The fact that I have FIRMLY* pledged to get back into hiking, and that I have spent most of this weekend wondering why I never got to hang around with girls who skinny-dipped when I was a teenager, is testament to the enduring and endearing humanity of Firewatch.
It’s as engaging a video game experience as I’ve had in a long time. Yeah, it’s just a walking story game, but something about it buried itself into the bits of my brain that tweak some of the more complex emotions. I’m pretty sure I know what that is, but let’s wind back a little bit and start from the beginning.
It’s as engaging a video game experience as I’ve had in a long time.
We play as Henry – throughout the opening few minutes we make decisions to determine the path of his backstory. Some pretty endearing themes are played out during this opening spell, and some pretty rough ones too – it’s not a game that shies away from tackling difficult human decisions, but always does so with a high degree of care and compassion.
Once we’ve mapped out Henry’s background, we’re thrown into his new life – spending a summer in personal isolation as a fire warden in Shoshone National Forest. Instantly though, we’re introduced to Delilah – Henry’s guide and boss, who watches over and talks to him via walkie-talkie from her watchtower, which is a tiny but permanent presence on the horizon, in a way that’s not always entirely settling.
And it’s in Henry and Delilah’s relationship that this game leaps and fizzes out of the screen – it’s flirty and confident, but very occasionally awkward and shy – like any blossoming relationship. And this is where Firewatch really sets itself apart from the crowd – the dialogue is heart-wrenchingly realistic. The two protagonists spend much of their idle conversations at a swagger, sub-consciously flirting and enjoying their exchanges, but there’s an undercurrent of isolation, loss and sorrow between them. But there’s also a nagging air of cautious distrust too… and that’s what drives this game forward, for there are things afoot in the forest.
The gameplay such as it is, is as unremarkable as you’re going to get – walk around, interact with some obvious, unhidden objects and allow the story to unfold around you. But that’s not the point – the point is to immerse you and it does that by maintaining a level of realism to your actions… and it genuinely ratchets up the tension and you’ll find yourself questioning anything and everybody, totally unsure who or what to trust.
There are of course decisions to make, but they’re dialogue decisions, and appear only to affect the pattern of Henry and Delilah’s relationship rather than the way the game’s actions unfold… but that’s actually what really matters in this story, and I found myself really carefully weighing up the options of what to say back to Delilah in moments of tension because I really, really didn’t want to stuff it up between the two of them.
It would be crass not to mention the visuals – at times it’s a stunning beautiful game to look at. The carefully crafted scenery makes what’s not an enormous map feel endless and sprawling. It’s not photo realistic – there’s a very subtle cartoonish edge to the graphics in the right light, which I’m very sure is a deliberate technique to prevent things looking too rough and ready, given it’s made by a very, very small team of developers.
And it’s impressive that they’ve made a small game like this feel like a sprawling epic, but working in a small team has also allowed them to free themselves from the shackles of the big studios and deliver a game with a huge heart.
it’s impressive that they’ve made a small game like this feel like a sprawling epic
Dispensing with the gameplay has allowed this small team to focus wholeheartedly on a beautifully-pitched, immaculately-written and superbly-acted story. I’d love to see what this bunch could do given some cash to open out a little bit more, and weave some puzzles and action sequences into a bigger game but made with this amount of care and love. But for now, I’m very happy with a weekend’s wort of enthralling entertainment for the price of a couple of pints and a burger.
*weather and aching knees permitting.