Every once in a while, a game comes along that feels special – a game that manages, almost by accident, to transcend the genre and stumble upon the elusive achievement of being a milestone in popular culture.
I believe that Campo Santo’s 2016 release Firewatch is one such game. No words or description can prepare you for the masterclass of musical and soundscape atmosphere, combined with an emotionally-engaging story driven along by several simple, yet highly intelligent mechanics designed to involve and engage the player throughout. With the weather being predictably wet and anticlimactic for summer (at least here in England) now is the ideal time to pick up this gem for an afternoon in.
I often find myself easily distracted when playing a new game. However, from the moment Firewatch began, with a haunting acoustic theme laid down by composer Chris Remo, I found myself hooked. Your journey begins with a few simple, minimalist passages of text. We establish the main character, Henry, who after suffering heart-breaking loss, has willingly retreated from the world to take on a new job as fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. His simple home is a wooden tower, surrounded on all sides by lonely forests, lakes and mountains.
Henry’s only human contact is in the form of Delilah, a fellow fire watcher in the next tower along, who can be contacted at any time by way of a handheld radio. And here lies one of the game’s cleverest devices – you will never meet Delilah in person and are unable to travel to her tower – yet throughout the game Henry will come to emotionally rely on her as various dangers and mysteries unfold. For every new area and puzzle discovered, your unseen companion is there with you every step of the way.
It is fair to say that most games hold your hand to a certain extent, with clear indicators of where to go and how to progress. Yet in Firewatch, the sense of vulnerability, fear and paranoia are key to the story. Navigating the Shoshone National Forest requires the use of a map, compass, and guidance from your radio companion. At times it could almost be a day out with the scouts, apart from the fact that when you are alone and unsure of what danger could be lurking in the trees, all sense of a jovial ramble falls by the wayside. Firewatch is not a horror game, yet the ever-present spookiness and sense of unease throughout is one of its great achievements.
I was fortunate to play the game for the first time with my trusty group of friends mentioned in the about section of this website, and I have rarely seen them so gripped. The unique visual design of the landscape, combined with perfectly written dialogue and characterization throughout, lend this game a quality that is almost film-like in elegance. Upon finally completing it, we were unsure what to do next. No one felt bored or frustrated that they had watched a game unfold without ever having a go on the controls – it was that enjoyable to witness as an observer.
I will not delve deeper in the plot, as I do not wish to spoil the game or the sense of mystery for anyone who has not had the pleasure of playing it. Yet if I could lock every gamer in a room and force them to play one game, this would certainly be a contender. For this and the various reasons mentioned above, Firewatch will be the first game reviewed on this blog to receive the prestigious Tubular Bell award. General consensus seems to share my enthusiasm, as the game picked up a host of award wins at the BAFTA, NAVGTR, Unity, Golden Joystick, and the British Academy Games Awards, among many others…