Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Campo Santo
Review Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: February 9, 2016
I play games for many reasons. For example, I’ll play Madden nearly every year because I like to feel like an NFL coach, calling the shots. I’ll play Call of Duty because I like to feel like an utter bad ass. I’ll play Bloodborne because I want to be challenged. One of my favorite reasons, though, is that I like to experience a good story.
Naysayers are vocal in that story should take a back seat to gameplay, and I don’t think that’s totally right. A good game gives players agency in their story. It allows me to experience a story rather than be told a story. It’s a completely different way to tell a story, and that’s why I always shrug off Gone Home haters. Sure, the same story could’ve been a book or a movie or a comic… but none of those mediums allow you to experience storytelling in the same way.
I loved Gone Home initially, and I’ve enjoyed similar games since. But I’ve also seen ways in which that formula (some might call it a “walking simulator”) can be done more effectively.
Campo Santos, the developers behind Firewatch, clearly take inspiration from the likes of Gone Home and Dear Esther. There is no chance of a Game Over screen. There’s little to really be done outside of walking. It’s primarily interested in delivering an emotional story that you the gamer gets to experience, rather than witness. It’s a small distinction, but one I can’t help but think that Firewatch manages to handle better than it could have, despite a fumble late in the fourth quarter.
Firewatch opens with a choose-your-own-adventure-esque prologue, which gives players a perspective on a questionably unlikable character. The choices range from devastating to mundane, but all work towards building a story that is mature in how it handles many adult-themes – by which I don’t mean gratuitous violence and sex, I mean actual issues adults might face. This brief intro is entirely refreshing, as it is interspersed with said character’s arrival to his lookout tower where he’ll spend the next 80 days keeping an eye out for smokes and flames.
Obviously the next 5 hours aren’t spent watching horizons, seeking signs of arson. The main character, Henry, played Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, finds himself in the middle of a mystery involving missing hikers, campers, and all sorts of things any sensible person wouldn’t want to find themselves anywhere near whilst alone in the middle of the woods. But Henry’s not completely alone. His boss, Delilah, can be reached at most any moment by radio.
Firewatch‘s mission structure is broken down by days. The story jumps forward in days from time-to-time to keep the story concise. While I can appreciate the game’s interest in telling a story, the game’s linearity sometimes gets in the way of itself. For a story which seems intent on making you feel alone – you rarely see more than a silhouette of anyone – it constantly encourages you to stay on path, either by radio calls or rock walls. Upon first examining the map, I was quick to assume the map would take a long time to traverse, but if you get a clean shot, from one edge to the other, you’re talking about a two minute walk, at most. And that’s not to say this game requires a GTA sized map, but the relative compact size and linearity takes away much of the tension of feeling alone.
However, Firewatch, keeps the plot moving briskly, ramping up the tension to seemingly impossible heights. Again, this comes back to the nature of games. Had this story been told the same in a book or a movie, you potentially lose the level of suspense that builds just by being in control of the situation. Firewatch is so successful at this that even after it’s laid its cards completely on the table and I was mere moments from the credits rolling, I couldn’t help but continue thinking there was something else. In the end, though, this led to more of a “that was it?” type of reaction than anything else. Firewatch is a game of two stories, but ultimately it doesn’t know what to do with either one. There’s the mystery, which ultimately ends with a thud, and a story of man coming to grips with what his life has come to. For it to be successful at either, it needs to fully commit. As I said, the mystery aspect of Firewatch falls flat in the final moments, and Henry’s character arc goes no where. He’s the same guilty, selfish man he was in the beginning, only now he has a new friend.
A review of Firewatch would be remiss to leave out mention of it’s stunning art style. Much of the game looks exactly like an Olly Moss painting, but the PS4 seems incapable of rendering the more bushy scenes without dropping to remarkably low frame rates. This is pretty frequent and, if given the choice, I’d suggest playing this on a higher end PC as opposed to the PS4.