First-person exploration games are one of the most exciting and vibrant genres in gaming today. Titles like Gone Home, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable have broken new ground in interactive storytelling, eschewing action and spectacle for quieter, more meditative experiences. It's a growing genre, too, with Adrift, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Tacoma poised on the horizon. So as one of 2016's most anticipated FPXs, Firewatch has serious expectations to live up to.
Set in Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest in the wake of the 1988 Yellowstone fires, Firewatch is the debut from Campo Santo, a new studio made up of veterans of Telltale, Klei, 2K, Double Fine, and more. It follows fire lookout Henry over the course of a summer, as he investigates the surrounding area and converses with his supervisor. There's a lot more to it than that, of course, and this review will avoid revealing too many story elements, but spoiler alert: the game's great.
Firewatch actually begins far from the wilderness, at the college bar where protagonist Henry met his wife Julia. Over the subsequent quarter of an hour or so, we're taken through a whirlwind of a relationship that is by turns funny, romantic, and completely, brutally emotional. Those who've been through similar ordeals to Henry and Julia will have their souls rent open by the dagger-sharp writing, full of all the little observations and memories that mean the most in relationships. Hopefully, it'll have a similar effect on those who haven't, too.
The prologue hammers on the heartstrings with the efficiency and humanity of the opening sequence in Pixar's Up, and for much the same dramatic purpose. It's just background information, but it informs everything Henry says and does. Never has a game thrown so many emotional gut punches before even really kicking off.
Also much like Up, Firewatch jumps from its prologue into an almost entirely separate story which struggles to match the power of those opening moments. The open-mouth sobbing of the introduction is a hard act to follow.
In many ways, Firewatch plays similarly to FPX sibling Gone Home – the same “pick up, put back” mechanic, the same notes found around the game world – but it’s also got a significant dialogue component that Fullbright's game lacked. Throughout the game, Henry speaks via his radio to his boss Delilah, the real star of the game. As he investigates concerning developments in the wilderness, under her watchful gaze, they talk about seemingly everything under the sun, with subtle direction from the player. The writing here is exceptional – they joke around, talk bullshit, and have heart-to-hearts like real people – and illuminates the three-dimensional characters at the game's heart.
Two storylines play out over Firewatch's five or six hours. Both are engrossing enough that players will likely power through the game in a single sitting, but they're vastly different in tone. Luckily, they're also complementary.
The most immediately obvious story concerns Henry's relationship with Delilah. Thanks to the prologue, it’s nigh impossible not to read this relationship as anything other than than a lonely, broken man looking for a connection. Emotionally broken men are a hoary cliche of video games, but Henry is different: his past is specific, relatable, and nonviolent, and he's got a personality. Personality goes a long way. Depending on how you play things, Henry and Delilah's relationship can be either a meaningful friendship or a heart-aching potential romance.
There's also a surprising amount of in-the-moment drama for an FPX. Without spoiling too much, there's a conspiracy storyline that develops in twisty-turny ways throughout the game. Constantly throwing surprises at the player, it's riveting and at times genuinely shocking. When played against Henry and Delilah's relationship, it renders Firewatch's story part Hitchcock, part Stand By Me, and part Sleepless in Seattle. You don't see references like those much in video games.
Campo Santo's design team has put together an achingly beautiful environment in which to play the story out. Technically, it's an open world, but the story pulls players through it fairly linearly – with a few optional digressions. Despite the linear structure, however, the writing and level design do a terrific job of making the player feel like they're choosing their own path through the landscape. And what a landscape. The clean design and the colours - all rich reds and oranges and purples and yellows and greens - echo the terrific poster work for which the game's artist Olly Moss is known. Henry finds a camera early on in the game, and it's for good reason: many a picture-worthy vista can be found here in Two Forks.
Players' interpretations of the game's ending will vary depending on how they view Henry and Delilah's relationship, among other things, but - without spoiling anything - it's a more grounded, low-key ending than what players' imaginations are likely to conjure up. In this respect, too, it reminds of Gone Home. Firewatch sort of fizzles in a way that might seem dramatically unsatisfying in a conventional sense, but that makes more and more sense the more thought gets put into it. This is a game about loneliness and introspection, and the wistful fashion in which it concludes feels more akin to reality than a video game narrative. Things just...fizzle, sometimes. That's life, buckaroo.
Players looking for a gameplay challenge or hundred-hour replayability won't find either in Firewatch, but they've got plenty of games to keep them happy. Firewatch is an unconventional game, but it's also a game that's helping establish conventions in a genre still accumulating them. It’s full of surprises, with a yearning in its heart that few games even try to capture. Firewatch may not be for everybody, but it is absolutely for me.