“Firewatch” is a video game designed to answer the kind of questions that can confound game developers. How can we make a game that provides beautiful environments but doesn’t have to fill them with realistic people? Set the game inside a forest. How can we still provide drama and interest with no people? Give the player character a radio. What kind of setting would make sense with those restrictions? The character is on forest fire lookout duty in an remote region of Wyoming. And what kind of character would willingly take such a lonely, isolated job? Somebody who is running from something.
That logical, economic design process allows “Firewatch” to clear away any immersion-breaking crust from the very start. By setting up strict limitations on what it can do, “Firewatch” is a master class in what a video game can be.
“Firewatch” begins by letting you choose portions of the lead character’s backstory, intercut with scenes of this character, Henry, arriving for his job as part of the forest firewatch. The game takes a maudlin turn very early on, and your seemingly minor decisions here ripple out to affect the way the storyline develops.
Upon settling in the watchtower, you are introduced to Henry’s new boss Delilah. Delilah is not seen; rather, you talk with her via the park service’s radio. Delilah then gives you your first task, kicking off your ability to explore the park’s glades, canyons and cliffs. As you roam, you’ll radio your discoveries back to her, and answer her questions by choosing from a list of responses.
What unfolds next is a tale of loss, paranoia and friendship where you get to gently steer the narrative by deciding how Henry interacts with Delilah. How much of Henry’s personal history do you want to reveal? What kind of advice do you give Delilah when trouble hits? “Firewatch” asks you to forge a relationship while simultaneously forging across a dangerous rockslide.
“Firewatch” has exceptionally strong art direction, from the just-realistic-enough take on the natural environments to the design work that decorates the lookout shack. The game does a great job of simulating different times of day, painting the forest in rich oranges at sunset and deep blues at night. “Firewatch” is so highly polished that one technical issue – occasional visual hiccups on the PlayStation 4 version – makes you cry foul and hope for a patch to smooth it out.
There’s no grind in “Firewatch” of the kind that turns some games into a chore to see the finish line. “Firewatch” wants you to get to the ending and, more importantly, to feel like you played a key role in telling the story of Henry and Delilah. The game never loses focus on delivering a smooth, well-acted story, punctuated with little details that are a direct result of your actions. “Firewatch” is worth playing, worth playing again, and worth watching while someone else plays it.
This review is based upon product supplied by the publisher. “Firewatch” is available for PlayStation 4 and PC. Image courtesy Campo Santo.