It’s been a while since I’ve played anything other than Blood Bowl 2, but when my Steam Deck arrived, I felt a powerful itch to get gaming once more. Coveted but previously unplayable titles like Control, Jedi: Fallen Order, and Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves were suddenly within reach, and I had a little bit of my windfall left to burn…
Okay, so there’s a line between being impulsive and being compulsive, and it’s one I cross all too easily. It causes me real problems. Sensing the precipice before me, I took a step back and just breathed for a bit. There was no rush. Those triple A games are pricey as hell, I don’t exactly have stacks of time to pour into them, and Steam sales crop up all the time. All. The Time. So dude, seriously, why not start by playing through your library first?
I sighed and started scrolling through to see what I had that I’d never got around to. Huh. Firewatch? What was that one again? Oh, yeah. I walked into the purchase cold a year or two back. I’d heard the title spoken of with approval a couple of times, but had no idea what the concept was, how the game played, or what the hook was supposed to be. Words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘relaxing’ bobbed about long enough for me to buy the damned thing, then they sank into my subconscious. Those were words I badly needed right now, so I downloaded Firewatch then booted it up.
And folks, I’m really glad I did.
Context is everything. It informs our decisions, it explains our behaviours, it helps us make sense of the world. Firewatch begins with a love story, played out in snapshots across time from the couple’s first meeting to marriage and planning their future. Along the way, player makes key decisions which help to personalise the relationship, getting us wrapped up in the people, their reality and their lives. It’s a simple, warm, and heart-breaking experience that lasts all of five minutes but – like the opening of Up – it forms, guides and colours the emotional core of the entire story to come.
And more than anything else, Firewatch is a story, told through the digital medium. For all the apparent freedom on display, the gaming experience runs along pretty tight rails. I suspect there are no more than a couple of ways it can end, but that doesn’t devalue it for a second.
The gameplay itself is a pretty hard sell but bear with me. It works.
Our character, Henry, has taken a job as a ranger in a nature reserve. Essentially his role is to watch out for fires and handle any small problems that occur. It’s one of those lonely jobs where nothing much is happening for most of the time – perfect for somebody looking to escape from their problems and regain a sense of equilibrium. The mountain location is stunning, covered as it is in lush woodlands, meadows and rivers. The skies above are sunset warm and wondrous, the sounds of nature are present but unintrusive, as is the pleasant acoustic music in the background.
Tasks are set by Delilah, a chatty, charming woman with whom we interact via walkie-talkie. She’s done this job a thousand times and is more concerned with staving off the boredom and the loneliness than sticking rigidly to the rules. We see the small-scale open world of the mountain from a first-person perspective, but this is no shooter. Most of the game is spent walking or jogging along, gazing at the gorgeous scenery. We can hop over fallen trees, climb up or down certain set rock faces by hand or rope, open and close doors and lids, but that’s about it. The axe we pick up along the way is very much a tool, not a weapon. There’s barely any action at all, though there is plenty of drama. What began as a tragedy becomes a friendship, a mystery, and develops into something like a psychological horror after a pair of irresponsible girls go missing from the park. Paranoia begins with a break-in and then spirals with the discovery that the rangers are being monitored and recorded. Can the conspiracy be uncovered and the missing children found before the flames take it all?
Nothing about this game or its narrative feels obvious, overwrought, or anything other than elegantly produced. The script is tight, the narrative sound (although one element stretched a little too far for my editorial tastes) and the visuals are simply breath-taking, even on the 7” screen of the Steam Deck. I was sucked into this game entirely, and that’s in no small part down to the voice actors, Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. Their work as Henry and Delilah is superb, bringing great warmth, depth, and nuance to the characters. Damaged as they are, questionable as some of their choices might be, we quickly warm to both of them. Romance is clearly woven into the game as a narrative possibility, aided by the actors’ extraordinary chemistry, but I chose not to pursue that angle on this occasion. That first five minutes just kept tugging at me. It was a pleasing tension, and one that could not have been conveyed so well, I think, in any other medium.
There are one or two criticisms I could raise, though I do so half-heartedly. I adore Firewatch and encourage you to seek it out in spite of everything else I’m about to say. Firstly, the game is short. Painfully short for folks who are used to pumping hundreds of hours into their open-world epics. I completed the story in something like five hours, and I can’t say that I rushed through it. The wide world that we appear to be roaming is actually quite limited. This is partly because the story is pretty linear, so it makes sense to keep things contained, and partly because Henry is just one of several park rangers out there, so he has his own little patch to manage. In practical terms, this is managed by restricting the character’s movement – jump and climb cannot be used at will, only at certain specific points, so steep slopes and boulders are enough to hedge us in from below, while perilous drops are guarded by invisible barriers. It’s a minor gripe, but one that left me particularly frustrated at the hidden camp location, where I wasted a good ten minutes looking for the way out. Ah well.
Firewatch remains a genuine pleasure to play through. I will certainly do so again, perhaps linked to a monitor so I can properly appreciate the scenery. Most interactions come with alternative choices of dialogue, so there are presumably narrative strands which can be unlocked. I doubt they change the story to any great degree but exploring these options will help to keep things fresh next time round. Add in the free roam feature and the commentary track, and the lifespan of the game increases a little more. I’m not sure I can classify it as a stone-cold classic, nor even as anything particularly revolutionary, but the team behind Firewatch should feel incredibly proud of themselves. What they have created here is a thing of touching resonance and real beauty. If you’re looking for a fast-moving game to test your reflexes, for danger or dramatic plot twists, you will doubtless be disappointed. If, however, you value more personal stories, scenes of natural wonder, the frisson of friendship maybe blossoming into something more, and horror based on the mind rather than the body, then this my friend, is the game for you.
Context is everything.