Set in the elegant outdoors of northern midwest United States, Firewatch tells the story of a man attempting to find himself with a new beginning. It follows a narrative arc with heart and incredible intentions that evolves into a story depicting an eerie sense of paranoia and conjecture. This is spurred by ongoing communication with the woman whom you’ve never met on your two way radio. Gameplay is trumped by story and dialogue but as a result of incredible ingenuity, it’s a satisfying experience begging to be played again.
After Firewatch opens with a humbling tale that provides some insight into the game’s protagonist, Henry, we find out that he has made his way to Wyoming. He arrives in Shoshone National Forest in 1989 after signing up to work as a fire lookout. The forest serves as a gorgeous backdrop that capitalises on the cartoonish, Pixar-esque aesthetic. Smooth textures, terrific lighting, and bright, earthy hues cover the landscape. Mountainous terrains on the horizon provide a sense of scale as it becomes apparent that you are but a small man in the vast outdoors. My only complaint on the environment is that it is comprised of well-disguised corridors that extend from one area to the next, and are therefore much more limiting than first indicated.
Upon arriving at the lookout tower, Henry is immediately contacted by his boss, a woman named Delilah. Henry’s first day on the job starts with finding a couple of teenagers involved in some illegal activity and ends by discovering someone has trashed Henry’s lookout tower. These two incidents initiate a mysterious series of events. Similar to Gone Home, there an ever-present sense of mystery surrounding the game’s narrative. As events unfold, Henry and Delilah quickly become acquaintances that speak everyday. She is more than just a boss; she becomes a companion and a rock for Henry as his life has recently unravelled. She’s also the only human contact for Henry as the job includes a high level of isolation.
Aside from the ongoing story, this relationship is the star of the game as interacting with Delilah via radio is the primary gameplay component. Although you take orders from her and wander the wilderness, this primarily consists of traversing the forest while on fetch quests. Many of these jaunts will attempt to keep you active by hurdling rocks, climbing ropes, finding supplies, and primarily speaking with Delilah. By that, I mean you can speak with her by choosing available dialogue options regarding just about anything. Come across an animal? Call Delilah. See evidence indicating human presence? Contact Delilah. Hey, that’s a funny looking rock. I’m sure Delilah is dying to hear about it.
The interesting thing is that your relationship is heavily guided by your level of interaction with her. Although there are times in which you are required to contact Delilah, that’s certainly not always the case. The game allows you to be relatively silent if desired. How you choose to interact with Delilah changes your relationship with her. She can recognise that you would like to be left alone, or make comments about contacting her too frequently.
Her interaction is also dynamic in other ways. She may or may not initiate portions of dialogue based on your previous actions or inactions. This helps provide weight to your behaviour, but also diversifies communication. You might think twice about being combative with Delilah if you know it may negatively impact your relationship with her in the future. Of course, none of this would be meaningful if the game’s writing and voice over were not done well. Fortunately, both are impressive.
If you told me the voice actors who portray the game’s duo did not know each other prior to recording their lines, I don’t know if I’d believe you. The consolidation between the script and voice acting seems as though it was impeccably communicated as each nuance in every line is delivered incredibly well. The awkward pauses, the emotional responses, even calling someone out for accidentally saying something inappropriate all feels natural. I never once cringed at the writing, and responses often felt like something I may have personally said. There was even a time in which I would have liked to confront Delilah on something and sure enough, a few minutes later, I was given the opportunity.
The characters involved are humanised to a refreshing degree. Delilah comes forward with admissions of regret or embarrassment, Henry can speak in self-loathing ways, and both of them vent their frustration throughout. I found immense satisfaction with feeling as though I understood Delilah’s personality despite only speaking with her for 5-6 hours in the game. This is what makes Firewatch great. At the center of a slowly evolving mystery, accompanied by growing concerns of paranoia and isolation, is a relationship and narrative arc in which it becomes easy to invest yourself.
Just as Henry’s worries grow, you’ll find yourself glancing behind you with suspicion and second guessing profound hypotheticals. This all leads to a great, albeit short yet concise, adventure that made me want to play it again just to relive moments with the characters and perhaps see how scenarios play out differently. If you enjoy narrative-based, character heavy games with a mature tone and emotional depth, Firewatch is something you must experience. When something is done well, it’s nearly flawless although it doesn’t quite deliver on every aspect.
This brings us to the conclusion. The ending will disappoint some, if not many. It’s tough to get into why without spoiling anything, so I’ll just say I was surprised. Unfortunately, this was not in a positive sense; I certainly wasn’t blown away. But Firewatch isn’t about the ending; it’s more about the journey. It’s about exploring beautiful environments, flirtatiously conversing with Delilah, and allowing your mind to run rampant with speculation. It’s about being in the moment with the characters and getting caught up in the mystery.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
A thought provoking, endearing adventure that touches on desolation and emotional instability. It’ll have you questioning everything around your character until the very end. While some aspects don’t quite live up to the standards of others, your relationship with Delilah is a one-of-a-kind within the realm of video games and something that should be experienced.