*NOTE: Because of how antsy I am to dive into the game’s story—ending included—this review’s going to bring up HUGE SPOILERS; in fact, this might be my most spoiler-y review yet. Because of that: I’m going to separate the narrative-heavy stuff towards the latter half, making this a more SPOILER-SAFE review until I begin examining the game’s broader themes.*
Campo Santo’s first game may be one of the toughest yet for me to examine. Not due to lacking inspiration for material; there’s certainly a lot here to examine and discuss. But it’s the fact of it feeling so widely perused in so many facets already to the point of there being no new ground to cover—or at least pretend to feel as though I would. And while a various amount of issues don’t make me the most enthusiastic about it in the long run, there’s still…something there that makes it one of the most fascinating games of 2016.
The history of this new indie studio can instantly clue you in on why there was so much pre-release attention. After finishing up one of the most accomplished game narratives of the seventh generation, The Walking Dead: Season One, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin left TellTale Games to team up with graphic artist Olly Moss and Mark of the Ninja lead designer Nels Anderson to form Campo Santo. A clear signal from this departure, the final product is something divergent from what Vanaman and Rodkin had done previously. Something to call their own.
The year is 1989. You play a schlubby forty-something named Henry. Escaping from the strictures of his normal life for a summer, Henry becomes a fire watchman for Shoshone National Park in Wyoming. It’s a transient job that demands zero human interaction for weeks on end save for the precious voice on the other end of a walkie-talkie. Her name's Delilah. Suffice to say, this foundation sets the stage for both an absorbing character meditation and interesting thriller. Seemingly random events that presage some grander mystery and a tale of loneliness, paranoia, and the perils of heightened seclusion.
Whilst I’m now going to focus on the mechanics and audio-visual experience before diving deeper into the thematic material here, I feel like I ought to pass a warning that early-game plot elements will be mentioned here as well.
One of the most fascinating parts of Firewatch is…just how many parts there are, mechanically speaking. It’s a confection of various gameplay philosophies that’ve been utilized separately countless times before, but mixed up here in a way I haven’t seen previously; in some ways, part of the reason why that’s the case comes from how they challenge old gameplay expectations. For the sake of addressing these chronologically, the first nuance found is in how this title contrasts with Vanaman and Rodkin’s previous work.
Around the time TellTale became more prominent in the game-o-sphere, especially with The Walking Dead, there came this shift of identity and how we assumed a character’s role in more story-heavy games. Amnesia used to be the go-to but more and more there’s been fully-defined characters where we, the players, have to suss the player-character’s backstory out ourselves, oftentimes via dialogue options. The very first line of dialogue in The Walking Dead: Season One utilizes this mentality by dangling the question in front of our noses: what did Lee do? And because of this question we may have selected certain dialogue choices that’d give us a clearer window of the player-character. We were put in a position that’s more about experiencing a laid-out story versus inhabiting the role OF the character like in RPG’s.
What does Firewatch do to eschew this expectation? Rather than having any kind of mystery for the player to uncover via cutscenes or dialogue options, everything important about Henry’s adult life is revealed right out of the gate. The beginning’s more like a character prologue; an intermingling of short interactive walking bits of Henry's ingress into the park spliced with a twine template that gives out all the relevant details: Henry’s currently married, he met his wife, Julia, at a bar, they’ve made several sacrifices along the way, and she’s been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Some of these storybook moments allow binary choices, giving you substantive ownership of Henry before starting the game proper. Once the game kicks in and the central mechanic, the walkie-talkie, is introduced to converse with Delilah you’ve already been eased into the headspace of Henry. This choose-your-own-adventure aesthetic dawdles the line between simply experiencing a story and playing the character’s role with great élan. Whenever questions of Henry’s history are brought up by Delilah, you’re not immediately nudged to select that one option disinterring his past; instead, you’re weighing what kind of Henry YOU want Henry to be. You’re fundamentally role-playing as a fleshed-out character. And his backstory is integral to the themes of this game, yet that doesn’t elbow its way into your conversations with Delilah because of how this was integrated into the main storyline.
