Normally when a video game is released the reviewing process can be utterly formulaic – you simply play the game until you have a rough evaluation in your head of how each component works.
Firewatch isn’t that sort of game. It’s just five hours long, costs only £14.99 and there are no guns, no bosses and no levels to aspire to.
Instead there are just three main characters and a journey that will, by the end of it, have you pondering why we feel the need to have ‘heroes’ in stories, and whether anyone can, in their own broken way become a ‘hero’.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves, the first of these characters is the most important. His name is Henry and you play as him.
Henry’s life is explained to you at the start with a series of short text-based scenarios over which you’ll have some degree of control. There will be happiness, humour and at times very difficult decisions that need to be made.
Like all stories of this nature though there is devastation at its core and it is this which drives Henry away from his life and his responsibilities to become a fire lookout in the vast, untamed wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest.
This is where the game begins in the conventional sense and it’s also where you ‘meet’ the second major character, Delilah.
She’s your boss and also just so happens to be stationed in the lookout next to yours. You’ll see it in the distance, a tiny speck of light propped up by four stalks with a playful voice to accompany it.
You’ll communicate with Delilah through a walkie talkie, and it’s these conversations you have with her that dictate how the game’s story then plays out. You’re given a number of options when it comes to responses, all you have to do is choose which one.
In between these gameplay sessions large numbers indicate how many days you’ve been at the lookout, helpfully accenting how long Henry has been at the lookout.
Some days you’ll simply be chatting to Delilah as you scout out your patch with a compass and map. Other days you’ll be following leads which she’s alerted you to. Gradually though as you explore the world and get to know Delilah better it becomes clear that everything is not entirely right with the world.
How you deal with this realisation is fundamentally entwined into your relationship with Delilah. As it becomes clearer that something is amiss she’ll ask you to make decisions even if they don’t feel like decisions. Even when they do, the choices that Firewatch gives you might never sit right.
It is this journey that makes the game – these difficult and often unfair choices that will have you pondering how you would have coped in Henry’s shoes. Henry isn’t perfect, neither is Delilah and in a world as isolated and beautiful as the national forest, those imperfections can become magnified, echoed into greater, darker thoughts.
It is at this juncture that we feel we should mention the third, and final main character, the forest. It might seem like a cheap artistic trick to write like that but after spending just two hours within Firewatch’s interpretation of reality it becomes clear that this is more than just a forest, it’s a consciousness.
With just a handful of people on the team, Campo Santo have created a stunning world with greater visual and emotional value than many games twice its size.
The forest, along with the music are what glue Firewatch together, so even when you do reach the final act of the game you’re now so well invested that even a small misstep won’t have you stumbling to question the game’s quality.
If there is a misstep, it’s that Firewatch struggles to bring all of its pieces together at the end culminating in a meaningful resolution. We’re not saying it needed to be satisfying, it just needed to feel natural.
There’s much argument to be had over the subjective nature of this though, for some it’ll be exactly what they wanted, for others it’ll feel far more bitter.
Neither of these outcomes is in any way shape or form a reason not to play the game, Firewatch’s journey is so well told and so engaging that it will call to you in a few months time, asking you to see if you could have altered Henry’s journey in some crucial way for better or for worse.
Play Firewatch, not just because it’s a good game (it really is), but because it’s a great experience.
It’s small, beautiful and stunningly well realised novella that can argue, more than many of the major games that have been released in the last 12-months, that video games are going through a renaissance. It’s not perfect, but then neither are we.