The most gripping part of my six-hour Firewatch playthrough was operating for an evacuation chopper through a cyclone of grime and smoking as a massive wood flame threatened to envelop me.
It also provided a sharp contrast to how emotionally divorced I’d felt during the majority of members of video games, on account of the route Firewatch keeps its characters at a distance.
Firewatch is about Henry and his summertime job manning a one-person lookout tower in a wood in Wyoming. His primary responsibility is to keep watch for wildfires and alert the authorities if one begins. The game is set within the patch of wood for which Henry is personally responsible.
He interacts almost entirely with merely one other character, Delilah, a 13 -year veteran of the job stationed at a different tower. Henry can always consider Delilahs tower on the horizon, and he can only communicate with her via a handheld radio.
Henry has taken the isolated job to get away from a family misfortune. His wife, Julia, suffers from early-onset Alzheimers. Henry tried and failed to provide the care that Julia required, and she was taken home to Australia by her parents, where they could watch over her properly.
We are told about all of this via a text-adventure-style prologue, intercut with shootings of Henry driving and then hiking out to the lookout tower. The text escapade is literally a fill-in-the-blanks workout, with the player determining some of the fine details as to how Henry gratified Julia, what their relationship was like prior to her falling ailment, and how Henry managed her illness once it became advanced.
The intro effectively conveyed to me the sense of narrative ownership upon which escapade games depend, though I felt sure that the results of my selections would be purely cosmetic. I have also considered immediate family members suffered by Alzheimer’s, which gave me a touchstone by which to understand Henrys situation.
I never felt as close to Henry again as I did during that introduction, however, which is ironic considering I was in his shoes for the rest of the game.
I appreciated that Henry isnt the typical video game protagonist. Hes doughy. Hes awkward. Hes voiced by Rich Sommer, who played Harry Crane in Mad Men . Sommers performance is superb. He turns Henry into a character who sounds genuinely likable.
But if I had to describe Henry as a character, awkward and likable are the only two words that come to mind. Even after Henry began to disclose to Delilah the details about his relationship with Julia, I never felt like I waslearning anything new about Henry. I was feeding back to Delilah what I already knew based on the intro.
While Henry felt underdeveloped as a character, he also felt genuine. Delilah, on the other hand, “ve given me” so many eyebrow-raising moments that my suspension of skepticism was sometimes tough to maintain.
On the second day after Henrys arrival at the watch tower, Delilah discovers that Henrys wife had a Ph.D ., and was an teacher at Yale. Delilah instantly constructs comments about how being married to a teacher must be sexy. The next day, Delilah is asking Henry to describe what he looks like, and when he discloses that he has facial hair, she tells Now you have my attention, and makes a sexy growl.
Imagine a woman posted at an isolated, one-room watchtower, who is a two-day hike from civilization, making salacious comments to a man “shes never” gratified. This sounds like a female character being written by a man.
Delilah coming on to Henryor even pretending towas even more difficult to believe given the events a day earlier. Henry observes a note left by a pair of teenage daughters that he shooed from the forest for creating a flame hazard. The note accuses Henry of assaulting them and threatens that the girls will be calling the police.
When Henry associates the note to Delilah, she asks him whether or not he did assault the girls. When Henry acts offended, Delilah says something along the lines of, Ive merely known you 24 hours. You could be crazy. This, then, is the man she makes advances to the following morning?
I never got over my reaction to these scenes. It might have been different if we ever learned anything about Delilah, like where she came from, or why she took such an isolated job, but Firewatch never discloses these details.
Whenever Henry is analyse a locating and the player mouses over an object of relevance, the player is prompted to raise the radio and call the information in to Delilah. The fact that this is offered as an option been shown that not every item is important enough to report.
Technically thats likely the suit, but I never felt like I could skip any of those call-ins without running the risk of missing something important, because a considerable part of the exchanges between Henry and Delilah over the course of Firewatch are triggered this way.
