Firewatch (PC) review
"A tale of two story angles turns into a tale of missed opportunity and incredible disappointment."
Stories in gaming vary from light-hearted, to dark in tone, and anywhere in between, and many take twists and turns in order to surprise the audience, subvert expectations, or to keep things fresh and intriguing as the player progresses. Firewatch certainly changes its story arc and expectations partway through, but it ends up doing so in a confusing and flaccid manner that acts as a betrayal of its original intentions rather than a heightening of interest. This ‘hiking simulator’ could’ve been a pleasant character-driven experience, or a tale of an eerie discovery which leads to paranoia-inducing consequences, but Firewatch refuses to commit to one or the other, instead mashing both together into a poorly realized affair.
Firewatch has a lot of hiking and climbing to do and the patch of wilderness that Henry is stationed in is certainly sizeable in scope, but thankfully Henry, the main protagonist, doesn’t dawdle when you need to get him somewhere in a jiffy. Getting lost is something nigh impossible due to mechanics twofold: the handy map that has a limited tracking of your movement, and how traversable terrain is structured likes ‘lanes’, rather than open ground, that you can tackle however you see fit. Henry can move through the environment in three ways; on foot, by climbing or dropping down at specific context sensitive places, or by rappelling - And that’s it. How limited your interactivity with the environment is becomes a bit laughable, but it could be argued that exploring the wild is only a secondary thought to the progression of the story. Not being able to just reach up at a random ledge to hoist myself up for a better view of my surroundings continued to be an awkward, though minor, bother for me throughout the game.
The game is clearly advertised for its story, writing, and the pleasant, warm visuals that would look great as a photo print no matter how you angled it - Not its dynamic gameplay. The story is, for the most part, about Henry and his escape into a job out in the forest to try and escape issues plaguing him at home, along with his supervisor, Delilah, who also isn’t in the greatest condition concerning her homefront. The duo are clearly unhappy and confused with their lot in life and the hands dealt to them, though they combat it (and each other) with wit and sarcasm via walkie talkies, which are their only means of communication. The radio system is very basic but it’s what pushes along the dialogue and story between the protagonists; in many cases it’ll be Henry reporting something on his hikes and Delilah continuing the conversation, or sometimes she’ll strike up a chat out of nowhere resulting in a handful of replies Henry can resort to - Or he can not respond at all. Your choices of replies isn’t comically night and day like Mass Effect’s response wheel, as Henry is already a tired, worn down man who’s quite dry and straight forward, and many of his responses revolve around his nature, not trying to make him to be a paragon of goodness or an utter jerk. The conversations between Henry and Delilah are often comical, with their sarcasm bouncing off one another resulting in humor that is very dry and snarky, which is an understandable turnoff for some.
While the writing is solid and it’s relatively believable that two people could get so sassy, it’s the continuity that impresses me the most. I’ve never really been able to see continuity or consequences for decisions be capitalized on in a game before, excluding a lone decision that has a major sway in future events but was executed by a lone button press. Firewatch has many small things that are referenced to and brought up later on that you and I probably forgot, but the game certainly didn’t. Should Henry dodge a question about his personal life, Delilah will ask him again later. If Henry vandalizes personal property, he’s later held accountable for it. Finding an item in a cache box is referred to when a different cache is opened. It’s these small acts of continuity that puts Firewatch a great leap above other games that boast the impact of player decisions, and that makes me respect and commend the writing.
Henry and Delilah are good characters that are unfortunately stuck in a story that, while I hesitate to call bad, certainly subverts expectations, as mentioned earlier. Without going into spoiler territory, the tale of Henry’s escape to the wilderness goes from personal drama to mystery and conspiracy only to run its course and return to personal drama in the final act’s fleeting moments. If the story focused itself entirely on Henry and Delilah’s dilemmas back home while he’s sent out to perform duties for his job and explore along the way, that would’ve been just fine. If the story focused itself entirely on this mysterious plot and how two lookouts ended up getting wrapped up in the mess and their desire to uncover the truth, that would’ve been just fine. Instead it mashes these two angles together into something of a limp, soggy mess that I can only assume was written in order to both fill game time and introduce enough intrigue to keep players going past the original personal drama. Quite frankly it just falls flat, especially when in moments of duress the protagonists continue to make quips and pessimistic gags in the face of looming dread, doubly so when clues are discovered, only to find out later that the ‘villain’ takes on some laughably implausible means in order to get their way. Near the finale this menacing story is more or less ‘solved’, but it’s an empty resolution that brings nothing to the overall conclusion of Firewatch and is practically gleamed over before the credits roll. The game has an identity issue in what kind of story it wants to tell with these two characters the player can have legitimate interest in, which ended up dragging me down to the point of dragging Henry’s feet along just to complete the game.
Firewatch’s writing, continuity, characters and visuals are the biggest positives I can levy in its favor, but the disappointing turn of the story and its conclusion makes me realize I could’ve enjoyed Firewatch much, much more if it had a better head on its shoulders. I would be able to look past the inadvertently limited movement in the environment, but traversing it while pursuing a plot I ended up losing all effort to care about only made its completion a chore rather than a joyful chase. A thumbs down from me in the end, but obviously your analysis of the story, and thus your ability to enjoy the game, may differ from mine.
Community review by Dinoracha (February 29, 2016)
Dinoracha is a world-renowned internet famous Let's Player, voice actor, writer, reviewer, e-sports competitor, masterful stream host and man of the people. These may or may not all be gross exaggerations.
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