When you're feeling guilty and alone, the wilderness almost seems inviting. Sure, it might not do wonders for your state of mind - especially if your environment holds a potentially dangerous secret - but the ashamed soul wants isolation, so he can't screw anyone else's life up but his own. That's what protagonist Henry wants at the start of Firewatch, an intriguing and well-presented adventure that takes a relatively minimalist approach to convey a deeper meaning. If you're a fan of narrative-driven games (such as the excellent titles from Telltale Games), you'll be drawn to this compelling quest produced by developer Campo Santo. When you're done, you'll offer up a healthy round of applause, despite a few minor drawbacks.
What's most interesting about this game is its sense of atmosphere. Graphics exist to wrap us in an immersive and entertaining environment, and this can be achieved in a number of different ways. In this case, the designers opt for an all-encompassing approach; what I mean is, rather than offering up a bevy of highly stylized or flashy visuals, they present us with a highly believable backdrop that thrives on subtlety. Lighting and shadow play a significant role here and once you've explored a fair portion of your surroundings, you'll start to appreciate the effectiveness of this setting. The only downside - and this affects the gameplay as well - is that there are a few hitches and inconsistencies in the PlayStation 4 version, though I hear they're not so evident in the PC iteration.
The audio is in very much the same boat, choosing to play with our thoughts and feelings by giving us a minimalist presentation. There is a soundtrack but it rarely comes to the forefront and for the most part, it only exists to add a little dollop of flavor to the proceedings. The effects are subtle but also immensely refined, meaning that they're perfectly implemented. Every snap of a twig gives you a sense of impending peril and far-off sounds that you can't quite interpret also factor into the experience. In brief, the technical elements fuel the sensation of playing through this adventure, as opposed to simply giving our eyes and ears something to do. This style serves a dual purpose, too; it keeps the focus of the experience on the narrative, which is critical.
We're starting to see more realistic everyday characters in our video games these days. And while that takes away from the fantastical nature of our favorite form of escapism, it also gives us a peek at how a real person might cope with a suspenseful situation. No, we're not talking about an absurdly muscular male specimen fending off hordes of rampaging aliens, nor are we talking about a perfectly honed special forces dude taking out waves of faceless foes. We're really not even talking about the very capable yet also very human Lara Croft in one of her latest adventures. No, Henry is just a stout, squat dude who takes a job out in the wilderness. As I said above, he has reasons to escape but he's physically unimpressive, even for a would-be park ranger. And what he encounters will test his mettle once again...
It's the expansive, beautiful, yet certainly dangerous Wyoming wilderness in the 1980s. He's supposed to be looking for signs of wildfire but when there is none, he's basically all by his lonesome, with nothing but his contact Delilah. Delilah is basically his supervisor and she only exists through Henry's radio; she's there to provide a bit of company and she also fleshes out the story. As you progress, the dialogue between these two fluctuates, moving through periods of relative blandness and emerging in strange, mysterious communications that really get you thinking. Again, because you feel totally isolated, with no help but your own two hands, this contact with another human being feels like a lifeline. You'll start to pine for the sound of Delilah's voice, even if you know she doesn't have much to say at that point.
The game combines an open concept with a surprisingly linear progression. In other words, while there is no UI and no little arrow to guide you along, there is also no set path. You've just got a map and a compass - standard lifesaving tools for any human - and the desire to survive, if not thrive. You can do little things, like jump, clamber up ledges, and climb ropes, but you're not equipped to deal with anything severe. The minimalist presentation combines perfectly with the minimalist "hero" and gives one an endless feeling of tension and loneliness. Everything you do, everywhere you go, you'll simply find more examples of your vulnerability, which means you approach just about everything with some degree of caution. Some might find this a little slow-paced and perhaps even boring, though I fail to see how one could totally miss this deeply entrenched tension.
You do have the option of various dialogue choices when conversing with Delilah, though I'm not sure any of your selections have a significant effect on the outcome. But what they do give you is at least some sense of control. Thing is, out there where just about every step can be rife with complications, you feel like you have no control. Even being able to choose how you respond during conversation feels like a luxury, which means the developers have done their job. Plus, the more you talk and the more you experiment with different dialogue options, the more you start to learn about Henry. He does have a personality, though it's sometimes tough to see. The bottom line is that you're not only exploring the wilderness; you're also exploring the protagonist and his lot in life, and why he's out there in the first place (and what will become of him if he stays).
By the way, this Henry/Delilah dynamic is even more essential because it often feels as if these are the only two humans alive, so it's great that actors Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones do a fantastic job. And the longer you play and the more you learn about these two characters, the more you begin to fear for Henry's survival. That makes psychological sense, does it not? If the character you're controlling is faceless - despite his realism - you don't really care what happens to him and hence, you won't take the quest seriously. This game demands that you take everything seriously, which is a really nice feature. Personally, I think this particular narrative lacks a little weight and direction, as it occasionally feels aimless and even pointless, but again, that sort of embodies reality, doesn't it? Lots of banality and fear interspersed with little nuggets of worthy moments.
It's not all roses, though. Like I said, I think the writers could've brought a bit more forward during the course of our adventure, just so we have some foundation. It's great to have lots of whys and hows but at some point, we start to tire of the questions and the game's refusal to offer any answers. In this way, the mystery sort of insists upon itself and overplays its hand. Just when you think you're going to stumble across a revelation, the adventure veers onto another path and this gets very frustrating after a while. Plus, the pacing is off throughout; it's normal to have fast and slow chapters of any story but you have to maintain some sense of flow or it will seem disjointed. This, unfortunately, feels loose; the whole thing lacks tightening and an underlying thread that ties the entire quest together. Again, very irritating.
But in the end, Firewatch is one of those games that will satisfy those looking for a more cerebral, perhaps even sentimental interactive adventure. It's only about 4-5 hours in length and in some ways, that does feel too short given the amount of unanswered questions that continue to bounce around our brains. Still, the game offers one such a unique and palpable sense of tension, and it excels in the realm of pure immersion. The developers do an incredible job of producing an attractive atmosphere that is both pretty and dangerous; we get a character that we actually start to feel for, and the dynamic between Henry and Delilah strengthens the base of the story. The isolation theme is at the center of this experience and it's presented beautifully. Can you handle the loneliness and ward off your inner demons?
The Good: Very pretty, highly immersive environment. Excellent voice performances. Realistic, identifiable main character. Great dynamic between Henry and Delilah. Devs nail the isolation concept. Believable, even entrancing atmosphere keeps us riveted.
The Bad: Story lacks direction and tightness. Certain segments can feel bland and maybe unrealized. Pacing feels a little off throughout.
The Ugly: "Nothing ‘ugly' here, though the climax may be bittersweet..."
2/10/2016 Ben Dutka