After this prologue and making it to Two Forks Tower, Delilah’s introduced via the walkie-talkie. Their disparate miens play off each other which quickly sparks a close connection despite the physical distance between them. But what’s most fascinating about this gameplay template is how it subverts one of adventure games’ oldest tropes. It’s been the same old song for a while: the adventure game protagonist will start describing whatever environmental queue you clicked on despite being all alone—most of the time. A contrived method but it has served as a way of both allowing the developers to give hints about what to do next and provide more character for the protagonist. It was also very necessary in older adventure titles because of how little you could get solely by visually examining the environment. Yet even in today’s age with 1080p possible for point-n-click adventures like Daedalic games, we still accept this method of “informational monologuing,” if you will, because it fills in the majority of our time alone with a greater understanding of the player-character.
That’s why I dig this mechanic used here: it provides ample justification for doing this. Because Henry’s boss is on the other line of a walkie-talkie, it makes sense for him to describe everything he sees in detail; further, any sort of hints developers put in feels more natural and his character receives more dimensions by talking with his boss. Doubling the workload of both informational and emotional material makes it easier to feel involved with the engrossing discussions as well.
Although there is some clear genre-mixing going on, Firewatch might still be easily lumped into the “walking simulator” genre; though in wake of some other similar titles on the horizon, it—and the genre altogether—seems to be gravitating slowly towards a first-person adventure model. Intersecting linear paths are made but cleverly disguised by the woodland’s open, nondescript areas which provide some light navigational challenges. I can’t imagine just how tough it was for Campo Santo to manage this while pacing out the story in comparison to The Stanley Parable or Gone Home. It’s our natural inclination: yearning to explore the vastness of something like a forest when dropped into it. It’s abundantly obvious to me that Campo Santo worked tirelessly in ensuring their Wyoming wilderness, the landmarks, and paths came naturally to the player over time. Each new objective slowly revealed a new piece of this elaborate puzzle until I knew this place like the back of my hand. (Hey, that’s new!)
Since there is no glowing dot to follow or objective marker on the HUD, there’s insistence on the player to listen intently to Delilah’s directions and learn the route via map and compass. Giving some navigational task is one of those gimmicks I dig in these walking sims too. Allowing my head to piece together landmarks and important queues gives a level of respect to the audience that’s simply lost when the game pins everything for you; similarly, that’s how Uncharted’s platforming can feel more involving than the highlighted ledges in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Remember Me.
There is one blotch on Firewatch’s implementation that can’t go unnoticed: the default map location indicator. The first thing to do in Firewatch is disable that! I may be acting nitpicky but it’s bothersome because of the contradictory nature to what the game design’s trying to accomplish; it shows a lack of conviction in simply allowing players to find their own way around the woods.
Just as the environments feel meticulously crafted so too does the dedication in the game’s abundance of minor details and collectibles. Taking different routes or making different responses to Delilah implies some minor replay value. There are also some hidden trinkets that can make the experience feel slightly different for each person. Rummaging through fire watchman caches can reveal pathfinding solutions of the nearby area; taking old food, a hat, notes between two other fire watchmen, or even a pet turtle will come back with you to the lookout tower as the days, weeks, and months progress. It’s also interesting to note how the game’s “choices” are integrated naturally through gameplay instead of pulling power away from the player to make some heavy-handed decision.
While I did bring up choices before, I’ve noticed this being a big sticking point for some people; namely, how little effect player’s decisions seem to have. Players are still plopped into a mostly-linear story where very little of the finale can be changed. The thing is: choice is still a central tenet to Firewatch. It focuses on the choice to escape reality which informs players on how they want to shape their version of Henry. But the way choices are accomplished here is similar to some gamers’ criticisms of other adventure titles like TellTale’s material; in that the games talk about a “tailored” experience yet there’s rarely any concrete consequences to these actions. For example: there’s a plethora of dialogue options to make throughout but nothing drastic changes. You say what you want, the same narrative beats occur, and the cycle continues to the end. Many players only consider the meaningfulness of their choices in the context of how dramatically the story’s changed due to their decisions. I personally find this to be a myopic way of determining the value of one’s choices in games; in fact, perhaps cases like Firewatch benefit from how inconsequential the outcome of your choices may be in providing a greater sense of place of the world being occupied.
