Firewatch is an open-world, narrative focused game. Its suspense filled story is driven by paranoia and fueled by isolation. It proves a totally engrossing page-turner as you try to uncover the truth of the mysteries unraveling around you. But, for me, its highs are undermined by underwhelming revelations and an unsatisfying outcome.
Lose yourself in the wilderness
It only takes a moment to begin to understand Henry. He is a man running from his life in a way that is depressingly easy to relate to. And, if you are trying to flee from your social and family responsibilities, where better to do it than cut-off from civilization as a firewatcher in the wilderness of a Wyoming national park.
As Henry, your only job is to sit out the dry summer in a tiny watchtower and be vigilant to signs of fire. It is a stunning environment, filled with vibrant colors that change with the sun. But it is Firewatch's use of scale that is truly impressive. It is vast, yet its winding trails always get you to your destination before you start to tire of the breathtaking vistas.
Henry’s only company is his boss Delilah. Your interactions come via a two-way radio, and add drama and direction to Firewatch.
There is a flirtatious antagonism to this relationship from the outset. As you explore the open-world she goads you into tasks that you are not 100% comfortable with, but there is a lightheartedness to this that feels believable thanks to the fantastic script and voice acting. It's a friendship that seems to grow organically, and proves the perfect distraction to Henry's worries.
You can direct Henry’s answers on every topic - from deciding what to reveal about his past, to reporting trash. This can degenerate into almost mindless pestering with you wanting to hear her thoughts on every little thing - but, when true a choice appears, Firewatch forces a decision.
The art of conversation
When prompted, you have a limited time to respond or the conversation draws to an end. There is no going back, and your responses can alter the tone of the relationship. This time constraint - coupled with choices that actually correspond to how a real person would react - makes you care about each interaction.
Even with this outlet, the solitary nature of months in the wilderness starts to play on both characters’ sanity. Suspicion impacts their thinking, causing them to find links within Firewatch’s mysteries and the happenings surrounding them that they may not consider in usual circumstances.
This is the narrative focus of Firewatch. Enthralling conversations color your perception of events as things become increasingly tense and uncertain. This results in my developing a strange urgency to get responses “right” and moments of genuine panic as I worry I may miss a hint or offend Delilah.
However, outside of these fluid dialogues, I find myself playing Firewatch too much like a game. I pick up and inspect things - that neither Henry nor I have any interest in - through a completionist desire to experience "everything".
Towards the end of Firewatch’s five or six hours this becomes especially incongruous with the urgency of the story being told. While I am completely absorbed for most of its tale, my own curiosity during the climactic moments breaks my suspension of disbelief and causes revelations to fall flat.
It is a conclusion that leaves me deflated, which is strange after being so invested in Firewatch’s twists that drew me in with their immediacy. But these problems are my own and, oddly, knowing I find its resolution disappointing could help you better appreciate its fascinating tale.
Firewatch's interactive narrative does everything right - building natural meaningful ties between the characters, story, and world in a way that is completely engrossing. Through this it gets you invested in a way few games can, leaving your enjoyment dependent on your personal experiences and expectations.