We rarely talk directly about it, but a sense of movement and physical embodiment in a video game world can be a deeply impressive thing. It’s clear that the people at Campo Santo, developers of Firewatch, understand this.
Much like Gone Home, Firewatch takes care to counterbalance its relative quietude with animations and gameplay systems that foreground your physical embodiment of the protagonist Henry. When you’re rappelling down a cliff, you see his legs and hands. When you come to an obstacle, you don’t merely hop past it but stop and heave yourself over. Though every supply cache has the same code, you always have to enter it. You navigate everywhere with a map and compass.
Henry is a character in his own right, and you can only steer him down paths that make sense for him. Some players might find it limiting, but it’s a recipe for strong characterisation that facilitates the game’s genuine emotional impact.
This sounds like a strange thing to focus on as a positive at the start of a review – and it is clunky – but clunky in a way that’s evocative of the physicality of real-life movement. It’s a good indicator of the game’s overall design ethos. Dialogue, for example, is handled similarly. When Julia calls, the game doesn’t stop and wait for you to reply. You have to manually pull out your radio and choose an option in the middle of whatever else you were doing. Take too long and you remain silent.
The dialogue options themselves also don’t fit the typical angelic/sarcastic/evil model of choice-based narrative games. Like Lee from Telltale’s The Walking Dead (a game with the same creative leads as Firewatch), Henry is a character in his own right, and you can only steer him down paths that make sense for him. Some players might find it limiting, but it’s a recipe for strong characterisation that facilitates the game’s genuine emotional impact.
The opening few minutes, which play out text-adventure style, set out the tragic backstory that’s led Henry to this strange place, with remarkable concision. Overlong exposition is sacrificed for evocative fragments that tell us everything we need to know and (for me at least) achieve a serious emotional impact. It’s a style that’s carried through the rest of the game, too. You spend the entire summer in the wilderness but that would be impossible to show in full, so your time is limited to (often lengthy) scenes that have something to tell us, plot- or character-wise. The sense of time passing emerges from Henry’s growing immersion in the wilderness and his deepening connection with Julia.
And I’ve buried the lede here, but that wilderness is astonishingly gorgeous. Rather than photorealism, the visual design of the game goes for bright colours that shift completely with the time of day and the weather. It’s difficult to describe in words how lovely Olly Moss and Jane Ng’s work is to look at. The music accompanying your travels, too, could not be better-judged. Chris Remo’s score pops up only when it’s needed and is as quietly, colourfully gorgeous as the game it inhabits.
If you’ve ever valued pathos, beauty, mystery, or just the feeling of inhabiting a virtual world, Firewatch is unmissable.