It’s probably about time I wrote something here isn’t it. There’s not much use being sat squatting on an invisible corner of the internet if you’re not going to intermittently scream collections of incomprehensible words to the same five or six poor gits who stumble upon your website presumably always seeking something far removed from anything they’ll ever find here. Sorry about that. As the second Respawn post of the year that I’ve successfully completed (written with unfounded, ill-fated optimism not 90 words in) here’s another game I’ve been playing, that everybody else was talking about months ago; Firewatch.
For the few uninitiated that remain, the game has you filling the first person shoes of a man who has taken to the expanse of the Wyoming wilderness as a refuge of sorts; an escape from, or perhaps a way to confront, the haunts of a previous life. A job as a fire watchman in the forests gives him time to reflect, to write, to put hundreds of miles between himself and the civilisation that warranted his yearning to move somewhere intrinsically remote, distant, desolate. His story unfolds intricately, steadily, through a fast unravelling and perplexing mystery but also through his emotional attachment and connection to the only other human in the vicinity, a connection he seemingly instinctively clings to.
Firewatch was one of those games I caught a glimpse of in its early stages and it excited me to the point of wanting to know nothing more about it until I played it. A rookie mistake, some would say. I tend to avoid the media frothing of the releases I’m looking forward to most, whereever I can. Finally getting to sit down with Firewatch many, many months after that initial excitement, was in its essence as rewarding as I’d hoped, but for all the reasons I hadn’t really considered.
The moment these reasons became clear, was when I was diligently instructed to immediately trek from one side of the map to the other. Firewatch is all about walking, rambling, hiking, climbing up small rock faces and rappelling down larger ones; incising your way through the trees and the bushes and the ravages of the natural world to reach your destination. Typically a big fat long old walk with lots of W holding isn’t a game’s selling point, but Firewatch manages to make simply navigating across the map a serene, beautiful thing; an experience. A true ‘walking simulator’, without the derogatory overtones often embroiled in that term.
It is stylistically one of the most arresting and enigmatic games around. Its unique art style settles somewhere off of Borderlands’ cell-shaded shores, but softer, subtler; like there’s somehow been more thought involved in the process of bringing this painted-picture park plane to life. Its sun-sets and rises, the shadows that splay out over the solid, yet somehow affluently detail filled rocky expanses, the undergrowth and overgrowth; it is predominantly the game’s enrapturing visuals that make just journeying through it so enjoyable. It’s a relaxing, tranquil affair.
Of course, you’ve read all the reviews months ago; you’ve heard how it skimps on gameplay, how its ending is a let down, how ultimately, there’s little going on. But those sentiments are sort of missing the point of Firewatch. True, there’s no real puzzle here, no real sense of outwitting the game; but what there is is a story, an investigation into how a man seeks solitude and yet still openly craves that human connection he finds lingering on the other end of his trusty walkie-talkie. If some blockbusters are nowadays more like explosion-filled Michael Bay films you just walk through, then Firewatch is more like how someone imagined a Hemingway novel you can walk through. There is an overarching sense of literary aptitude throughout.
Of course, a narrative isn’t so strong if it isn’t performed well, and the voice acting is, critically, stellar. Starring Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s very own chief of all things telly Harry Crane (Rich Sommer, if the Mad Men reference wasn’t hitting home enough there), and video game voice over veteran Cissy Jones, the lines are delivered with such ease and dynamicity, the meandering, blossoming and perplexing relationship that flourishes is as believable as they come. Rich Sommer’s demeanour captures main character Henry perfectly adding yet more layers of teeming charm to the game’s charisma. Interestingly, in a Polygon article, Sommer told a story in which he and a friend in fact drove out and stayed in an old converted fire watchtower as part of a weekend escape many years ago, naturally giving him something real to work from in Firewatch that shines through, while he also presumably attained some sort of ‘master of foresight’ moniker in the process.
This idea of escape and seclusion permeates throughout the game. If you know me, you’ll know I am an infuriatingly ardent advocate of solitude. Sometimes people don’t bother inviting me to parties because they know I’ll say no. Probably. I think that’s why this game spoke to me like it did. It manages to convey the purest aspects of the peace that comes with solitude, without forgetting the melancholy when it descends into isolation. I find such identity in the game’s interpretation of that longing, the ideal of escaping everything, and experiencing life on the outskirts of nowhere.
Firewatch isn’t just a philosophical painting you can wander around in though, and through that aforementioned pitch perfect voice-acting, some excellent writing and its art style, it also manages to invoke a real impression of disorientation. Games that are ‘creepy’ or scary often pit you against dark spiraling corridors filled with shadows and ghosts or pictures of dead cows, but Firewatch manages that in an opposite environment, one that’s bright and open. It sends you adrift into the piercing, heat soaked wilderness alone, and as the story of your mystery assailants unravels, so too does your sense of safety. It feels at times like the sun is really beating down upon you, imparting that feeling of sunstroke induced, hazy confusion and panic.
Lastly, Firewatch is short. But for me, this played out entirely to its advantage. I keep meaning to write about my shredded gaming time and how I expect the things from games I can’t reasonably expect to have the time to see. But, that’s a story for another time. Firewatch isn’t long, but that somehow kept me playing. I felt certain I’d see everything. It made me put the time in, knowing the end was achievable. I don’t know what sort of gamer that makes me. A rubbish one, perhaps.
A beautifully short, erudite, visually captivating, wonderfully written and brilliantly performed interactive story that should be played by any and all thinking players. Though you’ll find more bang for your buck, (for want of a phrase that doesn’t want to make me tear off my finger nails) elsewhere, that sentiment is a misunderstanding of the idea of Firewatch; a stunning achievement all round in my book.