From the very beginning, Firewatch took my breath away. Not only with its artistic visuals, but also with its subtle, surprisingly powerful, emotion.
The premise is simple. Players steps into the shoes of Henry, a man who takes a job as a wildfire lookout in the Rocky Mountains for the summer. Out in the middle of nowhere, his only connection to the outside world is his boss, Delilah, a woman he’s never met, but talks to over a radio he’s given. A cross between a narrative adventure game (think dialogue choices like The Walking Dead or Oxenfree) and a first-person exploration game (Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), Firewatch hinges on the characters, relationship, and dialogue between Henry and Delilah, but gives you a gorgeous world to explore as a backdrop.
What immediately sets Campo Santo’s game apart from the rest however, is how flawlessly it introduces you to its characters. Though Oxenfree, for instance, is very similar in the fact that the point of the game is carrying on conversations as you explore a strange area, I felt more emotionally invested and connected to Henry in the first five minutes of Firewatch than I did to any of the characters in Oxenfree after playing for hours. Suffice it to say Campo Santo nails almost perfect characterization right out of the gate, setting up Henry, his life, and just why he’s taking a job to live in isolation for a summer.
Admittedly, once on the mountain, the story does start off slow. Exploring and doing a few forest service tasks takes up roughly the first hour of the game’s five hour playtime, allowing players the quite literal experience of being lost in the woods. That said, the conversations with Delilah are witty and interesting. Both her and Henry simply fun to listen to, the pair is more than enough to carry the story forward as the player begins to get a lay of the land.
Allowing you to take in the intense colors of the game’s unique art-style in all their glory, the only on-screen HUD is a reticle. Even with a large open world, there is no on-screen mini-map or compass. Instead, you actually have to pull out your map and compass to figure your way around the mountain. It may seem like a small thing, but actually having to look at a map, figure out which way was north, and use landmarks for navigation felt deeply grounded, making the rest of the game that much more tangible.
As the in-game days began to tick by, I felt as though I genuinely was beginning to learn the ins and outs of the various trails, making my own experience with the landscape as much a part of the story as anything else.
Aside from the occasional stutter when loading from one area to the next and the rare graphical glitch, Firewatch’s visuals are gorgeous. Exploring the ravines, creeks, and hillsides all at different times of the day kept it from ever feeling too repetitive. The first time I passed a lake was at dusk, the orange shimmer of the sun throwing long shadows everywhere you look. The second time I passed the same lake was in the cool, bright morning, the entire area transformed into radiant greens and blues. More than that however, as the game continues, the environment itself begins to change, all in beautifully realized washes of color.
Inevitably, even in a narrative about a peaceful mountain, things do quickly begin to go wrong, and suddenly everything is not as it seems. This is where Firewatch’s blending of genres comes into play the most. Matching the personal investment of a narrative adventure game with the environmental storytelling of first-person exploration, Firewatch develops an engaging and tense story.
What continues to make it work and sells the mounting tension, even as Henry still just explores the forest alone, is the outstanding strength of the writing and fantastic voice-acting. Henry and Delilah feel authentic and have faults. The sometimes-brutal realism of who they are manages to anchor the game in ways I didn’t expect. When things get weird, Delilah doesn’t just roll with it and buckle down to solve things, she freaks out, gets drunk, and curses like an angry sailor. It was an oddly refreshing level of basic, no frills realism.
It’s odd, then, that the grounded nature of the narrative ultimately leads to a bit-too-subtle, and overall anti-climactic, ending. With the level of emotion and tension throughout the entirety of the game, the ending just landed softer than it seems it should have. While certainly not enough to taint the rest of my time with Firewatch, it was a lower note to leave on than the game deserved.
Overall, Campo Santo has managed to bring out the best elements of two of modern gaming’s most narrative-driven genres. In doing so, they created something special and unique. Even if the early transversal of its large world did leave the first hour feeling a bit slow and the end didn’t quite hit the high mark set by the rest of the game, the relationship between Henry and Delilah was excellent throughout. In almost every way that matters, Firewatch delivered a plotline in outstanding style, with the storytelling confidence and deftness promised by its opening minutes. Needless to say, it’s a remarkable debut for Campo Santo and well worth a look for any interested in the bright future of narrative-based games.