Thoughts on Firewatch

Last night I was looking for something new to play and after some back and forth, landed on “Firewatch”, a new narrative driven game developed by Campo Santo for PS4 and PC.

I’d heard much about the game on a number of podcasts, likening its opening to the gut punch of the first ten minutes of Disney’s “Up”, and lauding the voice acting and presentation, so for $20 it seemed like a good way to spend the evening.

For the record, as soon as someone broke my watchtower window, I'd be packing it in. 

For the record, as soon as someone broke my watchtower window, I'd be packing it in. 

The basic premise is that a man dealing with the collapse of his marriage due to uncontrollable circumstances, takes a job as a member of the forest service at Shoshone National Park in Wyoming. His job is to sit in a tower and report any fires that crop up during the summer heat. The only meaningful contact he has is with Delilah, his superior and fellow fire-watcher. The two communicate via radio, the job responsibilities requiring them to stay in their respective part of the forest, preventing any face-to-face contact.

Though the comparison to “Up” turned out to be a bit hyperbolic, I was thoroughly impressed with not only the story itself, but the way it so deftly incorporated into the language of a video game without breaking any immersion. There have been a number of first-person narrative games released over the past year or two that tell interesting stories, but this is the first time I was compelled to finish the story in one sitting, without the feeling that the story and game mechanics were two separate entities that didn’t fully complement one another.

As a point of comparison, take “Gone Home”, a similarly presented game, in which a girl is returning to her family home after some time away. The game is something of a character study, with the player moving from room to room in an unpopulated environment, reading snippets of paper or letters and listening to audio diaries that tell of her father’s struggles as an unsuccessful novelist, the deteriorating relationship her parents are coping with, or her sister’s love affair with another girl in her high school.

From "Gone Home" - The door's ajar, so it's hardly snooping. More like an invitation.

From "Gone Home" - The door's ajar, so it's hardly snooping. More like an invitation.

While the story is well told and interesting, the player experiences the narrative by rooting through closets, opening drawers, snooping through her parents’ bedroom and finding secret compartments – you know, the kind of thing you do when you enter a house. I don’t know about you, but when I go visit my parents, if they aren’t home, I might sit and watch TV or read for a few hours until they return. I’m not likely to head straight into the closet by the front door and start rooting through coat pockets for receipts that will shed some light on what they’ve been up to while I’ve been gone.

“Firewatch” doesn’t take that path and it’s all the better for it. The dialogue is natural and feels real, and everything the player does is in service of the story, fitting right in with the story of a man in hiding, refusing to face the things that really matter in his life.

The thing I liked most about the story is how this aspect of hiding becomes the theme that ties each of the characters together. Delilah tells Henry, our main character, right from the start that this is a job people take when they have run away from something. Delilah is no different. She’s hiding from her life, and has been doing it for so long that it’s become the only way she knows how to deal with difficult situations, to the point that even waiting for a few minutes to meet Henry face-to-face at the end of the story is something she can’t handle.

This theme applies to the other characters in the story as well, showing how turning away from your mistakes or the difficult things life can throw at you, can end up impacting you in a much greater way than if you’d simply stayed and faced the music.

In the end, I can’t recommend the game enough. Even my wife, who’s not a big fan of gaming in general, ended up being riveted by the story. She helped me pick which game to download, then stayed to watch the whole thing through from the moment I pressed start.

If you’ve been interested in checking out something different, “Firewatch” is wonderfully satisfying and an exciting glimpse into where storytelling in gaming can be taken. I’m looking forward to what Campo Santo is able to do after the success they’ve had with this title.

Now, on to Johnathan Blow’s “The Witness” – so many puzzles…

Firewatch website: