Reviewed by Mason Manuel
If you were to ask someone unfamiliar with gaming what video games mainly consist of, they would probably cite something action heavy like Halo or Mario. They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong; after all we get big budget triple A war simulators every year i.e. Call of Duty. But they are not completely right either. Games like Firewatch prove this. You won’t find a hint of action in its roughly 8 hour long campaign. The closest you get to violence is chopping trees with an axe. But despite this lack of explosions and gunfire, Firewatch proves itself to be the marker of a new generation in gaming.
From its incredibly bittersweet text based adventure in the opening minutes, you can immediately tell that the experience that Firewatch offers is different. Developer Campo Santo has created an enthralling narrative focusing on the life of a man trying to cope with the emotional fallout of slowly losing his wife to Alzheimers. Our protagonist Henry decides to run off to the Colorado Mountains as a Firewatcher, which mainly consists of cleaning up after drunk teens and putting out campfires created by inconsiderate hikers. Or at least, it should. In an interesting twist, Henry finds himself in the middle of a mystery that somehow has him in the middle of it. Being stationed in a fire tower unfortunately leaves Henry without human contact. His only connection is through his radio with his boss Delilah. Together they must solve the strange happenings in the woods or Henry may find himself in peril. After all, hikers go missing all the time…
The first thing that strikes me about the game is its beauty. Starting with a single painting from one of the lead art developers, the forest that Campo Santo has created is a brilliant myriad of bright yellows and reds. The story takes place over an entire summer, so the leaves and other foliage change colors to create a stunning environment that feels like you are swimming through watercolors. Paired with an excellent sound design and frame rate, the woods feel incredibly real except for the fact that you are the only living creature in that area. While there are some isolated encounters with other people, there is next to no wildlife what so ever in the world. Though isolation is definitely a feeling that the game tries to push over you, I would have appreciated a bird or something here and there just to bring more life to an already poignant landscape.
The real star of the game is our two protagonists, Henry and Delilah. Played by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones respectively, the two have undeniable chemistry that carries over the entire play time. Most of the game is simply wandering through the woods which, despite the previously praised environments, would be rather dull. But together the two install a number of tangible emotions in the player. The duo might start joking and you’ll be at ease. As the mystery thickens and events become darker the two become panicked and so will you. There are a number of dark nights spent in the woods where I was genuinely terrified despite never running into another human being because the correspondence between the two was so convincingly panicked. The excellent voice acting deserves the video game equivalent of an Oscar and makes some of the most emotional gaming experiences I have ever experienced.
Firewatch is an amazing step forward for narrative driven gameplay that shows that games can be so much more than mindless action. A fantastic story meshed with similarly amazing art and voice acting makes the game one of the best of 2016. Seeing this kind of potential from the relatively small studio Campo Santo makes me ridiculously excited to see what they have coming next. RDR gives Firewatch a 9.3 out of 10.