Rather than strictly focusing on the outward appearance of change let’s focus on the inward. So Henry’s choices don’t necessarily change the set of events; yet, choices made in the moment subtly shape this character. This is reverberated with so many of the tiny choices made throughout the environment. Do you pick up all the litter strewn across the ground near a campsite? How do you react to a group of teens making emasculating comments against you? Whatever decision’s made still results in the main narrative moving forward, but these decisions allow players to subtly mold their version of Henry from the beginning, which contextualizes each situation differently for every player. I think that’s the main takeaway from these choices: how this molds the player-character thematically rather completely reshaping the world, like in the case of blowing up Nuketown—which I still argue is one of the most overrated “key” choices laid out in an RPG to date.
With so many appeals and praises, it’d seem as though I’m over the moon for Campo Santo’s debut title. Weirdly, even after finishing it and sitting down to write about it I kept asking myself: “why don’t I like the game more?” Well, there’re some comparisons I’m going to make, here and later on, to Gone Home that may shed some light on my nagging issues. One of Gone Home’s best mechanical benefits was the fluidity in being able to pick up so many items and examine them closely. This also extended to opening and closing cabinets, doors, etc. But the way in which Henry gets his meaty mandibles around items never feels satisfying to rotate and examine. The same goes for the weird sensation of tossing items, putting them back, or otherwise. A petty complaint that really got to me throughout the course of the game.
Beyond trivial annoyances, there’s an underlying difference that changes how both go about relaying their story. With Gone Home: players are piecing together a story within a self-contained location. You’re essentially a detective forced to figure out something that’s happened in the past and piece everything together. Major story bits were only released after grabbing some item. In Firewatch: the disparate setup doesn’t gel in the same way. You’re the main character uncovering more about this location in the present, which means there’s still the “go to A then B then C” approach; but rather than the invisible line trick in delivering story a la Dear Esther, you’re still going through the rote mechanics of continuing the story after using the ‘Look/View’ option to whip out your walkie-talkie. But…at the same time that’s sort of the point.
This is one point of contention in which my feelings on this sort of design ethos have vacillated between good and bad—sometimes within a few minutes of each other while playing it. Because despite ALL of the mechanical nuances I’ve stipulated, it’s surprising to see how little the game feels about them. Wyoming, as a setting, is still at the core of Campo Santo’s intention. Whilst taking so many interesting steps in progressing the first-person walking sim/adventure genre, there’s still an inordinate amount of pride in capturing the simple sensation of trekking through the forest, ignoring the sundry mechanics if you wish. This has caused some people to criticize the notion of it being a game at all. I’d wager you could condense this narrative down to a two-hour film (without making any big gashes into the script). But it also loses some of its audaciousness if this were put in any other medium.
Campo Santo put all their chips on the table by not having you interpret the setting through a novel nor seeing this walk solely through the mindset of a selectively-edited portion of celluloid; instead, it’s a continuous first-person shot examining all of the environmental details for yourself and engaging with the world in a way completely unique to your own playstyle. The addition of a disposable camera reinforces that type of engagement. But this ideal is cut short by another storytelling device.
There’s a problem of Firewatch’s story taking place over months in the wilderness with some abrupt cuts. This is one key facet that hurts the idea of players taking on the role of Henry. Time jumps aren’t bad in it of themselves; in fact, they can be used to great effect. The problem in being a first-person game like this is you’re supposed to be inhabiting Henry and his world. When we’re talking with Delilah on Day 33 and then skip to Day 64 it makes me wonder what I’ve missed; moreover, one of the best sunsets in the game (happening in the middle) is cut incredibly short just for continuing one sub-plot and then hastily moving on, not allowing me to drink in the setting as I wanted. The time jumps also beg the question of how and why he didn’t chart out Shoshone between those days—a feeling you understand more when perusing the map.
To the game’s credit: you’ve accomplished something quite special when I can dedicate roughly two-thousand five-hundred words on just the gameplay mechanics without touching much on the story, graphics, or sound (yet). So let’s do that!
