In 1988, Yellowstone National Park nearly burned to ash. A series of “controlled” wildfires across the park combined into a massive blaze, staying alight for an entire summer. Despite the efforts of thousands of fire personnel, only cool weather of the Fall sufficed to control the blaze. The national park service had never seen anything quite like it, and the aftermath put everything into question. “Firewatches” were instituted in the aftermath, where stationed rangers would watch for emerging fires in the nation’s parks.
Firewatch, the first game from the northwest-based studio Campo Santo, places you in this moment. As Henry, you spend a summer isolated in the Wyoming wilderness. Accompanied only by voices on a radio and the memories of your life outside the park, a mystery unfolds among the trees. What follows is a narrative journey in isolation, exploration and choice. It’s a polished experience that can’t overcome a flawed foundation.
Atmosphere is everything in Firewatch. Visual director Olly Moss has given a distinct consideration to every frame of the Wyoming wilderness. Bright colors and sharp lines on the horizon meet a soft lighting, creating a world somewhere between Pixar and pop art. Countless items in the world can be analyzed, each one rendered in detail. You get the sense that everything has been laboriously considered, panned over and considered a million ways. An in-game camera invites you to frame the world, and you’ll never be short of moments to preserve.
Map and compass in hand, you’ll navigate Henry to new locations and unravel the story through environmental clues. The map seems large at first, though you’ll quickly see the simple series of paths that make up the world. It’s a step beyond similar games like Gone Home, or The Stanley Parable, as it turns the act of navigating from A-to-B into an actual challenge. Even when you’re lost in the woods, the whole vibe is enough to make you misty-eyed for your Eagle Scout orienteering class.
Firewatch is primarily the story of Henry, a man who takes the summer position as a means from escaping troubles at home. The entire story is spent in his shoes, making his tiny decisions, and shaping the character with his expression. You’re given control over your character’s dialogue during conversations, choosing how they respond within a set period of time. Only a few of these selections end up shifting the direction of the story, but the choices aren’t about shaping the future. Rather, they force you to roleplay as Henry. Despite coming in so many years deep to this man’s life, you feel responsibility and remorse for his past. How he expresses that is up to you, and can result in some powerful character moments. Nearly the entire script is just a series of conversations between Henry (voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) and his fellow ranger Delilah (voiced by industry veteran Cissy Jones). The two have a fantastic dynamic, and sell the toughest moments of Firewatch. You’ll find yourself seeking out every chance to radio Delilah, and see what conversations spark up.
Unfortunately, all of Firewatch’s fantastic expression is done in service of a story that doesn’t quite hit the right notes. The first few hours establish a wonderfully calm pace, dotting the world with little moments of youthful spirit. But about halfway through the five-hour runtime, the game starts to rush through its tricks. There’s an unfortunate shortage of slow moments, chances to breathe in the wonderful world the game creates. The tension simply builds too quickly to feel critical, leaving too little time to build the character relationships most important to the game.
You can burn through Firewatch in one sitting, and that’s really how it should be done. Find a long night that makes you crave the summer air, sit back with a stiff drink, and take it all in. Even if you don’t leave satisfied, the journey is more than worth taking.
Firewatch is available on Windows, OS X, Linux and Playstation 4.
Follow Chris Berg on Twitter @ChrisBerg25