Firewatch – Final Review

Firewatch’s narrative is a fairly straightforward construction, centering around the relocation of the player character, Henry, who leaves home and settles in a vast Wyoming wilderness preserve, desirous of escaping from the outside world with all its oppressions, hostilities, heartbreak. And Henry has long known heartbreak – consider the flagging mental state of his wife, Julia, whose mind has gradually grown towards complete disintegration; her psyche is fractured, and detecting such fracturing inevitably evokes much pain within Henry; it is only natural he should seek an escape, and urgently. Given this sense of urgency, naturally the profession of fire watchman is brimming with appeal. And so it is. This narrative construction, while compelling, is rather derivative – narratives centering around such escapes, such willfully embraced isolation, are rather commonplace – consider Walden and Thoreau, that author retreating to the wilderness for reasons not too dissimilar from Henry’s own. This narrative, then, may be defined by certain cliches, though ultimately such cliches are transcended owing to the excellent character portrayals dispersed throughout the narrative, a narrative certainly anchored by Julia even as she has no visual manifestation, even while her voice is heard only in one very brief, dreamlike sequence; the characters universally are characterized by some profundities, while the overall smallness of the central characters – numbering only three in total, if Julia is included – results in a sharp sense of focus; the developers and writers do indeed show some ambition, though they never overreach and accordingly never underdeliver.

The opening is especially impactful, as both Henry and Julia are introduced to the player – though in a fairly abstract fashion. Rather than seeing visual representations of these characters, the opening is entirely text-based, resulting in player curiosity, while in the opening the player is provided with multiple dialogue options, resulting in instant player engagement. Much of these choices simply serve the role of fluff; picking which dog breed to adopt is narratively inconsequential. Still, the early abundance of these choices communicates the fact that the player has a fair degree of agency. And, admittedly, some choices here are consequential and meaningful, some being of great complexity, inspiring player ponderance and hesitation – not all decisions come easily. Consider one such choice: Julia, a PhD with a degree of biology, has been offered a position at Harvard, on the east coast, a massive distance from her homestead, a massive distance from Henry. He – the player – can encourage that removal, acting selflessly, seeing her potential happiness attached to that environment, and accordingly supporting the decision. Or, conversely, the player can attempt to dissuade her removal, as such removal would deal Henry a sharp blow. It is a very compelling implementation, while overall stirring music heightens the effectiveness of this early, foundational sequence – it is a masterful achievement, minimalistic and brief though it may be.

In addition to Henry and Julia, another central character is of major import: Delilah. An experienced firewatcher with many summers of experience, it follows that she has a firm grasp upon the demands inherent to such a profession; she is skilled and gifted, and thus adopts an almost mentor-like role for Henry towards the narrative’s opening, though growing in complexity as the narrative progresses. From the first, she directs a certain intrigue towards Henry, asking him about his appearance, his reasons for removal, inquiring about his past and his past life – sometimes she adopts an almost prying stance, which has the potential to alienate and frustrate the player, in that such repeated prying has an inherently irritating dimension attached to it. Though again player choice matters: the player can communicate as much or as little about Henry’s backstory as suits their inclinations. Indeed, in discoursing with Delilah – a discourse which happens almost always, via radio – the player is presented with choices just like those offered in the narrative’s opening. The player can adopt a mostly sweet tone with her, or adopt a more guarded stance; opportunities for role-playing are abundant, and I selected my dialogue decisions based around how I would instinctively respond myself – accordingly, I embraced aloofness; why speak of pain and heartbreak, of a debilitating dementia, to a complete stranger? Being so transparent seems unbelievable, though as the narrative progresses, Delilah’s status as stranger gradually disintegrates, she and Henry growing to develop an especially fierce bond, natural when considering the frequency of their conversation and the fact that they only have each other to converse with. This familiarity, this fostering of fraternity, is natural and expected. Frustratingly, though, the developers almost force a romantic subplot on the player; they played it safe by including romance, for romantic relationships typically evoke greater emotion within any given audience, playerbase. This forceful inclusion almost trivializes player choice, the developers directing the narrative in one distinct, predetermined direction. Some dialogue options can alienate Delilah, certainly; in some scenarios, Henry can violently lash out at her, particularly when she becomes particularly encroaching. But such lashing out is to no effect, and if the player could alienate her totally, then player choice would be given greater weight. Instead, Henry and Delilah grow in intimacy, even as neither knows the appearance of the other; all they have to go off of our voices and actions.  

