“You see Julia.” We are told in Firewatch’s opening text followed by a touching prologue from 1975 that follows the relationship between her and your character, Henry, over the next 14 years. A relationship that is littered with both joy and sadness and does an excellent job telling the player about Henry’s life.
Fast forward to Summer 1989 and Henry has taken a post as a fire lookout for a National Park in Wyoming. “What’s wrong with you?” comes a voice over the radio as the game begins proper. We soon learn that that is the voice of our boss and only companion throughout the game, Delilah, as she explains the main reason people take these posts is because they are hiding from something. Thankfully for the player, who just spent the past seven minutes living Henry’s backstory, we know all too well his reasons for being there.
Similar to games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch shifts the focus away from game play and instead does its best to build an atmosphere and immerse the player into its narrative.
From the outset we go about Henry’s daily tasks which consist of walking around the park and making sure that order is kept. Whilst the tasks at the beginning do feel very mundane, it gives Henry and Delilah the opportunity to form a bond as the two converse over the radio. As the player we are given the choice as to how much of ourselves we want to share with Delilah. For example, we can talk to her about Julia or completely ignore her line of questioning.
The two characters also share lighter moments. From Delilah playfully teasing you when you get stung by a bee or the two of you watching the same fire in the distance. Despite never once being in the same room as each other the two develop a real friendship.
Despite Delilah’s presence over the radio, Firewatch is a very isolated game. A factor that it uses to great effect. At times this solitude can seem almost meditative as you walk through the forest, leap over fallen trees and watch glimmers of sunlight beaming off the still lake waters. Then there are times this isolation can feel quite menacing as you realise you’re out on your own in this vast wilderness.
The game takes a sinister twist halfway through as Henry gets the feeling he isn’t as alone in the forest as he thought. Yet, instead of bombarding the player with jump scares or red herrings, it cleverly leaves us with Henry’s thoughts and this is where the feeling of dread really takes shape.
Is Henry really being stalked through the woods? Or has being alone for so long taken its toll on his mental state? This is a testament to Firewatch’s excellent way at building tension and creating an immersive atmosphere. Towards the later stages of the game I did find myself feeling genuinely terrified in certain situations as I ran from one location to the next trying to uncover the mystery laid out.
However, there are some things Firewatch does miss the mark on. We are encouraged to explore the forest and on the map we are shown a number of supply caches scattered throughout the park. Inside these boxes are trinkets, books, and items to allow the story to progress.
Whilst I initially enjoyed finding these boxes, it soon became clear that many were pretty pointless as most contained nothing more than pine cones. Some supply cache boxes had hidden notes from Dave and Ron, two previous watchers who have since left their posts. However, based on the order of the letters found, their relationship was disjointed and hard to get invested in.
Firewatch is a game about the solitude found in the great outdoors and with that perfectly demonstrates the peacefulness and fear that comes with being alone in the woods. One minute you’ll be pulling out your 80s disposable camera to take a photograph of the sunset. The next your heart will be racing as you frantically make your way back to your tower when Delilah tells you she’s seen a mysterious figure go inside.
The relationship between Henry and Delilah feels very real as it begins with playful banter before turning into genuine concern and a feeling of trust.
Despite an apparent lack of actual action or puzzles, the game does an excellent job of building atmosphere and a sense of tension as you make your way from one location to the next. Firewatch ultimately achieves what it sets out to do – tell a compelling story about an interesting character that we feel bound to through great writing and creative dialogue choices.