[Review] Firewatch (PS4)

firewatch

Do you like running through national parks, parkouring your way over fallen trees and scaling rocky outcrops?

Do you seek to reconnect with nature and find solace in its gentle embrace? Are you running away from something, something you can’t leave behind no matter how you try? Welcome to the outback of Wyoming! Here’s your hat and outpost, and we’ll see you in three months.

Campo Santo’s Firewatch follows the exploits of Haunted Hiking Henry, Wyoming park ranger extraordinaire. Following a short text introduction where things go sour with your wife due to an illness, you (Henry, voiced by Rich Sommer) wake up somewhere in the wilderness following a two-day hike to your new home, Two Forks lookout. Here you expect to spend an uneventful summer staring out of windows and cleansing yourself in nature, mulling over all those heavy thoughts in your head in the unrelenting peace of the Shoshone National Forest.

In no time at all, you are introduced via a squawking radio to your invisible friend and constant companion for the rest of your stay, your supervisor Delilah, who inhabits a distant lookout in the next section over. Delilah — voiced by Cissy Jones — is a delightfully acerbic alcoholic who has been stationed out here for far too long and has seen any number of rangers come and go from your position. You repay her guiding comments by reporting pretty much every single, insignificant object you see or pointless thought that enters your head. You better get used to it, because out here it’s just you and your radio and a whole heck of a lot of rocks.

In a storytelling game of this type, success really boils down to how immersive and convincing the world is. In this, Firewatch excels, not only playing up the utter isolation of your situation and fostering a growing paranoia in the player, but also by making you feel like you really are navigating vast tracts of open land full of natural obstacles and poorly-marked paths. There is no fast-travel button — you want to make your way from your lookout down to the lake? Whip out your map and compass, take a bearing from the moss growing on the nearest tree, squint up at the sun, and head off down that ol’ dusty trail.

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What I found incredible about Firewatch was how it made me feel little thrills of victory when I successfully navigated my way to some location, using just my grit, fifteen feet of sturdy, woven hemp and a heady mixture of balance, grace and A+ orienteering. Despite the fact that you spend literal hours trudging across hostile terrain, it never felt boring or repetitive, and accurately conveyed a due sense of time taken to get from point A to point B (I’m looking at you, Skyrim and Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks).

Fortunately, all this sweaty exertion is given purpose by the well-written plot. While your duties start off with the usual kind of Smokey the Bear fire-stomping and firecracker crackdowns you’d expect, it soon evolves (soon being relative, given this game’s highly non-linear sense of time) layer by layer into a much more sinister mystery closing in around you. On top of these strange and disturbing happenings is the chilling knowledge that help in the form of a Wyoming Ranger S.W.A.T Team or even the Mystery Gang is several days away, and someone’s just cut the power lines.

Despite this, I think my main complaints regarding Firewatch come from the story. A number of intriguing plot points that turn up are cursorily dismissed as irrelevant ages after they’re introduced, and even though the ending is quite tense, it felt like an anti-climax given the beautiful set-up. My other problem with Firewatch was that it felt a bit on the short side. Given all the strange goings-on and the vast scope of the plot (not to mention the huge, huge amount of wilderness in your domain), it felt rushed, herding you towards the finale before you were emotionally or narratively ready for it.

Not only this, but your decisions along the way feel like they have little to no impact on the events that transpire. In Life is Strange, another story-driven game I played through recently, your decisions may not affect the grand sweep of the narrative, but they change countless little details along the way and make you feel like what you’re doing matters, gosh darn it! Then again, I’m not sure if this comparison is fair given their relative lengths: Firewatch is maybe four or five hours long from start to finish, while Life is Strange plays out in no less than five multi-hour episodes.

Overall, Firewatch was a lot of fun. Its premise is certainly unique and surprising, and no game I’ve heard of tells a story quite like this one. Oddly enough, owing to the isolation and mental attrition of the in-game environment, I think it would be a vastly different experience playing it by yourself compared to playing with a friend, as I did. If you’re a fan of immersive story-driven games, then definitely check out Firewatch.

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