Firewatch spoiler-free review: trailblazing

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 8 February 2016 18:00 GMT

Firewatch was supposed to polarise Team VG247, but the verdict came back unanimous on this indie gem. The only battle now is how not to ruin it for everyone else.

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Firewatch is a game about exploring a beautiful canyon, getting to know interesting characters, and chasing an escalating mystery. Your main character (Henry) talks with the game’s other character (Delilah) almost all the time. There’re some environmental puzzles and in-world story telling, but the real takeaway is the experience as a whole.

Brenna and Sherif both played Firewatch and couldn’t agree on who should write the review – or what they could possibly say without spoiling a very special game. Here’s their correspondence, censored for spoilers of story elements beyond the first few minutes.

Sherif: I’ve been writing some notes but they all end with me having to spoil things, which I would rather I didn’t.

Brenna: I sat up all night with it. It’s going to be crazy difficult to talk about without spoilers. It’s too short – or rather, it’s so well edited. You realise later that every single moment, bar little throwaway jokes, is meaningful or additive; it contributes to the overall story, the relationship between Henry and Delilah (which can’t be separated from the story, regardless of which direction it goes in) and the evolving atmosphere.

“Firewatch gives a certain splendour to even the most mundane of tasks … it always has something to say.”

There’s just nothing extraneous in there. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that didn’t have any padding – a bunch of extra story and gameplay added to make the $60 crowd feel it was worthwhile (see BioShock Infinite, which I really enjoyed, but which didn’t need about one-third of its events).

Sherif: Particularly great how the cuts are sharp, getting straight to the point. It leaves all reflection to you, and doesn’t force it through elongated scenes or exposition. The first few hours set a certain tone in place and the first few “quests” help get you acquainted with the map and the game world by removing almost all visual aid. There are canyons, mountains and a river, you only have your compass and a map. That’s it, figure it out. I was shocked for the better part of an hour that there’s no arrow pointing somewhere or a distance indicator. I had to actually memorise the landmarks, learn how to read the map, and use the compass effectively.

Like you said, there’s no padding in there. It never loses steam, and it makes clear distinctions between moments of urgency and those that require a more relaxed approach.

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The first time I [SPOILERS] and [SPOILERS], I lost my cool. I ran looking for the exit instead of exploring like I’d been doing all along. I dunno what it was, but I wanted to GTFO so I could think. Maybe because the game has been teaching you throughout that you’re vulnerable and never on top of things. That first [SPOILERS] encounter genuinely scared me. I knew there was no weapon I could rely on like other games, I wasn’t safe. I am not a fan of horror games, but in that moment, Firewatch got me clenching my controller and left me uneasy for a bit.

Brenna: Your mileage will vary if you’re not a super emotional person, as I am, but I actually got quite scared by about two thirds through. There aren’t many scenes that take place at night, and the environment is just, you know, trees and rocks, and yet there were times when I felt oppressed, hemmed in, and claustrophobic. I kept turning the camera around, trying to look in every direction at once, convinced someone was just behind a tree. From experience, getting scared out in the wilderness even on a sunny day is way, way more disturbing than you might expect, and that’s really well captured. The game actively engages this idea in the beginning, with Delilah telling Henry not to be freaked out by being in the forest.

There’s also one bit that is really – well. We’re avoiding spoilers, but I bet you can guess which part. I had a lot of feelings there.

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Sherif: I liked everything about it… except the ending. The conclusion to the mystery ended up being really disappointing.

Without spoiling anything, I don’t think the story was concluded – not in a satisfying way. Technically, the mystery was solved, and all threads reached their conclusion. And judging by the notes I gathered and everything else you could find in the last hour, there’s no other possible conclusion. It makes it more disappointing because of how good the rest of the game is, and it feels as though there was a grand idea in place that time or resources couldn’t sustain.

Or maybe I’m projecting, maybe it was always going to be a story about the personal struggles of Henry and Delilah, and everything else comes later.

A bit of early banter between Henry and Delilah.

Brenna: The ending is going to be really divisive, and I think a lot of people will be blindsided by it. Depending on your dialogue choices (and therefore what you find out about related situations from Deilah) the revelation of what’s really going on could be pretty disappointing if you’ve come to believe something else. That’s where we’ll see people saying they dislike it, I reckon. I personally agree with you that it couldn’t have gone any other way, though; I got a bit annoyed that Delilah and Henry didn’t make the connections I did, but then again, I was making those connections when I got up to make a cup of tea, not when I was dashing around the woods looking for clues in a panic.

In general I think people are way too focused on endings. The journey is what matters and holy hell, what a journey. I can forgive Campo Santo a bit of an awkward conclusion when the rest of the game is such a tightly controlled ascent. The atmosphere that builds is remarkable.

