It’s been a long time since a game has sucked me in so well that I’ve played it from beginning to end in one sitting. Firewatch, however, had my full attention from the moment I started it up.
The game is set in Yellowstone National Park, and you, Henry, have been employed to live in a tower and spot wildfires before they get out of control.
When you start the game you’re thrown head-first into a text based choose-your-own-adventure that sets the tone: Henry’s early adulthood, the story of falling in love, then slowly losing everything.
You’re gradually introduced to Henry and the park throughout the text-based narrative, which is when you start to get a sense of the beauty and scale of Firewatch.
The bright colors, feeling and sound of being in a national park are beautifully reproduced — it feels like you’re there, like you really are Henry. The graphics are almost from a cartoon world, colorful, over-saturated and inviting, which adds to the realism of the story.
As you’re playing, sometimes you’ll find yourself stopping to admire something like you might in the real world. A stunning sunset, or wandering through a thicket of trees.
You can feel the vastness of the open-map through the sound of the wind, the lush trees and mountains in the distance as you move around, the steps as you climb the stairs and Henry’s labored breath as he rappels up a cliff. The detail is superb, which only serves to suck you in deeper.
As you travel the park the time of day changes, so you’ll see incredible sunrises and sunsets as the day slips away, as well as the glistening night sky.
The entirety of game happens inside the park, except for the text-based introduction. Henry (you) arrives and meets his supervisor, the chipper Delilah through the walkie-talkie that you carry everywhere throughout the game.
Delilah sits in a distant tower watching over the entire park, giving instructions to the firewatchers.
Most of the game is centered around this small thing — you, Delilah and the walkie-talkie. As Delilah tells you where to go and what to do, you gradually become closer through just talking about the world before the park.
You choose your responses, which change your relationship with Delilah over time and influence how the game plays out. Everything worth noting — maybe a beer can on the ground or a stray backpack — you’re able to report back and get instructions for what to do next.
Firewatch is actually a relatively small open world, but the game uses a number of tricks to make itself feel enormous in scale. Every time you’re told where to go, you have to pull out your map and compass to figure out where that actually is before heading out on your hike.
When I was playing, I got lost a number of times because I didn’t read the map properly and had to backtrack, making me feel like a kid on a boy scout trip all over again.
The game slowly takes a turn from what you might expect into a mystery that’s unboxed one piece at a time. A fire breaks out in the distance, kids go missing and you find beer cans everywhere.
As it picks up pace, it suddenly turns into an all-consuming heart-pounding rush to figure out the park’s secrets together before everything falls apart. All of a sudden you’re in amongst something far bigger than you anticipated.
It’s Henry’s job to investigate everything in this sector of the park, deep in the wilderness disconnected from the safety of calling the outside world for help.
What I liked most is that the feeling of being able to go back and give it another stab if you get killed or get it wrong is entirely absent. Every choice is final, and there’s no safety net like in regular games — everything is manual, from the paper map, to the compass and having to lug your backpack around.
I was absolutely sucked in by the storytelling; Firewatch feels like it’s inherently human. The game’s plot happens in the real world, to a person just like us. It could be anyone, even you.
The heartbreaking story of Henry’s life before, and how he and Delilah grow as the mystery of the park all takes place over the simple, but effective walkie talkie interaction. It’s a powerful gimmick that gives you both a sense of presence and distance from Delilah’s character — she’s always with you, but never really there.
When you finish the game, which feels like it happens slowly and all at once, you’re ultimately left wanting more. It’s just a few hours long, which is more than enough to tell the story but feels like it could’ve been extended longer.
Firewatch is interesting because it’s the first game from a new studio called Campo Santo in co-operation with Mac and iOS dev-shop Panic, the makers of apps like Transmit and Coda. For a studio’s first game, it’s a hit out of the park — it’s a shame there’s not going to be a direct sequel.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been captivated by a game, but Firewatch had my attention from start to finish. I didn’t want to stop, and when it ended I started all over again straight away.
Firewatch will be released on February 9.
➤ Firewatch [Mac / Windows / PS4 / Linux]