A Note On Firewatch


Something “funny” that just happened: I got 1,200 words into writing a review of Firewatch before realising that it is Campo Santo’s first game and that they didn’t make 2013 house-exploration simulator Gone Home first. This is annoying for two reasons: first, I just wasted like forty-five minutes writing a bunch of words I can’t use; and second, I don’t think I can review Firewatch now. Not fairly, anyway, since while I was playing it my reactions were being shaped by certain things Gone Home did and didn’t do, and I don’t think I would have treated it the same way if I’d known it was an independent product rather than a followup. Long story short, Firewatch relies on two strengths: its looks, which are unfailingly pretty if a little technically limited; and its story. I thought I knew the bounds of where the game would go with that story based on Gone Home; instead I was very badly mistaken and anything could have been possible, and I think that element of uncertainty would have materially changed my impression of the game. Unfortunately without access to some sort of mind-wiping device I can’t go back and re-experience Firewatch’s story for the first time, so I think a fair review is now out of the question.

Instead, let me give you a one-paragraph opinion: Firewatch is an at-times maddeningly basic game with good writing that touches distressingly on the messy fact that real life is complicated and that unpleasant things can happen to the best of people for no good reason. Most games (and most media, for that matter) refuse to acknowledge this at all, and it’s refreshing to play something that tells a real, human story; Firewatch is valuable because it’s one of a very small minority of games that takes the time to do this in an intelligent and sensitive way rather than falling back on tired old tropes and relying on more fantastical elements of the setting to carry the player’s interest through to the end. It’s only three hours long — and that’s padded out by having you backtrack across the map several times — but it’s definitely a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

(I still think Gone Home did it better, though.)

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8 thoughts on “A Note On Firewatch

  1. Fair enough. I had wondered if this was going to be another over-hyped indie darling, glad to hear that’s not the case.

  2. innokenti says:

    I have preferred it to Gone Home, simply because the well-written dialogue and conversations liven things up and give the story joy, pathos and a sort of veracity. For me, Gone Home was a plot, delivered in interesting ways – it was interesting story-telling, but the writing itself and the relatively straightforward plot didn’t quite fire it up.

    Firewatch brings the characters very much to life and delivers a very enjoyable interactive story. This is the direction where I want my FPS adventure/walking simulators to head.

    And looks very very pretty to boot. It’s not because of intense graphics but just a very very good art direction that absolutely plays to the strengths and limitations of what they were doing.

    • Having just completed it I can safely say I thought the opposite. I preferred Gone Home because it was storytelling through exploration, whereas I don’t know what this is. It’s like a radio play with graphics and having to look at a map a lot.

      That said, I can’t fault the voice acting or the dialogue (although the plot seemed very weak), and there were some excellent subtle details and clever editing.

      • Looking now at the camera photos I do have to say I am struck by how picturesque it was. I don’t think I properly appreciated it at the time, but those images…

        (I do think they missed a trick by not having the “original” images from the story included in the camera roll though)

      • Hentzau says:

        I think that’s the key difference, and that’s why I also come down on the side of Gone Home. Both games try to manipulate the player to a degree, but Gone Home does it passively; it presents the player with evidence that lets them form a fallacious picture of what’s going on themselves, without actively trying to trick them. The radio link with Delilah is in most cases a big strength for Firewatch, but it also meant it was much more actively misleading at times, in a way that was about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

        I think both games have their plus and minus points, but I liked Gone Home’s hands-off approach to the storytelling a lot more.

  3. Gap Gen says:

    One thing I liked about this was simply experiencing the place, and I felt somewhat bad that the game at times creates tension that forces you onwards rather than just enjoying the scenery, even if on balance the game is stronger for a sense of purpose driving what might otherwise be a fairly slow-paced walking game.

    • Hentzau says:

      I accept I’m probably in the minority, but I would have totally played a slow-paced walking game where Henry spends a summer simply reflecting on his past. The grounded elements of the story with Julia and Delilah were far more interesting to me than the mysterious locked-off area of the forest, and I think emphasising the latter over the former was a big mistake for a game that otherwise does a lot of stuff really well.

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