Firewatch – Sorta Review
Firewatch has finally come out! Well… “finally”. Wasn’t it only like last year we first learned about it? Or was it the year before?
I do remember that meme that popped up really quickly. “But what is Firewatch?” People got reasonably excited about the game fairly quickly as well, and I admit I was one of the intrigued. It looked different, and when you’ve been gaming for a while that is often enough to at least pique your interest.
So now that I’ve played it, what do I think? The short answer: it’s good. It’s pretty good, but not great. The long answer:
I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, but in certain places that will be a bit hard to avoid entirely.
You are Henry. The game starts with a pseudo text adventure where you basically get to learn, and to an extent set up, Henry’s backstory with his wife. Interestingly I’ve heard that part of the game was not in the preview build sent to many Youtubers and streamers. I imagine your perception of the game changes a lot without that context. For reasons I will not spoil, Henry ends up in the woods somewhere in Wyoming, which is… a place. I don’t know US geography beyond the broadest strokes.
Henry’s accepted a summer job as a volunteer firewatcher, which is exactly what it sounds. You keep watch for signs of fire, prevent it from spreading if you can, or just call it in to the fire department if not. It’s a lonely job really, and your only company in the game is your supervisor Delilah on the radio, and however many tortoises you manage to find and adopt. I found one. I’ve heard there’s up to a dozen. I picked the name Turt Reynolds for mine. Good times were had.
Gameplay-wise it’s a first-person exploration and story-based game. In the vein of Gone Home, Dear Esther, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, though there’s bit more interaction to this one than most. You have your little area of the woods, and you can move about fairly freely, though you do need certain pieces of equipment to access certain areas and shortcuts. Almost a little bit like Metroid. You have a map and a compass to help you get around, and at certain points Henry will make notes on the map to help out.
The idea is to basically go around, do your job, experience the place and the story, while you talk to Delilah on the radio. You can report stuff you find/see to her and get some response, and she might occasionally talk to you first, and then you can pick your response.
The interesting thing is that she treats you differently based on what you say to her. And I don’t just mean in the moment, but it might change her overall attitude for the rest of the game. I mean, this seems like an obvious thing, but it must have been tricky to code into a game. I’m still not sure what options you choose trigger what behaviour from her, but I’ve heard very different accounts from people as to Delilah’s attitude towards you. While I sussed it out eventually, for a while I walked around thinking that what I chose to say didn’t really have much of an impact.
Not that long into the game a sort of mystery plot gets started, which Henry and Delilah try to figure out alongside actually doing their jobs. Upon reflection it feels like the whole thing might have some plot holes, especially considering the resolution, but in the moment I did get really sold on it. The voice-actors for Henry and Delilah are really good. Like, really good. They really nail the delivery of their lines, and that was such a big part of why I got sucked into the whole thing. I ended up playing through it in a single sitting.
Yet at the end I was really only left with “yeah, that was pretty good”. I have no problem with the ending itself. I think it fit the story well, and I guess it was pretty much what I expected, regardless of my feelings towards the resolution of other plot threads. I think the main problem might have been that reactions from other people had overhyped me on it? With several people saying it’s so great, I suppose I expected more.
There was also the minor annoyance that at certain points I wanted to explore more, but I wasn’t able to. Either because I was locked into an event, or the day just ended without me being consulted, or I accidentally triggered something that I wish was more clearly telegraphed as “this will end this day”. So I felt a bit like I was being forced to miss things I wanted to find.
I suppose it might be to encourage re-playing the game. I’ve listened to more than one podcast talking about Firewatch since, which is how I learned about there being more than one tortoise, and they talked about different things you can do in the game that I didn’t do. A non-spoiler one: Going through the entire game never saying anything to Delilah. I wouldn’t recommend that for a first playthrough, but it’s an option. Apparently it changes things significantly.
Personally I don’t feel any need to go back and play the game again though. I feel like I’ve had my journey with this, and I don’t desire a second attempt. Even with the dialogue being different, I’d still have to go through basically all the same stuff.
So my verdict: Good enough to go through once. It took me about 5 hours. But probably best to leave it at that one time, or you could risk running into that Telltale problem of realising that actually your choices don’t have as much impact as you wished they might.