Walking simulators and I have an adversarial relationship. I wanting to like them because I love a good story in a game but the review scores don’t really back that up. While I loved The Stanley Parable, I thought that Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture were average games at best despite picking up acclaim from other games.
The latest walking simulator that I’ve added to my library is Firewatch. The game got its first big public unveiling as part of a PlayStation E3 keynote presentation and has now made its way to the PC as well. Given that PC is home to the walking simulator, would the latest entry in the genre stack up to the competition.
The first thing that you’ll notice about Firewatch is that it’s gorgeous. While the likes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home go for a very realistic visual style, Firewatch goes for something more stylized.
I’m a fan of the Group of Seven. They’re a group of painters who painted nature scenes in my neck of the woods in Northern Ontario, Canada. They didn’t employ a realistic style of art. Their art captured the spirit and beauty of the landscapes of Northern Ontario. While Firewatch doesn’t look like a Group of Seven painting, the theme is the same. Campo Santo captured the beauty of nature through capturing form rather than detail.
What you have is a very colourful world that captures the beauty and spirit of nature. This is the closest that I’ve felt playing a game to actually feeling like I’m hiking through nature rather than playing someone hiking through nature. The art design also acts as a contrast to the rather darker plot of the game.
Firewatch is a story of Henry, a middle-aged man who decided to run away from life’s problems by taking a summer job working at a lookout tower in the forests of Wyoming. His life prior to going to Wyoming is covered in a quite effective text-only prologue. Because you get to make some choices and a lovely little soundtrack, you quickly attach yourself to Henry and his falling apart life.
Henry is joined by Delilah. She’s the only other person that you as Henry will talk to with any regularity. You do run into some teen campers setting off fireworks and ignoring their smouldering campfire and give them a telling off on your first day on the job. Other than that, you’re left alone with only Delilah to interact with and she’s on the other end of your trusty walkie-talkie.
The game starts as though it would be an exploration of isolation and loneliness on human mind. Sometimes, it does veer into that territory as Henry always points out when Delilah hasn’t been talking to him. However, the game gets around this in two ways. First, the game will jump ahead in time when there aren’t any story events happening so days will come to an abrupt end and can jump ahead weeks in the story to the next event. The other is by introducing a mystery story early on.
On the first day of the game’s story, your tower is ransacked by an unknown assailant. Henry and Delilah assume that it’s the girls with the fireworks getting Henry back for shutting them down. It’s just the start of many unusual events at the national park. The game starts to find another level when Henry discovers that his and Delilah’s conversations are being monitored by unknown forces.
While you don’t really have to do much to solve the mystery of what’s happening in Shoshone National Park, that’s not the point of the game. The game is carried by the relationship between Henry and Delilah. Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones do a magnificent job in their roles of Henry and Delilah, respectively. As the plot gets deeper into the mystery and the pair find themselves with their jobs or maybe their lives on the line, they really shine. The game switches from being a tale of isolation to relationship between two voices on either side of a walkie-talkie.
That’s another difference between the likes of Rapture and Gone Home and Firewatch. Firewatch has characters that you interact with and become invested in. I actually thought that both of those other games had very good voice acting. What Firewatch gave us was an actual relationship between the characters, the development of the relation and character development. The other two games just dictated a story to you. You were part of an actual plot that wouldn’t feel out of place in a non-interactive medium like film.
Gameplay is largely negligible. You have some timed dialogue choices that you have to make but those don’t really have any impact on the game. The only real mechanic that the game has is that you have to follow your map and compass in order to reach your next destination. It makes for an interesting experience as you move faster with only your compass out and you only really know where you are with your map out. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to navigate the world with minimal use of the map.
Unlike many of the other walking simulators I’ve played, Firewatch’s story kept me interested until the end. The mystery of Firewatch is resolved at the end (though without really needing any direct player detective work to solve the mystery) rather than being blindingly obvious from an earlier stage of the game as was the case with Gone Home. It also actually had a story unlike Rapture. The mystery in Firewatch is also strong enough to keep you engrossed through its duration so you never feel like you’re grinding to the conclusion.
While the game is built in the Unity engine which is far too often a sign of impending doom for gamers, this one turned out rather well. Sure, there are some smoke effects (it is a game set in and around a forest fire watchtower, after all) that tanked the framerate on my PC but I didn’t have any noteworthy performance issues otherwise. Being built in Unity, it was pretty easy on the hardware and loaded quickly which is an underrated feature to games.
As an interesting aside before getting to the conclusion, I’d like to point out that just before Microsoft made the unexpected announcement that Quantum Break would be on PC, Campo Santo and Panic, unexpectedly brought their game Firewatch to the PC. It was promoted by PlayStation as part of its push toward supporting indie games. Just a short while before it was due for release, it was revealed to be coming to Steam. Fortunately, this announcement didn’t come with backlash from console fans.
Firewatch is good, not great, but better than the likes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home. This game made you feel something a little more than boredom. I didn’t want to rush towards the ending like I did with those two. It doesn’t sound like high praise but it’s certainly better than many of the other games in the genre.
Maybe I was harsh to call it a walking simulator at the start of the review. Sure, that’s the easiest way to classify it but it involves so much more than walking around to force the plot forward. Firewatch’s focus on the characters and their relationship makes it a stellar example of what the genre can aspire to.
Firewatch was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if you want to go for a walk in the woods.