Walking simulators have seen an explosion of popularity and I believe with good reason. Their reliance on the story to move things forward, rather than mechanics or game play, often means the narrative has much more attention paid to it. For those of us who appreciate good stories this genre has brought us many great titles, although I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all up to scratch. Indeed the intense focus on the narrative means such games live and die by their story and, should it fail to capture the player it will fail as a game. Firewatch however makes no such missteps, quickly dragging you into its world of heartache, love and loss.
It’s 1975 and you, Henry, find yourself in a bar with your friends. No matter how hard you try though you can’t take your eyes off a girl at the bar. You walk up, tell her she’s pretty, her name is Julia, and before you know it you’re in a loving relationship. You’re happy, you get a dog named bucket and spend the summer afternoons drinking beer on the porch together. You’re not the definition of Hollywood romance, life still gets in the way from time to time, but you remain together. However Julia starts to fade in and out mentally and she gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the young age of 41. You’re both devastated but you stick it out for her until it becomes too much and she moves back home with her parents. That summer you find an ad for a job in the Shoshone national park. You take it.
Firewatch feels like it’s set somewhere in the Team Fortress 2 universe, having the same kind of cartoony style. The world is simplistic with little detail however it’s the small touches, like the volumetric lighting and the soft noises of the forest in the background, that elevate the experience by creating a great atmosphere. The ebb and flow of the background noises and music are done perfectly, ensuring that there’s no long periods of awkward silence as you make your way through the map. Overall Firewatch is an excellently crafted game, one that is deserving of the praise that has been lumped on it.
In terms of game play Firewatch is your stock standard walking simulator, plopping you in the middle of a vast area to explore. The key difference however comes from the inclusion of a walkie talkie that allows you to communicate with your superior, Delilah. This forms the basis of the narrative for the game, the back and forth between you two serving as both the main plot driver as well as the exploration reward mechanism. Essentially you can unlock additional dialogue options by looking around and finding things of interest which you can then radio back to Delilah about. Other than the only real mechanic is reading the map to know which direction you need to go in, something which shouldn’t be too difficult since you have a GPS indicator on the map of your current location.
The base game of Firewatch gives the appearance of being a free form exploration title however it’s anything but. Unlike other walking simulator games like Gone Home, which essentially give you free reign over an area and put the onus on you to piece together the story, Firewatch is crafted along a very specific path. Sure you can go exploring, and you’ll find things before you’re meant to see them, but the game will inevitably right your path. For someone like me, who’s a fan of well crafted narratives, this is a great thing however I do know that there are some who prefer freeform walking simulators over this kind.
I’ll admit that at first blush I thought the opening scenes, told through text on screen dialogue choices interspersed with short bits of game play, was a little cheap. However that quickly evaporated as I was given choices that felt like they had an impact and was made to care for the characters I was helping to craft. The ultimate reveal of Julia’s condition towards the end of the opening is heart breaking and Henry’s abandonment only exacerbated the pain I felt. There’s been few games that have been able to make me care so quickly and then used that care against me, something which helped set the tone for the rest of the game.
The main story of the game is a little messier as whilst the relationship development between Henry and Delilah is strong the weird, unknown force acting in the background kind of muddles things. As my long time readers know I’m not really a fan of horror and I had sinking feeling I might end up in some kind of supernatural show. However the story does manage to wind up well, even if it feels like there were some unresolved things between the two main characters that could have been tied up in an epilogue or something similar. Still, maybe that’s the way its meant to be as life doesn’t always resolve itself neatly, especially when you’ve spent a good deal of time running away from your problems.
Firewatch is a brilliant, narrative focused walking simulator that deals with heavy hitting issues that few other games dare to touch. It’s simplistic, stylized visuals serve as a backdrop for the story, serving not as a distraction but a canvas on which the story is painted. The foley and sound effects are done exceptionally well, fading in and out with poignancy at just the right time. The story is what pulls everything together and while it comes unstuck during the middle third or so it does wrap itself up well in the end. Firewatch, in my opinion, is a walking simulator that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than its genre might suggest.
Firewatch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 3 hours of total play time.