An Internal Review
Played on: PC
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Campo Santo, Panic
Throughout covid, I, much like all of us, have struggled with my internal sense of self. By which I mean that things I took as my normal state were often challenged and needed to be reassessed and displaced. The obvious example being social interactions, which I didn't realise made up such a large part of who I am and I cannot wait to get back to.
Another is productivity, which is something I have always struggled a little bit with managing but have found myself more productive than ever given I don't leave my house/office that much anymore (a problem in and of itself). However, the one thing I kept coming up against was my patience for gaming.
What I mean by this is that before, I would in a blink of an eye dedicate the bones of a month of free time to a large sprawling videogame, with no cold feet to jump ship to another. Maybe more social distractions helped?
However, lately, I have jumped into three of the best large games I have ever played (Fallout: NV, FFXIV, Yakuza: Like A Dragon) and although I love the act of playing these games, something is pulling me away in the back of my mind.
Never before has my mind yearned so strongly for a sense of completion. Some form of outcome ownership. To be able to say “Yes I did start this game, and you know what? I beat it too!”
To this end, I played in quick succession three games I knew were both wonderful yet accomplishable in one sitting. The first of which was the previously reviewed Donut County. The second, Firewatch.
A long, yet uninvolved, relationship
I have always had a bizarre, tangential relationship with Firewatch since its release way back in 2016. I mean, I remember vividly watching the showcase where I first clapped eyes onto its sizzle reel trailer and immediately felt an intriguing connection to its art style.
I remember for years listening to podcasters, people whose opinion I know align closely to mine, gush over what a standout experience it was. One that was not to be missed or quickly forgotten.
I remember looking for video game soundtracks to work to, finding the Firewatch soundtrack on Spotify by the talented Chris Remo of Gone Home fame, and falling in love with it.
I remember looking for a new wallpaper for my work-issued laptop over 4 years ago. One that was tastefully safe for work (take me seriously, please) whilst also appealing to my two favourite things. Nature and gaming. A quick google image search of these exact three words brought up tens of PC wallpapers of the wonderfully designed monochromatic landscapes of Firewatch’s concept art. I chose one in gradients of green and it remains on my home screen to this day.
All this, and five years after its release I still had never actually “experienced” the game itself.
I won't lie, it was a little daunting.
I mean, if you spent so long appreciating something, nay close to loving something from afar, wouldn't you be afraid to be up close with it?
What if you were wrong?
What if it was bad?
Or worse…. What if it was only OK?
I couldn't run from it any longer. It was time to meet my hero, so to speak.
Not all those who wander are lost
Let’s just talk about the big ‘ol beautiful elephant in the room, shall we? This game is gorgeous. I mean it is truly breathtaking at times. While never striving for photorealism, it does something far less graphically taxing while being far more visually interesting.
The overall art style at a glance, to me, is always representative of ink print cuttings. Simple solid colours and shapes talk to the viewer more in the language of suggestion than sheer definition. The simple jutting of a mountain range in the distance.
Maybe a shape to represent a ridge of trees overlaid on top, followed by your immediate objects such as rocks, gulleys, cliffs, trees and more. All defined by no more than three shades of colour and shadow. In motion, it can sometimes reveal itself to be simple geometry, however, perch yourself anywhere in Old Shoshone and soak in a sunset and you will soon melt into something so simple yet so meaningful.
Let’s just say I don’t think I’ll be changing that wallpaper any time soon.
And whilst we’re on the subject, Chris Remo’s accompanying soundtrack of sweeping pianos, strumming guitars and alternating keyboard strokes serve much the same purpose as a perfectly picked accompanying wine to a fine dinner. Only making itself known when it needs to, yet enhancing the experience greatly in the background.
It was a somewhat cathartic experience to witness this soundtrack that I was so familiar with in practice.
You are here, and it's beautiful, and escaping isn't always something bad
Firewatch is a short experience. And the TLDR of it all is that this is a wonderful experience. I am going to make this short as I don't want to take anything away from you as a new player by simply feeding you the plot or the many ways it will surprise you. If you need to stop reading and go play then please do, however, this is not gonna be one of those reviews.
Instead, I'm going to focus on how it made me ‘feel’. The thoughts it brought to mind. And the impression it left in its wake.
