Smaller game studios remain dedicated in their ability to produce endearing game-play opportunities to provoke thought by less aggressive means. Firewatch tries to exemplify this, and delivers a story that wishes to equal that of literature. It never quite delivers anything. Firewatch struggles with narrative pacing and character development. It never fully realizes its own potential by not fleshing out several story developments they deliberately set up.
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Developer Campo Santo delivers with Firewatch an environment teeming with mystery and nuance.
These are the dry hill-bound grounds of Shoshone National Park, Wyoming. The year is 1989, and I step in the shoes of Henry, a man in his late thirties, fleeing from a life that’s been viciously torn apart from the inside out. Henry rushes to volunteer as a fire watch. The story unfolds as you venture further into the park. Early on, as you peer through Henry’s eyes, you jog to and fro from your lookout to a dozen breath-taking settings. Rich Sommer brings Henry to life with one of the most astounding performances of the medium. Its astounding because he brings life to a character that bears no connection to whatever decision he makes. Without the help of motion-capture, Rich Sommer renders Henry with a constant liveliness, even as the game around him falls apart.
In the early moments of the game you create your own back story. Your choices hold no agency however, for nothing you do in the prologue affect Henry.
Why add choice if it bears no consequence on the the story?
Firewatch tries to be a narrative-driven game, yet it fails at doing so. Its pacing is rushed. It is front loaded with your introduction to Delilah and the environment, which stirs your curiosity. Then you skip seventy days (during which, magically, nothing important happens – as if!). Then you are back loaded with a payoff mounted with exposition. In both playthroughs, the story felt incoherent going into the second half. The game is so set on delving into the theme of solitude that you never meet any character of importance face to face, even when the organic flow of the story calls for it. Solitude in Firewatch, after all, is only as interesting or entertaining as the people experiencing it. In this case, Delilah and Henry.
Amid the hoopla over Firewatch’s abysmal trophy list, and my own deep-seated vexation with its incoherent pacing, no one should ignore how lovely Firewatch looks, how luscious yet free-wheeling, bounteous yet uncanny. As I surge past the dozens of orange-shaded hills, brushing past trees and greenery, I was overcome by an eerie sense of becoming, existing – a sustained mood of elation produced by this space. What continuously hindered my immersion was its disappointing narrative.
As someone obsessed with the horrific and suspenseful – in all its forms – I wanted to be blown away by the unsettling atmosphere. Several disturbing affairs occur during broad daylight, and their execution is almost flawless, other than the performance issues. I reviewed it on the PlayStation 4, and I was hit by countless dramatic frame-rate drops during my climbing or jogging. On one occasion I had to reload my save to trigger an event. That said, when it ran well, I was chary of moving thistles, or unnatural noises. It tried to build suspense.
Your main source of interaction in Firewatch is by responding to Delilah through your radio. There is little pleasure in deciding your responses to her, made possible by the redundant mechanics. Whether you aggravate, romance, or joke around with Delilah, the story, and your relationship to her, stay relatively the same. Your responses never feel unique to your experiences within the game. You feel more like an interlocutor for the stories progression than stepping in Henry’s shoes. It does not empower you by molding the story to your decisions; instead it slightly personalizes Henry to your emotional sensibilities.
You can be gregarious, stoic, or charismatic. Which ever you chose, the over arching story remains the same. I played through the game twice; every decision you choose as a player makes no difference.There were no new story lines to find by choosing different options. In addition to this, there is a redundancy in your choice. There are less than a dozen moments scattered in the game where other people’s well-being come into play. You can either be careless or selfless in these instances. Either way, it does not affect them in any shape; even when its a “life or death” situation! How am I supposed to care what happens when my decisions have no consequence? Better yet, why can there not be a positive consequence for a selfless decision. Firewatch’s design feels lazy and careless. It is easy to overlook this fact with the phenomenal voice acting and environment design. It almost tricks you into obliviousness of its failures.
Or, what’s worse: when I deliberately made the opposite decision from my previous play through, and Delilah somehow changes Henry’s mind so that my decision is cancelled out. In these instances my immersion in the game – and my connection to Henry – is completely lost. Why go on at this point?
Furthermore, with every cache box you discover, there are notes left behind by one of two male forest rangers who have been writing to one another. Their relationship grows more intimately as you discover more of them. Had this story-line been fleshed out there could have been the emotional weight between them that equals that of Broke back Mountain. This is not me wishing for a rehash of that movie, or a “Gone Home” of sorts, or any type of physical intimacy between them. However, their intimate fraternity could have been given more thought. And by more I mean any. Their stories are left half-finished. These notes from past people stir my curiosity – and the answers I seek are left meekly unanswered. (But that was a deliberate choice on the developer’s part: you might object, to which I would reply: Sure it is! It felt just as deliberate as Ready At Dawn’s decision to rehash the same exact gun-battles and werewolf fights in The Order: 1886.)
Firewatch feels carelessly empty. You clean up beer cans without there being a reason for doing so. Instead of fleshing out the narrative, the designers take the time to add pine cones and a deer horn to cache boxes for you to partake in pointless small-talk with Delilah. For a game where exploration and narration is important, there is no reason for it to feel randomly latent in those terms. Firewatch never understands its potential, and thus ends up an arbitrary experience.
One story line does end. In ending that story line, whether this was their intention or not, the player sees that as the pay-off. Problem is, it never felt like a pay-off, and the characters it affected, were none of my concern, at any point in the game. You spend most of your time interacting with Delilah – and nothing comes of that either. Mind you, Delilah was the only character I cared for. There is a decision Delilah makes at the end of the game which prevents you from meeting her. The reasoning behind it is absolute nonsense. Delilah vicariously symbolizes the developers’ sentiments: forget Henry, let’s just rush this to the finish line. What a cop-out.
Firewatch fails to find its footing. Its rendition of Shoshone Park, and its impeccable voice acting, deserve praise. The game, however, fails to see what is interesting about itself within a wilderness that is teeming with possibilities. It tricks you into thinking your [arbitrary] decisions matter in a story that lacks discipline and creativity.