Firewatch is a game about running away from your problems, told through the eyes of Henry, who is trying to avoid dealing with his wife Julia’s early-onset dementia. Its realistic characters and engrossing environment make Firewatch a success, albeit with small missteps.
The majority of Firewatch takes place in the Shoshone National Forest in 1989, but importantly the game starts with a Twine-esque prologue which allows you to detail how Henry and Julia’s relationship unfolds. You pick how Henry introduces himself, what type of dog to get, and, when Julia’s condition worsens, whether to take care of her yourself or move her to a care facility. By allowing me to choose how this opening sequence plays out, developer Campo Santo got me invested in Henry from the beginning of the game. Your choices don’t end up affecting the larger narrative, but that doesn’t matter. Early in the game when Delilah, your boss and main contact in the forest preserve, asked about Julia, the dialogue options had added weight because I felt more connected to her and to Henry’s emotional state than I would have without that interactivity. And because the game is story-heavy and relatively short (my first play-through took around 5 hours), getting the player invested as quickly as possible is vital.
Stationed a few miles away in another lookout, Delilah is the other main character in Firewatch, and she is fantastic. Campo Santo wrote realistic, flawed characters into Firewatch, and the story is better for it. She may be Henry’s boss, but she’s not afraid to match Henry’s sarcasm blow for blow or curse or generally ignore professional etiquette, which makes sense, because maintaining formality with the (very) few people you have contact with over an entire summer would be even more isolating than the setting demands.
Delilah’s flaws also make her feel unreliable. Most video game characters are predictable; when you tell them to do something, they generally do, regardless of whether they are your subordinates or have any reason to listen to you. But that isn’t human. People don’t always listen or behave the way you want them to, and when you give orders to Delilah, those orders feel more like suggestions. Towards the end of the game, you get a chance to learn more about what Delilah did in the parts of the summer when her and Henry weren’t in direct communication, and it really shows how well thought out these characters are.
Setting the game in the middle of a forest, a two-day hike from civilization, was a great decision, too. As a game map, it feels spacious enough to make you feel alone, while taking advantage of natural barriers (e.g. mountains, a lake, a canyon) to keep things from being too open-ended. There is a story to tell, after all, and the environment keeps the player on track. (To really notice this, turn off the setting for location markers on your map before starting. Doing this forces you to rely on your compass and environmental clues to navigate.) Thematically, well, what better place to get away from life’s troubles than to retreat to a picturesque national forest? As any good setting should, the forest of Firewatch allows the characters to thrive without overshadowing them.
Firewatch works on many levels, but I still had some quibbles. (Sorry if what follows is overly vague, I’m trying not to spoil things.) First, depending on which dialogue options you pick, Henry and Delilah’s relationship can feel forced. The player chooses the details of the story, but the same basic plot happens regardless, and there are certain moments that make more sense if preempted by one dialogue branch versus the other. I also found part of the third act underwhelming based on what led up to it. And lastly, there’s a couple of times when it can be hard to find items needed to progress the story, making the game more frustrating than it should be.
The narrative of Firewatch is good enough, though, that these issues are easy to overlook. Through strong writing and excellent voice acting, I felt for the characters and grew attached, and by the end I wished that their stories didn’t have to end.
Rating: 4 out of 5