Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Panic Inc, Campo Santo
Review Context: I haven’t played the “walking simulator” genre very much, as it is rather new and I like action and gameplay, but I love a game that can give you the “feels” so I’ll give it a fair shot.
Date of Playthrough: February 2016
PC Specs Game Played on:
OS: Windows 10
Processor: Intel Core i5-3570K CPU @ 3.40 GHz
RAM: 16 GB
Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 760
Resolution: 1920 x 1080, 60Hz
Controls: Mouse and Keyboard
Graphical Settings: Ultra
Disclosure: This game was based off of a review copy
Firewatch is a first-person, story driven, exploration game set in Wyoming. Henry becomes the new ranger for the Firewatch team to escape thoughts of a beloved wife suffering from early onset dementia. Firewatch is essentially an interactive short novel based around navigating a wild and beautiful mountain area with nothing but a map and compass. Firewatch, though visually pleasing and certainly engaging at times, tries to be a suspense ridden thriller that falls pitifully flat due to boring and repetitive gameplay and a painfully anticlimactic ending. Despite effectively using choice to engross the player in a story with big and complex emotions, Firewatch fails to execute on its more promising ideas, and instead only achieves being a pleasant looking B movie slapped onto a hiking simulator.
Firewatch, in concept, has a lot of promise to it. The setting leaves the player isolated, except for one friendly voice, and disoriented in an unfamiliar location. This leaves the player extremely susceptible to suspenseful storytelling. Introducing a mysteries ne’re-do-well quickly turns the peaceful and majestic mountainsides into a dangerous place with an unseen threat lurking. Being forced to travel alone across a great distance with such a threat seems daunting and is. Firewatch uses this to decent effect in its storytelling, capitalizing on the sense of isolation. The emotional baggage cleverly placed on the players shoulders is used to keep the player from ever feeling sure about the main characters sanity. In Firewatch, the player communicates with the only other person in the story by walkie-talkie. Firewatch uses this to allow the player to choose a response that they desire, but also lets them report things they see to their partner. This makes the player feel like they are exploring and that the things they find matter because the other person realistically reacts to them. Firewatch also constantly bombards the player with small insignificant choices that quickly show their fruits to make the player feel like their choices matter. Using this, Firewatch expertly sets a somber and tentative mood that makes the player ready to get spooked by some ethereal threat. With several twists and turns, and seemingly ever worsening circumstances, the story effectively leaves its mark on the player as it progresses. Firewatch’s story has almost everything it possibly could going for it. All the ways you can use video game mechanics to heighten a storytelling experience are there. Sadly, this only makes the end all the more disappointing.
Firewatch spends its entire run time setting up complicated circumstances, puzzling mysteries, and powerfully emotions, only for absolutely nothing interesting to happen. The player is constantly presented with questions of what if, what are we gonna do when, and how can that be, only for those questions to be answered in the most uninteresting way and for everything wrong to just magically fix itself. The game ends by curtly wrapping up all the strings it has been pulling and then tells the player that its time to go home. Based on the way the player has been treated the whole game, they can’t help but feel like something is wrong. “Nothing has been as it seems the whole game and now I find it hard to believe that they are just gonna let me go home.” but that is exactly what happens. The game throws so many complex ideas and emotions only to nonchalantly end like none of it mattered and as a result, the player is left feeling like none of it mattered. Why would I spend four hours walking around a mountain listening to two people talk just for nothing to come of it? Even Firewatch’s clever use of choice is spoiled by the end because while it works wonders tricking the player into sympathizing with the main character at the beginning of the game, the fact that none of those choices actually matter becomes far too apparent before the end. There is a bottle of liquor you can acquire and choose to take with you at the beginning of every chapter. I thought eagerly that if I kept taking the bottle the main character’s emotions would keep building up inside him and then some terrible thing would happen later, but I quickly realized that it didn’t do anything. The game never even developed the emotional backstory it set up at the beginning. The main character doesn’t come to a real conclusion about what to do with his wife, the player never gets to impact such a decision, and the story never feels like it accomplished something.