Also, the endearing attributes that Henry potentially displays in the opening all but disappear as the narrative progresses; his voice acting is bland and he seems to constantly adopt an annoying, agitated tone, complaining about some such matter or other always. His immense unlikability destroys immersion, lessens the intensity of the player / player character dynamic. The writing is fine, excellent mostly, though Henry’s depiction is characterized by certain failures. He does display ever critical character growth – consider again the link developed with Delilah as the summer progresses – but even if a character grows and morphs, that growth means nothing if they are foundationally dull and repelling. Delilah fares somewhat better, in that she is wracked by guilt for mistakes made in earlier summers, namely mistakes which center around a young boy, presumed missing though eventually revealed as being deceased, forgotten, left to rot in an isolated cavern deep below the Wyoming vastness. But while she periodically exposes her sorrowful self, largely she is a creature of affability, suppressing her sorrow likely owing to the realization that excessive sorrow is intense; some are put off by such displays of strong emotion. The narrative, then, largely revolves around their discourse, though questions of surveillance and other such topics see a forced inclusion, the developers seeking to inject some poignancy and intrigue into their narrative, though these efforts are largely unrealized; the subplot and revelation of the narrative’s conclusion is flat, never reaching the resonance the developers likely sought; the dramatic reveal is largely one of hollowness, while frustratingly excessive sentimentality defines the immediately closing moments, pointing towards a tonal imbalance; the relative bleakness characterizing much of the narrative is absolutely and fully rejected here, resulting in clashing sensations, a bizarre decision all around.    

The environments explored in Firewatch are singularly beautiful and diverse, the Wyoming preserve boasting manifold different biomes despite its overall smallish size. There are dense forests of green lushness. There is an inviting lake with a small, tranquil island positioned in its center. Babbling brooks wind through the landscape, while a forest of aspens has its own unique, arresting presence. Color, then, is central to Firewatch: consider the greenness of the trees, the inviting blueness of the waters, the verdant orangeness of the aspens. Consider also the sun, that sweet orb, brightly blazing, casting a sharp reddish-orange tint all throughout the landscape. When that sun is in her state of slumber, meanwhile, a dazzling moon shines overhead, her beauty only supplemented and enhanced by hundreds of gleaming stars; majesty abounds in Firewatch, and such majesty only heighten the joys of exploration. Some minor failings inevitably emerge, in that some environments are more striking and resonant than others; the beautiful aspen forests completely outshine the rockier areas of the map, where brownish stones are abundant, such stones featuring very poor texture quality, damaging immersion. Frame rate stutters are common, which achieves a similar end, though such failings are tempered by relative technical excellence, too: the draw distance can be quite massive, which results in a sharp sense of player smallness, insignificance. And while clinging sharply to reality, creativity sees insertion; the immense diversity characterizing this fictionalized landscape is, again, immense, and this immensity is likely somewhat detached from reality; such a small space as that presented here would display far less diversity; the developers exerted their imaginative strengths in designing this landscape, and this imagination morphs the game world into something truly special, unique.