Three hours into the game, when the narrative ultimately began to kick in, I determined myself wishing that Henry could relay multiple points of information about a new locating in a single radio bellow, to cut down by at the least half the number of times I had to find a thing, raise the radio, tell Delilah, get a one-line reply, and go back to looking for another thing.
I get that escapade games suffer from a lack of interactive parts compared to other genres, so developers look for every opportunity to give the player something active to do.
But when I felt like I had to click on everything because I wasn’t sure what was or wasn’t important, it began to feel like it was stalling the narrative.
I had a similar issue with navigating the environment. The Wyoming forest in which Firewatch takes place is picturesque and so well sculpted that I was constantly lulled into thinking it was an open world, albeit a small one, through which I could wander.
Then, when I would try to take what looked like a legitimate shortcut through the woods between various regions of a trail, Id usually made an invisible wall.
It constructs sense that I wouldn’t be allowed to throw myself off a cliff and utterly transgres the flow of the narrative. Not being allowed to duck under a fallen tree when I can clearly see the track beyond constructs less sense.
I understand that Firewatch locks the player onto certain routes in order to trigger dialogue sequences between Henry and Delilah, but having my track so strictly prescribed in instances where I was looking at a wood pray for exploration was frustrating.
I also got tired of the constant need to press the spacebar to climb over a boulder or up a small boulder staircase, or drop down from a boulder shelf. Rappelling up or down cliff faces wasnt so frequent an occurrence it became uninteresting, but all the repeated, minor interruptions felt arbitrary.
Henry is equipped with a compass and a map to assistance him navigate the wood, but I often had difficulty matching the information on the map to the actual layout of the ground nearby.
Imagine holding a map up to your face, walking for another minute or two, holding the map up again, and referring to your compass to make sure you’re facing the right direction, over and over again.
Being in a hurry toward the end of video games may have accounted for a healthy share of my annoyance, but all of these annoyances combined stimulated me resent having to backtrack over the same roads over and over again.
I was in a hurry because I figured the slow early start, the tediousness of clicking on and reporting every detail, and the annoyance of fighting the environment would be rewarded with some sort of narrative payoff.
Instead it turned out that the plot was one giant misdirect whose resolution felt disappointing. Firewatch’s endingalso failed to give any emotional weight to Henry and Delilahs relationship. That stimulated me question whether Henry had forged a relationship with her at allwhich stimulated me wonder why it was worth talking to her for six hours.
To be fair, Firewatch is trying to pull off a very difficult task. The modern incarnation of the traditional escapade gamethink everything developed by Telltale Gamesdips profoundly into the same toolset employed by cinema and television from shot composition to editing.
First-person adventure games like Firewatch deny themselves the bulk of those techniques by essentially turning the camera into a GoPro strapped to the protagonists head.
When a first-person escapade game plays with day and space like That Dragon, Cancer or when it contains fantastical parts like Everybodys Gone to the Rapture , the developer buys a little leeway, but not much, when it is necessary to narrative and character. First-person adventure games that adhere to thestrictures of reality abandon that leeway, and narrative executing becomes even more crucial.
At the end of Firewatch I felt I knew nothing more about Henry than Id learned six hours before, during the course of its text-adventure intro. Henrys character arc turns out to be him grappling with whether or not he should go visit his wife in Australia. If he was thinking about this throughout Firewatch , I missed it entirelyhis talking about the decision with Delilah at the end of the game felt apropos of nothing. Delilah, as I mentioned, remained a blank slate, so I had nothing to be considered in terms of how either character grew. Not being able to image an arc just made the character feel generic.
The quality of Sommer’s voice performance was just enough to prevent Henry from becoming forgettable, but when all you have is two characters and a wood, theres little room for fault when it is necessary to construction sure those charactersconnect.
Disclosure : Our Steam review copy of Firewatch was provided courtesy of Campo Santo . Illustration via Campo Santo .