Monday, July 10, 2017
After hearing friends and journalists alike heap praise upon Firewatch, I came to it with high expectations. My wife, on the other hand, had seen some promotional material for this game that piqued her interest, but she came to it knowing very little. In either case, we sat down to play Firewatch wanting to like it, but that unfortunately just wasn't in the cards for us.
The game starts off with a faux text-based adventure sequence that establishes the backstory of the protagonist, Henry. While this serves an easy way to set the emotional tone for the story, it often only presents one dialog option to select to advance, and when there is some sort of actual choice (i.e two options) the decision the player makes appears to be inconsequential. We were initially intrigued by the set up this text-based portion provides but it soon seemed to drag on too long and we found ourselves eager for the game proper to start.
The basic set-up is this: After experiencing some drama in his past, Henry decided to get away from it all and clear his head by taking on a seasonal job as a park ranger in a national park. There he works with his supervisor, Delilah, who instructs him over the radio to do various tasks to keep the forest safe.
Once we got into the game, it was immediately apparent that this game does two things exceptionally well: visual style and voice acting. The forest environments of Firewatch are rendered in a beautiful hybrid of cartoony and realistic styles that are further complemented by great lighting effects for the various times of day. The walkie talkie dialog between Henry and Delilah is the other major strength of the game and probably its most defining feature. Their banter is sharply written and the voice actors' delivery is spot-on.
Unfortunately, pretty vistas and snarky radio chatter alone are not enough to keep the experience entertaining for long. Gameplay consists entirely of running back and forth between point A and point B doing various errands for Delilah. Initially, there is some thought involved with using the map and assessing the terrain to figure out how to proceed, but once you've gotten the lay of the land it quickly becomes a matter of doing chores and back-tracking. While doing all this running around in the woods, Henry and Delilah chat over the radio which slowly advances the overall plot. The problem is that since the traversal and minimal interactive tasks are all quite mundane, my wife and I couldn't escape the feeling that the main purpose the gameplay was serving was to occupy time while waiting for the characters to finish talking.
Throughout the course of this fetch questing and radio banter, Firewatch establishes a mystery that adds a certain atmosphere of foreboding to Henry's work in the forest. We had hoped that as we progressed toward unraveling this mystery, some major events would take place that would break up the monotony, but this didn't end up being the case; the game ultimately builds up to a climax that it doesn't actually deliver. As the credits rolled, my wife and I looked at each other and said "Meh."
As much as I like to envision myself as the sophisticated gamer who appreciates games for their artistic merit, Firewatch's artistic qualities alone were just not enough keep me or my wife entertained over the course of its four-hour playtime. At least for us, I think a game needs action, puzzles, strategy, or impactful decision-making to be fun and interesting.
Completion Time: 4 hours, 34 minutes