The term “Walking Simulator” I feel is a little bit unfair when referring to games such as Firewatch. It is a term and a genre that has become more and more popular over the last few years, with titles such as Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone To Rapture, however as a title it doesn’t exactly shout “fun” to its prospective players. It sounds about as exciting as say a Toenail Cutting Simulator or playing The Man Who Paints Walls Beige on the Xbox One. It’s an unfair name for the genre, because I found Firewatch to be a far from boring experience.
In Firewatch you play as Henry, a man who decides to take a Summer job as a fire lookout in the wilderness of Wyoming in 1989 so he can reassess his life which we learn is quite tragically crumbling around him. During this time of near isolation and attempt at self reflection he has the company of a voice on the other end of a Walkie-Talkie named Delilah, another seemingly lost soul out on fire watch duties in a far away cabin. What takes place over the next 5 to 6 hours (or more if like me you want to explore every corner of this beautifully designed game) of play is at first what seems a series of menial tasks, but soon becomes an intriguing mystery and captivating story.
The first thing I want to applaud about this game is how well written the characters and the dialogue are. In Henry and Delilah we have two characters who over the course of their conversations, which often alter between the emotionally resonant to the genuinely hilarious, we feel as though we know them more, and in turn care about them more. This is something I needed to bring attention to from the off, as dialogue in games often feels like an afterthought and not something that feels entirely authentic to the characters or the situations they find themselves in. Firewatch is an exception to that, and the attention to detail in the way the characters express themselves and develop is possibly the key feature that kept me playing.
Another stand out point in this game is its intriguing and unique story. Indie Studio Campo Santo have crafted a very personal and heartfelt story with their debut game that really hits it out of the park for its humour and ability to keep you invested. I won’t delve too deep into this, as I went into this game myself almost entirely blind which is a beautiful way to go into a game such as this, but a strange, paranoid mystery soon unfolds that leads you to question the reality of what you’ve experienced and gets you asking some pretty big questions. I’m sure you’ll also notice so far in this review that I’ve focused mainly on the writing side of the game with the characters and story. “Where’s the gameplay?” “What gives?” I hear you stamping into your keyboards at me, but the game doesn’t need to wow you with fancy bells and whistles, it need only rely on the strength of its story and characters to bring you an enriching experience and one that since playing has genuinely stayed in my thoughts for some time since.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t technically great though. A lot of thought and talent has gone into making this game a visual marvel as well as a storytelling one. I often found myself while exploring the vast wilderness stopping for a while and enjoying the views of this stylised world. Yes I’m perfectly aware its a game and I need only look out my window for an actual view, but Campo Santo have created a world of unique style and colour while feeling completely believable that I feel deserves players taking the time out to appreciate it in all its well crafted beauty. Plus Firewatch doesn’t have a man staggering down the street with his pitbull and a can of Stella in his hand, so it beats the view from my window with flying colours.
You may think so far in my review that I was talking about a film with the focus on narrative and character development, but the gameplay itself is also of a strong quality. Exploration is key to this game, both in the sense that you have this vast wilderness to enjoy and also in a narrative sense, and it was always enjoyable (and often rewarding) to stray from the path of the story and go out on my own, a choice that this game offers. I will say that the game does rely more on its strong story and characters than it does any new mechanics, but as a player I always felt like I was in control of the situations and never felt as though I was being talked down to. The player is an active part in the story and so the experience is just as investing as a game in which the gameplay is more action oriented.
This game may not be to everyone’s tastes, particularly if you need something with more immediacy or action. The pacing of this game may not be something that you would ordinarily be drawn to either, as this is a heavily story driven experience. But it is a strong story, these are strong characters and the game is a visual treat, and for that it is certainly worth your time. It is a rarity to find a game that is simultaneously brimming with humour but also a kind of touching poignancy, providing players with a plethora of real emotions. There is a sense of nostalgia and melancholy that we not only sense from the two lead characters but feel for them as well, and to create such an empathetic playing experience while simultaneously providing you with a gripping mystery is something rare in gaming, and needs to be experienced.