The first game from Campo Santo, a mystery in the Wyoming wilderness, Firewatch is an unqualified triumph.
The last 20 minutes of Firewatch are going to be the subject of much controversy. By that, I mean a lot of people are going to hate it, or believe it is a letdown, or thematically out of step.
I do not believe it’s such a deflated-balloon of an ending. To me, it’s a close to perfect emotional and thematic capstone to Campo Santo’s first game – an ending as purely human and intelligent and impressively adaptive to player opinion as the rest of Firewatch. But Campo Santo deliberately downplays the events at hand, and the story offers no grand final moral statement. The debate over whether or not the ending works, waged for the next couple of weeks among the great game critics, is one that will be very fascinating indeed.
For me, I stand on the side of Firewatch being a triumph. From its heart wrenching opening sequence to the moments it leaps from influences like Far Cry 2 to the films of John Carpenter to a complicated emotional conclusion, I don’t think Firewatch ever misses a single beat. I think Firewatch is something genuine, unique, and special, and ultimately as ambitious as the great outdoors itself.
Ostensibly just another walking simulator, Firewatch takes place in the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, in 1989. Just a few years prior, a massive forest fire nearly burned nearby Yellowstone National Park to cinders, sparking a massive recruitment drive for new people to watch for forest fires. One such person is Henry (Mad Men’s Rich Sommers), the protagonist, a middle aged man with memories he would like to forget over his summer stint on the firewatch in Shoshone. He is alone – there is no one with him in his tower – and yet he is not. Way across the horizon, in a different tower, is Delilah (Cissy Jones), his unseen supervisor speaking over walkie-talkie. Henry’s only emotional lifeline.
Events transpire, and as the threat of fire looms over Shoshone, the park reveals itself to not be quite as peaceful as it appears.
To say more, about anything, would be useless. Not because it would be spoiling (though it would), but because Firewatch is such a specific, personal thing that it simply must be experienced yourself. Campo Santo’s founders Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman were the principal members of the creative team behind the famed first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Firewatch is clearly a game built from the same design mindset and with similar appeal. The big beats of Firewatch are largely independent of player choice, as was The Walking Dead’s, but the relationship between Henry and Delilah is extraordinarily malleable. Small moments of conversation can completely reshape the thematic path of their story, obscure and highlight parts of the story’s mystery, and alter the nature of their interaction the entire summer. “Player choice” is not really the name of Firewatch’s game; instead, it’s “player opinion” that matters here.
Enough cannot be said about the writing in Firewatch – it genuinely might be the best writing a game has ever had. Usually, when game developers speak of being “mature” and “adult” and “emotional,” they’re really just using those words as smokescreen for veneer of seriousness used to lend a false sense of depth. Firewatch, meanwhile, is a genuinely mature, adult story. Much of the game is one prolonged conversation about life, loss, memory, and fear, filtered through player opinion, and it feels entirely organic and from the perspectives of two real human beings. Firewatch has a deft sense of how human interaction actually works, bouncing from professionalism to uproarious comedy to intimacy, fear, and rage, all organically and without coming off artificial – even in the game’s opening, which is the best argument for “less is more” in storytelling in recent memory.
You can hand as much credit to the game’s principal performers, Rich Sommers and Cissy Jones, for that as you do the writing. These two are operating on a level almost never seen in games, performances that, were they in film, would be easy Academy Award candidates. Sommers nails every version of Henry you can paint, from petty to sad to angry, and injects them all with extraordinary empathy. Jones, meanwhile, is a revelation as Delilah – this is the kind of performance that should elevate her to the top tier of most wanted voice actors. Sommers has the benefit of Henry sharing the mind of the player and a visible body. Jones creates a full person, a record that never flips, right next to you, with only a voice over the radio.