Sherif: I really like the way it starts. There’s no grand opening cutscene, or really any form of animation going on. You have music playing in the background to set the scene, and you’re making choices on a blurred background. It’s a smart trick from a small studio that surely would’ve spent a good chunk of money on what’s essentially 5 percent of the game.

But the way it leads you to the start is perfect. You’re making meaningless choices, in the grand scheme of things, and the actual story choices are made for you. They appear out of the blue, some without preamble. They crush you the same way they crush Henry. There’s nothing you or him can do but keep moving forward, even if you’re still dwelling over what happened. Until the game decides to thrust you into a new world, explaining the rules as you go.

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Brenna: You say those choices are meaningless, but they almost all come back later. Yes, they don’t alter the plot substantially, but I think they very much alter who Henry is. This extends through gameplay as well. My PS4 crashed at one point (it had been running for about eight hours) and when I reloaded I took a slightly different dialogue track, and was surprised how the conversation branched; it’s not like I got loads of stunning new revelations, but Henry and Delilah’s relationship altered significantly. All the way through the game you can choose how you connect with her, being open and honest, or more guarded, and even getting flirty if that’s your bag.

Most of the time the consequences of what you say seem pretty natural, even if you didn’t predict them. There was only one occasion where I was uncomfortable with the consequences of my dialogue choices, and I realised soon after that the problem was I’d gone out of my way to try and please Delilah rather than answering in reaction to how the situation made me feel. Interestingly flexible role-play for a linear narrative game!

Sherif: I didn’t actually consider choices like the dog breed or the way I chose to treat his wife would have any impact later on his character. I always thought my relationship with Delilah is separate from the past (in that context), and that the prologue exists only to to allow the player (and Henry) to go in carrying this heavy baggage, similar to the opening of The Last of Us.

Brenna: It’s interesting that you mention the dog breed because I feel like that’s a really immediate character choice. You’re choosing whether Henry is the kind of guy who makes a decision based on his own preferences and goals, or prioritises his wife’s preferences. Henry’s guilt in escaping to the woods is easier to bear, I think, when you feel you did all that you could. His situation is too real, man. I’m not looking forward to making grown up choices.

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Sherif: I think I’ve always weighed endings heavily. Conclusions make or break stories for me, and I only felt disappointed by the ending because I put so much stock in the story, because everything leading up to it was so well executed. I am not mad at the game, I very much enjoyed my time, and, like you said, the journey was well worth it, enough for me to play it again – which I rarely do for games.

Thinking about it, I actually wouldn’t have liked it any better if the ending was vague or left to interpretation. Closing off story threads properly should always be lauded, even if said conclusion is not my favourite thing about it.

I will have to play it again and choose different paths. I was very guarded throughout, I only revealed [SPOILERS] when Delilah opened up about [SPOILERS]. (By the way, the [SPOILERS] on her are brilliant! I felt like [SPOILERS]. It’s kind of meta in a way, in how we probably boiled her down to some traits in our heads, maybe instinctively, or because we’ve been playing so many games where relationships were somewhat binary.)

Henry and Delilah’s actors (Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones) may just have delivered some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in games. There’s an instant charisma and a great flow to the – mostly natural language – dialogue. You never feel it’s video game dialogue. When there’s a need to emphasise certain elements, it does so without hamming it.

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Brenna: One of the things I really like about Henry is that he’s just some guy. You can see he has a bit of a paunch, and hairy, stubby little legs; there’s no effort to space marine him. He gets out of breath and moans about climbing.

Segue: it’s so good to have a decent running speed and pretty quick climbing animations; the way the world is gated and broken up is very clever and natural-feeling. Speaking of animations, the way Henry’s hands clumsily pop into frame as you jog bothered me a bit, but it’s also very embodied. I found the radio controls really difficult at first, playing on PS4, but once I realised it mirrors real radio controls it became second nature.

There are loads of little touches like that, that ground you in the world and the adventure – even just picking shit up and looking at it. Because I play a lot of games I kept expecting there to be a puzzle involving, like, the glass cleaner, a dish rag and the fire finding wheel, stuck together with honey in order to open a door – but all the challenges make sense. Unprecedented!

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Sherif: Gameplay mostly revolves around exploration and doing everyday tasks. But the story pace and the way designers smartly laid out quests around the map, you’re never doing too much of one thing. Even though, when you really think about it, they’re all mundane tasks that would otherwise be unnecessary distractions in other games. But Firewatch gives a certain splendour to even the most mundane of tasks, and it’s amazing how much well-realised character and atmosphere will let you get away with.

The general design is largely in-tune with itself. Nothing appears out of the ordinary and no feature seems mandated. The game’s visual look is easy on the eyes with colours that give out quiet and serene vibes. The music also shares the simplicity approach, doing away with complex melodies and focusing instead on being another canvas through which scenes can play out.

It’s easy to get lost in some spots pretending you’re actually there, but whatever it is, the game always has something to say.

Firewatch is out tomorrow on PC, Mac, Linux, and PlayStation 4.

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