Firewatch – The Switch Island Review
Taking place in 1989, Firewatch is a first-person adventure set in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. You play as Henry, a man whose life has been turned upside down by personal tragedy, as he begins his first day on the job as a fire lookout.
The game opens with a series of multiple choice questions. These come in the form of life decisions that define Henry as a person and shape his journey to taking up his new post. Not only does this provide a character study for Henry, but it allows you the player to hold a mirror up to yourself and question how you would cope with some very real and life-altering circumstances.
From the first day on the job, Henry interacts via a radio with his supervisor and fellow lookout, Delilah. Even though you are separated by a several miles of forest, she is your only connection to anyone else in the game. Choosing from multiple dialogue options, Henry’s exchanges with Delilah shape the way in which their relationship develops.
This doesn’t just start and stop at light banter and the occasional flirting. How you communicate also extends to the game’s central narrative. You stay in contact throughout, with Delilah initiating the conversation at any time. If you stumble across something worth reporting (indicated onscreen by a radio icon) you have the option of letting Delilah know, or you can refrain from saying a word and just move on.
As the game progresses and the mystery of Firewatch kicks into full gear, some questions are raised concerning Delilah, your relationship with her, and what she really knows. Deciding what information you do or do not share with her becomes more even more important. Although Firewatch doesn’t contain any branching paths or multiple endings, how you act informs the conversations you have.
These conversations are absolutely fascinating, thanks in no small part to some stellar voice acting courtesy of Rich Sommer and friend of the show Cissy Jones. I don’t think I’ve heard dialogue in a game as convincing or human as I have in Firewatch. Henry and Delilah feel real and relatable, both as individuals and in their exchanges with one another. It’s a game that allows you to feel, and isn’t trying to manufacture an emotional response through manipulative imagery or dialogue. Henry feels like a guy you know, and for some, even relate to. I’ll admit that I had a few tears within the first couple of minutes of the game’s opening.
Not wanting to reveal too much about Delilah, I’ll keep it simple and say that I had so much fun listening to her and deciding how I wanted to respond during every one of our conversations. Discovering more about her as a person is engrossing, and having her react alongside you to certain situations not only helps to build tension, but also provides some much-needed support during moments of heightened isolation and vulnerability.
New areas become accessible as you progress through the game and begin to unpack it’s mysteries. Although time is elastic, with days and even weeks being skipped to serve the requirements of the story, this doesn’t make the experience any less immersive and instead allows for more effective storytelling. The game does employ a day/night cycle, but this too is informed by where you are in the story and the objectives you’ve completed during that period of time.
Although arriving over two years after the PS4 and PC (and later Xbox One) releases, Firewatch still looks and sounds beautiful both docked and in handheld. As the sun sets behind the trees, art designer Olly Moss’ world is awash with orange and reds. The forest truly feels alive as dusk falls and trees sway in the wind, nearby streams ripple, and the occasional thunderstorm can be heard far off in the distance.
It’s not perfect though. The game does have some bugs and the framerate can drop well below an acceptable level on multiple occasions. This is unfortunate but isn’t enough to break the immersion.
Music comes courtesy of Chris Remo and is as much a highlight as his work on Gone Home. From the opening piano theme ‘Prologue’, to the rich, soothing guitar of ‘Stay In Your Tower And Watch’, the music does a superb job of capturing what is a very solitary existence. It can also be haunting at times, adding extra emotional weight to the themes of agoraphobia, claustrophobia and loneliness – all of which the team at Campo Santo does such a commendable job of addressing.
Similar to my review of GRIS, there is only much I want to say about Firewatch. This is a title that puts narrative first and wants to keep you guessing. Admittedly I wanted a little more payoff to the mystery Remo and his team spent time delicately piecing together, and the final few minutes left me wanting a different outcome for Henry, but I like to think these feelings are purely my own and that if nothing else, they speak to how emotionally invested I was for the entire 5-6 hours that Firewatch had me hooked.
First and foremost, Firewatch is an exploration of personal loss and the memories that we carry with us. It reminds us that the person we aspire to be, the things we do next, the places where we go, and the new relationships we forge – those are the things that define us.
I cannot recommend it enough.