Many players will be immediately uninterested in Firewatch upon learning that the game is dreadfully close to the "walking simulator" genre. However, for narrative junkies like myself, there will certainly be more than a passing interest. Fans of Telltale's style of adventure should be familiar with the way the game plays, which makes sense considering the pedigree of the game's developers. Still, Firewatch manages to make its own mark on the genre, and the game's focused narrative is quite satisfying.
You play as Henry, a man who has decided to become a lookout watching for fires in Wyoming for a summer. The entirety of Firewatch takes place within the section of land that is Henry's responsibility and is usually devoid of human contact outside of his boss Delilah. The only tie to another human being lies in a radio and her single, solitary voice.
The very beginning of the game is a little bland. To give you a history of Henry, Firewatch starts off with what I'd like to call an "enhanced reading experience." You basically read through this very brief story that spans many, many years, accentuated by differing sounds and colors to fit the mood of whatever part of the story is going at that moment. For example, a part taking place in a bar is accompanied by audio of a bunch of people talking, laughing, etc.
It is through this brief introduction that Firewatch attempts to create a connection to Henry. It is full of paused moments in Henry's life where you as the player decide which way he will lean in some of the most significant decisions he can make, like whether or not he wants children. Those decisions don't seem to have that significant of an impact on the overall game, as they don't really pop up again except a few pieces of dialogue.
This type of opening makes sense in a game that is so narratively focused; however, it doesn't seem all that necessary. Firewatch, first and foremost, is a mystery, so why not have Henry himself be a bit of a mystery? Certain moments in this introductory narrative would have had a much greater impact, providing more opportunity for empathy if revealed throughout your time playing the game. The question as to why Henry is there doing this job in the middle of nowhere would have been a great piece for players to investigate themselves.
Moreover, the setup for who Henry is and why he is in Wyoming both has a significant and insignificant impact to the overall narrative. What I mean is that knowledge of Henry's situation and emotional state heading into his time in Wyoming serves as the basis for his relationship with Delilah and how it develops over time. It's a significant part of the game, but what players learn in the introductory narrative has little more significance than that in the end.
So, Firewatch starts off in a way that may be hit or miss for some people. It is certainly serviceable and doesn't necessarily take away from the game in any way, it just seems like a missed opportunity for something greater.
Firewatch's overarching plot is really all about what Henry does in that summer he spends in Wyoming watching for fires. It begins with some light humor, but quickly devolves into uneasiness. Henry doesn't seem to be the only one hanging around his lookout tower.
Firewatch is basically all narrative, and the game is only about three and a half hours, so I won't really go into detail on the overarching plot whatsoever. Rather, I want to talk about whether or not it was effective as a good mystery. The two important parts of a good mystery are whether the story does enough to keep people interested in figuring out exactly what's going on and whether or not the ending is satisfying in offering at least some explanation of the why behind what was going on. Firewatch is pretty good at the first part, but so-so with its ending.
Firewatch has great pacing, which definitely kept me engaged as I sat for the entire three and a half hours with no breaks in playing. While playing I consistently had a hope that the game wouldn't end, a feeling I get whenever I'm watching a great movie in the theater. Taking place over a roughly two month period, every bit of the story the player participates in is all about solving the mystery behind what is going on. The story may jump a few days or maybe a couple of weeks, but it always does a good job of replacing one carrot with another as you continue your journey trying to figure out one event after another.
That all culminates into a somewhat underwhelming ending. Part of that may be due to the fact that there is a certain thing (being more specific would give it away) that comes up over and over throughout the game that kind of tips you off in a way that makes the finale unsurprising. That's all well and good to give people a hint of what's going on in a story, but this bashes you over the head so fully that I was pretty convinced halfway through that I knew what was happening.
Firewatch felt like it ended rather quickly as well. There was more story to be told, more questions to be answered, and some missed opportunities along the way. There were some contrived moments of "what a coincidence" that could have been used to greater effect in fleshing out the overall plot a bit more. With that said, there is still some mystery to be solved in that not everything gets wrapped up in the end, leaving you to ponder what it was that really happened.
So as for the overarching plot, Firewatch definitely will keep you strung along quite well with odd event after odd event as you try to piece them together to give them an overall significance. The moment to moment writing is excellent at keeping you interested, containing a few well-timed and orchestrated surprises along the way. It may not all wrap up in a satisfying way in the end, but it is definitely an enjoyable experience overall.
One thing that Firewatch excels at in its writing is the dialogue. There is only one person for Henry to talk to, and the conversations they share come across as genuine—conversations you could hear happening in real life. Their reactions to most things are what you would expect from normal, rational people, and the way the sentences are constructed and the word choice give it a sense of reality. They weren't written in a self-indulgent way to show off some sort of literary prowess but to give you a sense that these are real people in a crazy situation.
Firewatch has some cool moments where it reacts well to what you do as a player. For example, early on there's a moment where someone is obnoxiously playing a stereo pretty loudly. There's no dialogue option or objective that tells you that you need to do anything with the stereo. You can pick it up, leave it there, carry it, throw it, etc. Little did I know that carrying it around blaring music would cause Delilah to react to hearing it through the radio. There aren't a bunch of instances like that, but the few that are there were pretty neat to see as they added to the natural flow of the conversations. The game didn't having blaring indicators telling you "Hey! You can do something with this! Try and mess with it!" which is a common crux in hand-holding that some games have for fear that the player may just miss out on something.
In the end, Firewatch was an enjoyable experience. Like I said before, it left me wanting to play more, creating hope that the game would be just a little bit longer than what it ended up being. If you enjoy exploring a bit, you may enjoy discovering the nooks and crannies in Firewatch's open world, as they contain some neat stuff. Those interested in a well-structured story (with possibly a little bit of a disappointing ending), great visuals, and good writing will enjoy Firewatch immensely.
Firewatch was reviewed on Steam using a copy provided by the developer.
An above average narrative, excellent dialogue, and wonderful pacing should make Firewatch enjoyable to any adventure fan.