As Firewatch begins, we’re introduced to Henry, a man who very desperately needs some time away from civilisation in the midst of personal crisis, responding to an advert in the newspaper to work as a lookout in the Wyoming wilderness for the summer. Henry’s only constant point of contact is his supervisor Delilah, who keeps in regular contact via radio. Over the course of the summer, Henry and Delilah get to know each other while an overarching mystery develops to form the backbone of the plot.
While much of the gameplay involves map-reading and orienteering to navigate your sector, finding and reading notes and picking up incidental objects and details (you can adopt a turtle and call it Turt Reynolds), and call in observations as well as respond to Delilah via your radio.
Firewatch presented me with the rare world in which I was happy to stop and smell the roses. The wilderness is downright stunning. The environments are expertly handcrafted to feel authentic, and the game makes splendid use of colour palette to depict a vibrant locale worthy of your time and attention. I took a lot of screenshots while wandering about in this game, both with the PS4’s built-in function and the in-game camera. The game excellently tweaks the lighting and palette to shape the appropriate mood, an effect ably assisted by the enchantingly understated and diverse soundtrack.
The cornerstone of the experience lies in the dialogue. Given the context for Henry’s situation, you can choose his tone when he speaks to Delilah. Is he serious or does he joke around? Is he forthright or reluctant to talk about his past? These decisions shape his relationship with Delilah in a way that feels natural and believable. It’s in the dialogue writing and the wonderfully talented, expressive yet grounded vocal performances for the two main characters that carry the experience and foster a real sense of connection. Seriously, the quality of this part of the experience shines like a spotlight.
What’s really interesting about the relationship between Henry and Delilah is that a lot of the time, your choices as Henry don’t effect Delilah’s actions. While lots of games let you persuade NPCs with a high enough social stat or through choosing the right dialogue options, Delilah will on several occasions do what she wants no matter how well you think you’ve persuaded to act in the way you want her to act. I find this really cool because it’s using limitations of the game to drive the agency of a character, making her feel much more “real” than pretty much any other character out there.
Henry is also a fascinating character to play as, and it’s another way that a limitation of your choices in game are used to good effect. Most choice-driven games let you choose to be a self-sacrificing moral paragon of a hero should you wish to pursue that path, but not so in Firewatch. Henry is just a normal person, and people can be selfish. A couple of the early-game decisions regarding Henry’s actions in his backstory involve a choice between two inherently self-centred decisions. It forces the player to understand upfront that Henry isn’t perfect. That would be impossible. And while I wouldn’t like to see myself selecting any decisions from that limited pool, I can certainly see how someone might. And while I still acted selflessly a bunch of times in the game, I made a lot more selfish choices than I would in a lot of other games. I understood Henry’s situation and made decisions that I perhaps wouldn’t even consider in any other game, but felt right and morally justified in doing so.
Firewatch’s story largely feels like a vehicle for testing and developing Henry and Delilah’s relationship while exploring the beautifully realised world, but is nevertheless engrossing for the game’s roughly 4-hour duration. There are lots of compelling twists and turns which kept me (incorrectly) guessing for a while. Ultimately I was satisfied with the way things tied up, but what really shines is the way the circumstances of the current stage of the plot, paired with the stellar voice acting and tweaks to the visual environment, really play with your mood as you hike your way through the narrative. Such a wide array of emotional tones were evoked, swaying from sadness to mirthful frivolity to curiosity to paranoia, each shift expertly pulled off through the interplay between the game’s many audiovisual strengths and exceptional writing.
Firewatch is a beautiful way to spend a few hours. It’s mesmerising, vibrant and gripping. It’s a little bit on the short side if you doggedly chase the story, but it completely justifies its price and makes great use of the time it has to provide a worthwhile experience with two stellar main characters that I won’t forget. Perhaps the narrative could have tied itself up a bit more neatly, but overall Firewatch is an absolute pleasure to immerse yourself in.