Firewatch (PC) review
"I took a chance and trusted that we were all pretending to be someone else."
Now, Iím not going to get all moral majority on you here, but the simple fact is that morals... or rather choices, is what this game is about. This is, for better or worse, a full motion visual novel in which you see absolutely no characters, not even yourself Ė really. Itís an adult novel, in the sense that it has mature themes of love, lust, drunken stupidity and consequences. Oh, and a fair dose of profanity.
Not reckless, heedless stupidity, mind you, just the kind that comes with drinking too much. Should it be romantic? Is it romantic? Okay, okay, Iím getting ahead of myself and not telling you very much. Iím also imitating the narrative style of this game, but thatís deliberate.
Firewatch has become symbolic of... probably the way most people live. Itís a short game, about four hours in total. Maybe eight or twelve if you replay it for the short story branches. Thatís not too much to ask, because the writing is disarmingly clever. Itís also done a fine job of redeeming Unityís reputation for being exploited by low-aiming developers with no scruples or ethics. Maybe they do have ethics, but I wonít discuss that here.
What initially interested me in Firewatch was its visuals. It is flat out gorgeous. Most of the time youíre wandering around in luscious amber rays of light, but the developers capture emotional scenes quite well with lighting and well timed voice acting. Trust me, though, you almost never feel like you just flipped a robotic speech trigger.
When you are introduced to Henry, you get to know his romantic life. See, there it is. Firewatch is, by virtue of its lush, detailed world, a romantic tale disrupted by the strangeness of life. The things you donít expect when youíre walking down the street enjoying a song, or conversation with a close friend. Do we still do that? Most assuredly yes.
You Ė Henry Ė are a volunteer fire watch... er, attendant? Anyway, itís your job to watch fires and report them, because you certainly wonít be fighting them. Youíre guided and kept company by a young-ish woman who becomes, well... you get to decide. Close friend? More? Maybe youíre not sure, and maybe I wasnít at the end of it either, even though my choices seemed to be clear.
A good game does that; invites you in and welcomes your point of view without intruding too much of its own. How does a game about story do that, anyway? Somehow Campo Santo has to expect your reactions and then give you the sense that the choice really was yours. They need to motivate you.
Thatís the Stanleyís Parable moment I had while playing Firewatch. I knew I hadnít lived the life Henry had, but I could relate to his loss. I could relate to the difficulty he was avoiding, and so I took a chance and trusted the wonderful voice acting enough to forget for a while that we were all pretending to be someone else.
Suspension of disbelief. Thatís what it means. To get close enough to a subject to become aware that you may well be staring at a mirror. Thatís where clinical self analysis can begin, but donít take it from me. You donít have to compare yourself to this fictional fellow, but you canít stray far from his tale, either.
In many of my reviews I say that things arenít memorable. This was forgettable or there was nothing to take away from the experience. Why is that? Because the best stories are ultimately about us; our daily struggles with the big questions. Firewatch puts you at top of a tower in which you are no more than a living alarm system. Isnít that futile? If the park is going to burn, shouldnít we let it? Why do we try to keep control of it, and ourselves?
What I remember most clearly from Firewatch is that we are not alone. How we live and the choices we make affect others, and we are affected by them. We cannot survive alone, we depend on others, and this only affirmed that for me. This is excellent storytelling: It posed a question and gave me the opportunity to explore potential answers.
My convictions about life were not compromised, and the narrative did not presume to objectify its subject matter. This was a rare experience. It does not need a sequel, nor does it need a movie adaptation. It deserves a sober playthrough and due pondering. Consider playing it once a year, like a good book. Let the story percolate for a while before you approach it again.
Yes sir, itís one of those. No shots fired, no blood spilled. Firewatch goes out on a limb on the off chance that good storytelling doesnít always need to tear open a vein to get your attention, and it works. It seems inappropriate to talk framerate and port quality, but... mechanics are fair game.
You see, Firewatch has very few mechanics to speak of, and that suits its pacing entirely. Thereís little enough to learn that you can turn off the interface completely and play unhindered. You donít manage a health bar, nor do you mind a ticking clock, but your map is going to be your best friend.
The best ďinterface elementsĒ in Firewatch blend in so naturally as to denote brilliance in design. How to get around? Henry carries a map, and holds it in front of him whenever you press ďmĒ. He also has a compass, and these are all the navigation tools you require. The park is masterfully designed; just like the real thing! Distinctive forest elements that change has the story progresses mean youíre never fully relaxed, but there is a natural sense of urgency to your actions.
Occasionally youíll pick up an item here or there, but nothing exists without a storytelling purpose. This may irritate you if youíre looking for a sandbox. If it isnít obvious thatís not the sort of game this is, then... youíve not been paying attention. Speaking of paying attention, Campo Santo wants you to know that they are.
Choices that seem very much ďyouĒ determine options later in game. This is done in an amusing way that endeared me to the characters. By getting to know Henry and... making some choices, you become invested in the outcome, even though there isnít any real resolution at the end of the journey. I havenít heard that there is more than one ending, and I donít doubt that there are little differences here and there. However, thatís something I look forward to discovering in future playthroughs.
Is that spoilery? Hardly. Firewatch is all about the butterfly effect and challenging your awareness of consequence. The point is that within the frame of his employment, your choices matter, and it suits the game well to end on an open note. Some of the best movies and books have left us to imagine the outcome of a characterís relentless pursuit.
Firewatch, it seems, was watching, and taking notes. For the first time Iím giving a game a full-throated ringing endorsement. Be warned that it does contain some profanity Ė though not in any way unsuited to the story and characters, and references to stupid behaviour involving alcohol. You might even forgive Unityís imperfections Ė as portrayed by other games. Pick this game up and donít rush through it. Stories this well told donít happen very often in this medium.
Community review by hastypixels (August 24, 2017)
At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.
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