Though walking simulators have only recently sprung into existence, their developers have managed to hone in on the key element that makes them so effective: loneliness.
In some ways, it's a practical choice: Most of these games are made by small teams with small budgets, making convincing character models (with convincing acting) an expensive proposition. But a game world nearly free of people does offer other benefits. As we've seen with games like Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Leviathan: The Old City, a sense of solitude can fully suck you into a fictional world, drawing out details you might not have noticed while surrounded by talking heads. And for Firewatch protagonist Henry, this loneliness comes as the main benefit of his new gig as a fire watchman: After losing his partner of eleven years to early onset dementia, he just needs a place to—for lack of a better phrase—get his shit together.
At the outset, that's all we really know about Henry. After Firewatch's brief, text-only prologue sums up the course of his tragic relationship, we're immediately introduced to his new life and new companion: Delilah, who we only interact with via Henry's trusty walkie-talkie. This job seems to attract a certain type of person, since Delilah has some baggage of her own, and prefers to keep people at arm's length despite her own apparent loneliness. Most of Firewatch's four hours explore the growing relationship between Henry and Delilah over the course of a summer—one that pulls the two into some mysterious and often dangerous circumstances by the end.
While a good deal of Firewatch's fairly large woodland area can be explored from the outset, it mostly follows a reliable formula of Henry heading out to solve problems discovered by Delilah, like rowdy teens setting off fireworks, or a downed power line. As Henry makes his way to these various destinations (using a handy map and compass), he can reach out to Delilah with his walkie-talkie to gain a little insight on the world around him. Firewatch brings plenty of opportunities to sit back and soak up the gorgeous scenery, but Campo Santo never leaves Henry alone for too long: Even when there's nothing particularly interesting in front of Henry, Delilah is likely to reach out, if only to provoke a reaction. (She's like that.)
Of course, there's more to Firewatch than the relationship of Henry and Delilah set against a life of mundanity, and after about an hour, it's clear that someone—or something—is out there watching him. For the most part, this change in direction brings out some of the best interactions between Henry and Delilah: With the stakes raised and their jobs (and possibly lives) on the line, heightened emotions allow the characters to break down the mental walls they've built for the sake of self-preservation. After your first few initial tasks, the remainder of Firewatch mostly involves investigating the mysterious happenings targeting our two main characters.
While I enjoyed the character drama throughout, Firewatch doesn't quite stick the landing. Without spoiling things, the finale seems a bit too rushed, almost as if Firewatch knows its central mystery is a bit contrived and wants to pull you out of the experience before you can dwell on it. And Henry and Delilah's relationship never really pays off, either. While the two certainly become more familiar with each other, they don't really go through the character arcs you'd expect them to. By the end, it's hard to tell if Henry has overcome the emotional trauma of losing his wife, or even if Delilah has softened a bit. There's something to be said about the value of nuance and realism, but, then again, the various happy endings from Gone Home still stick with me three years later.
Even with its problems, Firewatch stands as a worthwhile debut from Campo Santo. Though it limps to the finish line, having a smaller, more personal story explored through the medium of video games still comes as a pleasant change of pace. Firewatch might not bring the same emotional heights of other walking simulators, but it's still a warm and pleasant way to burn through an afternoon in the splendor of virtual Wyoming.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: Given that your interactions with the game world are very basic, there's not much to screw up here.
- Lasting appeal: Even if it only lasts a handful of hours, you're not likely to get more out of Firewatch by immediately jumping back in.
- Sound: While most of Firewatch only offers ambient woodland sounds, Chris Remo's moody soundtrack pops in at just the right time to give certain scenes the proper emotional weight.
- Visuals: Veering away from a more photorealistic look, Firewatch's stylized forest setting is visually stunning.
Firewatch doesn't provide the same emotional heights or satisfying conclusion you'd expect from such a story-heavy game, but Campo Santo definitely shows promise with their debut project. Even if it won't have you reaching for the tissues by the end, this woodland walking simulator still provides a pretty great way to burn through an otherwise unoccupied afternoon.
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