Review: Firewatch

I want to talk about video game end credits.

Hey, just a second. Before you click away to whatever other part of the depths of the internet-hole you think will be more entertaining than credits, hear me out.

In any game with a story, finishing the story will usually drop you into the game's credits. Most of the time, when I hit the credits, I'm immediately skipping through them. It's something like Tomb Raider, where I'm eager to jump back to the last base camp and start collecting the stuff I missed, or it's something like Starcraft, where I'm eager to jump into the multiplayer. But sometimes I come across a game that makes me watch the credits. Not because I'm interested in seeing the names, but because the story has left me with stuff to think about. I'm talking about the endings of stuff like Journey, Transistor, or Bioshock Infinite.

Firewatch is one of those games.

In fact, in some ways Firewatch isn't really even a game. Okay, it fits the technical definition, and there are goals that help direct play, so sure. It's a game. But in practice it feels more like an interactive movie. Folks that have played some of Tell-Tale's games will have an idea of what that's like, but even that isn't a perfectly analogous. There are stakes in the game, and there's tension, but you can't actually lose. You might not end up with the outcome you wanted, but... well, that's not a "loss." That's life.

Firewatch's premise is really simple. You're a guy (with a remarkably well developed back-story) who has just gotten to a fire lookout tower in the Colorado Rockies for a summer. Everything you do hinges on just kinda exploring the place and conversing with your boss over the radio (she lives in the next lookout tower over). Over time a story starts to unfold, and your interaction takes place mainly through conversational choices. It's not complicated, and it's not long at about 4 hours unless you spend a LOT of time dinking around. But simple and short does not equal boring.

The characters in the game are remarkably well developed. You're spoon fed the background of your player character, Henry, but figuring out where your boss Delilah comes from? That's more difficult. The interactions they have are remarkably organic, and again it feels more like a movie with bespoke dialogue than conversational choices in a game. For example, based on how the thread of the conversation is going, you don't have the option to sarcastically mouth off randomly with no warning (lookin' at you, Fallout). The story is very well told as well, with events progressing naturally at a reasonable pace. Elements of the plot from early in the game will affect decisions you make later on, with everything folding together quite nicely into a believable narrative. Your place as a participant is not extreme, everything revolves quite nicely around your actions and conversation without making you feel like the center of the universe the way some games do.

Firewatch also benefits from some superb art direction. It's gorgeous, even rendered on some less-than-stellar hardware. Be warned, you're going to want to go camping in the Rockies after playing this game. Everything is stylized, but not cartoonish, and the environment is lush and filled, with enough plants and rocks to actually feel like an environment. One of my favorite aspects of the environment is that it's seamless. You can walk across the entire map without any loading screens because the entire thing is loaded into RAM for each chapter of the game (which is probably why the RAM requirements for this game seem really high when matched with the low-end CPU and GPU required).

All stacked together, Firewatch is a wonderful experience. They story is thought-provoking, funny, and heart-wrenching all at the same time. The visuals are carefully constructed and very appealing. The whole thing is engaging, and at just 4 hours I'll play it again looking for different choices I could make. Well worth the $20 on Steam full-price, this is a fabulous indie game and frankly one of the most memorable gaming experiences I've ever had.

I mean, it got me to sit all the way through the credits just because I didn't want it to be over. And that alone puts it into a very exclusive club of amazing games.