So-called “walking simulators” are aimed at a very particular audience. The premium is on storytelling instead of action and the games tend to short and encourage multiple playthroughs. Some find this fun and relaxing, others will call them frustrating and boring. Firewatch is no different, as some will praise its deep story while others will not think there is enough for more than a couple of hours.
Firewatch puts the player in control of Henry, a man who takes a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming after his wife becomes ill. Henry’s only companion is Delilah, a fellow lookout who is Henry’s boss and who mainly communicates with the player via a walkie talkie. Over the course of the summer, Henry and Deliah develop a bond while also stumbling across mysteries that may be connected to each other.
Firewatch has very little action (aside from sprinting, it would be fair to say there is none) and is forced to rely on its characters and storytelling. Henry and Delilah are excellent characters. The player controls Henry from the beginning, making a series of Choose Your Own Adventure style decisions that will have an impact throughout the game. These are not random decisions akin to choosing an avatar, but instead draw in the player and influence what choices will be made later. Many games operate under the guise of choice but few offer tangible consequences.
The player never directly controls Delilah but decisions made (or not made since silence is an option), will influence how she reacts to Henry. Much like Henry, Delilah is a dynamic character that changes over the course of the game. Callbacks made at the end of the game to seemingly unimportant conversations early on are a delight.
Both characters are multilayered. Henry has a troubled home life and took on his new job to escape or sort things out. His motivations are never stated outright and it is up to the player to decide. Henry is despondent, sarcastic, playful, and thoughtful during the game and it never seems out of character. Delilah is also very playful and coy until fear sets in, at which point she becomes almost selfish.
The voice acting of Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones makes the friendship work while preventing it from feeling forced. More than anything else, the theme of Firewatch is relationships and how to deal with them. The game needed an outstanding performance from its two leads and Sommer and Jones do a wonderful job and prevent it from becoming cliché.
Where Firewatch falters is its story. After an incredibly strong first act, the game meanders its way to an anticlimactic conclusion. Between the amazing interaction of Henry and Delilah the player is subjected to a an interesting mystery that turns into an nonsensical conspiracy before ending abruptly. The argument can be made that the experience is more about the two main characters than the actual story, but this would also mean that everything that happens is ultimately pointless.
The gameplay and graphics also become repetitive. The game map is not large and requires much backtracking. There is even one part of game that sends the player across the map and back as if it is joking. While the conversations are great they are also sparse, making longer journey tedious. That being said, the game’s soundtrack is great and the use of smoke and mist effects in the game are superb.
Firewatch is a one trick pony. It has two amazing characters that are almost enough on their own to recommend the game. The opening section and first act of the game are also well done and will probably win many over. From there, it becomes a test of great characters versus poor game design.
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