“Gone With The Wind”
Developer: Campo Santo
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: February 9, 2016
Firewatch is a lonely, expressive, and at times poignant experience. Campo Santo’s debut title explores the human intricacies of isolation, friendship, and the bumps in the twisting road of life that give us pause. It’s a relatable adventure presented in a chronological fashion that embraces narrative structure, making the most of character development and tension when applicable. More than anything, Firewatch is driven by exploration, both in a gameplay and storytelling sense. Much like its peers amongst the so called “walking simulator” genre, Firewatch trades focus from gameplay to story, resulting in a journey that shines in establishing a sense of place. For the majority of its narrative, Firewatch excels, though as the finale nears, cracks and flaws begin to reveal themselves, leaning on Firewatch’s delicate house of cards for support. You’re placed into the shoes of Henry, a middle-aged man retreating from his tumultuous life, who’s just taken a position as a fire lookout in the summer of 1989. The only means of communication with the outside world is that of a walkie-talkie, which Henry uses to chat back and forth with his supervisor, Delilah. She spends her days in a watchtower of her own, adjacent to Henry’s, separated by a vast expanse of wilderness. From their first conversation froward, the interactions between the two protagonists feel genuine and fully realized. The duo are strong characters, each carrying with them a believable past which reveals various cracks in their personas, showing through for the betterment of their development. Take Henry for example, a hardened, burly man, who hides from his fear of coming to terms with a tragedy that has enveloped his personal life. Despite their separation, Henry and Delilah form a tangible relationship as the summer goes on, engaging in excellently written and mature conversations that strengthen them both as characters, as well as devices to drive the plot forward.
The basis of the narrative looks to encompass that of your classic mystery, emphasizing the danger of isolation and peculiar happenings of secluded wilderness. It’s a strong setting and for the first few hours of its narrative, Firewatch embraces its potential, giving the forest its own sense of character and past. As Henry, you’ll spend the majority of your time following Delilah’s various instructions, such chasing as down a group of kids setting off fireworks or investigating a plume of smoke in the distance. From a gameplay perspective, Firewatch is rather simple, allowing Henry a set of skills which cover the necessities. You pick up objects in the environment, climb over obstacles, and hike about with speed, soaking in the beauty of Firewatch’s colorful, consuming landscapes. There’s nothing particularly interesting here from a gameplay perspective, per se, though losing yourself in the various painterly environments creates for an involving enough fix. Overlooking the stretch of wilderness surrounding Henry from the perch of his tower, echoes a sense of peace that gradually manifests its way into both the story, as well as the mind of the player. One of Firewatch’s biggest strengths is how it handles its serious subject matter. Dealing with heavy themes, Firewatch is able to elevate the complexity of its characters, complementing the plot nicely for a sizable duration of the adventure. What breaks this stride is Firewatch’s sudden change in narrative priorities leading into its final acts. The story bewilderingly begins to separate itself from its strengths, opting instead to lend resources to certain threads which fail to rival that of Henry and Delilah’s relationship. This shift in tone and capital is one that feels wholly out of place, resulting in a drop of quality that pushes much of the story into box which should have stayed untouched. It’s no doubt the experience is going for a slow burn, though what becomes abundantly clear as the story moves into its stages of conclusion, is the act of striking the match is far more compelling than that of the burning fire.
Firewatch is a relatively short experience as well, only lasting four or five hours. It chooses to dedicate its precious time toward maintaining a unique pace, allowing it to be driven by characters. Firewatch’s trust in its cast pays off for the majority of its length, though when the betrayal of direction shows itself, Henry and Delilah unfortunately aren’t enough to hold up the plot. Surprisingly, the increasingly muddled nature of the central mystery plot doesn’t tamper with the quality of the characters, for they manage to maintain their authenticity up until the end. This can be attributed to the absolutely fantastic voice acting performances delivered by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, as well as the stellar dialogue that continued to flourish even when the overall game weakens. Considering its brief length, Firewatch’s structural flaws in terms of plot, are far more detrimental than they might seem. An abundance of time and narrative focus is spent building, so when the payoff is drastically different and seemingly inferior to where it seemed to be heading, significant punches are dealt to the quality of the game.Conclusion: Life is complicated and so is Firewatch. Perhaps that’s the point, though if it is, Firewatch is misleading for the better part of its narrative. All signs point to a superb mystery, with the writing indicating Henry and Delilah’s time in the wilderness of Wyoming would a lot to something more profound from a story standpoint. Working through the story is without a doubt where Firewatch shines brightest, from fostering a bond of friendship, to battling paranoia at its most consuming stages, Henry and Delilah’s story expertly tackles some heavy themes. These successes make it all the more hard to accept Firewatch’s narrative downfall, for watching it lose connection with its initial intentions and motives to seek resolve for its compelling pieces, was genuinely disheartening. If nothing else, Firewatch is worth the investment purely to witness the growing relationship between Henry and Delilah. It’s in these moments where Firewatch’s writing thrives, nothing comes close to topping the convincing and adult banter between the two leads, not even the game’s own narrative.
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