The visuals are fantastic. If you’ve seen any promotional material, be it screenshot, trailers, or otherwise, there’s not much ground for me to cover. Well…except for the fact that the console versions seem to be a couple steps back from what a solid PC can do. There’s a slight-if-still-noticeable disparity in regards to quality and performance. Performance in particular when considering my time with both the PS4 and Xbox One versions had quite a few framerate hiccups around their respective release dates.
With that considered though, this Team Fortress 2-esque art style can be fantastic to behold. There’s this fascinating tightrope Olly Moss and co. walked in blurring the lines between cel-shading and photorealism that hasn’t been accomplished quite like this before. While some swatches do have a heavy orange color grading to them, it punctuates the verdure surrounding the character so often. There’s also this palpable sensation when playing that simply begs for every nook and cranny to be explored that never had to be implicitly stated with an objective marker. It’s in the vivid color contrasts, careful manipulation of light and shadow, and wide-ranging environs (in elevation and openness) that visually entice players for a sort of…videogame nature walk.
Not just for form but for function, Firewatch does a good job of making players inhabit this world by also employing a minimalistic UX/UI. As stated before, the default map locator hurts that but even the simple implementation of how the compass blends in whilst holding the Shosone map was an excellent addition. In a year where an insane amount of statistical complexity like in The Division is becoming a norm in AAA games, it’s nice to see this clean simplicity. The devil is in the details and you can see creative solutions like this throughout the entire game.
If visuals would be considered the stenciled drawings then the sounds of Firewatch are what paint the canvas. Chris Remo’s august soundtrack carries some interesting moods that are able to compliment the darker, unsettling aspects of the game and the breezy moments. The group of instrumental and sung tracks also fit the mood appropriately. Listening to ‘Ol Shosone while understanding the context of why that song was there is one of the best exploratory rewards in the game; not just for its uniqueness, but in the depressing meaning behind it and where the tape’s found. There’s so many tracks that play with the guitar pickings in ways that make the whole soundtrack feel well-rounded.
The other acoustic homerun here is the voice acting by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. I’ve been quite impressed with Cissy Jones in the past in titles like Life Is Strange, but the way she inhabits the role of Delilah is something else entirely here. Jones essentially made her one of the best new characters of 2016, perhaps of this console generation. The same could also be said with Sommer’s delivery of Henry. The game’s script is solid already but needed the grade-A talent to really sell it. That mission was accomplished and then some.
[WARNING: This will be where I’m going to dive into the narrative so HUGE SPOILERS will be ahead. You’ve been warned.]
Before wading knee-deep into the critic and community response to the story, I’m compelled to bring up a fascinating decision Campo Santo decided to go here: Henry’s age. The phrase “diversity in games” often brings fallout from its abundant overuse. Some with the intention of cudgeling people into approval and others frothing at the mouth with over-generalizing arguments about anyone who dares mention it. But I truly do admire the thought that went into Henry simply being a forty-something guy. The kind of character drama at play can only work for someone around his age or a bit older. Capturing that sensation of what it’s like to be middle-aged (or at least nearing the ninth hole), the subtle losses that come with aging, and viewing the ramifications of long-past actions. The choices he’s made with Julia have created long-lasting ripples that are communicated in the game’s prologue: whether or not she takes her dream job, putting off the idea of conceiving a kid until it’s too late for her, continued late-night runs to bars. And these foibles feel like something rarely explored to the thoroughness and delicacy as Firewatch has done.
The majority of Firewatch is centered on the budding relationship between Henry and Delilah with a missing teenager sub-plot mixed in. But once Henry finds a notepad containing transcripts of all their conversations, it becomes a paranoia-laced thriller: potential government wiretapping or everything that’s occurring is happening in Henry’s mind.
A popular epigram I spotted on YouTube boiled down people’s frustration by re-titling Firewatch as “Nothing Happens: The Game.” A humorous way to get the point across, I'll admit. There comes a point in the game where Henry’s juggling the anxieties of him being the last person to see two missing teenagers, a person or group of persons spying on his conversations and blackmailing him, and a possible summer love affair. The conclusion to all of these big setups is little more than “…and then the issue fizzled away.” Now, I certainly understand how deflating that may seem; however, in the broader context of what the game’s trying to accomplish there’s a reason for it. Firewatch sets its most fantastical, game-y elements up for a bait-n-switch to shine a light at the ridiculous expectancies of escapism Henry—and by extension the player—had all along.
