eep in Wyoming forests, “The Flapjack Fire”, rages on as I try to line up the perfect picture of a dead elk. The last time I was this amused by having a usable camera in a game was The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD. Who could ever forget Link's selfie attempts mashed against the bumps, and grooves of Kanye West's Black Skinhead? The game hands you a disposable Kodak-looking camera mid-way, and surprisingly, it became something I regularly used. As the game’s credits rolled down, I began to sympathize for the poor soul tasked with developing my photos which range from shots of my adopted turtle to possibly self-incriminating evidence. I can't honestly say a game's ending has ever left me feeling that way.
The game begins like Pixar's Up, where you get fleeting snapshots of a relationship over a span of time. Meanwhile, you select dialogue options to participate in conversations across different times. Here, our protagonist, Henry, meets Jules, a stranger-turned-wife. As someone in a relationship I appreciated the honest nuances of their romance displayed in this sequence. It’s all here; the meet-cute introduction involving a burger at a bar, posing nude for a sketch, fights over a new job, DUIs, and like Up, tragedy closes out this montage. Again, the usual stuff. Interestingly, you never see Jules nor hear either of them here. Though, the first glance of Henry is given in to the player in a cute way. The front-loaded introduction deserves some props for being able to create a mood that never feels too maudlin, but instead, poignant enough to make you care for Henry and Jules' plight. As you pick your choices, you begin to feel ownership over him, and he becomes your Henry. This idea of using small choices to further flesh out Henry is wisely utilized up till its end.
Firewatch is a narrative-heavy first-person game, and in 2016, most players will know what that label usually entails: story over gameplay. That’s not at all meant to be negative as I like the genre. Furthermore, it certainly works better as a game than as a book or movie. As a fire lookout, you must jump over rocks in shallow rivers, wade through bushes, find trashy mystery novels, and confiscate wayward beer cans as you search for fire in the Wyoming forest. That said, the bulk of your playtime is walking from one point to the next. While there are some secrets, it's a mostly linear affair as you'll be funneled down the appropriate path to trigger the next sequence. However, it's a short game with a small world so the linearity never feels like a major issue. As for presentation, the game reminds me of Team Fortress 2's cartoon-ness with Instagram filters layered over. It's undoubtedly a gorgeous game. Music-wise, there's not much, though I appreciate the musical cues to let me know I was on the right path. Firewatch won't be remembered for its gameplay, but for its two main characters.
Isolation is a central theme in this game where face-to-face contact is nearly non-existent. That theme works well against one of the game's core mechanic: chatting with the plucky, Delilah, another fire lookout marooned with you. Unlike Telltale games, these dialogue segments with a Walkie-Talkie don't pause the game as you search for fire while simultaneously searching for jokes in the dialogue tree. Since it’s set in the 80's, there are no cellphones or social media for Henry to escape the inherent loneliness of the job. You start, and end the day without seeing anyone for the most part. Consequently, every laugh you give to Delilah feels like a spiritual victory. You quickly begin to lean heavily on her to inject some humanity in this experience as you both stave off loneliness, one conversation at a time. These two work as characters, largely due to the writing for the dialogue, which is as strong as it is realistic. It also helps that both leads put on solid performances, as the game relies heavily on the players' investment on these two. By the last act, their inner-conflict is far more engaging than the raging inferno in the distant background. Their relationship easily dominates any discussion of the game.
Technically, the game runs pretty awfully on the PS 4. Its weak draw distance turns the game into an unintentional horror game abundant with jump scares from objects suddenly appearing. However, I played the game before, and after its new patch, which alleviates most of its technical slip-ups. It fixes the draw distance issue so Henry no longer resembled the sort of fire lookout who regularly walked into trees to review its fire-ness. Yet, the stuttering framerate still dogged my playthrough. Heck, even the credits has some of noticeable chug too. I also encountered a random invisible boundary that I initially thought was plot-related as it happened when the game's story started to evoke Lost. Nope. It wasn't the edge of the game's world either as I could walk around the boundary to get the other side of it, but just not through it. I never experienced this, but I heard some players fell through the game world. Who knew being a fire look out could be so perilous? For now, it’s just safer to go with the Steam version.
I can excuse most of its technical hiccups, but there are two game design choices that made me want to host a Rammstein concert at the forest. Firstly, it takes three buttons to access the map in the game. Easily, one of the worst map mechanic ever, especially in a game where the player constantly needs to refer to it to avoid getting lost. I suppose it can be argued that clunkiness is intentional to accurately simulate using a map in a forest. But, as someone who regularly gets lost, I certainly don’t want to play as one. I'm not a big fan of Henry's lumbering walking speed either. Again, probably intentional for a more grounded experience, and certainly less offensive on its own. But, these two issues together make your traversal of the forest feel like an early Apple Maps-user trying to swipe towards an escape at the bottom of a bog .
For a game in this genre, it’s a bit awkward that the story is its most polarizing aspect. Initially, the ending left a looming sense of disappointment. The story wraps up rather anticlimactically, and you realize its scope is much smaller than what was sold in the earlier acts of the game. I have no desire to replay the game either, and it doesn’t really give you much incentive to do so either as the alternative ending is somewhat pointless. A week has went by since I finished the game, and I still feel that disappointment. But, I also started to feel how that disappointment was intentional. I think it's perfectly fine for a game to end on an unusual emotion such as disappointment when that's the goal of the creators. While I’m not a big fan of these cop-out answers usually, I definitely think taking some time after finishing the game helps one to appreciate it. We’re trained to analyze plot points, scrutinize every screen cap, and create fan theories as we watch movies or shows. The game brilliantly dangles possible plot threads for you to pull, and create your own narrative of what’s going on in the forest. And, throughout Firewatch, your expectations will be subverted, as I genuinely had no idea where the game was heading as I pressed on two hours in. Firewatch's anti-ending, overall, works well when considering the fate of its characters, and reflecting on how the plot unfolds.
Although, the game never reaches the emotional heights of other games in its brethren, Firewatch is worth playing because of the conversations that spark with others who finish it. The ending is a bold gamble, but when the game is only 20 bucks and fours-long, there's little risk to purchasing, and enjoying the most definitive fire lookout game.