Developer: Campo Santo
Available on PC, OSX, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: February 9, 2016
For all the polarizing viewpoints that “walking simulators” have evoked over the past few years, I have been relatively indifferent to trying one out for myself. It wasn’t because I had any predispositions about them being boring, pretentious or unworthy of time; I was just always preoccupied with something else. Now because of this, I hesitate to call Firewatch a walking simulator purely because of my lack of background with them. However, we are forced to define them as video games without a win/loss model, interactive competition (AI or otherwise), or a goal other than reaching a narrative endpoint, then Firewatch can safely be called a walking simulator.
But really, defining this experience as such seems like an injustice… Because it is so much more.
The game opens in a “choose your own adventure” style, allowing you to give your character, Henry, a unique backstory. This is played out by choosing dialogue boxes that appear off and on as your protagonist enters a forest where he has taken a job in the Wyoming wilderness manning a watchtower. This is a plot point that will happen regardless of any choices you make, as most are. You are simply filling in the gaps of a narrative already written for you. This doesn’t make your choices seem any less weighty , however. This story is easy to become emotionally invested in, and every call you make feels heavy and personal.
You learn about Henry’s home life and why he may have decided to take this job at his age as you traverse the fauna towards your home for the next few months. As you enter the watchtower, you are introduced to your new boss, Delilah. Your story begins here. I won’t expound any more on the story, as it truly is where this thing shines from beginning to end.
It isn’t all the game has to offer though. Firewatch is remarkably beautiful. It has a light, low-texture cartoony Team-Fortress visual tone to it that still feels very tangible. It uses a high-contrast lighting style that many of you may only be familiar with if you’ve hiked a densely lit forest at dusk. This all comes together quite nicely into a minimalist tone that obviously took a lot of thought to develop.
The visuals are also where a few of the more glaring problems turn their heads. Your character regularly clips into leaves, rocks and branches. The framerate on the Playstation 4 version is decidedly sub-standard to its PC counterpart, which may be due to the fact that many resources are being squeezed by its stellar draw-distance. The framerates dives were a big problem for immersion at times, but overall the game is gorgeous and functions at a relatively smooth clip.
The sound design is also quite well done. Musical queues seem quite appropriate and the general woodland sounds are satisfying, but it’s hard to even pay attention to when the voice acting is this well done. I sincerely cannot remember lines delivered more convincingly or charmingly in a game as the ones between Henry and Delilah over the radio. It is reminiscent of the great voice acting in the Half-Life and Portal series, which is just another parallel between this game and popular Valve titles. If anyone had told me that this was a Valve title, I would have replied, “Of course it is… This is so Valve-y that I have Valvoline dripping out of my Valvol-ears!”
In conclusion, if a “walking simulator’s” value can be based on the elements of the narrative provided, the aesthetic beauty, and involvement you feel with your main characters, then as a walking simulator, Firewatch is nearly flawless. It is a healthy 6 hours of solid play before the ending comes around as long as you aren’t progressing at a sprint, and at this level of quality, it seems well-worth it.
Take your time with the game. If you’re fed up with triple-A production as I often get, I think this is also a killer palette cleanser against the understandable cynicism in gaming today. This story is told thoughtfully and presented with heartfelt sincerity.
Buy it on PC if you have the system resources. Buy it on PS4 if not. This is a breath of fresh air that we need in the industry and it deserves your support.