Firewatch somehow flew under my radar until I came across it on new release duty a few weeks ago. I found out a bunch of friends had been anticipating it and that I follow like half of their development team on Twitter, so apparently I’d been living under a rock. I miss having free time to play and keep up with video games. This one I made sure to carve out some time on my long President’s Day weekend for. Nice to spend a patriotic weekend in a virtual national forest!
Firewatch is the first game from indie developer Camp Santo, recently formed in San Francisco. Their dev roster is basically a super group for an adventure game fan girl like me with team members that worked at Lucas Arts, Double Fine, and Telltale, among others. Once I heard the game was a story driven mystery I tried not to read too much about it before playing. So I’ll try here to tell 2old2play how awesome it is, but also not spoil it too much!
The game is set in 1989 (not coincidentally the year after the historic fires that actually occurred in Yellowstone National Park) and you play as Henry, a fire lookout alone a Wyoming national park. Your only line of communication to the outside world is a walkie-talkie with your supervisor Delilah in another fire tower in the park. The game starts you off with an interesting mechanic to seed your backstory and then dumps you in the middle of the woods hours from civilization with only what you carried into the forest. No cell phone. No GPS. It's the 80s man, your only wilderness tech is an actual compass.
The backstory is pretty heavy and does make it seem like a great idea to go live in the middle of nowhere for while. And once you hike into the park you’re immediately immersed. The game does a stunning job with the visuals, lighting, and sound effects making the player feel like they are indeed isolated in a gorgeous forest miles from civilization.
As with most of adventure games, I played together with my husband but somehow it still felt very solitaritary inhabiting the main protagonist Henry. I enjoy a nice walk in the woods for a few hours and even “camping” (as long as I have access to a real toilet and shower) but it was a jarring mental experience to think about being basically half a day away from anyone or anything if you needed help.
My brain kept trying to brace for it becoming a survival horror or jump scare game especially when you were out in the twilight or early morning. It was really interesting to play the game and think about what that would be like to have that much solitude. Six hours in the virtual woods (spanning several virtual months) was way more than I could deal with in real life!
Does Size Matter?
I’ve seen articles criticizing the length of the game for the $20 price tag. Play seems to range to range from 3-6 hours depending on how much you explore, or get lost if you are bad at reading compasses like me! It took us about 6 hours to get through (playing in 1-2 hour increments over a few days) and that seemed about right to me. Longer I personally think would have detracted from the game. I did not want to be in the woods anymore and really wanted to go home and see some other human life.
When I read that a lot of the dev team were Ex-Telltale employees my immediate hope was they left the studio because they weren’t happy with the direction of the games just being gut wrenching dialog choices and cutscenes with no adventure or exploration. I was hoping they were going to make a more old school style adventure game. This isn’t quite an old school adventure game since it doesn’t really have any puzzles or much object finding but it does have a great story and doesn’t feel like you’re just clicking through dialog to get to the next cutscene.
It kind of reminded me of Myst except way less boring (adventure game fan blasphemy I hate Myst). Being able to describe the environment and things you were seeing to your supervisor Delilah via walkie talkie kept the wandering around interesting.
The gameplay unfolds via objectives for the day that you have to hike out of your tower and take care of to advance the story. Things like hike to cache boxes to find supplies or investigate smoke rising up somewhere in the park. The game is pretty much on rails but you are free to take how ever much time you need wandering around to your next objective. There were a few spots I was worried might be time bound and felt urgent and stressful but I’m fairly certain there was no actual time limit.
I’m not sure how much the dialog choices you make really influence the progression of the game or how much branching there is for the actual story: it's more about characters and solving the mystery. The way the story unfolds, the dialog choices you get to make feel psychologically important in building the relationship between the characters and shaping your personality. Many of the choices are ambiguous and it feels like real life. It makes you think and reflect on what kind of person your choices make you.
One of the game mechanics is getting a disposable camera to take pictures around the park. Since its old skool and not digital it's got a set limit on how many pictures you can take. I was worried about running out of film and needing a picture of something important to advance the story so I didn't take very many. Now that I’ve played through I’d advise you can just relax and take some touristy snapshots wherever the scenery catches your eye.
Reading fiction and playing video games are my two favorite hobbies. This game feels like like inhabiting a gorgeous illustrated novel about what it would be like to be isolated in the wilderness when mysterious conspiracy theory happenings are afoot! And it doesn’t hurt that the two main characters are witty and have some good banter going back and forth.
I really enjoyed Firewatch. It's a great virtual vacation into the woods for a few hours. Bonus not having to worry about snakes and mosquito bites! The actual story/mystery is kinda sad so I wouldn’t recommend playing with kids. Despite the heavy material, playing was a great experience and I hope the studio gets to make more games.