out of his control. At a critical moment he seeks a self-imposed exile, taking a job as a fire lookout for the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, USA. His only regular communication there is with Delilah, his supervisor, whom he talks to via walkie talkie. If that's sounds a bit dry, don't worry, this is a thoroughly fun, and often funny, tale.
How Henry got to this point in his life is told during an excellent opening that breaks up the player's first steps, and some simple lessons on how to control the game, with a retelling of how Henry's marriage started and what went wrong. As the backstory converges with the game proper, the player is offered a small amount of input into what happened – but the result is effectively the same.
Throughout Firewatch players select dialogue options that take conversations down differing routes. These are crucial to Firewatch, but much like the opening, what the player chooses doesn't impact the broad strokes of the plot. This is no bad thing. Some games pride themselves on player choices impacting what happens, while others do not. So long as a player is not told one thing and the reality ends up being another, the only thing that really matters is how all of it helps to engage a game's audience.
In the case of Firewatch the dialogue worked wonderfully in drawing me in. I believed in Henry and Delilah as complicated characters, and I was invested in their developing friendship and the mysterious occurrences that plague their summer. For the most part Firewatch is a two-hander, with Mad Men's Rich Sommer and voice over actress Cissy Jones playing the two leads. Both are wonderful, charismatic, funny and share a chemistry that bolsters the excellent script by Sean Vanaman – who also wrote much of Telltale Games' first season of The Walking Dead.
As Firewatch's story unfolds the tension builds in a similar way to The Fullbright Company's indie classic Gone Home – to which Campo Santo owes (and would admit to owing) a great debt. That comes from the mysteries of the plot of course, but also from the fact very little of the game has been shown off by the developers prior to release, so there's no existing inkling as to where it could go. Whether or not it takes the same path as Gone Home, I won't say.
The game's story is lightweight, but that's no criticism. This is a novella, not a novel – one of the kind Henry may well have read during his lonely summer evenings in the wilderness. That said, this isn't a story that will live long in the memory, and the somewhat anti-climatic ending doesn't help that. The problem is (and I'm dancing around spoilers here) that of the three main plot threads, it's the one you have least reason to pay attention to that ends up being the most important come to the ending. That's because it's the only element of the plot that you only hear about and don't see or interact with in some way (until the ending).
The real delights of the game aren't in the developments of the plot however. They're in the lead pair's back-and-forth exchanges – whether that's a case of Henry sharing his story, Delilah sharing one of hers, or some innocent fun . There's a certain melancholia about these exchanges that lends Firewatch humanity and authenticity and aids the characters and sense of place. These charming instances also help the story breathe; particularly in the first half.
Such moments are also helped by the excellent visual design work of environmental designer Jane Ng and artist Olly Moss, whose colourful, almost-minimalist style is evident in every frame. Moss draws the attention, but Ng deserves just as much credit (as do all the people who worked on the game) for creating an open world that is littered with landmarks to aid the player's sense of direction, and so ensuring they aren't heavily-reliant on the map the whole way through. The open world design keeps things to simple pathways, but never feels cramped. It always feels like a large, open environment, when the reality is that it really isn't. Firewatch is far from a big budget game, but you'd never know it.
On a design level Firewatch impresses throughout, but problems on the technical side under cut that. While I've been told the PC version runs smoothly, as would be expected, there is noticeable and regular framerate stutter in the PS4 version as the game loads in new environments or dialogue. Hopefully future patches sort the problem out, but for now it's a disappointing blight on an otherwise great game.
Firewatch is a simple game that tells a simple, far from impactful, tale, which approaches greatness thanks to superb writing, acting and design work. Gameplay is kept light and straightforward, but is always engaging – befitting a game that revels in the unique storytelling potential of games. This is a new studio's debut title, but it bears the quality of a product made by a team of veterans who have a great deal more to offer.