Disclaimer: slight spoilers ahead
At first glance, it seems there’s a lot to like about Firewatch. The beautiful nature that surrounds the player and creeping sense of dread that oozes from the first pieces of narrative combine to create an entrancing first impression that pulls you into the underbrush. But as you clear your way through both the literal and figurative tangle of vines, it becomes apparent that Firewatch isn’t all that it seems to be. What at first appears to be an adventure in a stunning national park turns into an experience that can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it wants to be. Firewatch is initially a compelling game, but gets distracted; perhaps by all the trees, preventing the game from properly executing almost everything it attempts to do.
Firewatch follows the plight of new forest fire lookout Henry, a man who’s decided to spend the summer of 1988 in the woods to escape his life which is in disarray. His wife is ill with early Alzheimers, and all his relationships are strained to their breaking points. What better way to avoid all that than in the middle of a national park. Henry’s new job puts in him in the midst of hundreds of acres of picturesque Colorado forest, alone. Well, not entirely alone. His supervisor Delilah is in the lookout station in another sector. She is the only person he communicates with through his regulation radio. This is one of the moments where Firewatch shines. The interactions between Delilah and Henry are brilliant, no matter what dialogue option you choose. Most lines are witty and sharp, but there are also moments of genuine emotion which makes you feel for these characters. The isolation and lack of physical contact also make the conversations that much sweeter. The problem, however, lies not with the writing but with the progression of the tale.
As Henry begins his job, it becomes apparent that there’s more to his surroundings than it seems. The only problem is that the narrative appears to jump around making it unclear as to what we should be experiencing or feeling at any particular moment. For example, the tutorial is mainly days 1 and 2 of Henry’s summer, but you jump ahead to day 77 for the rest of the mystery to unfold. The fact that we had to jump to essentially the end of the season to wrap up the plot feels jarring and like we missed out on a lot. But it’s not just the path we take to get to the ending, but the ending itself that is somewhat disappointing. Before the final twist, I was on edge thinking about what might happen to Henry or Delilah. Afterwards, I was so unsatisfied with the conclusion I almost felt like I’d wasted the last four hours. The build up for all its pacing problems is compelling; the result, however, is the complete opposite.
But at least, you get to see some gorgeous scenery before you feel let down. I’ve mentioned that Firewatch is pleasing to the eye, and that’s a bit of an understatement. While it may be summer, the forest is awash in beautiful fiery tones, both in hue and in the woods occasionally literally being on fire. The aesthetic is slightly cartoony but realistic enough that the vivid contrast of colours feels natural and not garish. The game may not play like it; you can’t help but feel that you’d love to wander all over the place. But in your attempts at exploration, you encounter many of the mechanical issues with the title.
For starters despite the implication that you have a whole forest to explore, there are tons of invisible walls that force you to go in a particular direction. However, both the map mechanic and controls feel so unintuitive that it’s incredibly easy to get lost and feel frustrated trying to get to your next objective. Firewatch in that sense is a piece of art first, and a game second.
Once you’ve played Firewatch you’ll feel one of two things: that it was worth your time or it wasn’t. In the end, I feel like it was worth my time. But lacking replayability and the slightly lackluster ending I can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed. However, there’s so much beautiful foliage to see that you might feel ok getting lost in the woods.