Saturday, 10 March 2018

Review: Firewatch

Writing about video games is not my strong suit. A game experience is so much more dynamic than film, and has a lot more potential to engage. Nowhere is this more true than in Firewatch, a 2016 game from small Campo Santo studio which I played two days ago and haven't been able to shake since. It's often grouped into the Walking Simulator genre, itself making nods to the genre-defining Gone Home, although it has a great deal more freedom of movement than the term usually suggests. What it does have in ommon with other walking sims is a deep, engaging story, told with expertise and simplicity. With a pretty woodland sandbox and a handful of voice actors, Firewatch manages to tell a story about isolation and paranoia which, while perhaps inelegant, had me hooked from start to finish. This review will touch upon spoilers, so if you intend to play, please go do so now.

You play as Henry, a Fire Watchman in the lush Shoshone National Forest who took this job to escape his ill wife, who has dementia. His only regular contact is with Delilah from the next tower over, and Henry's supervisor. Mundane operations in the forest soon turn into a desperate hunt to uncover what seems to be a conspiracy to stalk and harass Henry and Delilah for unknown reasons. The story is told mostly through the radio, with the player able to call Delilah to talk, ask about interesting places and things, and even to flirt on occasion. While the actual plot of the game is fairly linear, your comments and behaviours do come back to haunt you later, which gives it a little bit of replay value. There are elements of the story which are either left ambiguous or are plot holes, and it's not sure which, but I think a lot of them exist as red herrings to drive the player's paranoia. As for the ending: I think that, although a little abrupt, it works in context and drives home the message that running away from your problems is more often than not a terrible idea.

Firewatch is short and sweet - six hours tops if you have no sense of direction, and a smooth three if you're on a second or third play through. The game's environment, navigated with a map and compass, is immersive and beautiful, and although initially you are limited in where you travel, the map soon opens up as Henry acquires more tools and resources. For those who desire more challenge, there is an option to turn off the "you are here" icon on the in-game map, requiring you to work out where you are from your surroundings. I personally didn't notice that option until my second play through, by which time I rarely needed to use the map. By the end of my first time with the game, I felt like I had learnt its paths as well as my own hometown, and the minimal, immersive design is a big factor in that. Firewatch made me want to go for a walk in the woods.

As for graphics, the game runs on Unity in a rugged art style that very much favours the game's terrain. This game is very pretty, and can sometimes be breathtaking. The designers obviously saved a lot of time and money in making it so the only animated human we see up close is Henry's own torso,but that in itself helps the theme of isolation. The game's only real downfall in that regard was the consistent framerate drops on PS4, which two years post-release still haven't been addressed. One thing I found hard to get used to was that going too far off the path sometimes led Henry to just stop abruptly, which broke up the flow but luckily didn't happen too often. The game was updated after launch to include a designer commentary and a Free Roam mode, which is much appreciated but could have done with little tweaks like including Delilah's comments on everything and allowing you to sleep to change the in-game time.

Overall though, the only thing I'd complain about with Firewatch is that there simply wasn't enough of it. I would have appreciated a little more time as a mundane Watchman before the paranoia started to set in, if only another twenty minutes or so. This game grabbed me in a way that a game hasn't in a long time - owing mainly to its beautiful immersive visuals, its impressive minimalist storytelling and its short runtime, which meant that the twists and turns of the plot came hard and fast. For me, games like this don't come along that often, and I don't think I'm ever going to forget it.


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