Video games as a form of expression have often struggled to portray emotion. Sure, you could say that we still don’t have the technology to effectively animate character faces in a way that conveys authentic feeling. Other methods can be used to achieve this goal outside of visuals such as narrative direction and dialogue. Well delivered voice over and even sound cued at the perfect moment can accomplish this effect as well but use of such techniques in gaming has always paled in comparison to more focused mediums such as film. Perhaps even more difficult for developers, is to elicit a tangible emotional response from players that experience their games. Can you name one game in which you felt something real for the characters, where you truly empathized with their plight? Games are notoriously shallow when it comes to character depth and development and, outside of a few select titles, most seem to be action or visually driven, with story and characterization added seemingly as an afterthought.
Campo Santo have taken this practice and fundamentally turned it upside down with their fantastic first person explorer, Firewatch. Released in February of this year for PlayStation 4 and PC, the critically lauded title is now available for Xbox owners to enjoy. It comes to Microsoft’s console with some interesting extras including a cool option to play with commentary from the developers and also, a free roam mode that allows players to explore the wonderful environments Campo Santo have crafted even after the main narrative has concluded.
Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a forty-something who takes a summer job as a lookout in the Wyoming wilderness where his main purpose is, funnily enough, watching for fires. However, it turns out there are other dangers out in the forest and soon enough, Henry becomes embroiled in a mystery involving missing teenagers and shadowy figures who appear to be up to no good. Firewatch begins with a uniquely effective series of text based choices interspersed with short graphical sequences and it’s during this section that you will become aware of the emotional depth the game is laying as a foundation. It’s also where you find out the tragic circumstances that lead to Henry desperately seeking the solitude of the Wyoming wilds and his reasons for retreating from mainstream society. This segment is charged with emotion and while decisions made never alter the outcome, it’s here that the game sets a tone that will continue for the duration.
Arriving in the park itself is a powerful moment; one of those “wow” occasions in gaming when all facets of a title come together almost perfectly. The Wyoming wilderness is stunningly rendered with striking colors that flare and fade depending on the time of day. Acclaimed illustrator, Olly Moss, has done some amazing work here and although many of the sites presented in Firewatch are fictional, it’s hard not to picture Jonesy Lake and Thunder Canyon as integral parts of the real-life Shoshone. The visuals and general ambiance are really that good! Even Henry’s home for the summer, Two Forks Tower, is packed with engrossing little details and has a breathtaking view that encompasses the entire forest. Music is sparse, which is fantastic as it allows the environment to provide any aural accompaniment required while playing. Insects buzz busily in the brush, water trundles lazily down canyons and the wind whispers through the trees. Any and all sounds you would hear in such natural surrounds have been expertly reproduced very convincingly.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Firewatch is it’s deftly crafted story and the skill with which it is portrayed by the two leads, Henry and his boss, Delilah. The fledgling relationship between these two forms the central pillar around which the rest of the narrative is built. It’s a testament to the quality of the script and it’s delivery that we can so thoroughly get to know these two characters on a personally emotional level without ever setting eyes on them in the flesh. Delilah is basically just a voice on the walkie-talklie but she is always there with a comment regardless of the predicament that Henry finds himself in. Sometimes sad, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes angry, the interaction between Henry and Delilah forms the basis for progression in Firewatch as she sends you to complete various errands around the park. It’s during one of these errands that Henry and Delilah uncover hints of a deeper mystery within the Shoshone that ramps up the suspense transforming the narrative from a simple “man trying to escape his problems” into something much darker.
Without trekking into spoiler territory, the only disappointment I can pinpoint in Firewatch is it’s ending. The narrative spends considerable time dropping little details and hints that something larger and more sinister is afoot. Dark figures in the night and unknown activities going on behind chain link fences. But, the revelatory conclusion I thought was coming didn’t eventuate. Don’t get me wrong, the ending was far from bad. In fact, quite the opposite. It just didn’t necessarily have that “big twist” climactic moment that seemed to be intimated at throughout the story.
Firewatch is a game that will have you thinking about it long after you stop playing. While it’s mature themes make for some tense storytelling, it is only enhanced by some of the most authentically “real” dialogue and voiceover work I have seen in a game to date. The story is thoroughly believable because Henry and Delilah are the story. Throw in magnificent visuals and you have one of the most complete gaming experiences you will find on any platform!
Reviewed on Xbox One.