The forest stretches out for miles ahead of Henry. His Two Forts ranger cabin overlooks the gorgeous Wyoming Reserve as the sun kisses the horizon to create a warm glow across the canopy of pine tops. There isn’t a sound until the familiar crackling of his walkie-talkie breaks through. Delilah is on the other end. She’s drunk and rambling on. Henry knows why. He should probably get drunk while he can too. The sun sets, and a new day begins. Another day for them to wonder who is watching.
Firewatch, from the collective minds at Campo Santo, might be the most unique game you’ll play this year. It’s not unique in the way it goes about itself, but rather in what it chooses to centralise its focus on for nearly six or so hours. While the idea of being a Forest Ranger in the late 1980s might spring to mind various mechanics that you’ll expect to engage with, Firewatch does almost the exact opposite. Protagonist Henry certainly is busy throughout his summer on duty, but you as the player aren’t nearly as responsible for the safety of the park and its visitors.
Henry himself isn’t really sure he can handle that responsibly at the start. The game opens up with some short exposition as to why Henry has chosen to be isolated for months on end, and does a great job of setting up an emotional backdrop to the events that follow. Diving too deep into these themes would spoil the crux of what Firewatch’s narrative is all about, and given that’s it’s central to the experience it’s best to avoid as much as possible before exploring those themes yourself.
For the most part it delivers. Narrative is driven through conversation here, with Henry’s interactions with his superior, Delilah, creating an interesting dynamic that allows both characters to be explored in such personal ways. Delilah too is damaged, and her almost immediate warmness to Henry is apparent from the first late night encounter you have with her cracking voice. She’s a character without a face that managed to be one of the most memorable in a while, in no small part thanks to the stellar writing and phenomenally natural delivery that both actors pull off.
Firewatch would simply not be the same without it, which is why it dedicates so much time to these conversations. From the nearly carefree beginnings to the more tense closing moments of the game, the relationship between Delilah and Henry never misses a beat. Better yet, it’s you as the player that drives this interaction, with responses and choices being mapped out beautifully for future conversions to pick up and throw back at you. Even small interactions with the world play a big part in how the narrative weaves itself – such as the choice throwing some teen’s stereo into a lake instead of just leaving it alone.
That single action opened up dialogue options during three other days of service, and even managed to be a focal point near the game’s conclusion. A singular act that was never really encouraged by the game, but one it definitely didn’t forget. It’s one amongst many other, smaller nuances that you’re bound to trigger wondering around as Henry.
The narrative flows beautifully from day to day, building on the budding relationships these two characters grow throughout the summer. With every grin-worthy pun and surprising curse, the bond between Delilah and Henry grows stronger, which only serves to intensify the more troubled scenarios they find themselves in later in the tale. Firewatch prides itself in building tension like a good thriller, and was at its best when it had me guessing what exactly was transpiring around Henry and Delilah. The atmospheric tension is amplified by fittingly devious writing, to the point where I was looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed.
It was this singular element that had me playing through day after day even when I promised myself to put the game to sleep for a while, which only served to make the conclusion a little more disappointing. Firewatch never really delivers on its premise of mystery, with the journey towards its end being far more memorable than its closing. The extended metaphor the game wants players to put together at the end makes sense but lacks the punch it needed to make it come round full circle. It’s not terrible, but lacklustre in comparison to the stellar storytelling that lead up to that point.
It just feels a little more weighty because of the emphasis Firewatch puts on its story, with everything else around it only serving to drive it forward. Firewatch implores you to explore its Wyoming world, and explore it you will. You’ll undertake long hikes during most days in this adventure, slowly gathering different tools to make getting around a little easier. Ropes let you scale cliff faces while a fireman’s axe lets you get past otherwise prohibitive bushes and gaps. These are elements that aren’t meant to act as puzzles but rather guides on the way forward. If there’s a path that leads to an impassable ravine, you’re not really meant to be there just yet. Restrictive, but cohesive to the game’s strictly linear plot.
What does reward exploration is more dialogue with Delilah, with Henry never failing to mention how beautiful his surroundings are. These conversations were all in my control, but on most occasions I just had to speak through Henry. Firewatch is an absolutely stunning game, with an art direction that gives it personality and the ability to stand out from the crowd. Its water paint aesthetic and bold colour palette do a great job of bringing Wyoming to life, letting you take a moment to appreciate a sunset over the imposing treeline, or welcome the morning sun through the windows of your lookout.
The same type of immaculate detail extends to the games many items you’re able to pick up and examine. Books feature full (riveting) blurbs and normal household items imbued with all the details you’d expect from the real thing
But nothing quite sets the tone as well as Firewatch’s soundtrack, which puts its scarcity to full use by packing moments with tension and dread. The melodic riff of an acoustic guitar accompanies your lengthy hikes when you’re not taking in the sights and sounds of this living reserve, a soothing son that cements you deeply into setting. At times it cuts the silence to indicate impending dread, and invades others to heighten the sense of seriousness to an intoxicating level. It’s used, not abused, and the quality of it all is just remarkable.
Firewatch brings all of these elements together to create an experience that is captivating from start to finish, and one that had me thinking about it’s themes of friendship in the most unlikeliest places to moments of unimaginable crisis. Firewatch might stumble towards the finish rather than sprinting for first, but the journey it takes is one that you shouldn’t miss out on.
Last Updated: February 8, 2016