I was primed to love Firewatch. The graphics were done in a painterly style and the game puts storytelling and character at the front of the design. It looks good, it’s impossible to die, and it champions exposition by exploration. Coming off the high of Life is Strange (by Dontnod), I was all set to fall in love and have my heart-broken all over again. And yet…
I should make it clear that I do play more than artsy twee games and “walking simulators”. My palate cleanser after LiS was Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which was actually a pretty great, if relatively mindless, experience. My taste preferences for games is generally 3rd person adventure, point and click puzzlers, and casual games. Single player is probably my strongest preference. I like to take things at my own pace and don’t like relying on other people for my gameplay to work. Once again, these are all points that would make Firewatch a perfect match for me.
There’s another thing I like in my games, and that’s story and character. Games like Cave, Kentucky Route Zero, and even The Swapper all have a narrative that pulls the action along. There’s nothing particularly novel about Cave’s gameplay. It’s a solid puzzle platformer, but it’s the writing that makes the game so much fun. Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click game which focuses on narrative rather than puzzles. What makes it work so well is that parts that aren’t game-like are so close to an interactive movie or theater experience that it’s always worth playing on. I was disappointed when the Assassin’s Creed franchise essentially abandoned the backstory, which now will probably never get beyond ‘Stargate SG-1 lite’.
What Firewatch gets wrong is that while the scripted dialog is solid and there’s a backstory that I was invested in. I found it impossible to play as the character while remaining in character. Let me explain.
In Firewatch you play as Henry. He’s working for a summer in a Wyoming park, you guessed it, keeping an eye out for fires. The only other character you really get to interact with is another park employee, Delilah, who talks to you over your walky talky throughout the game. Henry is basically hiding out from his life for a summer. He needs some space and this is the best way for him to get it. Delilah, over the course of the game, tries to open you up and get to know you better. The problem is that Henry is reticent. He’s trying to get away from what’s going on back home and he’s not very forthcoming. All of your interactions with her are through branching dialogue trees. You are given a prompt and multiple choices of how to respond, and the subsequent conversation goes from there. Bu in order to progress with conversations you have to make Henry open up. This feels unnatural. For nearly every piece of conversation that can dig into his past and how he’s coping, there’s also an option to shut down the line of questioning. Sometimes it’s a monosyllabic reply, and sometimes it’s him getting defensive and changing the subject. These standoffish replies are the ones that will give you the least amount of character growth, but are also the most true to who Henry is, which is a huge problem. It took me until about halfway through the game to realize that if I wanted to really dig into who these people were then I’d have to actively go against who Henry was talking to Delilah. Not only had I missed a large number of discussions by being true to Henry, but suddenly I was playing against my own character in a first person game based largely on talking.
What this amounts to is pitting character against story. In order to get the most out of one part of the game, the player has to sacrifice the other. This may seem like a minor quibble except that the writing and art design are the two reasons to play Firewatch. The gameplay is little more than investigating various locations in a certain order, and the main puzzle is trying to navigate by map and compass. At its core, this game is meant to be a story, a piece of interactive cinema, so it’s a much larger problem when there’s a fundamental issue plaguing the game’s storytelling. There’s really only one ending (though technically there’s a second that can be achieved), which isn’t inherently a problem. There have been a lot of complaints of games that feature branching developments through dialogue (Life is Strange, Mass Effect 3) but don’t vary endings well. Firewatch has a specific story to tell and so the set ending is due to who the characters are.
Except. Except that you can play Hank as reserved or talkative. You can play him as introverted or flirty. Playing him as the latter is forced, as I mentioned before, and ultimately doesn’t lead to any change with Delilah. It’s strange that to get the most out of Hank you have to play him against the entire game. He never truly connects with Delilah and yet you don’t get to learn much about him unless you push for that. It feels like there’s a conflict behind the scenes between telling the story and making a game. It’s a shame because the world is beautiful and the story is heart-wrenching. It’s a game that I want to play until I get my hands on it. Then it becomes a more complicated experience.
Is it worth your time? That depends on what you’re looking for when you sit down with it. Are you looking for a story and an experiment in games as narrative art? Then I’d say give it a go. It’s not that long and it’s worth buying the bundled soundtrack. If there’s something this game nails it is conveying tone. The visual design has been getting most of the attention in reviews, but the instrumental score also provides a persistent emotional hook into the story.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for solid gameplay that incorporates a good plot into it I think you’ll be sorely disappointed. There’s not enough to ‘do’ to make it worthwhile by that standard, and I’d point you to the TellTale Walking Dead or Fables: The Wolf Among Us games instead. Both are a bit more action oriented but still tell a very strong story. Between the two, The Walking Dead features more of a focus on character building, while The Wolf Among Us stresses good storytelling.