Now normally I wouldn’t be so vehemently critical of the story, as I’m reviewing a video game after all and not a movie, but Firewatch’s gameplay leaves so much to be desired that the story is really the only thing it has. I went into Firewatch thinking that navigating like I used to do as a boy scout would be fun. I imagined a large open world that is dazzlingly beautiful, while simultaneously confusing and treacherous. I imagined memorizing landmarks and using a compass to get where I needed to go, and following a map covered in hints and clues that feels like a treasure map. That moment of “Aha!, there’s the big tree next to the river, I must be on the right track” is what I was looking for. That would be fun and allow for secret upon secrets to be hidden and subsequently found, and the story would have expertly accented the emotional roller coaster of feeling like I might get myself irreversibly lost. You could have even used the Firewatch tower as a safety beacon. “Its on the summit, so if you ever get truly lost just follow the tower back and try again,” with the tower positioned in such away that it’s never very far out of sight. But, sadly, no… instead what I played was a game about walking down fairly linear hiking trails with a map that shows your location in real-time, only having to make a sure I don’t miss my turn and get on the wrong path. Even if I did miss my turn, one quick look at the map showed my error. I never felt like I was exploring the wilderness, I felt like I was playing Bioshock without the navigation arrow turned on and no guns or upgrades to collect. There was no realistic or satisfying navigation skills needed, as I was just playing any old boring linear game. I just couldn’t use a mini-map. There was an option to turn the locator dot off which helps. On top of that, I had to travel through each path and to each place multiple times. Any fun I might have had getting there the first time was not there the second or third time. There wasn’t even any meaningful gameplay. Apart from walking and looking at the map, I could climb up rocky walls and rappel up and down shaky ground, but this amounted to nothing more than press A to vault over and then an uninteresting and ruthlessly repeated animation. Press A to grieve is more like it. I know I’m complaining about something that is often non-existent in this genre, but the game was advertised with the traversing of the wilderness being a major point. I should be happy just to have something extra, but in this case I feel that it really does take away from the story. The way the game is presented does wonders for storytelling, as it makes the player feel alone which causes them to cling to their one companion and really makes you fear the unknown threat that could be lurking out there, but once walking begins to feel like a chore those story enhancing elements lose their luster. It’s like a story game where all you do is select dialogue options, which is completely fine, but this one they keep presenting you with menial and boring tasks that are only sometimes relevant to the story.
Firewatch knew what it was trying to do; it set the scene and made itself feel like it was important and attempted to use the gameplay to emphasize the story like any good game designer should. But unfortunately, the story is a tease and the gameplay is so boring it stops helping the story and starts forcing the player to hyper focus on everything wrong with the story. The graphics are pretty to look at, but I have seen way more visually pleasing games than Firewatch. The game even goes so far as to give you a camera, which does not play a part in the story at all. There is a system for PC players where they can download the photos they took with the camera and upload them onto social media. I never once found something visually stimulating enough to want to take a picture. There are plenty of games where I’m constantly taking screenshots like Skyrim or Fallout 4, but Firewatch just isn’t that pleasing to look at, even though it tries so hard to be. Then after 4 to 5 hours of wandering around at some lady’s behest the only saving grace about the game, the story, falls so far flat it doesn’t even make a sound. Don’t get me wrong here, I think the writing and the voice acting in Firewatch is stellar. Both characters are believable and all their interactions are realistic and understandable. It is a calming pleasure to listen to the other person and the main character chat. The problem is that the story doesn’t actually go anywhere. It constantly adds in new plot points, but it never develops them. It keeps making the story more and more interesting, only to have all those unique and thought provoking plot points just suddenly become irrelevant. Since they didn’t spend enough time developing the characters or the world the climax didn’t mean anything to me. It felt like a cop-out and was hardly even interesting and then the game just ends. No introspective, no lesson learned, no moral of the story, the game just ends like nothing that was previously talked about matters. It made the whole game feel like a waste of time in the end, despite the fact that it was clear the developers knew how to effectively tell a story with a video game. It was like a great director trying to work with terrible source material. I think that Firewatch was a good idea in theory, but what it needed was a longer runtime; more time to develop plotlines and build relationships in order for the ending to leave the player with something to think about. Then if you fleshed out the wilderness navigation gameplay and made a much larger world you could have a masterpiece of a game on your hands. If Firewatch had been a story worth remembering then it wouldn’t really be that bad of a game, but any favor towards the game falls right to the floor along with the climax. I’d like to see what Campo Santo could do with a bigger budget and a grander vision. If they were working with a story that wasn’t already a flop I think they could produce a masterpiece, but as it stands, I almost regret putting my time into Firewatch which is a true shame given how much promise it shows.
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