But genre expectations are in place, and in many ways Firewatch, with its freedoms, could be likened to a conventional open-world game, though the scale and magnitude of this world is far more restrained and condensed.  But exploration is indeed prioritized to the last, and while invisible walls inevitably have their place, that place is relatively minimized, the environments largely defined by considerable openness, the player permitted to forge their own path. They can cling to conventional, well-established trails and pathways, or cut a swath though less trodden, sometimes overgrown paths; few restrictions are in place. A sharp sense of verticality, meanwhile, provides the player with greater freedom of traversal, further fostering such openness. These design beauties and gracefulness see application in interior environments, too, though of a very different sort. Such environments are far scarcer than the more open-ended external environments, though they do have a presence, and the most fleshed-out interior environment is Henry’s temporary home, a watchtower of some elevation, situated towards the southern region of the map, its height permitting an undisturbed view of the landscape. Given that he was to spend an entire summer here, it follows that he desired to make the space his own, should desire personalization. And so he does personalize the place, a space which is actually dynamic, collected notes and other objects found in the gameworld actually reflected in the watchtower, plastered on walls, sitting on the central desk. A typewriter is present, while even a collectable, adoptable turtle calls the place home. Even such traditionally mundane objects as dinnerware and cleaning supplies have a presence in this space. There are books, photographs, reminders of an old life that Henry seemingly wants to escape from, though reminders he cannot fully discard; here, when regarding his belongings, a certain sentimentality is observable; environmental storytelling, then, is abundant, richly implemented. With immense attention to detail, meanwhile, it is difficult to overstate the wonders of presentation and world-building seen here; the diverse wilderness becomes a character in its own right.  

Whatever are the game’s strengths of presentation, they are countered by basic and uninvolved gameplay, which revolves around exploration and exploration alone – the game absolutely belongs to the walking simulator genre. Puzzle-solving is absent, as is combat or anything of the sort; gameplay simply revolves around moving from point A to point B. This does, inevitably, have the tendency to grow tedious, and were the environments bland or unremarkable, this tedium would be heightened drastically; the game would fail outright. But the environments are, again, vastly removed from blandness or unremarkablity, preserving player engagement even as traversal is generally characterized by boredom. But a sharp sense of immersion is fiercely sought, as is observable in many clever flourishes, most prominent being the map system in place. In most modern games, maps are relegated to a separate screen; accessing the map thus pulls the player outside of the experience. Here, though, scrutinizing the map occurs in real time, Henry reliant upon a tangible object for assistance, while even a compass is used for orientation; in this regard, the game channels Far Cry 2. The usage of map and compass, meanwhile, serves to establish a sense of place; the narrative unfolds in an era far before GPS saw widespread adoption, before simply anyone could navigate the landscape with ease; it took a special kind of gifted individual to navigate that type of world, comparatively antiquated; not everyone can be a fire watchman, the ruggedness of the terrain, its isolation being another obstacle. The verticality has been mentioned, and in order to seize upon the potentials inherent to such verticality ropes and climbing devices must be relied upon, again suggesting the need for traditional navigation aptitude, survivalist skills. While much of Henry’s backstory is never communicated to the player, then, facets into his larger existence are observable here: here is a man of some resolve, ingenuity, and adaptability. If he were incompatible with the position, that incompatibility would manifest itself early; he would struggle here rather than thrive.  

