By Will Bonaddio
Imagine a game where you can’t die, have no inventory screen, no fast travel button, no health meter, limited map functionality, no weapons and never see another human until the very end of its main draw – the story (which will only take about 4 hours to get through). This is Firewatch.
Now for some, the above may already be a huge turn-off. But as a massive fan of old Lucas Arts point and click classics where you can’t die and the Phoenix Wright series (which is basically an interactive anime), Firewatch sounded like the perfect game for me. I even went out of my way to ignore any info about the game beyond the fact that it was a narrative-based ‘experience.’ I say all this because I want to prove that I’m not going to criticise this game for not being what I expected from typical PS4 games because I had an open mind and no expectations. The problem is that Firewatch isn’t fun and the all-important narrative is fundamentally flawed.
It’s difficult to talk about Firewatch without some spoilers so if you’re hoping to play the game completely ‘cold’ please look away now.
The story begins in Boulder, Colorado 1975 as you (Henry) meet Julia, in a bar. At least, that’s what it says as you flick through multiple screens of text and choose whether to make small talk about her major or drunkenly tell her she’s hot, then move forward to discussions about whether or not you want children and what kind of dog you own in your perfect married life. A beautiful and haunting soundtrack of plucked guitar and piano strings plays as you discover that your now-wife’s been suffering from episodes that include panic attacks and driving to another town for no reason with the police having to bring her home. Things get worse as the relationship becomes more strained, she moves back to her parents in Australia and Henry takes a job as Firewatch. I loved being there all the way from the start of when these two met, but given renowned film artist Olly Moss was involved in the game’s character designs, the lack of even an illustration or controllable element during this segment felt like a missed opportunity. With everything playing out over text I could never feel fully invested in the Henry and Julia’s relationship which is meant to serve as the crux for many of the game’s decision making dilemmas.
Once you have full control of Henry you can take in the first-person view of Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. I’d describe the graphics as somewhere between Fallout 4 and Stuart Little 3; they’re what I expected from a shorter, download-only game but just can’t hold up against what’s promised. There’s a moment where Henry describes a forest as “lush,” but a fog effect on the ground that wouldn’t have been out of place on Sega Saturn simply jars with that suggestion. Much of the game is also spent walking over long stretches, and while the scenery is pleasant and I liked the use of different forest hues, it isn’t beautiful enough to encourage exploring off the beaten path or make such long periods not feel like a chore. The PS4 version also constantly suffers from distracting pop-up and regularly stutters – particularly when entering a new area for the first time.
The script and voice acting, however, are fantastic and by far the game’s biggest highlight. Henry (voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) is given his tasks via walkie-talkie by boss Delilah (Cissy Jones) and despite – or perhaps because – you don’t see their faces as they interact, the chemistry between both characters is brilliant. As I walked to my next task I loved to indulge in the peppy script to further unlock the banter between these two characters and regularly found myself smiling; early in the game Delilah explains the modest restroom facilities to Henry and follows with “I pee wherever I want as well!” This is some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game and along with the script wouldn’t be out of place in a radio play. As Henry’s relationship with Delilah continued to grow, I was rooting for them to get together – something I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable with given my wife Julia’s issues, but seeing as I only knew her from the text intro it wasn’t too hard to get past.
Physically getting past obstacles in the game, however, is so cumbersome that it nearly drove me to give up within my first hour. Small stones, branches or drops serve as impassable barricades that you have no way of getting past unless the game wants you to, in which case a prompt will appear and you can cut, jump or abseil through with no problem. In any other game you’d take a little damage to jump down a small drop, in real life you’d probably even risk it. But in Firewatch you always feel like the game is, to some extent, guiding you – even though you have to work out where you’re going via your tricky map which caused my biggest issues. It’s only viewable when pressing the D pad, you can’t run while looking at it, it doesn’t show which way you’re facing, won’t allow you to plot out the route you need to take and to really see it up close you need to stop and press a shoulder button to zoom in. While many will say the fact it wasn’t a typical ‘always on’ game map made it more challenging and realistic, optimising its controls would’ve made it significantly less annoying.
However, Firewatch is more a story than game which is why it’s all the more disappointing that the early plot twists peter out instead of building to a more substantial payoff. After scaring off some drunk girls setting off fireworks to find my tower had been broken into on Day 1, I felt real dread going into a cave and later coming across a strange man filled me with fear on Day 2. I invested time and effort into my chats with Delilah, choosing the options in the conversation branches that were consistent with the version of Henry’s personality I’d been creating since first introducing myself to Julia back at that bar in Boulder. What was going to happen to my marriage? Would I give it all up to live with Delilah instead? The only part of the story that was truly resolved by the time the credits rolled was the one I genuinely had no opinion on or feelings about. In fact, despite my love of the radio conversations with Delilah, when the subject initially came up I realised that I hadn’t been paying total attention because, for the first time in the scrip, it simply wasn’t that interesting. Nothing that you actually spend your time controlling or building towards comes to a satisfying conclusion which, for a story-led gaming experience, is too big an issue to ignore.
I really wanted to love Firewatch and saw its “short story wrapped in a game” formula as a big attraction. Clunky controls, pretty but disappointing graphics and performance issues mean the game elements just aren’t very fun which puts even more pressure on the story to deliver. The brilliant voice acting kept me coming back for its lively script and some elements of the story truly are funny, creepy, moving and exciting. But with so many of these and a large number of your own decisions being irrelevant in steering you to the same unsatisfying ending, Firewatch feels like the sum of its best parts don’t lead to a greater whole.