Speaking of the visible body, you can’t talk about Firewatch without talking about Far Cry 2 – by far the biggest influence on Firewatch’s Shoshone. Campo Santo has taken great strides to make Henry feel like a person walking these woods, not a floating camera – you see his body in first person more than maybe any other character in recent memory. Firewatch liberally borrows from Far Cry 2’s tangibility and physicality of movement, as Henry rappels down cliffs and takes serious effort to jump a small gap, going a long way toward making him feel like a person in the woods. Also inspired from Far Cry 2 is the navigation system, only giving you a map and compass and no waypoints to guide you other than signs by the road.
If this sounds like it could be easy to get lost, it is at times, but Firewatch’s world design is a pretty damn flawless illusion of a massive open world while also being a fairly freeform exploration game. Looking back, you realize that Campo Santo’s story is more or less a fairly linear progression, but while playing it feels completely natural. It feels like a real park, and like a real park, it is chock full of optional secret moments that help really bring Firewatch to life. It makes you feel rather okay with getting lost.
Firewatch also benefits in that department from every inch of the Shoshone being drop-dead gorgeous. The visuals come from Jane Ng of Double Fine fame and artist Olly Moss, and the collaboration between the two creates the greatest realization of the Great American Outdoors in video game history. Firewatch at times feels like walking through a painting, with its slightly stylized textures and use of impossible sunlight and silhouettes and shadows, looking just off from reality in a way that makes it very difficult to describe, but extraordinarily easy to look at. Perhaps the smartest decision Firewatch makes is recognizing that you probably would want to take pictures of it all, and gives you a classic disposable film camera to take in game photographs with – memories of your adventure.
It was while taking one of those memories that it finally clicked for me what Firewatch feels like, and what the true accomplishment of Moss, Ng, and Firewatch was. They’ve gone beyond photographic recreation or stylized painting, and tapped into what feels like nothing less than the collective cultural memory of what the great outdoors looks like. And Firewatch as a whole feels like it is tapping into that, on a much larger scale.
It’s no mistake that Firewatch takes place in 1989, the last summer of the 1980s. Scattered around the Shoshone are dozens of conspiracy thriller novels in the vein of Tom Clancy, and notes and conversations touch on everything from PTSD and government projects to hippies and drugs, and the one mention 80s icons journalist Dan Rather and former United States President Ronald Reagan is lightly dusted with cynicism. Firewatch completely captures the United States at the beginning of the 90s, as the optimism of America faded and the Berlin Wall came down and paranoia of being the lone superpower began to set in.
Henry and Delilah’s journey through the summer of 1989 touches on many questions. Love, loss, youth, memory, guilt, and the implications of running away from it all, and whether isolation is any escape at all. Henry and Delilah find no easy answers to all of this, even as the plot of Firewatch takes homage from the works of John Carpenter in its second half (matched by Chris Remo’s remarkable score, fading from twanging guitars to threatening synths and back), ultimately because Firewatch really has no interest in making its mystery more than about the people at hand, and their struggles with their own lives. In the end, that’s all there really is – people, and the lives they lead, and what they learn.
There is a trope in America about books that aspire to be the “Great American Novel.” Something that attempts to capture all there is about an era by using events in people’s lives as symbols for the era at large. Usually, they don’t succeed, bogged down in complexity and pretension. Firewatch doesn’t have that – it’s absent of pretention, heartfelt and human and simple to its core. But if you look for it, you can find deliberate symbols of the world beyond Henry and Delilah in their story (and yours). It’s in the landscape, in the details of the conversations, in the knick-knacks in your watchtower. Pay close attention, particularly, to the combination of a middle name of a character and the month of the year you’re in. Like fires, the things Henry and Delilah seek to escape have a habit of growing when left alone.
In capturing the end of an era in America through the lives of Henry and Delilah, Firewatch may be the first game to encroach on the territory of being a “Great American Video Game,” but that’s up for debate. You may not agree. All I can say is that for me, Firewatch feels less like a walk in the woods and more like an elegant dance. As the shadows grew longer and the nights darker, I found myself more and more in love with it. After the credits rolled, and I slept on it its fascinating conclusion, it only grew in stature.
And, slowly but surely, I found myself running out of reasons to not give Firewatch a perfect score.