During exploration, survivor caches are discoverable, containing notes penned by previous fire watchmen, containing also maps which can be copied to assist in navigation, the existence of these caches serving a sharp grounding function, communicating the fact that Henry is not alone as fire watchmen, but that countless others have occupied the same position throughout the years, pointing towards a certain dispensability; fire watchmen have come and fire watchmen have gone, just as Henry will inevitably leave behind this beautiful, inviting space, which permits highly valuable escapism; with these caches, then, further instances of environmental storytelling are present. Even if such environmental storytelling exists in abundance, again the central gameplay is constituted almost entirely by exploration, resulting in gradual staleness, a staleness which becomes almost insufferable as the narrative approaches its conclusion, whereupon the allure of the Wyoming vastness has been reduced alongside the establishment of familiarity. In one notable instance, an objective was completed and a new objective was provided, an objective which required a crossing of the entire map, a frustrating, groan-inducing affair, rather than an exciting one. Exploration such as this is generally strongest when it is countered by secondary gameplay systems, like combat, stealth, or puzzle-solving; diversity matters. When those mechanics are removed – as in Firewatch – gameplay falters; repetition surges. And so it is here. But the world is wonderfully and logically designed, absolutely, this logicalness resulting in very few instances of complete confusion; I, always logistically challenged, could navigate the game world with ease, intuiting where precisely to travel to satisfy the primary objective. The game does not hold the player’s hands, either; modern conveniences of the open-world genre are rejected here, like the constant presence of an objective marker or a suggested route of traversal to reach that same objective marker, these systems pointing towards lessened respect for the player, their strengths undervalued by the developers. But being impeccably designed, this lack of explicit assistance rarely results in player frustration, and the pace of exploration was largely a rapid one.  

Firewatch’s gameplay can in no ways be described as riveting, founded exclusively on one central pillar – exploration. The existence of one gameplay pillar rather than three of four, which each bear equal weight, means the entire experience is a shaky one. If exploration failed, everything would collapse in upon itself. But with excellent and creative world design, that one central pillar stays true – the Wyoming wastes are impossibly beautiful. In an industry where dull greys and browns still have a very prominent presence, Firewatch pushes back by emphasizing vibrancy and crisp coloration, a vibrancy which changes markedly with the passage of time; the night time wilderness is radically removed from the day time wilderness, and this contrast preserves the joys of general exploration. The divided aspect of the landscape as captured here neatly reflects the divided aspects characterizing many of the central characters – like Julia, like Henry. And the tale of Henry and Julia is a profound tale, their relationship one tinged by tragedy, heartbreak. The insertion of Delilah, meanwhile, heightens narrative intrigue, though her immediate forthrightness can be rather bizarre; she adopts an almost conversational, confessional tone with Henry from the first, connecting to him, reaching out to him, even as the pair know nothing of each other. She is insistent, though much of her insistence seems of pure intention; she simply desires to make this stranger feel welcome in an environment that, while being beautiful, can also be unforgiving. Similarly, life as a fire watchman is a life characterized by certain tedium, which the developers expertly capture. Each individual day is numbered. The first two days are packed with excitement, each lasting upwards of twenty or thirty minutes in total. And then, gaps emerge, the narrative sometimes advancing twenty or thirty days at a time, reflecting the occupation’s boring attributes.  

Boredom can lead to excessive and painful introspection, meaning that Henry is forced to directly grapple with the tragedies he was then facing. And then the lively attributes of the profession emerge, Henry engaging in these sometimes demanding acts with great vigor; all-consuming boredom disappears, and Henry immerses himself in the position. This larger sense of engagement, of excitement, only keeps his mind occupied; his removal, then, is having its intended effect, permitting a detachment from external realities, and accordingly he likely derives many delights from such engagement, even as the problems sometimes presented him have many distressing attributes. Still, he adjusts to the position admirably, capably, and the profession generally is portrayed not in an excessively idealized fashion but is portrayed in a more realistic and grounded manner, the developers emphasizing mundanities, unflinchingly exposing the profession for it might truly be like – dull, a dullness only periodically upended by excitement. True, the closing moments are absolutely charged with excitement, while the earlier sequences are similarly lively, though still the perception persists that this professor is not one of constant thrill. And at the heart of the narrative is the dynamic existing between Henry and Delilah, a profound dynamic, certainly, the camaraderie which develops between them notable for the rapidity of its development; their bond grows in intensity at an almost impossible rate. Henry’s relative unlikability sours somewhat the narrative, though its more poignant attributes mean it thrives despite this minor failing. When this narrative is considered alongside the game’s greatest success – namely world building and presentation – monumental successes are achieved here. The slower pace may repel certain players – and the game is slow – but this slowness results in a unique, valuable identity.          

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