Henry never accepted this job because of his joy to preserve a national park. It was to get away from the real world: no sick wife, no disappointed in-laws, and no sadness. The fizzled endings and their implications remain a means of criticizing Henry’s refusal to face his reality. It's why Ned Goodwin is made to be Henry’s darker equivalent; interestingly enough, you only ever see him as a black silhouette too. Ned shirks the park's no-kids-allowed policy for employees and his son, Brian, ends up dying in a climbing accident under his instruction. While perhaps well-intentioned, the accident was mostly his fault and his means of coping pushed him into being a scary hermit: hiding in a cave, threatening strangers, destroying private and public property, and eavesdropping on conversations. To borrow a line from The Punisher in Daredevil Season 2: Henry was just one bad day away from becoming Ned if he allowed his tragedy to consume him.
When examined from this angle, the subdued finale has a more inspiring message than one would expect. After all, Henry faces anxieties like Ned yet comes out the other side prepared to face his challenges rather than become a recluse. It’s worth noting just how well fire symbolism plays into the motif of facing harsh reality. Whether through metaphors made in dialogue or the imagery of Henry escaping Shosone Park in flames, it’s an easy leap to see Henry framed as going through his own hellish torment. His exoneration comes upon understanding confrontation and “containment” as the keys to move forward in life.
What made this message affecting for me was how I ended up playing this while taking a personal day off from work. I didn’t plan on it. The opportunity was there, I wanted that escape, and turned out getting that yearning for something more fantastical thrown right back at my face. The experience felt reminiscent to my sentimentality of feeling as though I was meant to be born in a different time period and then subsequently watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I can’t recall the last time I experienced that sort of judgmental gut-punch from a game.
Beyond the layered moral message, it earns praise for how it handles relationships too. Delilah’s more vivacious, sarcastic nature is complimented by Henry’s straight manner. And while I could continuously recycle compliments for Jones and Sommer’s performances, the rapport feels so natural because the dialogue is so genuine. The dynamic of relationship/friendship is also played out via collectible notes between two other fire watchman, Ron and Dave. Most of the notes between them are found in the cache boxes, but the more investigative players can piece together a depressing tale.
So with these sorts of praises it’d seem as though I’m over the moon for what Firewatch accomplishes, right? Well…there’s certainly admirable writing throughout but another critical misstep is in how it intertwined the character drama and thriller sequences. You see it’s not the ending itself that really bugged me but the transitional phase found betwixt the second-to-last and last act, making it feel as though neither plot thread is explored in a complete way. And…this is where I’m going to apply Gone Home again.
For all of the bluster people make against it, I’d be convinced even the most ardent critics—who’s intention I can’t help but question—can acknowledge how well it paces the real story the writer’s trying to tell. The game’s main hook utilizes many old horror tricks early on but slowly makes way for something more mundane than expected and sticks with it; as a result, players acclimatize to this tonal shift. Firewatch’s tone fluctuates in a much different way. There’s initially no grand conspiracy suggested until a couple hours in when Henry gets ahold of the notepad. The tension continuously bubbles higher and higher, eventually to a point of him questioning whether or not this is all really happening, only for the story to just revert back to Henry and Delilah’s relational drama. There isn’t the same quantitative easing as there is with Gone Home.
Even when looking at how many more positive qualities I have to share about Firewatch, I’m still left considering how certain flaws deflated my enthusiasm. And it’s bothersome just how much those annoyances, both noticeable and nitpicky, make it tough for me to consider this among my absolute favorite walking sim/adventure titles since the genre began.
In the end, Firewatch is still a fascinating specimen to scrutinize in this blooming genre; in fact, its method of crafting a collage from so many unique sources makes me believe this is the new bedrock for others to lift from in the future. The way player control of Henry teeters betwixt playing the role and experiencing a story is downright exceptional. The art, music, voice acting, and character writing deserve to be considered among the best of 2016. For those reasons AND for how experimental it feels in handling player choice is why I’d still give this an easy recommendation. Amidst the me-too first-person walkers coming out these past years, Firewatch's quality burns bright.
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