On booting up the game you are greeted with a brief text introduction to your main character’s background. Tasking you the player to choose simple A or B options on how you want it to look and feel. Trust me when I say that in the first five minutes of booting this game up, it truly goes for the jugular emotionally.
I was reeling by the time the game started in earnest, and it wasn't simply because I was presented with a depressing situation, but it was in the subtlety of how it was written. Henry's story is possibly the most believable tale of woe that has ever been told to me in a video game. Instantly I found my soul channelled into this avatar, seemingly from a heightened sense of empathy that the writers at Campo Santo were responsible for tapping into. Which they did admirably.
Before long I was throwing on my backpack, hopping in my pickup truck, and making my way to the Shoshone National Forest to start my new job as a watchman.
Firewatch is set in 1989, a year after the Yellowstone fires of ‘88 (and my birth). This not only sets up the reasoning behind why Henry’s role is necessary but also establishes a place in time where you could truly go get lost for a few months to gather yourself mentally. This is why we’re here after all. We think…
This mixed with the general vibe of the last great era of innocence puts you, the player, in a place of ease. As Henry lets go, you too find yourself letting go. However, the same can be said when things get tough, both externally and internally.
As a person with what many would consider a heightened sense of empathy, this connection meant a lot to me, though your miles may vary.
Time to reconnect
Speaking of connections, you my friend are not alone. On arriving at your sparse yet strikingly peaceful fire watch post, standing proud amongst the redwoods, you receive a call on your walkie.
From your tower and every elevated point, on the mountainous horizon you can make out another watchtower. This is where your superior, Delilah, resides. She has been tasked with keeping tabs on you for your first watch via binoculars, issuing you commands and guidance, and generally, being your colleague grade support throughout your time on the watch. However, she soon becomes more than that to both Henry and to me.
The emergent dialogue between these two is written in that same likeable yet grounded fashion as your initial welcoming to the world. So much that the highs are truly high, but the lows can really hit you in that anxiety sparking chord in your chest.
The move from casual work banter, to the slow reveals of each other’s true self, to the sheepish attempts to know more about each other personally is all something we have experienced with someone in our lives. It’s this tangible life example that makes this relationship between Delilah and Henry so special.
The way the team handled this relationship should be used as a sterling example of how non-physical character interaction should be handled in the medium.
You will as you progress come in contact with others, though I won’t spoil this for you here.
In fact, there is an entire plot to unfold, perhaps all is not as it seems? Perhaps it is and I am just misleading you? There’s only one way to find out.
The one thing I will say is that although the plot is enjoyable, it was always the relationship that kept me playing. And it is those relationships that stay with me now, a week after playing, and much longer to come.
Campo Santo has done something truly remarkable here. In terms of art, sound, relationship building & raw human emotion. I can’t quite put my finger on the why of it all, but something here has really struck a chord in my country soul.
Though I guess I may be a little biased. Getting lost in the wilderness for hours is how I grew up. Building strong bonds with those around me is something I conditioned myself to do at an early age. However, by that token, if this work had been contrived in either of those respects I would have spotted it quicker than a watchtower.
For that alone, the team here is to be truly commended.
This is not to say that it is perfect. Namely the plot. Now, this is going to be very different depending on who you speak to but for me, it was good. Just not on the same level as the rest of what was on offer. A means by which to drive the timeline. Every time something new happened, I didn’t really care about the issue itself, but I did care deeply about telling Delilah all about it.
My connection to this avatar I was placed in for several hours is palpable. He has a past. One not comparable to his peers yet endlessly believable whilst also relatable.
He searches for meaning whilst running.
He reaches out to be seen and shuns those who reach back.
He’s here to take a breath and relax, put it all out of his mind, but it always comes back to you.
I found myself with a lump in my throat on more than one occasion, which cinema hasn’t done for me in years.
If you've gotten this far and still haven’t played Firewatch, please do. I don't expect you to wholeheartedly agree with me. In fact, I would be surprised if you did. However, there is something to be experienced here that shouldn't be missed and I look forward to discussing it over a beer for years to come.
Play this game if…
You love art in games
You enjoy relationship building
You need time to escape
Some time out in the American wilderness appeals to your quarantined soul
All images are my own or taken from the Firewatch press kit here